Dr. Haider Shah

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


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To be 11 and in jail !, Daily Times, 25 Aug, 2012

OVER A COFFEE: To be 11 and in jail —Dr Haider Shah


One day we shall be less busy and then we might come to offer you some help. Till then, Rimsha, hold on to your pain, while you are 11 and in jail

She is 11 years old and a poor Christian girl living in a slum area near Islamabad. At this age all over the world, children live in a dream world of their own. Playing with old dolls at home, they chase butterflies in the garden or enjoy gymnastics. Poverty might have already robbed Rimsha of much of the charm of this age, but little could she ever imagine that a bag of domestic waste would one day land her in jail when she was only 11 years old. 
It has been reported in the media that she has Down syndrome. In this disease, due to an extra chromosome, natural growth of the body and mind gets affected. Her accusers say she does not have it. I am on their side. She is perfectly fine. It is the society in which she is living that is suffering from Down syndrome. Mentally ill are those who charge an 11-year-old, illiterate girl of blasphemy and then enjoy the sport of watching humans killed just as the Romans used to do in the times of gladiators. The police officials that arrested the little slum dweller and the judges that sent her to jail need to be examined for symptoms of mental derangement. 
Islamic accounts tell us that Hazrat Usman, the third caliph, sent an officially ascertained copy of the Quran to his governors along with orders to burn all other copies of the Quran. The burning of books containing Quranic verses on a massive scale is defended on the basis of the intention of the said act. This defence is made available to historical figures of the past but is denied to children of today. Criminal liability is only established when the doer has a guilty mind. This is the fundamental principle of all legal systems including Islamic jurisprudence. There is no need to stress upon Down syndrome or the age factor of Rimsha. Even if she were a fully grown up woman and in perfect health, she could not be accused of any offence if she did not mean wilful insult. Millions of newspapers carrying religious contents are used by vendors for wrapping pakoras or can be seen dumped in sewers or garbage places. Using paper waste as a fuel for fire is a common practice among poor people living in slums. If some of the waste contains pages that a part of the population considers holy, this is nobody’s fault. The accidental sacrilege of Holy Scriptures is a logical price of using printing presses for the cause of spreading religious messages. The crime has leapt out of the bigoted minds of those restless creatures that are living among us in the guise of humans. And like a horror science fiction movie, the demon is spreading its tentacles to grab us all, if we remain unconcerned for long. 
Rimsha is 11 and reminds me of the ritual of human sacrifice during Aztec times. Anthropologists report that the heart of the sacrificial victims would be pulled out by the priest and offered to the gods in heaven, much to the delight of cheering crowds of worshippers. We, in the21st century, are not much different from our Aztec counterparts. 
Rimsha is not living in a failed state where warlords reign supreme and there is no authority to ensure the safety of its citizens. She is a citizen of a country that prides itself on being a nuclear power and is the sixth largest in the world. This year Rs 2.6 trillion have been allocated for defence by the state but all she knows is that when she needed the might of the state it was not there. The Constitution of Pakistan has granted every citizen the fundamental right of ‘Inviolability of dignity of man’ via Article 14 and declared all citizens to be equal under Article 25. But the hapless girl knows that not only her dignity has been violated but her life is also in jeopardy. The federal government is to spend about Rs 71 billion on public order and safety affairs but all Rimsha knows is that when the goons were threatening her life, neither the police came to her rescue nor did the courts offer her any safety. 
Rimsha is 11 and in jail. It is because last time we all preferred expediency over justice. When Aasia Bibi was denied access to justice, we all looked elsewhere. Salmaan Taseer was the only courageous soul but he was silenced by a maniac. Sherry Rehman quietly withdrew her bill aimed at rationalising the blasphemy law. The guns of the PPP that roar in the case of Swiss bank accounts fall silent against promoters of hate and assailants on human rights. Right under the nose of the so-called liberals, the demon of extremism is growing in size and stature. The day is not far off when toddlers and infants will also be charged with blasphemy and would be made sacrificial victims to please the imaginary gods.
Rimsha is 11 and in jail. The armed forces are busy dealing with strategic issues on the borders. The prime minister is busy mulling over legal challenges to survival. The Chief Justice is busy listening to defenders of the faith and pondering over how to cleanse the media of obscenity. I am busy writing my weekly columns and so are my worthy colleagues. We are all busy people. Hopefully, one day we shall be less busy and then we might come to offer you some help. Till then, Rimsha, hold on to your pain, while you are 11 and in jail.

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


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Vulgarity: it comes in threes Daily Times 18 August, 2012

OVER A COFFEE : Vulgarity: it comes in threes — Dr Haider Shah

If the defenders of the faith are invoking religious injunctions to impose a clampdown on freedom of media then they need to set their priorities first

The great variety in programmes that various TV channels offer today comes with a price. Depending on age, physical fitness, mental health and indoctrination, different people develop different tastes for the programmes they watch on television. And not all have developed the habit of minding their own business.

It comes in threes. Ansar Abbasi, a decent, soft-spoken journalist is well known for his bent of mind. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, a former head of Jamaat-e-Islami, is a veteran of causes relating to public morality. Justice Wajeehuddin is a former judge respected for his principled past, now affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Without muskets, the three are imbued with the spirit of recreating the world according to their definitions of righteousness.

Terms like vulgarity are subjective abstractions with no absolute definitions. Even within Pakistan, one cannot find a common definition of vulgarity. Maulvi Sufi Mohammad of the TNSM movement once declared that a decent woman comes out of her house only twice in her life: on marriage and on her funeral. The strict faith element apart, even at the cultural level those women who do not observe purdah in public are not considered modest in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, southern Punjab and Balochistan. Even in urban centres like Lahore and Karachi, we see a great variety in the lifestyle of people living in different parts of the cities.

We do not live in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia or North Korea, where the ruling establishment defines what is proper for the whole country. We are a country with a heterogeneous composition in terms of ethnicities, social attitudes and lifestyles. The critics can invoke a psychology-based argument that the honourable judges and the three defenders of the faith belong to the old generation. What they see as vulgar may be entirely due to the fact that psychologically, they have a grudge against the younger generation as they are unable to enjoy life the way younger people are capable of doing it. Perhaps, Faraz would have summed it up as Khud naheen rakhte to auron ke bujhate hain chiraagh (They do not possess them themselves therefore they are blowing out others’ lamps).

The need for rating programmes is a different issue. Children should not be exposed to programmes that have content of explicit nature. The western countries enforce this regulation very strictly. However, I see a bit of a problem in imitating the western model. Children in western countries go to bed around 8 pm and one can hardly see young children awake after 9 pm. In Pakistan, children accompany parents to various events and there are no cultural norms of going to bed early. It will thus be very difficult for any age-related rating system to work unless cultural norms also undergo a fundamental change.

If the defenders of the faith are invoking religious injunctions to impose a clampdown on freedom of media then they need to set their priorities first. To illustrate my point let me quote verses from Surah Baqrah (2:278-279), which state that those who charge interest on capital are engaged in a war against Allah and his Messenger. No comparable verse is found with respect to issues that our three defenders of the faith appear to be obsessed with. In Surah Tauba (9:34) God declares that those who hoard gold and silver in their boxes and do not spend it in the way of Allah, a painful torment awaits them. When our defenders of the faith, with the bulldozer of the apex court, raze to the ground all tall and glittering buildings of banks and throw all bankers out of their unholy jobs, and when they ban ostentatious wearing of golden jewellery and outlaw all sarafa (gold) bazaars, only then can they turn their attention to the necklines and sleeve lengths of women’s clothes.

Cultural definitions of modesty are not only different across various social groups, they also change over time within the same group. For instance in Shakespeare’s time, young boys used to perform female roles in plays, as it was not considered culturally permissible for women to act on stage. Similarly, in his autobiography, Josh Malihabadi narrates that palkis (palanquins) were made heavier with stones so that the carriers could not guess the age of the women sitting inside.

Different people would view vulgarity differently. Once searching on the Internet, I stumbled upon a speech delivered by Justice Wajeehuddin in a gathering where he denounced a former colleague as an Ahmedi with contempt. To me, this kind of discourse is a display of vulgarity. Similarly thrashing of professors in their offices by student activists of Jamaat-e-Islami in Punjab University is an example of real obscenity for me. If the honourable court is bent upon pursuing the case then it must also listen to Hasan Nisar, so that a more rounded view on a highly contentious issue emerges.

It is high time we stopped believing that modesty is skin deep. The Punjab Assembly was quick in taking its resolution on music concerts back once negative reaction was shown about it. The honourable judges may also remember that miscarriage of justice is caused when there exists bias in the minds of judges. Racism and religious bigotry are some of the most prominent sources of bias. The judges should be seen as defenders of fundamental rights and not as an overstretched arm of the fundamentalists. Modesty and faith are therefore sensitive issues, which better be left to the people to decide.

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


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Waqar to Imran: the water car syndrome 11.8.12

OVER A COFFEE : Waqar to Imran: the water car syndrome — Dr Haider Shah

To a varying degree, we are all addicted to our national mythology. We are always in need of mythical personalities. If there is none we create a mythical personality to worship it

When the news item about water kit run car first appeared in the social media, I summarily dismissed it as yet another crazy claim of attention seeking individuals. But soon the hype attained its zenith when two widely watched TV shows ran special programmes on the claimed invention and its inventor, Mr Agha Waqar. On our Rationalist Society, members were of the view that our electronic media was spreading bogus claims of babajis and fake scientists. Thinking a bit differently I contended that the TV hosts did the right thing by inviting the inventor to present his claim because the news item was already making rounds in the social media and it was sensible to pass it through the filter of scientific scepticism.

A masterpiece on the subject has already appeared in a national daily from Dr Pervez Hoodbhouy and since he is not only a reputed physicist but also a widely respected rationalist thinker, I do not feel I can add anything further to the debate. However, I wish to look at the issue not in isolation but as a part of a general malaise that afflicts the whole society. How quickly the claim turned into media hype and then became a part of our national mythology with the help of social media and our patriotism-drenched anchors is not just limited to the water-fuelled car of Waqar. This is just one of the symptoms of a bigger syndrome, which needs to be understood before we can deal with claims of similar sort.

To a varying degree, we are all addicted to our national mythology. We are always in need of mythical personalities. Children in the west adore Santa Claus and tooth fairies in their early years of life but a little older, they gradually realise that those were just fairy tales. We on the other hand need the comfort of imaginary legends and self-created myths all the time. If there is none we create a mythical personality to worship it. For instance, Dr A Q Khan enjoyed the mythical status of the atomic bomb maker for about three decades. Believers are believers. Even the fact that he confessed his shady part in running an international smuggling racket has done little to shake the faith of his followers. With Khan not in the forefront, the media has now bestowed the same status on the chief scientist of the country, Samar Mubarakmund, who used to complain in the past that the credit of his labour was unjustly bagged by Khan. From Thar coal in Sindh to gold deposits in Balochistan, Mubarkimund is cited everywhere as the superman who will solve not only our energy crisis but also fill the coffers with treasure-troves of gold. Billions of hard-earned rupees are being thrown to finance wild goose chase of elusive dreams.

With the advent of Ramazan, corporate sermonisers on various TV channels are seen lecturing us on taqwah (restraint) and perhaizgaari (righteousness). Prominent among them are those who are known for claiming false academic qualifications in the past. Attired in glittering outfits, they show us sumptuous iftar dinners and then tell us that Ramazan teaches us how to feel the hunger of the less fortunate ones. We all believe them and they do brisk business as they encash our inability to sift myth from reality.

The country has been facing regular power outages. In certain areas, people remain without electricity for more than 10 hours on daily basis. People therefore want Nasim Hijazi’s ‘Shaheen’ to appear from nowhere, and riding an Arabic horse, rescue them from all worries with his miraculous powers. Agha Waqar’s challenge to the fundamental laws of thermodynamics was warmly accepted because people saw in him the imagined messiah. The water car syndrome is not limited to technology alone. It is best manifested in our political discourse as well. According to our political mythology, created by a few establishment-leaning TV hosts and religiously promoted by zealots of Imran Khan, the country is on brink of collapse and only a prophetic figure like Imran can save the country. In 1920s, Hitler’s supporters dismissed all politicians as corrupt and traitors and Hitler was presented as the true patriot and only leader. In the same vein, all political parties in Pakistan are brushed aside with a scornful contempt and Imran is believed to be the promised messiah. Waqar made a few tall claims but he at least did demonstrate his car working. Imran Khan remained MNA for five years and we hardly remember any speech from him on the floor of the assembly. On the political integrity yardstick, we see clear U-turns on his publicly announced pledges with respect to Altaf Hussain and Sheikh Rashid. He has not remained a part of a government so we can only judge his transparency in terms of the finances that he exercised control over. The disregard shown to widely accepted norms of corporate governance in the case of Shaukat Khanum finances and the thick clouds over his London flat disposal are the kind of issues that should alert us to the fact that there is no room for prophets in politics. Anyone who is a candidate for power must present himself to same tests of scrutiny without exception. If there are those who believe that by electing SHOs, our thana (police station) culture and corruption will be abolished, and that without any tax policy our revenue will be doubled, and by supporting Taliban and other extremists international investment in Pakistan will quadruple, then in all honesty I find Agha Waqar’s water kit claim much more credible.

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


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Bridging the gap between faith and reality, Daily Times, 4/8/12

OVER A COFFEE: Bridging the gap between faith and reality —Dr Haider Shah


When religious minorities are treated in this contemptuous way by presenters of TV shows, we create a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust and mutual animosity

Every year on the eve of Ramazan, I recall an Urdu writer’s observation that in this month we are warned against bad deeds so much that one feels we will have a licence to do anything in the remaining 11 months. We are required to believe whatever we are told even if the reality around us is markedly different. For instance, prices of food commodities go up during the month, which establishes that the demand for food actually goes up even though it is claimed that fasting helps in controlling our appetite for food. Similarly, the loss of productivity during the month could have been compensated by some gains in peacefulness as all the faithful attend religious duties with greater enthusiasm. The bloodshed from Karachi to FATA, however, has seen no reversal during the month. 
Even courts do not appear to be maintaining their good record during the month. One specific example is the restraining order passed by the Supreme Court against the joint investigation team set up by government for investigating the affairs of Arsalan Iftikhar and Riaz Malik. Being an ardent supporter of the rule of law, I have been writing in support of the Supreme Court’s excellent record in this regard. The latest ruling in my view however has not helped the cause of the judiciary in projecting an image of impartiality and independence. No doubt, the honourable court has the constitutional power under Article 187 to issue such directions, orders or decrees as may be necessary for doing complete justice in any case or matter pending before it, but it has to remain mindful of the fact that exercise of these powers should not create a perception of undue interference. Critics can argue that it does not suit the judiciary to interfere with the investigation of a case in which it might be seen by a section of public opinion as a party. Once the investigations are completed, the case would come before the courts and at that stage, the defendant’s lawyer can level the charge of malicious prosecution and malafide. It is therefore important that if the judiciary wants to maintain its dexterously carved image of impartiality, it must give investigators a free hand so that no one can complain that it bulldozed cases where it was perceived to be an interested party. 
Religions are socially constructed, Emile Durkheim, an eminent sociologist, tells us. We see this social construction at its best during the month of Ramazan. With the proliferation of private channels, we can see that new layers of ceremony are being added to the month. There is a new breed of corporate sermonisers whose activities make it difficult to spot the boundaries between corporate greed and real faith. The entrepreneurial corporate opportunists have turned the anti-capitalist guerrilla leader, Che Guevara, into a saleable commodity as we see his image on T-Shirts and other merchandise. In Pakistan, we see that the corporate world has gained full control of the month of Ramazan as it controls the TV channels. Why should one worry about this? Simple answer. Because in their bid to browbeat each other, various TV anchors and presenters appear to have lost all sense of proportionality and are fanning dangerous flames.
I had once written about the cataclysmic prophecies pertaining to the current year as per the Mayan calendar. A programme hosted by a TV hostess, Maya Khan was cited in my piece as one of the early indications of the horrors of the year. Finding refuge in a new channel, the uncaring presenter seems to be determined to carry on with her trademark feats. In order to gain cheap popularity by arousing the religious fervour of impressionist viewers, she used a Hindu boy as a sellable commodity to earn good ratings for her programme and the channel. Article 36 of our constitution places a duty upon the state to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the minorities. Quaid-e-Azam in his address to the Constituent Assembly had used the example of Britain to emphasise that in Pakistan the state would not concern itself with the religious matters of its citizens. To my utter shock and horror, the stunt-orchestrating hostess showed the conversion of faith by a citizen of Pakistan as a form of entertainment. More alarmingly, institutionalised hypocrisy seems to be well entrenched because barring a few murmurs, no condemnation has taken place, neither at media level nor from the so-called progressive government. 
One of my earlier pieces narrated the story of Islam Bibi whose alleged conversion to Islam became the source of a serious law and order problem in 1936 as the Hindu community was pitted against the local Muslim community led by the Fakir of IPI. The national situation is far more sensitive and inflammable nowadays and people in the media have a great duty of care to the nation. When religious minorities are treated in this contemptuous way by presenters of TV shows, we create a very unhealthy atmosphere of distrust and mutual animosity. Just a few days ago, a news item appeared in a section of the press that 11 Christian nurses were poisoned as they did not observe fasting. The news item may prove untrue but such claims by the leaders of minority communities should be seen as evidence of something far more sinister going on in society. Regaining the trust and love of the minorities should, therefore, be the best resolve of the holy month if we want to see its promised blessings manifest themselves in reality.

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