1:57 p.m. November 2, 2012

War Nerd: Hafiz Saeed is here all week

You may not know this rising star in the Salafist standup community, but he’s a big name in Pakistan. He’s the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the biggest and meanest of the Kashmir-born irregular guerrilla armies, though officially his only connection is to Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the political wing.

Lashkar-e-Taiba means “Army of the Good Folks” – pretty funny right there, but then “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure,” which is hard to top. Pakistan is the comedy capital of the world, if you like your standup rough. One of Saeed’s funniest lines, one that had every cop on the subcontinent cracking up, was when he said with a straight face, “No LeT man is in JuD and I have never been a chief of LeT.” Yeah, and Allah didn’t make little green apples.

Like most comics—take Sam Kinison, the late lamented—Hafiz isn’t much to look at. He’s a short, fat guy with a big nose and glasses and a huge ratty black beard. He goes around in a long white robe, slippers, a wool vest, and a flat hat—pretty much standard menswear on the Pakistani Jihadi circuit.

It’s not so much his looks, though, it’s his material. Just this week he came up with a deadpan public service announcement that had ’em splitting their sides in Pakistan. You see, Saeed said with a straight face that he and his jihadi friends were more than ready to embrace their “Islamic duty” by helping us poor waterlogged Americans get back on our feet after the big storm leveled us.

Now there’s a long tradition of pissing off the Yankees by offering to help, a rich comic tradition, from Chavez offering New Englanders free heating oil to get through the winter, to African election observers asking if we needed help straightening out the dubious voting practices in states like Florida. But when Hafiz Saeed, of all people, offers to help the Americans… well, it slayed ’em back in Pakistan.

It may not be as funny over here. Like they say, humor doesn’t travel very well, and maybe you had to be there. See, Hafiz Saeed is not exactly America’s best friend. In fact, the US put a $10 million bounty on his head because everybody from Karachi to Kolkata knows he was the guy behind the 10-man suicide squad that shot and blasted its way through Mumbai in November 2008. He hates India even more than he hates the US — but the latter a funny hate, as he showed with that deadpan offer of Hurricane help from his flat-hatted friends.

By now, Saeed’s fans—and he has a lot of them in Pakistan—expect him to come up with a good line or two. He set himself up as the class clown of the Holy War at a famous press conference he gave after that big price on his head was announced.

It was at that conference that Saeed, sharing a long podium with other fat hairy dudes in flat hats—like a Friars’ Club roast, only with less Yiddish and more Urdu--sprang his most famous one-liner: “I don’t know why the Americans want to give this money to someone else—why don’t they just give it to me? I can tell them where I am.”

They loved that line in Pakistan. Saeed was like the XL Scarlet Pimpernel from then on: “They seek him here, they seek him there…” Of course it was pretty easy for him to joke about the price on his head, because he gave that press conference directly across the street from the Pakistani Army’s HQ. That shocked the Hell out of BBC correspondent Orla Guerin, but it’s not really a surprise at all. Saeed is tight with the Pakistani officer corps, and even tighter with their real bosses, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), the spooks who really run the country.

The ISI has used Lashkar-e-Taiba for raids against India for years. India’s been zooming up in the global rankings just as Pakistan’s tanking. That’s more than the Army/ISI elite can stand, because these guys hate India even more than they hate the US. In fact, there’s probably only one man in the world who hates India more than the average Pakistani general, and that’s our boy here, Hafiz Saeed.

Saeed’s family came from Shimla (the Brits called it “Simla”), a nice town in the hills, but when Partition came down in 1947-48 they headed west, into the Land of the Pure. It wasn’t much fun for anybody, this “exchange of populations.” They never are, but this one was one of the worst. Eight million Indian Muslims heading for Pakistan, and seven million Hindus and Sikhs heading for India. Great chance to kill people, when lots of them are on the move, scared, distracted. It was Muslims killing Hindus, Hindus killing Muslims, and occasionally Sikhs getting their licks in while they had the chance.

Villagers watching all these vulnerable refugees passing by on the trains came up with sick little inspirations, like when this village by the tracks realized that every train full of refugees had hundreds of people sitting on the roofs of the cars and improvised by stringing big thick ropes across the tracks, just above car-height. It was like sweeping cash off a table. If the fall didn’t kill the roof-riders, you finished them off while they lay there stunned, then searched the bodies for valuables and gave thanks to whatever god or gods was locally popular. And rape? After the big run was over, they had to establish separate commissions for “restoration of women” who’d been abducted during the overlapping sectarian bug-outs.

The story on Saeed is that his family lost 36 people during the move from Shimla to Lahore, pretty grim when you consider it’s not even that long a trip. So at least he comes by his hate for India honestly. And he’s not shy about expressing himself on the subject. Here’s Saeed, in a non-funny mood, giving his well-thought out plan for dealing with India: “There cannot be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy.”

Saeed’s family grudge just happens to fit in real nicely with the agenda of Pakistan’s spook/Army elite, who’ve never gotten over losing three in a row to the Hindus next door. A guy like Saeed can be very handy when you want deniable cross-border attacks. If you’re the ISI or the Army, you just say, “It’s those crazy LeT men, what can we do?” Of course it’s stretching deniability when you let a supposed fugitive like Saeed hobnob with your brass and hold press conferences across from your HQ, but Pakistan isn’t really trying to come off as innocent here. They want Delhi to know that these guys have ISI backing, but they want to twist the knife a little by saying with a big smirk that they have nothing to do with LeT.

Saeed is the link between the ISI and the Madrassas where Jihad is the only theology they teach. Those Madrassa boys are the one export that Pakistan still produces effectively, and there are thousands of these Salafist madrassi in Pakistan, with more popping up every year since General Zia decided to Islamize the country in 1979. And Saeed has been right there, cultivating those madrassi to see they produce a steady crop of kamikazes aimed at India. Guess who General Zia appointed as his main advisor in that early Islamization campaign? None other than our boy, the youthful Hafiz Saeed. So Saeed has seen generations of these kids come and go—especially “go,” because the life span of a Jihadi is shorter than a squirrel’s.

Those boys can be used to attack anybody who annoys the ISI, and in 2008, with India booming and Pakistan getting crazier, more violent and poorer every year, it seemed to the ISI like a good time to send a ten-man squad of madrassa products, dumb boys from the sticks who’d been given a crash course in Jihad and weaponry, to burn down Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. It worked well enough except that one of the ten, a 20-year old named Ajmal Kasab, did the worst thing a suicide commando can do: survived.

Ajmal was supposed to martyr himself like the other nine guys who blasted their way into Mumbai. But he was disarmed by an incredibly brave Mumbai cop who whacked him with a lathi, one of those long flexible canes Indian cops use as motivational aids. And, like the dumb hick he was, he started talking once he was captured.

Ajmal turned out to be a low-life, pig-ignorant boy from a miserable village, Faridkot, in eastern Pakistan. Meanwhile the Pakistani Army and ISI were trying to claim he wasn’t Pakistani at all. That was, until an incredibly brave reporter went into Faridkot and got copies of his family’s ID cards. Then a spokesman for the Pakistani government admitted Ajmal was from the Land of the Pure. Even that pissed off the ISI so much that the spokesman who made that concession was fired for giving aid’n’comfort to the Indians.

Ajmal’s taped confession showed what Saeed and the other LeT bosses had taught him: “Jihad is about killing people and getting famous.” Amazing, cuz I know people in California who have the same idea. Tarantino, for one, and a few million idiots who believe the movies he makes. In fact, Ajmal showed that for him it was all about the path to stardom when he came up with another alibi, retracting his confession to say that he’d just come to Mumbai to break into Bollywood movies.

Talk about a blockbuster debut. Weird to think that unlike all the losers who try to make it in Hollywood, he technically achieved his goals at Tony Robbins levels. He’s famous—you’ve probably seen his picture, a profile shot of a dumb young guy with a backpack holding an AK, like he’s about to ask directions to the train and then blow it up. And he did kill people. He and his nine friends killed 166 people in a few hours.

But like many of your stars, Ajmal is probably finding that the rest of it is not so good. The Indian police aren’t all that squeamish even with ordinary prisoners, and I hate to think what they’ve cooked up for a guy they have this much reason to hate.

Meanwhile, Hafiz Saeed, who personally briefed the ten-man Mumbai squad, is under 24/7 protection by Pakistan’s security services, which is why he can afford to make such risqué jokes these days, as one of the planners of the Mumbai attacks just confessed.

You may not get Saeed’s brand of humor, or get why they love a guy like this in Pakistan, but the fact is that Pakistan is deranged. It’s hard to talk about this, because dumb-ass rightwingers just assume all Muslims are crazy fucks—which they damn well aren’t—and lefties think admitting that Pakistan is seriously fucked up is “Islamophobia,” or that the CIA did it anyway. Well, the CIA sure helped; they were in tight with Zia and they’ve been using Islamists since Indonesia, way back in 1965, true enough.

But have a look at the adoring little profile of Hafiz Saeed from a Jihadist site in Pakistan and you’ll see that the derangement up there is real, and even if the CIA had a hand in it, that doesn’t make us the white gods who control everything that happens.

"Prof. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has always condemned any and all incidents, whether within Pakistan, or internationally, in which innocent people become victims of oppression and tyranny, regardless of whether the oppressors are Muslims or non-Muslims. Hafiz Saeed has never condoned such acts by Muslims. Moreover, Hafiz Saeed has always urged and encouraged people, whether they are Pakistanis or foreigners, Muslims, or non-Muslims, to develop tolerance for others."

Pakistan was founded at almost the same time as Israel, with the same structure, a religious enclave. It’s interesting that they’ve taken pretty much the same path in some ways. The guys who founded Israel were mostly atheists who used religion but didn’t really believe themselves, and the guys who founded Pakistan, though some had Deobandi backgrounds, lived in a time when religion seemed half-dead, on the ropes, a thing of the past.

None of them could’ve imagined a Pakistan where the only export was Madrassa zombies and cheap WalMart polo shirts. Pakistan has fallen a long, long way since then, first losing East Bengal (now known as Bangladesh) and losing over and over to the hated Indian Army, then watching those same Indians get richer and richer while Pakistan just got more and more devout.

According to this “rational” model some idiots believe in, that shouldn’t happen. If humans are rational, Pakistanis will see that religion is a curse and ditch it. But you know, I always wonder where people get that model from. How can you believe that when you remember high school? Try this: think back to your high school phys ed class, try to remember every stunted, mean, dumb little coward in that class, and imagine them grown up. That’s the world; the reason you don’t see it is you’ve found a way to insulate yourself from that norm over time. But they’re still out there, in any and every country, mean and dumb as ever.

I seriously think the reason pundits and such don’t get the world is that most of them went to nice private schools or, even worse, were home-schooled. They just don’t have that bedrock memory of guys laughing at the fat guy trying to climb the rope to remind them what the actual world is like.

Well, I do, so for me it doesn’t seem weird that Pakistan is more interested in playing nasty jokes with the help of creeps like Saeed than in actually changing things. I read somewhere that “humor is the response to the impossible” or something like that, and it fits damn well to the comedy career of a guy like Saeed.

The country’s going insane—just today, a huge crowd in Lahore called for the death of a girls’ school principal who supposedly said The Prophet’s mom wears army shoes or whatever. And that scares the tiny sane elite in Pakistan, because they’ve written off the Pashtun north, but Lahore, man, Lahore’s like the Austin of Pakistan, supposed to be a little sane enclave, and now it’s falling into the Madrassa zombie plague too.

I worked with a lot of Pakistanis in Saudi. They were smart, funny, civilized guys, loved to laugh, loved a joke. I remember one of them saying disgustedly about the Saudis and their pomposity, “These people have iron in their necks!” But I also remember that same smart, funny Pakistani screaming, actually screaming, after this Jordanian said something he didn’t like about Pakistan, “PAKISTAN IS MY HOMELAND!” He said it about 30 times in a row, and the Indian Muslims had to come over and calm him down. Indian Muslims are very different from Pakistanis—sane, like.

One of those Indian Muslims told me once, after carefully checking that nobody was listening, that he’d been talking to a different Pakistani, a real hardliner the students called “Taliban.” The Indian shook his head and told me in a whisper, “We were talking about the massacre of Shi’ites in Pakistan, and do you know what he said to me? ‘What does it matter, they’re only kaffirs.’”

It’s a grim thing, watching a country that was once world class go totally insane. Worse yet, they know it themselves. Of course they know it; they’re very smart, Pakistanis. They can see it happening to them. But they can’t stop it. And that’s where humor comes in, a particular kind of what you might call black humor, as practiced by our boy Saeed.