Feisal Naqvi

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Patronising hatred

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2011 at 4:28 am

As Pakistanis, we have resigned ourselves to living with a truly infuriating level of governmental incompetence. What would cause heads to explode in other countries, is simply met with a shrug of the shoulders here. But even so, there are times when the immensity of the stupidity involved produces a situation where words — at least polite words — are completely useless.

Last week, a gentleman by the name of Malik Ishaq was released from jail. Malik Ishaq was accused not only of being the chief of the banned sectarian organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, but of killing 70 people (almost all Shias) in 44 separate instances of culpable homicide. Most recently, he was alleged to have been involved in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

Despite what it may seem, I do not have a problem per se, with the release of Malik Ishaq. This is because he was only released after either being acquitted or being granted bail in each of those many cases. Malik Ishaq may well have acquired his acquittals through the murder of witnesses and the intimidation of judges (as alleged in some reports), but those are the facts of life in Pakistan’s criminal justice system, as it stands today.

What blows my mind instead is, the revelation that Malik Ishaq’s family received a stipend from Punjab government while he was in jail. According to Rana Sanaullah, the learned law minister for the Punjab government, the stipend was paid on court orders. This newspaper, however, reports that “it was revealed that nor was there any such disbursements during former president Pervez Musharraf’s tenure, nor was there any court order pertaining to the matter”.

Let us recap then. Malik Ishaq is alleged to be the leader of a banned sectarian organisation. He is alleged to have killed 70 people. He is alleged to have had eight witnesses murdered so as to avoid conviction. He is alleged to have masterminded the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, an attack which perhaps more than any other instance is responsible for Pakistan’s status as a pariah state. And the popularly elected government of the largest province in Pakistan — the one also responsible for the criminal prosecution of Malik Ishaq — not only paid a monthly stipend to the family of this alleged mass murderer while he was in jail but then lied about the reasons for doing so. For shame, Sir. For shame.

I don’t want to bang the outrage drum too much on this because it tends to be a waste of time. Either the sequence of facts narrated above has made you terribly angry or it has not: My frothing at the mouth is not going to help either way. Instead, what I want to ask is this: Why are more of us not outraged? How have we reached a point where public support by an elected government to a man widely believed, and expressly accused, of being a sectarian killer causes no ripples? Even if it is assumed that Malik Ishaq is not a mass murderer, he certainly appears to think that 25 per cent of this country (i.e., all Shias) should be put to death. How have we reached a stage where major political parties have no problems being associated with such a vision?

The short answer is that if you tie religion to political power you create a natural incentive for abuse. Let me explain.

People are always going to fight over political power. And when people fight, they are always going to use every weapon at their disposal. If political power is tied to religious credibility, then the candidates for political power are always going to try and define religious identity in such a way that it excludes other candidates. Given Pakistan’s history and origin, being able to define yourself as more ‘Muslim’ than the other is always going to be useful in political terms. And one way to define yourself as ‘more’ Muslim than the other, is to define the other as ‘less’ Muslim.

This is not an exclusively ‘Muslim’ problem. Instead, the same dynamic exists whenever religion and politics intersect. Henry VIII (1491-1547) set up his own version of Christianity essentially for political reasons and the entire development of Protestantism has as much to do with the political ambitions of the electors of Saxony as it does with the supposed excesses of the Catholic Church. Similarly, the expulsion of non-Christians (e.g., the Jews from 15th century Spain, the Huguenots from 17th century France) remains a standard feature in European history of kings trying to improve their Christian credentials.

At the same time, there is only so much comfort one can draw from the history of other religions. This is because we kill fellow Muslims in the name of religion today: It has been several centuries since Christians killed other Christians (at least in significant numbers) for being heretics.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to be gleaned from European history either. What one learns there is that the only way people stop killing in the name of religion is when they get tired of it. The rise of Protestantism was thus followed by a century of religious wars, culminating with the excesses and atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). During that conflict, millions of people died and thousands of towns were devastated. In Germany, the male population was reduced by more than half. It was only with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (a watershed in the development of the modern international political system) that the combatants agreed to respect each other’s differences.

Pakistan was born in the middle of terrible violence. Even those who know nothing else of history know about the terrible atrocities of Partition — the massacre of villages, the rapes, the forcible conversions, the trains pulling into stations with only dead passengers on board. We should have learnt then that hate begets hate. But it looks like more killing will be required for us to learn this lesson.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2011.

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Kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai?

In Uncategorized on July 12, 2011 at 4:37 am

Kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai’ is an Urdu phrase which literally translates as, ‘Have you ever seen your own face?’ Like many such phrases, it is not intended to be taken literally; most people have, of course, seen their own faces. Instead, what the query asks is this: Who are you to ask questions? Are you worthy of the demands you make?

The phrase in question came to my mind last night as I witnessed some earnest discussions between Pakistani and Indian intellectuals at a dinner. One of the topics of discussion was inevitably Kashmirand all around me my fellow citizens were confidently arguing that the people of Kashmir should be allowed to fulfil their natural destiny by joining with Pakistan. But the thought which kept going through my head was: Kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai?

I have visited Kashmir only once in my life and while I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, I cannot say that I came away with any deep mystical insights into the Kashmir problem. In any event, the purpose of this column is not to try and dissect the Kashmiri psyche. Instead, the purpose of this column is to ask the members of our intelligentsia, who so confidently assume that the Kashmiris are protesting and dying in order to become Pakistanis, kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai?

Our country is a mess these days: Our economy is poised on the edge of a complete meltdown. Our largest city has just gone through a phase in which more than a hundred people were shot dead at random. Our industries are crippled by a lack of electricity. We are one of the world’s most water-stressed countries and also likely to be one of the worst affected by climate change. We are driven by sectarian hatred and under assault by religious fanatics. And if there is a sensible reason for wanting to be a woman in this benighted land, I have yet to hear it.

I don’t wish to dwell on the negatives. After all, our president does have a lovely ancestral chateau in Normandy and worst comes to worst, he might deign to keep a few of us as serfs there.

But seriously, finding things to criticise in Pakistan is like shooting fish in a barrel. The point that I am making here relates to what I saw later on that night of détente, as I drove two first-time visitors from across the Radcliffe Line to the Old City. They were simply stunned by the familiarity of it all. For them, Lahore was a magical reconstruction of Delhi, with the Lutyens bungalows being substituted by GORs, Regal Chowk standing in for Chandni Chowk and the Jama’a Masjid transmuted into the Badshahi Masjid.

At times like these, one is prone to dream of all that could be if relations were to normalise. The Delhi-wallahs kept on babbling about how Indian tourists would love to come to Lahore and all I could think of was, you poor fools, you have no bloody idea. We have built an entire country on our hatred for you. We have dedicated ourselves to enshrining our differences, first the differences with you and now the differences amongst ourselves.

Do you really think that the architecture of otherness can disappear at the drop of a hat?

We need to take a look at ourselves, ask how we have gotten to where we are, and perhaps reconsider our assumptions. Starting from the belief that the Kashmiris want to be Pakistanis and that the ‘loss’ of Kashmir is somehow fatal to our national existence — we have dedicated ourselves to winning back what is ‘rightfully’ ours. In pursuit of that victory, we have developed only one arm of the state: The army. And in order to justify the continued pursuit of militarism, we have distorted our ideology to the point that any and all steps taken towards the larger goal of a Kashmir restored to our anxious arms are deemed to be worthy of any sacrifice by us, irrespective of the consequences. Accordingly, we have supported the forces of hate in Kashmir because they fight our wars even though that same hate then drips back into Pakistan and poisons our own bloodstream. And all of this because the Kashmiris can supposedly conceive of no better future than to be a part of Pakistan. Kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai?

I do not mean to denigrate the struggles of the Kashmiri people. They have suffered much with great courage and dignity. I fully support the right of the Kashmiris to decide their own future, whether it be independence, union with Pakistan or something completely different. But it makes no sense for Pakistan to destroy itself in supposed support of the Kashmiri cause only because it removes any rational incentive for the Kashmiris to join with us. Obviously, whether or not Kashmiris really want to join us is a question only they can answer. Frankly speaking, at this point, I can’t see why they would.

We must, therefore, now turn our efforts to healing ourselves first. After six decades of worrying about others, we need to focus on what’s wrong with us, and leave aside the problems of the world. Perhaps then this will no longer be a country sensible people want to run away from. Perhaps then, if somebody asks, “kabhi apni shakal dekhi hai?”we will be in a position to respond, “Haan, dekhi hai.”*

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2011.

* The phrase, “haan, dekhi hai” means “yes, I have.”

The media and the emperor’s clothes

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Everybody knows the story of the emperor’s new clothes, about how a vain king is persuaded by the flattery of his courtiers to believe that the clothes which he cannot see are actually the finest in the world. Everybody believes that they would never, ever be so dumb.  But it turns out that most of us are actually just as gullible as the fabled emperor.

Solomon Asch, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, carried out a legendary series of experiments back in the 1950s. In the experiments, people were shown a vertical line drawn on a card and then asked to pick out the line closest in length to the one shown (from a series of line drawn on another card).

Since the lines were drawn in such a way that it was very easy to pick out the identical ones, you might ask what the point of the experiment was. Well, most people got the answers wrong.

The reason for the error was that the person being asked to make the choice was placed in a room with other people pretending to be volunteers. Each of the other fake volunteers enthusiastically picked out the same wrong line. And in about 75% of all cases, the genuine volunteer followed suit. Incredibly, people refused to believe their own eyes, even when the difference between the original and the ostensibly equal line was as much as seven inches!

The traditional interpretation of the Asch experiments is that they show the power of peer pressure. In fact, the truth is even stranger than that. The experiments were recently repeated in such a way that the test subjects were inside an MRI machine when they were shown the different pictures. The neurological scans showed that some of the volunteers were actually “seeing” something different simply because other people claimed to be seeing the same thing!

What these experiments teach us first is that we are massively susceptible to peer pressure. Even when we can clearly see that what other people are saying is wrong, we are willing to suppress our views just to fit in with the crowd. And that goes for all of us, irrespective of wealth or education. More importantly, what we think we see, as in literally “see”,  is greatly affected by what other people claim to be seeing. In other words, we cannot even trust our eyes.

The Asch experiments are thought-provoking at many levels. The argument I want to advance though is that the Asch experiments, combined with the rise of a free press in Pakistan, provide some rational basis for believing that our current rendezvous with democracy may not, unlike past encounters, be just a one-night stand.

Let me explain. Changes of regimes in Pakistan are often initially successful (and popular) in part because the person who takes over brings in new ideas along with a group of reasonably competent technocrats. However, as time goes by, both the rulers and their advisors get increasingly entrenched and isolated.  As the Asch experiments tell us, consensus is self-reinforcing. Once the doors to fresh thinking get closed, rulers tend to make more and more mistake until eventually they destroy themselves.

There are two ways to break this cycle. The first is to have internal capacity for critical thinking. Unfortunately, so far as our civil service is concerned, we have done our best to destroy that capacity. Our bureaucrats now serve at the whim of their political masters. Even leaving aside corruption issues, the ability of a senior bureaucrat to continue in a position of significance is entirely based upon his ability to please his minister. Why then would he ever disagree? And if he never disagrees, how will his minister ever reconsider his views?

The second solution is to have external capacity for critical thinking or, in other words, a vibrant free press in which people and ideas are freely criticised. We now have such a press for the first time in our history. Which means, in turn, that for the first time we have a feedback mechanism where our rulers get to hear people shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Which at least to some limited extent, makes it slightly more difficult for our rulers to persist in their follies. Note; not impossible; just a bit more difficult.

At the same time, I don’t want to be overly romantic about the press. The media bubble may not be as insulated as federal ministers but there is still a groupthink mentality which tends to prevail. We see on a daily basis that the media tends to focus on a narrow set of issues and present a narrow range of ideas. The larger scope of possibilities in dealing with problems thus often gets reduced to minor variations on the conventional wisdom. And once conventional wisdom gets agreed upon, that consensus becomes self-reinforcing just like the Asch experiments tell us.

Let me end therefore by making two final points. The first point is that this flaw of the media is unavoidable. At the same time, once a country commits to freedom of speech – as Pakistan has now done – there is at least some hope present that new thinking can enter the halls of power.

The second point is that the media will only provide critical analysis if there is a market for such thinking. We cannot simultaneously teach our people to be obedient, rote-memorising little academic robots and then bemoan the fact that there is no critical thinking. Instead, we must reward critical thinking at every stage of the educational process. But we are conspicuously failing to do this.

I was recently shocked to learn that the only three options for A level students at Aitchison are Sciences, Medicine and, wait for it, Commerce.  Which means that some of our best students head out to college without having studied any literature, any history, or any liberal arts discipline since the age of 15. And yes, I know things are far worse for the rest of the country.

Telling the emperor that he has no clothes requires both the ability to see and the courage to speak. We have no shortage of courage. But we need to learn how to see. And we must teach our children too.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.