Feisal Naqvi

Archive for July, 2008|Monthly archive page

Bravo, Senator Obama

In Uncategorized on July 22, 2008 at 2:52 am

Islam has room for intelligent people in it so it would be nice if the whackos out there would stop trying to take exclusive possession of shared beliefs

“The United States always does the right thing,” said Winston Churchill, but only “after exhausting every other possibility.”

If the history of the US-Pakistani relationship is anything to go by, the United States certainly seems to have explored every bad option, ranging from supporting dictators to threatening popularly elected leaders to benign neglect. My point though is not to mark all the missed opportunities and all the failed policies, but to note that if Senator Obama is elected, we may finally see a sensible US policy towards Pakistan.

For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, Obama gave a major foreign policy speech a few days ago in which he made the following points.

* If the United States is serious in countering terrorism, it needs to focus not on Iraq but on Afghanistan;

* The US cannot succeed in Afghanistan without succeeding in Pakistan;

* US policies cannot succeed in Pakistan unless they benefit the people of Pakistan, as opposed to the Pakistan Army;

* That therefore, he supported and was co-sponsoring a bill to triple developmental aid to Pakistan and provide US$15 billion over ten years.

I obviously think this is brilliant but many people, both on the right and on the left, have screamed. The most violent reaction came from a local columnist who alleged that US aid was intended to “enslave” Pakistan. He then continued:

‘In the name of development, a huge amount of Westernisation will take place, leading to the erosion of Islamic values and coming into existence of a new class of citizens whose only concern will be the gratification of desires and fulfilment of bodily needs. For all individuals committed to the vision of Islam, this is a silent bomb that will explode in the coming decades.’

The above analysis is so wrong and in so many different ways that one hardly knows where to start. Briefly speaking though, the logical leaps embedded in his argument become clearer if his argument is summarised as follows:

Development = westernisation = “gratification of desires” = “erosion of Islamic values”

Every step of that logical sequence is wrong.

First, development does not mean “westernisation”. Lots of countries have developed without aping the West in every way.

Second, “western” society is not only about seeking the “gratification of desires”. Yes, the West is the land of Gucci and Louis Vuitton (not to mention nightclubs and pole-dancing). But it is also the land of Oxford and Cambridge, of Plato and Aristotle, of Homer and Shakespeare, of Rodin and Picasso. If all you can see in “the West” is consumer culture, then there is something wrong with you, not with the West.

Third, there is nothing inherently wrong with “the gratification of desires and fulfilment of bodily needs”. A human being has the right to live for shallow gratification, if he so chooses. Yes, he will be a sorry excuse for a human being but that is his problem. It is not your job to take care of his soul: he can do that for himself. More importantly, it is not your job to judge people on their spiritual failings: that privilege belongs to the Almighty.

Fourth, there is no one universally agreed set of Islamic values. Muslims spend a considerable amount of time explaining how Islam is not monolithic and that for every suicide bomber, there are a thousand gentle souls who only want to live in peace. That message gets comprehensively sabotaged by our would-be intellectuals who are only too ready to dress up their own particular prejudices as the only right way to live one’s life.

To summarise, development and Islam are not antithetical. Morons who cling to a vision of Islam in which the only modern possession allowed is a Kalashnikov are precisely the kinds of idiots responsible for our current situation. Islam has room for intelligent people in it so it would be nice if the whackos out there would stop trying to take exclusive possession of shared beliefs. And finally, our biggest problem right now is not silent bombs: our biggest problem is the kind of bombs which explode with a big bang.

To venture into jurisprudence for a minute, no one denies that we all act as if there is one right answer. But that does not mean that there is a rationally discoverable and identifiable right answer. Instead, we have to accept that whatever “right answer” we identify will be a human construct, one which will have developed, consciously or subconsciously, to meet social objectives. Those objectives change on a continuous basis because society remains in flux, not frozen in a time-warp. And therefore, the answers we create must also change on a continuous basis so that they do not become obsolete.

In his brilliant new book Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid chronicles how the US decision to neglect Afghanistan led the Pakistani army into believing that its strategic interests lay in preserving the Taliban so as to keep the US dependent on Pakistani goodwill. Obviously, this was a move fraught with danger, but one whose consequences did not seem to have been appreciated by our friends in Aabpara. Those dangers are perhaps best illustrated by this (very old) joke.

Some years after the establishment of Khalistan, the fledgling state runs into economic trouble. In the Khalistani parliament, the debate is fierce. Ultimately, one Sardar Ji rises with the solution.

My friends, he says, the answer is obvious. We must attack America immediately.

His suggestion is met by consternation but he then explains. Look at Germany, he says, and look at Japan. Both of them attacked the US and both of them were defeated. But after defeating them, the US rebuilt them and made them strong.

The suggestion is now greeted with universal acclaim except for one elder who keeps his own counsel. Eventually the excited members of parliament realise that their sage has yet to speak and so they ask him for his opinion. At first he demurs, saying that Parliament has spoken and it must be respected. But when everybody insists, he finally unburdens himself to ask the key question, “Oi, jay assi jit gaye tey phair ki karaan gey?”

The answer to that question, i.e. what happens if we win, is visible in the chaos around us, in the large bands of our country which are not just ungovernable but actively hostile. What it shows, above all, is the folly of negotiating with our friends and allies by holding a gun to our own heads.

Every year, a group dedicated to appreciating the work of Charles Darwin honours those individuals who bless this Earth by finding particularly creative ways to kill themselves thereby preventing onwards passage of their clearly defective genes. My personal favourite is the story of the thief who tried to steal a car engine by slowly undoing each one of the bolts connecting the engine to the chassis while lying underneath the car. After he finished unscrewing the last bolt, the engine landed on his head, thereby causing him to earn his Darwin Award.

They do not have Darwin Awards for countries. Not yet anyway.


The Economics of Happiness

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2008 at 7:05 am

Pick up a brick and hold it out straight with one hand. After a minute, you will be very tired. If you last two minutes, your arm will feel like it is on fire. And if you can last three minutes, then you are Superman.

Now try picking the brick up and holding it out for ten seconds at a time. You will find that you can hold the brick, all put together, for a lot longer than three minutes. That does not make you Superman. But it does make you smart.

What goes for the body goes double for the brain. Use it intensively for a while and the time will come when you will need a break. And once you take that break, your mind will be like a freshly sharpened knife rather than a dulled blade; in other words, a heck of a lot more effective.

None of this is rocket science. I was taught back in high school that the most efficient way to study was to follow up 45 minutes of concentrated study with five minutes of goofing around. More pertinently, the two-day weekend has been a staple of western life since about 1900. And on July 3, 2008, the state of Utah became the first American state to mandate a four-day work week on the grounds that it would help save on energy and environmental costs while paying for itself through productivity gains.

Why then do we still persist with a six-day work week? So far as I can figure out, the answer is stupidity. Seriously, I fail to see any rational reason why we do not have a five-day work week. A five-day work week will help save energy. It will be good for the economy. And it will make people happier.

So far as the saving electricity angle is concerned, WAPDA has repeatedly lobbied, as per newspaper reports, for a five-day work week on the grounds that it would save up to a 1,000 MW of electricity. I have yet to see anybody disagree with WAPDA’s analysis. And, as noted above, the state of Utah (official motto: “industry”) agrees. Let us therefore take that particular argument as settled.

The more important question is this: if less electricity is being used because less industrial production is taking place, how does the economy benefit?

The answer to that question is that making money is not necessarily about making things. Instead, an increasingly large part of the global economy consists of providing services to people, rather than widgets. Tourism, in fact, is the single largest industry in the world, accounting for approximately 10 percent of world GDP.

Obviously, given current events in our picturesque Northern Areas, announcing a two-day weekend in Pakistan will not result in the arrival of hordes of dollar-waving tourists. But shifting to a two-day weekend will result in the creation of hordes of rupee-waving tourists. Give people an extra day to rest and not only are they more productive, but they spend their time doing things like shopping, travelling, eating and watching movies, all of which involve spending money. And on the off chance that somebody involved in determining national economic policy is reading this column (oh happy day), let me make this very simple point: it is a good, repeat, very good thing when Pakistanis spend money on services provided by other resident Pakistanis. Giving Pakistanis more time to spend more money on leisure services is therefore Also A Good Thing.

The final issue then remains that of happiness. Well, most people like spending time with their families. More family life therefore means more happiness. And for those who don’t like their families, more leisure time means more time to play golf. Or gulli danda. Or whatever. In any event, what’s not to like?

Well, according to one lady writing in the letters column of Dawn (May 20, 2008), a two-day weekend will only exacerbate “the poor man’s financial dilemma that has led to the frequent suicides”. According to her, the extra day at home will result in misery for the working man because it will “inevitably mean more expenditure that his family will end up indulging in.”

Sure. But speaking for the rest of us who are not tempted to commit suicide by virtue of increased exposure to our loved ones, may I again repeat: a two-day weekend would be a good thing. It is mind-bogglingly stupid that we refuse to adopt it.