Feisal Naqvi

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Silence of the Faujis

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2012 at 10:14 am

Pakistan’s slow-motion slide into sectarian hell has, so far, met with studied silence from all the major political players.

In the case of the PPP, the silence is mere cowardice. In the case of the PML-N and the PTI, the silence is calculated; a cold-blooded conclusion that there are seats to be gained from turning a blind eye. What is more interesting though is the silence of the khakis. Because of all institutions, it is the Army that has the most to lose.

The fact of the matter is that the armed forces are a pluralistic institution. Our officer corps includes not just Muslims of every shade but also Christians, Parsis and even Ahmadis. More importantly, while Shias form 25 per cent of Pakistan’s population, there is some evidence that they form an even larger part of the officer cadre. The Army may, therefore, be able to survive the day when Muslims refuse to obey Christians. But it will not survive the day when Sunnis refuse to obey Shias. Assuming that the Army knows this, the question arises as to why it is doing nothing. My understanding is that there are two reasons — one official, one unofficial.

The official reason is that it is not the Army’s job to determine the ideological contours of this country. Instead, that is the job of the civilian leadership.

Pardon the language but I am going to call ‘bullshit’ on that one. This country has been ruled for decades at a time by the military. Even otherwise, the military has generally been the single-most important political force in Pakistan. More importantly, while the roots of discrimination in our Constitution were introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the reason why those seedlings of hate took hold and spread is because of General Ziaul Haq and his minions. If the Army is now troubled by sectarianism in Pakistan, it cannot wash its hands of the matter.

What, then, is the real argument?

The real argument is that the rank and file of the Army have been deliberately indoctrinated with the belief that they are warriors of Allah whose job is to keep infidels at bay. In other words, the average soldier’s patriotism has a distinctly religious tinge in which Pakistan is a fortress of Islam and its enemies are also enemies of Islam.

Now this worldview is certainly useful in motivating people to kill Indians. At the same time, it has limited utility when it comes to jihadis because the jihadis claim to be even better Muslims than us.

Till date, the Army has tried to deal with this problem not by changing its propaganda but by painting jihadis as Indian stooges. It has done so because it believes the present moment is simply too delicate for wholesale ideological retooling. In other words, the Army thinks that telling the jawans to protect a pluralistic ideal could well result in mass mutiny. At a practical level, this is undoubtedly a very powerful argument. There is also ample historical precedent for not worrying about subtleties in the middle of a war.

To take one famous example, the Bolsheviks spent 1917-1942 preaching to the world that nationalism was a bourgeois disease. However, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Marxist orthodoxy was swiftly jettisoned in favour of a full-throated nationalism and the cult of  ‘Mother Russia’. This was because the average Soviet soldier was far more willing to die for his country than for the sake of class solidarity.

But does this strategy make any sense in the case of Pakistan’s current situation? Not in my view.

The whole point of a military ideology is to objectify the enemy, i.e., to reduce the opponent to an evil caricature who can be killed without compunction. Accordingly, the most important function of a military ideology is to allow differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ so that the others can then be caricatured and killed.

In the case of the Germans, hyper-nationalism made sense because it allowed Joseph Stalin to portray the invaders as evil Huns. Similarly, jihadi nationalism makes some sense as a military ideology if the enemy is India because Indian troops can all be lumped into the category of  ‘kafirs’. However, in the case of the TTP, jihadi nationalism is useless because it fails to adequately differentiate the enemy from ourselves.

Our current national ideology is a muddled mess in which we have decided both, that all citizens shall have the right of freedom of religion and that the state will decide their religion for them. This really doesn’t work.

Let me be more blunt. By stating in our Constitution that certain people (i.e. Ahmadis) do not have the right to consider themselves Muslims, we have accepted the argument that an individual’s religious identity is a political matter. It is not possible to reconcile that argument with what the rest of the world considers to be freedom of religion. Moreover, this conflict is not just theoretical: we have thoroughly legalised persecution of Ahmadis and yawned in the face of their suffering.

The net result is that there is only a difference of degree, and not a difference of principle, between the state of Pakistan and the emirate envisioned by the TTP. The state excommunicates Ahmadis. The TTP excommunicates both Ahmadis and Shias.

Pakistan, therefore, has two options. The rational option is to move in a more pluralistic direction where the state doesn’t have the right to define anyone as a non-Muslim. The politically feasible option is to continue with the status quo but to try and differentiate our particular brand of witch-hunting from the tactics of the TTP. I understand that the rational option is politically dangerous. Unfortunately, the politically feasible option doesn’t work for Shias like me. That’s because we’re likely to wind up dead under that option. Furthermore, while preserving the status quo may work in the short term, the long-term result of such cowardice is likely to be civil war.

Rationally speaking, the Army no longer has the option of staying silent. Yes, it is not the Army’s job to fix our muddled and hateful beliefs. But if the Army doesn’t at least prod the civilians into acting, this country will fall apart. When that happens, there will be no Pakistan. And no Pakistan Army either.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2012.


The Betty Crocker Cake Mix Theory of Sustainable Democracy

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2012 at 9:14 am

There is an old fable of a criminal who is given the choice of either suffering a hundred lashes or of eating a hundred onions. The convict first opts for onions but soon finds that he is revolted beyond measure. He, therefore, asks to be flogged instead and, of course, finds that he can’t take the pain either. He is then allowed to go back to eating onions but once again finds himself unable to proceed. The net result is that he suffers both punishments.

The fable of the onions and the lashes is normally used as a metaphor for Pakistan’s zigzag progress from dictatorship to democracy and back; how we first thirst for democracy, then get revolted by the corruption and inefficiency that attends it, then get entranced by military rule and its promise of an efficient, technocratic future, then get revolted by the corruption and arrogance that inevitably attends all dictatorships and so stagger back to democracy, only to repeat the whole cycle all over again.

The question, of course, is how to break this cycle of suffering and stupidity. One answer comes to us from the wizards at Betty Crocker. And yes, I’m serious.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain. Betty Crocker is the name of a popular line of baking goods best known for cake and pastry mixes that can be used by busy housewives and untalented cooks (such as myself) to produce reasonably tasty desserts with minimum effort.

Back in the 1950s, the marketing wizards at General Mills (the company which owns the Betty Crocker brand) were perplexed by the failure of instant cakes to achieve popularity even though instant piecrusts and instant biscuits were massive hits. Given that cakes and biscuits contained much of the same ingredients, the failure of instant cakes to sell was, indeed, very odd.

The eventual solution, as figured out by a psychologist called Ernest Dichter, was that instant cakes were so easy that housewives using the mixes didn’t feel any pride in presenting them. The solution adopted, therefore, was to deliberately leave out a few key ingredients such as eggs, milk and oil. These ingredients could then be triumphantly added by the cakemaker who could then — with some justification — claim to have ‘baked’ the cake. Or, as the ad put it, “You and Betty Crocker can bake someone happy.”

Ok, you may ask, but what does all of this have to do with democracy in Pakistan? Part of the answer comes from MIT professor Dan Ariely in his book The Upside of Irrationality.

Some years ago, Ariely actually carried out a series of experiments to see how much people value their own involvement in making things — something which he dubs the “Ikea effect”, named after the ubiquitous furniture store selling goods which need to be assembled by the buyer.

In his first experiment, Ariely asked volunteers to fold a piece of paper into a frog. The volunteers were then asked to value their creations. At the same time, other volunteers who had not been involved in making the frogs were also asked for their opinions. The differences in value were stark.

The creators valued their frogs at an average of 23 cents, while the non-creators valued the frogs at five cents. Subsequently, Ariely had the origami frogs made by experts. In this case, the non-creators valued the frogs at an average of 27 cents (or pretty close to what the creators valued their own frogs).

In his second experiment, Ariely again gave frog-building instructions to volunteers but this time deliberately made the instructions complicated and difficult to follow. The result was that those who completed their task despite the hurdles valued their creations the highest while those who had failed to complete their tasks valued the paper frogs the least.

Ariely’s findings can be summarised as follows: 1) people value things, which they have helped create; 2) the more the effort, the more people value their creations; 3) people don’t value things if they are incomplete, even if they have put great effort into them.

Let’s go back now and look at our political history. What we find are two main things. First, we have consistently maintained political systems that disenfranchise the citizenry of Pakistan. Leaving aside decades of military rule, even our democratic experiments have yielded governments in which decision-making powers have been concentrated in the minimum number of hands (see, e.g., the government of Punjab and the 10 or 15 departments — or whatever number it actually is — personally headed by Shahbaz Sharif).

Second, our experiments in democracy have continuously failed. Every time we have managed to get democracy restored in Pakistan, the net result has been civilian rule of such massive incompetence that the eventual restoration of military dictators has been welcomed.

Put these two factors together and the end result has been a disempowered population whose efforts to establish democracy have continuously failed. Is it any wonder then, especially keeping in view Ariely’s findings, that we have traditionally not valued democracy that highly?

At the same time, Ariely’s insight also gives one explanation for the survival of the current democratic experiment. Lest we forget, the transition from General (retd) Pervez Musharraf to Asif Ali Zardari was not painless but was driven by two separate popular movements: the first being the movement to restore the chief justice and the second being against the declaration of emergency by Musharraf. The democratic transition of 2008 was thus one of the most broadly based post-Independence movements in Pakistan’s history. If the people of Pakistan are now being atypically patient in suffering the foibles of the Zardari government, it is quite possibly because they were atypically involved in establishing this democracy.

The problem though is that the Pakistani public is not infinitely patient. If we are to keep democracy alive in Pakistan, we have no option but to shift to a more broad-based and genuinely participatory democracy. The current system in which four chief ministers and the president/prime minister rule the entire country is not sustainable. Otherwise, we may well find ourselves going through the whole onions and lashes routine all over again.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.

Time to be untalented

In Uncategorized on August 14, 2012 at 4:07 am

It is traditional for columnists to first praise the many talents of Pakistanis before bemoaning our collective failure to take advantage of those talents. I beg to differ.

To begin with, Pakistanis are no more talented than any other people. Second, telling people that they are talented is counter-productive: if you really want people to succeed, you need to get them to work hard.

Let’s begin with the myth of ‘natural’ talent: we are not a nation of geniuses any more than the fabled children of Lake Wobegon, each of whom was ‘above average’. Instead, we are a nation of more than 180 million people, some of whom are above average and some of whom are decidedly below average.

But you say, what about our great athletes? And writers? And businessmen?

Let me repeat: we are a nation of 180 million plus. Some of them are bound to be good athletes just as some of them are bound to be good writers, poets or businessmen. If there is any proof that we are — on a per capita basis — any smarter than the average Malaysian or Bhutanese or whatever, I have never seen it.

Ok, you say, but what about our natural resources? Isn’t Pakistan blessed to be the land of five rivers? Do we not have millions of tonnes of coal and copper and other minerals? Isn’t it true that if only we could harness our resources the way other countries have done, we too would be free from the scourge of poverty.

The short answer, again, is no. Yes, Pakistan has lots of resources. But with certain very rare exceptions, countries that have hit the jackpot when it comes to natural resources are not countries we should want to emulate.

In fact, economists even have a term for this problem. It’s called the natural resources curse. Prime examples of countries plagued by the unearned wealth of natural resources are Nigeria and the Congo. Each of them is spectacularly blessed with natural wealth. Each of them is a byword for corruption and governmental incompetence.

Need more examples? Let’s look at the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, check; Algeria, check; Libya, check.

But if not talent, what makes people succeed? The answer, in a nutshell, is hard work.

The most comprehensive rebuttal to the whole ‘talent is everything’ argument that I’ve read is a book called Bounce by Matthew Syed. Syed is a former world champion in table tennis and, one would assume, a natural counterargument to his theory. Yet, surprisingly, he demolishes the “talent” argument by showing how he was lucky to attend a school featuring one of the top coaches in the UK, lucky to have access to a year-round practice facility, and lucky to have a ready-made practice partner in the form of a very competitive younger brother, all of which combined with incredible hard work turned him into a world champion. And he shows how his rise to athletic stardom was not just a fluke by showing how — at one time — his street (and its immediate environs) had produced more of the world’s top table tennis players than the rest of England combined.

Syed also has the science and the studies to back him up. He refers in particular to the work of US scientist Carol Dweck. In 1998, Dweck carried out a study involving 400 children in which they were given a series of puzzles to solve. Half the children were then told — at random — “You must be smart at this.” The other children were told, “You must have worked really hard!”.

The results of the study were unambiguous: two-thirds of the “smart” set subsequently refused to take tougher tests, fearing to lose their “smart” status. But over 90 per cent of the “hard-working” set chose to take the tougher test. Similar results emerged even when the study was repeated three different times in different parts of the US. In Dweck’s words, “These were some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen. Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivations, and it harms their performance”.

What works for children, works for adults. And what works for people, works for nations.

That doesn’t mean that all Pakistan needs to prosper is regular homilies on the value of hard work. Obviously, more is required.

To begin with, our social order needs to value business successes, not look upon them as interlopers or social ‘upstarts’. On the other hand, in the words of a visitor to the Mughal Empire 400 years ago, businessmen keep a low profile “lest they should be used as fill’d sponges”. The net result is that while Pakistan has no shortage of hard-working entrepreneurs who have pulled themselves by their bootstraps, very few people know their stories. Most readers of this column can probably name more successful businessmen from the US than from Pakistan.

The result of this omission is a society that lacks role models. And role models are necessary to inspire effort.

Pakistan produces fast bowlers regularly in large numbers because young boys look at the glorious history of Pakistani cricket and see that bowling fast is a recognised path to success. Imran inspired Wasim and Waqar. They inspired Shoaib Akhtar who in turn inspired Asif and Amir.

There is no equivalent role model to be seen in Pakistani business (note, “seen” is not the same as “found”). What we see in the media is a parade of short-cut artists, people who have made money through corruption and contacts. No wonder then that the average Pakistani thinks his only chance of making a decent but honest living is by migrating to the West.

My point then, is this: we are no more talented than any other nation. Instead, we are just the same; no better and no worse. If we are to succeed, it will be the same way that others have succeeded. And the only way people have ever succeeded is through hard work.

This country is 65 years old. That’s a good age to grow up.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2012.

The consequences of hate

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2012 at 4:41 pm

In his book, The German Genius (Harper, 2010), Peter Watson sets out a picture of Germany as it was primarily known in the 19thcentury — not as the land of genocidal racists but as the land of scholars, poets and musicians, the home of Kant, Goethe, Schiller and others almost too many to name. But in trying to rectify the balance, Watson leaves one very important question unanswered: how did the world’s most cultured nation descend into madness? How did a nation of aesthetes turn into a nation of killers?

Watson doesn’t set out to answer that question so it is unfair to accuse him of dodging it. But for me the question remains: How did people of undoubted sensitivity and cultural appreciation, people who wept with emotion while listening to a piano concerto, reconcile that aesthetic part of themselves with the other part which ordered the deaths of children for no crime but to have belonged to a different religion or a different race?

One broad answer to this question is given in a new book calledMistakes were made (but not by me) written by Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson (Harcourt, 2007). One of the points that the authors make is that small ethical deviations can over time add up to an ethical chasm. They illustrate their point using an experiment in which people were given an incentive to cheat. What they report is that over time, the consequences of that ethical deviation multiply so that the cheater and the non-cheater wind up far apart, as if they had slid down different sides of a pyramid. The non-cheaters remain convinced of their rectitude while the cheaters are convinced that there is nothing wrong with bending the law and so they continue to bend or break the law to greater and greater degrees.

I mention all of this because, as Pakistanis, we need to remember that monsters do exist and that they do not necessarily look different from you and me. The English-speaking liberal elite of Pakistan tends to take a look around its immediate environs and concludes that things cannot possibly be so bad as reported because, after all, we live in a country which is heir to ancient cultures of poetry and dance, a country which has fashion shows and rock concerts, McDonald’s and “Coke Studio”.

Let me be clear here: my problem here is not the assumption that fashion shows and rock concerts are good things for Pakistani society. Instead, my point is that we are headed for a stage where even the people who attend fashion shows and rock concerts are becoming increasingly comfortable with the fact that it is okay to kill people either for being non-Muslim or for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

Think I’m wrong? If so, think again. In the last six months alone, we have seen multiple incidents in which people have been killed, in the most brutal of ways, for belonging to the wrong religion or the wrong sect. The one act of terror I have been unable to wipe out from my memory is that of the Balochi Shia pilgrims on their way to Iran. Their bus was stopped at a deserted spot and each of the Shias was then shot at close range and their bodies heaved out of the bus like so many sacks of grain. Of course, we know all of this because one of the murdering bastards used his cellphone to record the massacre and then uploaded the video on YouTube.

And yet, where is the outrage? Despite the many atrocities in the name of religion that this country has suffered, I cannot remember even one instance where the public, Parliament and the media stood united in condemnation for any length of time. All that follows an atrocity is the routine expression of shock and horror — and sometimes not even that. Geo responded to the recent demise ofRajesh Khanna by spending the better part of two days discussing nothing else. There is no channel which has ever provided equivalent coverage — even if spread out over the last two years — to the atrocities against Shias and other groups.

My point here is not to focus on the Shias. After all, the massacre of the Shias in Balochistan is happening along with the widespread persecution and killing of Ahmadis and Christians, the occasional killing of Punjabi settlers in Sindh, the routine beheading of captured army soldiers and the large-scale terrorisation of urban areas through the deployment of suicide bombers. Instead, my point is simpler, that we are losing the capacity for outrage, that we have reached the stage where we skip over headlines about Hazaras being murdered with the comforting thought that it is just another bunch of dead Shias, and that this cannot, and must not, continue.

I do not have answers. What I will say is that hate has gone mainstream in Pakistan. Lest we forget, the PML-N government of Punjab confessed to paying a monthly stipend to the family of Malik Ishaq, the PPP is formally allied with Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F and even the primary political challenger to the current status quo, i.e., the PTI, is happy to go scrounging for votes along with the thugs who make up the Difa-e-Pakistan Council. As for our perennial political overlords in khaki, our history shows them as perhaps the most wilfully blind.

Let me make this as clear. It is not possible to control the politics of hate. Once you start accommodating hatemongers at any level, you have started down a path that ends only in hate, overwhelming the rest of your politics. Our political parties and military geniuses think hate can be used as an occasional stimulant. They are wrong: they too will wind up addicted to hate.

As a Shia, I know that these trends are likely to end badly for me. All I am telling you, dear reader, is that this will end badly for you too.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 31st, 2012.

Saving Pakistan, one tweet at a time

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm

Imagine that you are a person of independent thought in Pakistan. Now imagine further that you would like to discuss your thoughts with other people. Where can you go?

In the real world, the short answer is ‘nowhere’. Pakistan does not have permanent public spaces for reasoned conversation. You cannot go somewhere in Lahore or Karachi for the conversation; at best, you can go somewhere for the food.

The sad part is that it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when people interested in ideas had places to go to, the most famous being the Pak Tea House of yore. Lesser intellectuals with more money also had places to go — primarily clubs — where they could meet for a drink or to chat. It was all extremely parochial and elitist. But at least it was something.

The clubs were the first to go, killed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When he banned alcohol, people moved from the clubs to their homes in order to keep on drinking. The result was that people stopped meeting new people. Instead, with rare exceptions, they met only the ones they already knew.

The universities and the teahouses were the next to go, killed by the aggressively violent self-righteousness of the Zia years. It was no longer safe to be a progressive intellectual in public or to believe in things like rights for workers and women. For a man, the only safe thing to do in public was to grow a beard and hike up your shalwar. For a woman, the only safe thing to do in public was to cover herself and keep quiet.

The only reason why General Ziaul Haq and his successors did not succeed in completely killing intellectual curiosity in Pakistan was due to the efforts of a brave few in the media. When Zia died and a new era emerged, the forces of repression eased enough to allow the emergence of new newspapers and magazines. Herald was joined by NewslineDawn was joined by The Nation and the The Frontier Post.

The liberation of the electronic press by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf changed everything. Prior to the advent of cable television, the entire English press in Pakistan probably had a combined readership of less than 100,000. The Urdu press probably accounted for a million people more. Compared with the population of the country, print circulation was nothing. On the other hand, the audience for cable television was in the tens of millions. Suddenly, people were no longer getting their news just from PTV but also from Geo and ARY.

At the same time, the liberation of the electronic press changed very little. All that happened is that the same talking heads that wrote columns in the press started fulminating on talk shows. Yes, the universe of faces expanded because each talk show needed guests. But at the end of the day, the number of people actually involved in public conversation remained very limited. If you weren’t a talk show host or a talk show guest, then your options for expressing or discussing your opinions remained as they were during the Zia years. Which is to say, nil.

It is in this context that the arrival of social media is revolutionary. Go back to the example I started with. The young independent thinker still does not have a physical location where he or she can pose their questions. If he gets uppity in class, he is likely to be disciplined. If she resists being objectified, the local fundos will still threaten. But out in the virtual world, it’s a different story. As a cartoon in The New Yorker once put it, “On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog”.

Pakistan’s sharpest wit at this time is an anonymous individual who delivers one-liners under the name of “majorlyprofound” (recently upgraded to Dr Majorly Profound). If the good major were to present his one-liners before a physical audience, he would probably require medical attention (our sensitivity to criticism being what it is). But behind the shelter provided by the internet, he is free to deliver his barbs.

More importantly, social media not only provides true freedom of speech but it also allows a public space where people with ideas can not only present their ideas to acclaim but also to criticism. In a country like Pakistan where decision-makers live their lives in cocoons of silence and sycophancy, this is incredibly important.

Obviously, social media is no panacea. As is evident from the case of the US, social media can become incredibly polarised and ghettoisedso that the online community splinters into little political fragments, each vigorously waging war on others.

Pakistan’s social media has not quite reached that level of fragmentation as yet. At present, there is only one violent tribe in our virtual world, the trolls of the PTI, who maraud the virtual landscape much like the Vandals and the Visigoths. But with the exception of the ‘Insaafians’, the remaining members of the social world are reasonably polite. The result is that people are not just talking to one another in the virtual world, they are getting to know one another as well.

We need to understand this point because social media in Pakistan is still a very self-conscious and awkward institution, a newcomer in a world of ostensible giants. Many people — even people who should know better — think of Facebook and Twitter as time wasting fripperies, on a par with video games and daytime soap operas. That is why periodic efforts to ban either Facebook or Twitter are met normally with a shrug.

To a limited extent, this is true. More people use social media to exchange birthday greetings than to discuss Heidegger. But that is beside the point. Most of the content in most newspapers is equally trivial: what matters is that the trivial content supports and permits a more intellectual superstructure, one that allows the actual exchange and discussion of ideas.

We all hear, day in and day out, about how Pakistan is sinking into a Talibanised abyss of enforced ignorance. If we are to avoid that awful future, it is vital to preserve intellectual freedom. And at this point, there is nothing more essential to that quest than embracing and protecting social media.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2012.