Feisal Naqvi

Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Pots and kettles

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2011 at 3:39 am

Some days ago, one of the counsels before the Supreme Court in the Reko Diq case filed a contempt petition against the respondent mining company on the grounds that the company had sought to influence the course of pending litigation by putting out full-page advertisements detailing their version of the facts. Notice has since been issued to the mining company, which in turn means that the mining company now has to explain why it should not be punished for committing contempt of court.

I happened to be in the Supreme Court on one of the previous dates when the Reko Diq case came up for hearing. I was also standing by when, immediately after the hearing, the same counsel who has now filed a contempt petition went before the assembled media and held a live press briefing lambasting the mining company. He was then followed by Dr. Samar Mubarakmand who explained to the gathered media why he thought that his particular proposal for exploiting the riches of Balochistan was a great thing. Neither of those two gentlemen seemed to care much then about the fact that their case – and their exclusive version of the facts – was being played out in the media.

On 14 January 2011, an English-language daily front-paged an item headlined “Tareen assails Reko Diq deal.” The first sentence of that article read: “Former finance minister Shaukat Tareen has said that it was unfortunate that the Reko Diq deal wasn’t transparent.” A television station allied to the same newspaper subsequently ran a special investigate story, complete with interviews of Mr. Tareen, in which the same allegation was repeated – i.e., that Mr. Tareen was of the opinion that the Reko Diq deal lacked transparency.

Mr. Tareen actually never says anything of the sort in his televised interview (or at least, not in the version that I saw). Instead, he only speaks generally about the need for transparency in large deals as well as the need to protect investor expectations (both of which sentiments are perfectly unexceptionable). Since I figured this could possibly be because the relevant bits of his interview had not been telecast, I took the liberty of getting in touch with Mr. Tareen and asking him if he had said anything during his interview to the effect that the Reko Diq deal lacked transparency. He vehemently denied saying any such thing. In fact, he stated that he had given no opinion as to the legality of the Reko Diq deal but had only made general observations about the need for transparency.

To the best of my knowledge, no contempt petition has been filed against either the concerned English daily or its television channel. This may be because nobody else has actually bothered to find out what was or was not said by Mr. Tareen. But it may also be because the media in Pakistan has turned into a raving monster and nobody wants to paint a target on their forehead.

However, let us set aside the minor issue of a complete misstatement of fact regarding a high profile lawsuit and come back to the fact that our newspapers apparently feel no hesitation in putting forward their views on pending litigation, so long as they are able to wrap themselves in the mantle of a populist crusader.

In the particular case of the Reko Diq litigation, the role of the media is particularly noteworthy because at least two of the petitions before the Supreme Court are nothing more than cut and paste jobs attaching paragraph numbers to an earlier news story questioning the Reko diq deal. That story, which is heavy on innuendo and light on facts, makes no effort whatsoever to present a balanced perspective: it does not even carry a response from the people being accused of all sorts of illegality. Instead, it quotes an unnamed corporate executive (who may or may not be a direct competitor of the mining company involved) to the effect that “it is just the right case for the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of Pakistan to pick up the issue, put a hold on whatever is going on before any binding contracts and deals are signed, which may cause losses of billions of dollars, yes billions of dollars to Pakistan.” And in case, the point is not clear, the final paragraph of the story again repeats the point that the “role” of the Supreme Court is to stop people from making millions at the cost of billions to this country.

So, let me now repeat the facts. There is a news story which provides no clear evidence of any scandal but begs the Supreme Court to step in. Two petitions are filed in which the same news story is converted into numbered paragraphs and presented to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court subsequently takes up the matter (much to the satisfaction of the author of the news story). The Pakistani media goes to town on the poor sods accused of defrauding this country. The lawyers who are selflessly protecting the “public interest” hold press conferences outside the Supreme Court. One of the major news groups of this country not only runs articles about the lack of transparency in the Reko Diq deal but does so despite the fact that the person whose opinion is being quoted denies ever having said anything of the sort. But the people accused of illegality are facing contempt of court charges because they ran newspaper ads giving their version of the facts.

Apparently foreign investors are reluctant to invest in Pakistan. I wonder why.

This column first appeared in the daily Pakistan Today on 25 January 2011.


Our Sarajevo of the soul

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2011 at 6:11 am

History buffs know Sarajevo as the city where on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 20-year-old member of a Serbian secret society known as the Black Hand, shot and killed Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. That one shot precipitated World War I, a war which lasted for more than four years and led to the deaths of more than 16 million.

In more recent times, Sarajevo became famous for hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics. But barely a decade later, the facilities which had hosted athletes from all over the world, were now hiding places for snipers as the ethnic melange of Yugoslavia dissolved into chaos.

Sarajevo was now the capital of a new country by the name of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The citizens of Bosnia were an eclectic mix of Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics and adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. For that reason, among others, Sarajevo had often been called the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

The dissolution of Yugoslavia led to a series of wars. First the Croats and Serbians fought each other to a standstill. Then the Serbs concentrated on trying to wipe out Bosnia by supporting the ethnic Serb population. By April 5, 1992, Serbian forces had surrounded Sarajevo and life for those left behind had become a nightmare.

The Siege of Sarajevo, as it later became known, lasted for almost four years, ending eventually on February 29, 1996. During those bitter years, the embattled Sarajevans withstood everything that the Serbian army could throw at them, even when on one particularly tragic day, a Serbian mortar shell exploded just above a market, killing 68 people. It is estimated that over the four years of the siege, more than 15,000 people were killed, of which 1500 were children.

One of the most well known symbols of Sarajevo’s defiance was its symphony orchestra. Founded in 1923, the orchestra refused to stop practising or playing during the siege. Instead, the players found ways to practice in the direst of conditions, continuing even though seven members were killed. During the siege, the orchestra performed 60 concerts and rehearsed in basements, sometimes in a room lit only by candles.

During the siege, musical supplies were obviously in short supply but the orchestra struggled on, often with the help of outsiders. One of those outsiders was Charles Ansbacher, an American musician who was in Vienna as the husband of the then US Ambassador to Austria. In a recent article, he recalled that “At first, we wondered if it was strange to be bringing gifts of cellos and violins to a place that didn’t have food or water.” But, in the end, they decided that they had to help the orchestra because it was integral to Sarajevo’s soul.

As we huddle along in our own besieged Land of the Pure, it is important to realise a few facts. The first is that there may not be a solution round the corner, that it may in fact be years or decades before the carefree Pakistan of our parents is restored to us. There is no magic bullet which will solve our problems and we need to stop wishing for it. Even if Jinnah were to return from the dead tomorrow, we would not be restored to sanity. Instead, we will win – if ever we do – once we decide as a nation to grow up. And nations mature but slowly.

The second is that we cannot succeed in this fight without saving what remains of our souls. I cannot speak for the other people who make up this benighted country, but as a Punjabi by choice, I have learnt that there is poetry in our hearts and music in our soul. We are also a brutally foul-mouthed and blunt people but I leave that facet of our character for another time.

The point though is that we are what we are. And while we are one nation, we are also many peoples. Each one of us has a song in our collective souls, songs which we are these days too scared to sing. But if we remain cowed by the demons we fear, there will be nothing left to save of our souls.

In the end, the demons we face are not new. There may be new answers, but mine at least comes from Baba Bulleh Shah:

Ae ishq ni dar da maut kolon
Paawe suli chadhna paiy jaave
Nach nach ke yaar manaa layiye
Paawen kanjri banna pay jaave
Saanu nachna manaa na kare koi
Asaa sikhya karma pyaar nach ke
Saadde nachan di saar o ki jaane

I am no poet but my reading of that stanza is as follows:

Love does not fear death
Even if one has to hang for it
Let us dance for love
Even if we have to become whores
Let no one tell us not to dance
I have learnt the blessings of love through dance
What would they know of my ecstasy?


This column first appeared in Pakistan Today on 18 January 2001

Learning how to fight

In Uncategorized on January 11, 2011 at 5:16 am

Salmaan Taseer will forever remain a hero of mine for the bravery he showed. But those who wish to change the blasphemy law need to adopt a different course of action.

“The Ornament of the World” is a wonderful book written some years ago by Maria Menocal, a professor at Yale University. The title of the book refers to 13th century Cordoba – a city which in those dark ages had libraries with hundreds of thousands of books, more than in all of England, a city in which Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived in the greatest harmony. But as Professor Menocal notes, even in those days of peace and brotherhood, defamation of the Prophet (PBUH) was regarded as being so completely and utterly unacceptable that death was the only punishment.

Many people who critique the blasphemy law do so on the basis that there is no punishment provided in the Quran for denigrating the Prophet (PBUH). So what? There is no punishment provided in the Quran for many crimes. Surely, nobody can deny that a society has a right to determine the acts it wishes to punish. And as Ms Menocal’s book shows, blasphemy is a crime to which Muslim societies have historically been – and self-evidently remain – uniquely sensitive.

The standard jurisprudential response to my assertion is that society indeed has a right to determine what actions are to be treated as criminal, but only within certain rights provided by the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I concede that point, so let us then look at the next issue: is punishing blasphemy violative of fundamental human rights?

My answer is no. As much as I disagree with the blasphemy law, I do not think that criminalising the act of blasphemy is violative of any fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution. All of those rights are subject to reasonable limitations. And in Pakistan – repeat, in this country – I do not think it is unreasonable for the law to provide that blasphemy shall be a criminal offence. Even in England, the last blasphemy prosecution took place not centuries ago, but in 1977.

Does that mean the blasphemy law cannot, or should not, be challenged or changed? Absolutely not. The blasphemy law, as it stands today, invites abuse and serves as a terrible instrument of oppression. But what it does mean is that the change must be brought about through political means, not legal. And politics, as we too often forget, is the art of the possible, not the art of the desirable.

There are three basic ways to attack the blasphemy law. The first is to argue that criminalising blasphemy is wrong per se. The second is to concede that blasphemy may be punishable but to argue that executing blasphemers is excessive. The third option is to argue that while it is permissible to punish blasphemy with the death sentence, it is not acceptable to kill or harass innocent people.

To begin with, let us recognise the simple fact that any direct attempt to decriminalise blasphemy in Pakistan is doomed. Given the intensity with which the average Pakistani believes in the necessity of punishing blasphemy, there is little point in challenging the law directly. In fact, direct attack makes the situation worse because it leads to an overwhelming negative reaction from the public which in turn makes it difficult even to tinker with the law.

What then can liberals do? The answer is to adopt the third option and attack the law indirectly. The benefit of this approach is that it frames the debate in a completely different manner. The average Pakistani certainly believes that blasphemers should hang but that same average Pakistani also believes that people are entitled to the due process of law. Similarly, the same average Pakistani will also concede that vigilante justice is not normally a good idea. If we do not reframe the debate around the need to protect innocents, we will be helpless when people like the odious Meher Bokhari prove their populist credentials by preening as defenders of our faith.

The liberal response to this approach would be to argue that it is unprincipled and craven. I disagree. It is more important to change people’s lives than to stick to some purist conception of an ideal society. Take, for example, the Women’s Protections Act which was opposed tooth and nail by the feminist lobby but which has successfully defanged the Hudood Ordinance of its worst excesses.

But doesn’t this concede too much room to the extremists: after all, do we really want to live in a country where any person can be declared a blasphemer and then killed? Again, obviously not. I repeat: I do not want to live in a country where people can be executed for blasphemy. But I only get to choose my opinions. I do not get to choose my own facts. And the fact is that the people of Pakistan really want to execute people who they think have committed blasphemy. I can either accept that fact or I can seek to change it. But to act as if that fact does not exist is not sensible.

People also need to understand that the moral outrage of an indignant few is not normally sufficient to bring about legislative change. Instead, laws are changed when the government has a good reason to do so. And in the case of Pakistan, the government has no rational incentive to amend the blasphemy laws. The minorities who tend to be the main victims of the blasphemy law are both politically and socially powerless. The liberals who are outraged by the blasphemy law are so few in number as to be politically irrelevant. And so far as the international community is concerned, Pakistan is that unique country which negotiates with a gun pointed at its own head. Give us money, we say, or else the mullahs will take over. But in order for that threat to be credible, the international community needs to be more scared of the possible alternatives than the kleptocrats currently in power. If the blasphemy law is repealed, it would show that we are a mature, intelligent and sophisticated nation. Unfortunately, that would also mitigate the impression that the loonies are about to take over.

How then should the liberal community position its challenge? The answer is that we must make the establishment realise that the mullahs playing on popular anger have a direct, election-free, bureaucrat-free hot-link to power. Because while the average politician couldn’t care less about fundamental rights, the average politician certainly cares about other people having power. As such, the liberals need to focus on ensuring that those who give fatwas against others are immediately challenged and charged with incitement to murder. That is the only area in which the interests of the liberals coincide with the interests of the establishment.

Patton once said that no person ever won a war by dying for his country; instead, he won it by making the other person die for his country. If we are truly outraged by the death of Salmaan Taseer, then we need to learn to fight. And wishful thinking never won a fight.

This column appeared first in Pakistan Today on 11 January 2010.