Feisal Naqvi

Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Damn the search for purity

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2013 at 9:10 am

If you drop some ink into water, you know what to expect. The ink will slowly disperse throughout the water, which will take on the same color as the ink. The explanation for why the ink does not stay as separate, concentrated drops of color comes from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which can be explained thus: “Over time, closed systems will become more similar, eventually reaching systemic equilibrium. It is not a question of if a system will reach equilibrium; it is only a question of when a system will reach equilibrium.”

Arif Ali—AFP

Arif Ali—AFP

Pakistan in 1947 was a country whose culture was the product of a thousand different ones. Like multiple, colorful streams, each of these cultures had slowly entered the Indian subcontinent at different points and then diffused across its length and breadth. But since then, non-Muslim cultural influences in present-day Pakistan have been progressively minimized in a misguided search for religious purity. This “purification” has been accomplished in two ways. First: through the deliberate minimization of all interaction with India; and second: through the deliberate opening of our doors to our allegedly more religiously pure brethren in Saudi Arabia.

The net result of this “closed system” in Pakistan has been the gradual dilution of all our multicultural influences and their replacement through gradual infusion by jihadist Salafism. The streams which earlier flowed in have been damned. Pakistan’s water is fetid, and has started to stink. Pretty soon, it will become incapable of supporting life. The answer to our predicament is obvious: overpower the sewer flowing into our system by streaming in the blocked currents.

While Pakistan has no control over its western border, its eastern border with India is an impenetrable wall. What we need is the exact opposite. We need to wall off our Afghan brethren of the Taliban and we need to open our borders to visitors from the East. People-to-people contacts change individual perceptions more effectively than anything else. If you have never met the enemy, it is easy to believe they are inhuman. But if you have broken bread with them, if you have danced at their weddings, if you have cheered on the same side in cricket, then the enemy is no longer a faceless monster.

Given our national-security framework—or more precisely, given our national-security neuroses—opening borders with India is not going to be easy. Our security thinkers are still caught in the simple trap of believing that opposition to India’s political ambitions necessarily requires defining ourselves as India’s ideological opposite. And I have stopped believing that those thinkers will ever grow up.

What’s left then? If we can’t open our physical borders, at least we can open our electronic borders. And that is where the opposition to YouTube comes into play. It’s a long-proven fact that people process information in visual terms far more easily than if they read about the same thing. When the Taliban took over Swat, reporter after reporter filed stories about the horrors which followed. But in the end, what actually swung public opinion against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was a grainy cellphone video of a teenage girl being thrashed for the sin of leaving her house. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this video is worth a book.

What people don’t understand is that the Salafi deluge is an abomination against Islamic history, which does not end with the four caliphs. Muslims are heirs to 1,400 years of tumultuous history. In this time, there have been thousands of famous poets and historians and scientists who were proud to call themselves Muslims and also some—such as Maimonides—who were proud to be patronized by Muslims. All of them have been erased from the pages of our official history. It is as if out of all the colors in the spectrum the only shade we are being shown is black.

Every few months, I get a copy of Saudi Aramco World, a beautifully produced magazine intended to broaden “knowledge of the cultures, history and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections with the West.” The latest issue contains articles about growing saffron in Morocco, Verdi’s opera set in Egypt (Aida), and the salt farmers of the Rann of Kutch. What I find scary about the magazine, though, are its back pages which contain a list of current and future events such as exhibitions of Mughal art. With very few exceptions, every single event is set outside the Muslim world. The cities which most often play host to the finest gems of our “Islamic” history are the atheist playgrounds of the decadent West: London, Paris, New York, Boston. I have yet to see a reference to any exhibition in Pakistan.

This broader view of history matters because it is not just enough to say We Are Not That; we must also remember all that we have been. Our history is a mosaic, a living, breathing carpet of wonders. We ignore those wonders at our peril.

There is an old story about a group of Parsis looking to move to a new city. When they reached the gates of the city, they were met by a delegate holding a bowl filled to the brim with milk. The point of the gesture was to show the visitors that there was no room for them. Legend has it that their leader put a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back. Legend also has it that the king was wise—and he promptly let them in.

This column appeared on the website of Newsweek Pakistan on 31 October 2013.


Hating Malala, hating ourselves

In Uncategorized on October 13, 2013 at 12:37 pm

The nomination of Malala Yousafzai for the Nobel Peace Prize produced a storm of emotions within Pakistan. Most people were – and are – enormously proud of her. But many people also responded with hate and anger. The pride is understandable.  Unfortunately, so are the anger and the hate.


Before I continue, let me make one thing very very clear: the fact that an emotion is understandable does not make that emotion justifiable.


The hate comes from people who don’t know any better. It comes from those who have been carefully brainwashed into believing that the state of Pakistan is evil and that all those who stand in the way of the spread of Islam – as understood by the Taliban – are also evil.


In a recent interview with the New York Times, a former assassin for the Irish Republican Army described the mindset of a killer. “What you’re seeing in that moment”, he said, “is not a human being.” He then talks about how in August 1974, he walked into a bar in Northern Ireland and shot a man at close range.


Fine, you may say. We can understand the mindset of a young boy indoctrinated into becoming a suicide bomber. But what about the anger amongst even non-Taliban types? What can account for their vehement distaste for a girl who as, my friend Cyril Almeida, wrote, is evidently the proud possessor of a beautiful mind and a beautiful soul?


Cyril’s explanation for the anti-Malala sentiment was that it stems from the collapse of the state. I beg to differ. I think it comes from shame.


Over the past six decades, Pakistan has collapsed not just in terms of state institutions but in terms of basic liberties. We have all witnessed the gradual closing of the Pakistani mind. It started first with the demonization of Ahmadis, whose victimization was then given official cover by the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto through a Constitutional amendment. Then came the Zia years in which the boundaries of acceptable debate were narrowed further so as to institutionalize a narrow-minded and mean interpretation of Islam. The following decade of democracy gave us the gift of sectarianism. Those seeds of hate were then further nurtured by the Musharraf regime through a misguided belief that preserving our strategic depth in Afghanistan was more important than preserving human rights.


The end result today is a Pakistan that would cause Jinnah to vomit if only he was unlucky enough to see the extent to which his creation has officially embraced a politics of prejudice. There is a genocide going on against Shias and Hazaras and the state yawns. Our official opposition – the TTP – informs us that bombing churches is a religious obligation and no one blinks. Yes, our media is free. But it believes this freedom is best used to harass people holding hands in parks or to castigate those who have the temerity to teach our children about the existence of other religions.


My thesis is that most of us know this is wrong. But unlike Malala we do not have the courage to speak out. We do not have the courage to put our lives, our families and our jobs on the line. On an every day basis, this cowardice gets hidden. We are too busy going to work and making enough to survive. But when someone like Malala comes along, that cowardice has no place to hide. We are forced to ask ourselves why we don’t have the courage to stand with her. And we are ashamed.


Shame is a powerful emotion and very few people like being made to feel it. So when someone illuminates the poverty of our minds, it is but a natural reaction to point fingers back at the person doing the shaming. And so people claim that Malala is a CIA agent, a Zionist stooge or an agent of imperialist oppression.  Pointing fingers at her allows us to forget her bravery. And it lets us get on with our lives without feeling inadequate.


An edited version of this post appeared on Newsweek Pakistan on 13 October 2013

The Imran Khan Show

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2013 at 3:51 am

At the very beginning of The Truman Show, Truman Burbank steps out of his picture-perfect house and is startled when a large spotlight falls out of the picture-perfect blue sky and slams into the ground next to his feet. Those who have seen the movie know the explanation for the mysterious occurrence: Truman lives in a fake world, a giant television set in which everyone he knows is actually an actor. Only Truman himself doesn’t know that his life is an elaborate drama.

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Aamir Qureshi—AFP

I mention The Truman Show because I am not sure how else to convey the increasingly absurd world in which Imran Khan lives. Like the protagonist played by Jim Carrey, Khan is in a position where his picture-perfect reality no longer makes any sense, where large metallic objects fall out of a clear blue sky for no apparent reason. The only difference being that in the Imran Khan Show mysterious objects not only appear out of nowhere, they also blow up.

In the case of Truman, his failure to see the real world was because he had never known another. In Khan’s case, his failure to see reality seems to be driven by a romantic vision of the Pakhtun warrior. Whether Khan acquired his dewy-eyed vision through a love of Kipling or while living in the lesser-known tribal agency of Zaman Park is immaterial. What is material is that Khan appears permanently wedded to a deeply heroic view of the tribal areas as the Pakistani equivalent of the Sparta portrayed in 300—a hard land populated by hard men, flinty of eye and scanty of word.

Khan’s romantic delusions would not matter if he wasn’t also the leader of Pakistan’s third largest political party, entrusted with the governance of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. But he is. And because Khan’s rose-colored views of Pakhtun culture and history are about as useful for governing that province as Beatrix Potter’s cutesy-poo Peter Rabbit stories are to understanding the biology of bunnies, the net result is a gigantic mess.

It is not as if the mess was not anticipated. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s anti-terror policy has been the target of criticism from day one. For many people, the policy was reminiscent of the cartoonshowing two professors in front of a blackboard filled with impressive looking numbers and equations, in the middle of which is written, “then a miracle occurs.”

To elaborate, the PTI’s strategy was built almost entirely on two points: an end to drone strikes and an offer of talks to the militants. However, the PTI was never going to have any control over the former and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have never been interested in talks. The only other element of the PTI strategy was the pious hope that the Insafians’ mere presence in the corridors of power would lead to the Taliban giving up violence and embracing their Muslim brethren.

Unfortunately for the PTI, their taking over the reins of governance in the northwest has not prodded the Taliban into giving up arms. If anything, it has done the opposite; a development which has produced epic amounts of confusion within the party. The net result is that the relationship between the PTI provincial government and the Taliban resembles nothing more right now than that between a battered spouse and an abusive husband. I walked into a door. The media is responsible for the blasts. It was my fault.

Like most abusive relationships, this one too is destined to end badly. The only question is how many innocent Pakistanis will suffer because of Khan’s delusions. In the real world, stupidity has consequences. In the real world, stupidity is lethal.

Lest you think I am being too gloomy, that somehow everything will work out for the best, the fact is that everything doesn’t always work out for the best. History is full of monsters just like it is full of people who died because they didn’t believe in monsters.

Hitler forced World War II. That resulted in the deaths of 50 million people. Chairman Mao killed 45 million Chinese with his folly known as the Great Leap Forward. Stalin deliberately starved 10 million Russians to death. There are plenty of lesser known monsters, too. Remember Idi Amin? He supposedly kept his enemies’ heads in the fridge. Jean-Bédel Boukassa, the self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic reportedly liked snacking on his enemies. Pol Pot exterminated more than a quarter of his own country’s population in a quixotic attempt to remake Cambodia from scratch.

These are not isolated events. Believing something does not make it so. If your policy is stupid, believing in it will not change the consequences of that policy. Alice Lakwena, the original leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army used to tell her followers that rubbing holy cocoa butter on their bodies would make them impervious to bullets. Lots of her followers believed in her and consequently lots of her followers died. Unstinting belief may not be a cure for stupidity. But death is.

As it turns out, death is a pretty good cure for extremism as well. Of course, the only thing our political leaders agree on is that there can be no military action against the extremists until that action is agreed upon by all and sundry. But that is a lie. Article 245(1) of the Constitution states in clear terms that the federal government is responsible for directing the armed forces in defending Pakistan against external aggression or the threat of war. That responsibility is not dependent upon a Parliamentary consensus or the consent of all parties.

Let us be clear. The call for consensus is only an excuse for doing nothing. There are those who ask for consensus because they profit from the status quo. And there are those who call for consensus because they are too scared to act otherwise. Either way, they are contemptible.

Published in Newsweek Pakistan

The Uncertainty Principle and Judicial Intervention

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2013 at 3:49 am

It is now customary for the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) to inaugurate every new judicial year with a speech. This year’s address by the CJP was notable because, for the first time, his Lordship seemed to notice that his activist approach towards the Supreme Court’s (SC) jurisdiction had not met with universal approval.

His Lordship chose not to defend himself, instead stating that he would leave the issue for future historians to determine. What he did say though was that 1) judges of the SC were “conscious of the suffering and agony of persons who suffer a wrong or injury but have no access to justice” and 2) that he himself was satisfied the Court had acted against “acts of oppression, tyranny, exploitation, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority for personal benefit”.

There are two obvious points which emerge from the CJP’s speech. The first is his assumption that the proper way for the SC to end the suffering of persons with no access to justice is for the SC itself to intervene. The second is his view that the Supreme Court exercised its powers to end “tyranny, exploitation, corruption”. Both points are debatable.

For better or worse, our culture has a romantic view of justice. Every visitor to the Lahore Fort still gets told that Emperor Jahangir had placed a bell outside the Diwan-e-Aam which any commoner could ring to demand justice from the emperor. And even modern day politicos like to think of themselves as offering Adl- e-Jahangiri to their constituents. Back in 1999, Mian Nawaz Sharif had introduced a system where he would sit at a desk and answer calls from aggrieved citizens, all in full view of PTV’s adoring cameras.

The truth is that Adl-e-Jahangiri was a myth even at the time of Jahangir.

Jahangir was an alcoholic mess whose kingdom was run by his wife and her family. And if Jahangir’s subjects had seriously thought they could approach him for justice, the emperor would never have gotten any sleep.

My point here is simple: justice is not just an ideal but a service. In a country of almost 200 million people, not to mention a country whose laws are both dysfunctional and antiquated, providing justice is not — and cannot be — the responsibility of any one man. Instead, justice has to be provided through a ‘system’, which takes into account not just the judiciary, but also the police and the entire body of our laws.

I do not doubt the CJP’s statement that he and his brother judges have worked incredibly hard to try and reduce pendency and delays. The problem is that those delays were not due to the failures of individuals and cannot be removed due to the efforts of individuals. Those delays exist because our entire system of justice is dysfunctional. It cannot be fixed through individual high-profile interventions, no matter how well intentioned.

Instead, it requires an overhaul of the entire framework of governance. And, with all due respect to the CJP, the fact remains that he has not ushered in any systemic changes in the administration of justice in Pakistan.

I come now to the CJP’s belief that the SC has used its powers to oppose acts of tyranny, exploitation and corruption. I have no doubt that the CJP certainly believes this but there is a ‘chicken and egg’ problem here.

If intervention by the SC requires a prior belief by the Court that it is faced with ‘acts of tyranny, exploitation, corruption’, then what room is there for the Court to later conclude that perhaps, ‘tyranny, exploitation, corruption’ were not involved? In theory, the Court has the option of saying that its assumption of jurisdiction was unjustified. But an admission of error is always problematic, even for judges. And I have yet to see it happen in any suo-motu case.

Neither the UK courts nor the US courts recognise the concept of ‘suo-motu’ cases. This is because Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence is based upon a vision of the judge as a neutral, passive arbiter of justice. However, when the Court takes suo-motu cognisance of an incident, it is, in fact, certifying that an act of ‘tyranny, exploitation, corruption’ appears to have occurred even before it formally examines the matter.

In 1927, the scientific world was rocked by Werner Heisenberg’s formulation of the Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg’s contention, which has since been affirmed repeatedly, was simple: that one could not know both the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision because the very act of observation was bound to affect one of those two properties.

The reason why the Uncertainty Principle matters is because it marks a realisation by scientists that there were limits to their knowledge, that there was a margin of uncertainty which was irreducible. In simple terms, one cannot reduce life and its incredible complexity to a set of measurements.

The truth behind the Uncertainty Principle applies with equal force to judicial observations. If the Court is to determine whether a particular act constitutes an act of ‘tyranny, exploitation, corruption’, then it should not be involved in identifying that act. Once the Court itself becomes involved in the process, the incident changes because it acquires an official stamp of misfeasance. It is no longer an incident to be examined and adjudicated; instead, it becomes a crime to be investigated and punished.

There is nothing inherently wrong with an inquisitorial system of justice. Most of the world functions on the basis of inquisitorial systems. However, inquisitorial systems have their own weaknesses and their own mechanisms for ensuring that their flaws are corrected. One cannot simply adopt the inquisitorial system — that, too, at the level of the highest court in the land — without adopting all the other back-up mechanisms evolved to prevent error from creeping in.

Lawyers are now beginning to think about a judiciary no longer headed by the current CJP. His ultimate legacy is certainly one which will be debated for years to come. What I fear though is that we will remain infatuated with the concept of Adl-e-Jahangiri and once again, fail to reform our systems of justice.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2013.