Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

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Power of Discourse

OVER A COFFEE: The power of discourse —Dr Haider Shah

Nawaz Sharif may appear politically isolated today but his discourse is consistent and in sync with a positive dream of tomorrow. By condemning all politicians with a wide brush, we hold back our support to those who show courage in promoting a new discourse

“I have a dream,” harangued Martin Luther King Jr in his soft but determined and emotional voice on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC in front of a charged crowd, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” In the highly segregated and racist US of the 1960s, King’s dream seemed like a farfetched romantic fantasy. But King was creating a discourse of change, which finally bore fruit about 50 years later when Americans not only treated all coloured children equally but also elected one of them, Obama, as their president in preference to all white candidates.

The importance of ‘discourse’ in structuring power networks has been discussed by many influential thinkers. Foucault, a prominent French philosopher and writer, views discourse as a means of creating subjective truths by the dominant players of any organisation or society. Discourse is not just the spoken word but rather a combination of spoken, written and signed language, which signifies power relationships. Put simply, a discourse always has an element of spin on observed facts. For instance, the earthquake caused by the movement of tectonic plates and resulting in the deaths and miseries of thousands of Pakistanis in 2005 was a fact of nature. But when Maulana Tariq Jamil and Maulana Junaid Jamshed stated in a television programme that the earthquake was divine retribution for our sins, a fact is turned into a discourse, as the choice of words has a very well defined motive aimed at social control. Discourse is like a heap of ammunition with massive energy stored inside. The heap explodes when right detonating conditions develop.

The French Revolution did not happen all of a sudden. In the background, a discourse of change had been generated by romantic writers like Rousseau and rationalists like Voltaire over many years. Similarly, the Marxist discourse was created and spread by a large number of writers in Russia to pave the way for the 1917 revolution. All gatekeepers of the old order view any new discourse with great suspicion as it threatens long established power structures. They, therefore, always try to nip the evil in the bud. Their frantic reaction ranges from verbal denunciation of the new discourse to physical elimination of those who spread it.

In the 17th century, the Biblical paradigm of the cosmos dominated public discourse in Europe. In this discourse, the Earth was the centre of the universe, man was God’s vicegerent and the Church was the custodian of God’s word. The discourse was the source of the churchman’s immense socio-political power. When Galileo introduced a new discourse, which claimed that the earth was not the centre of the universe, he was summarily prosecuted for challenging the old discourse as the new discourse threatened the whole power structure. A century later we see a very fertile period for scientific advancement as many new theories explained mysteries and wonders of nature. Many scientists, e.g. Newton, were quite religious and were closely associated with the church. However, once again, the church establishment singled out Darwin for spirited condemnation when he published his Origin of Species thesis in 1859. Again, the reason was the same. Unlike other scientific theories, Darwinian science was generating a new discourse, which threatened the socio-political power that the church establishment enjoyed and which relied heavily on the old discourse.

In jealously guarding the old discourse, the religious establishments do not stand out. Many secular organisations and societies also observe strict xenophobic rules. Any dissenter from the official Nazi discourse was either summarily shot or made to swallow a cyanide capsule. The Siberian wilderness was populated by those Soviet dissenters who were lucky enough not to be put down by the secret police henchmen. Democratic governments also try controlling social discourse by exercising direct or indirect control over the media and opinion makers. Even at an organisational level, all change management consultants emphasise the need for introducing a new discourse for changing the underlying organisational culture.

Once upon a time, I used to be a great critic of Nawaz Sharif, as I considered him a custodian of the old discourse. Today I admire him for consistently promoting a new discourse, which calls for a basic change in the paradigm of governance in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the pseudo-liberal political parties, that like the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) have been cobbled together, have become the gatekeepers of the old discourse. According to the old discourse, the country is always passing through a sensitive period, that one should not question any level of performance by the security agencies, and that the sensitive agencies are too sensitive to afford any level of criticism. In addition to intimidating tactics, the defenders of the old discourse also try to deflect attention from the new discourse by raising non-issues. For instance, soon after the Abbottabad operation, Altaf Hussain used a referendum in Karachi to defuse the accountability calls and now the ransom payment to Somali pirates is being drummed up to rehabilitate the Navy and its chief’s image. The statements by the prime minister and other PPP leaders are also uninspiring and seem to have been written somewhere else. Nawaz Sharif may appear politically isolated today but his discourse is consistent and in sync with a positive dream of tomorrow. By condemning all politicians with a wide brush, we hold back our support to those who show courage in promoting a new discourse.

The widespread terrorism in Pakistan has not descended upon us overnight. Placing the whole blame on a handful of misguided radicals also amounts to understating a more serious problem. This ammunition of hatred has been heaped over many decades. Not only have foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran contributed to a discourse of hate and vengeance but we ourselves have also stoked the fire by remaining disinterested in knowing what is being taught and learnt in our schools, colleges and universities. I have a dream that one day in Pakistan humans will not be hated and killed on the basis of their faith or ethnicity. If King’s dream can come true in the US, why not mine in Pakistan?

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Alcohal is thicker than blood

Over a coffee: Alcohol is thicker than blood —Dr Haider Shah

The courts should remain defenders of fundamental rights and personal liberties. When the Facebook ban was issued, the court appeared to be playing to the gallery of populist radicals

A long time ago, when I was a college student in the jihadi era of Ziaul Haq, I had a sitting with late Dr Eqbal Ahmad along with a few friends. We asked a very basic question about why, in Pakistan, we had not been able to see a democratic order flourishing. Dr Eqbal’s answer was brief and educative, and I summarise here for the benefit of the readers. All social institutions can be broadly divided into two categories. One, law enforcement institutions that try to enforce law and order and, second, public opinion institutions that give a voice to the opinions of the commoners and hence act as a check on any transgressions made by the law enforcing institutions, as absolute power corrupts absolutely. In Britain, both law enforcement and public opinion institutions evolved side by side and hence they remained in a harmonious relationship during the 18th and 19th centuries. When the British colonised India, they brought their highly developed law enforcement institutions, like the police and the army, to India but did not usher in their public opinion institutions like their political parties and media. Consequently, in India, law enforcement outmatched the power of restraining public opinion institutions. The mass movements of Gandhi and other populist leaders helped the growth of public opinion bodies in mainland India. However, on Pakistan’s side, no such institutions could be developed while the law enforcement intuitions continued growing in power and influence.

Using Eqbal’s framework is insightful and we can conclude that political parties, independent media and powerful judiciary are the most important constituents of the check and balance system of any political order. In Pakistan, the political process has suffered due to the continued mismatch between law enforcement and public opinion making institutions. History throws opportunities at all societies to correct the imbalance that exists, as nature likes a state of equilibrium, both in the physical world and social systems. When the media and civil society launched a struggle for the restoration of the chief justice (CJ) in 2009, I could see that finally Pakistani society was also yearning for change. Braving a chilly and rainy day, I along with my family also joined the protesters who had gathered outside Pakistan’s High Commission in London to demand the immediate restoration of the CJ of Pakistan.

After the shoddy Dogar court was replaced by the deposed judges, Pakistani society moved a step further in establishing some balance between the two categories of institutions. The judicial activism in cases involving corruption, nepotism and gross violations of rule of law seemed like a positive first step on a journey of 1,000 miles. It was also encouraging to note that the judiciary had become more tolerant of criticism done in good faith and showed sensitivity to popular perception. Listening is one of the most important skills for organisational growth and earning respect. When the reappointment of Justice Ramday was widely condemned, the Supreme Court (SC) very graciously reconsidered its position and did not make it a matter of prestige.

Against this backdrop, when the honourable judges of the superior courts take steps that appear ill advised and send wrong signals, it is important that we air our opinions in good faith. The first disappointment from the reincarnated judiciary that struck me was its banning order of Facebook. The Lahore High Court, like many elders belonging to the older generations, seemed to be out of sync with the importance of social networks in the lives of the younger generation. One of my friends then commented that if a passenger is found uttering some blasphemous words on an aeroplane, the honourable judges would order that all flights be banned. Social networks are a medium of communication like the pen, paper and keyboards. You do not ban the medium if someone uses it for communicating words that sound awful. The only recourse is to turn away from that site and not access it. There are thousands of sites that are used by our zealots for posting their messages and material. Recently, in the UK, a court issued an injunction for the privacy of a footballer’s name but it was soon released on a Twitter page. Social analysts commented that the honourable courts needed readjustment of their vision and outlook as the fast moving technological world, like time and tide, waits for nobody. Historically, kings and princes have worn the title of ‘defender of the faith’. The courts should remain defenders of fundamental rights and personal liberties. When the Facebook ban was issued, the court appeared to be playing to the gallery of populist radicals. A judge has to remain beyond any bias of race, political affiliation and faith. It is therefore important that faith related matters be left to the government.

More recently, the CJ took suo motu notice when Atiqa Odho was let off by customs authorities after two bottles of liquor were found in her possession at Islamabad airport. The breaking news almost broke my heart. Not only could I see gender bias and personal grievance in this step but its timing also looked appalling. Ever since Saleem Shahzad was murdered under very suspicious circumstances, I was hoping that a suo motu notice was in the offing. The media had played a pivotal role in keeping the restoration of the judiciary movement alive and seeing it through to its successful conclusion. As the CJ’s removal was a historic moment for making a break with the past and burying the doctrine of necessity for good, the murder of Saleem Shahzad is the moment for the media to reclaim its independence and hence ensure that public opinion intuitions have a powerful, overseeing role in the scheme of things. The coalition government, with a nice collection of leaders that once raised slogans of ‘Asia is red’, is busy sweeping Abbottabad, Mehran base, Saleem Shahzad and Benazir under the carpet. Only Nawaz Sharif is making some noise amidst the deafening silence of our mainstream politicians. All eyes were however glued on the SC for justice. But the CJ considered two bottles of liquor more important than the spilled blood of a young journalist. The suo motu over the Rangers’ killing of Sarfaraz Shah and the resulting removal of the Rangers and police bosses has come as some reassurance. But the real litmus test is Saleem Shahzad’s case. The whole world is keenly watching and would like to see whether alcohol is thicker than blood.

The writer teaches in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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Over a coffee: Reclaiming cricket as entertainment —Dr Haider Shah


Over a coffee: Reclaiming cricket as entertainment —Dr Haider Shah


On merit, Dhoni as a captain deserved the win against a flamboyant zealot who, like his countrymen, wore extremism on his sleeve all the time

When events like Saleem Shahzad’s mysterious killing and the assassination of a Baloch professor in broad daylight are making headlines, discussing cricket and Shahid Afridi on the editorial pages of a national daily might sound outlandish. The fact that I am a keen follower of cricket and go with my kids to the nets regularly is not the only reason for this choice. It is not an exaggeration that, in today’s Pakistan, cricket is the only unifying force, which provides some semblance of national unity and a feeling of nationhood to Pakistanis in general. Everything else seems to be divisive and capable of only generating centrifugal forces. Urban Sindh stands severed from national politics, being ruled as a fiefdom by the leader of MQM via remote control. Similarly, Sindh also appears insulated from the national political currents and Balochistan is in the grip of a growing insurgency while many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are reeling under the terrorist network of jihadi puritans. It seems for a variety of reasons that the constituents of Pakistan are fiefdoms forming a loose confederation achieved by virtue of shared vested interests rather than any common national policy.

The forefathers of Pakistan believed that religion would prove a sufficient cohesive force among different nationalities in the new country. But the massive security arrangements on the eve of Moharram or Eid Miladun Nabi clearly prove that the forefathers did not get it right. In fact, Pakistan has become a battleground for both Iran and Saudi Arabia in their obsessive struggle for dominance of the Muslim world.

In this backdrop, cricket emerges as the only non-controversial symbol of national unity. From a village in Sindh to the streets of Karachi to the rugged plains of the tribal areas, one can see cricket as the only true symbol of the national culture. This sport transgresses all social, ethnic and political boundaries across the country. What football does in Europe, cricket does in Pakistan. In a country where there is a dearth of entertainment facilities, cricket is one of the most inexpensive means of happiness and fun for millions of youngsters.

Shahid Afridi is one of those personalities that often remain in the news for not very good reasons. In many ways, he represents all that is Pakistani. He likes to brandish his piety by explicit use of divine references and, at the same time, has a knack for showbiz glamour as is evident from the ever increasing streaks in his silky hair. Also, when talent alone cannot win a game, he has no qualms in using any crooked method even if it means eating a cricket ball in front of hundreds of cameras. If, after the 1971 debacle, no one is held accountable, after Ojhri no heads roll, after Kargil, no one is called to account, and after Abbottabad and Mehran Base, no one resigns then why should Shahid have resigned from international cricket after he brought disgrace to both cricket and country? I have, however, great unease to see characters like Shahid Afridi leading the national team for entirely different reasons. I am of strong belief that cricket, being the only national unifying symbol of Pakistan, should remain free of any religious blandishments.

Of late, two sets of missionaries have targeted the players of our national team. One is the match fixing syndicate, which was exposed by the investigative team of a British tabloid. Second is the group of puritan sermonisers who want to turn all prominent entertainers into poster-boys for their movement. In the Pakistani team, we have seen their visible effects in the recent past. In fact, Inzimam turned the Pakistani team into a madrassa club where more emphasis was on religious rituals than on physical fitness and entertainment value. We have already seen the deadly consequences of turning a blind eye to sermonising activity in the case of the navy. The shocking defeat from Ireland in the 2007 World Cup was attributed by the then media manager of the team to the Talibanised culture of non-sports priorities introduced by the then captain. Shahid Afridi is the continuation of the same dangerous trend in the national team.

International sports are about representation of national values. A team captain appears as the ambassador of a nation. While the performance in Mohali can be excused as the better team winning, the conduct of Shahid as a captain was less excusable. His ostentatious display of religious zeal remained distasteful and was a source of further radicalisation of our already intoxicated masses. Our youth proudly displayed videos of Shahid Afridi leading collective prayers in the midst of Mohali ground as if cricket had been turned into a jihad against infidels.

On the contrary, the Indian team captain, Dhoni, proved a coolheaded captain who was also modest, humble and sensible in his choice of words. The difference was too striking not to notice. On merit, Dhoni as a captain deserved the win against a flamboyant zealot who, like his countrymen, wore extremism on his sleeve all the time. Using religious conviction to draw strength on a personal level is one thing but to brandish one’s religious devotion and paint it on the whole team is another. In Pakistan, cricket is loved and followed by everybody including religious minorities and those that do not have much interest in religious rituals. The captain represents all of this pluralist society abroad. Shahid Afridi, unfortunately, seemed to be representing a religious creed led by Maulana Tariq Jameel who preaches that earthquakes in Pakistan were divine retribution due to the sins of the people.

It is high time that Shahid Afridi proved sincerity to at least one cause. Instead of pulling heaven down over the PCB’s refusal to allow him to earn pounds in the land of impure westerners, he is best advised to join the celebrity entourage of the holy maulana. The PCB also needs to come up with a plan to rescue cricket from both the match fixing syndicate and Talibanised sermonisers. It needs to remind the players that, as entertainers, it is their foremost duty to treat cricket as an entertainment service provision — and not let it turn into an arena for jihadi activists. This area of national coherence must always remain wholly secular.