Dr. Haider Shah

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


Holocaust of common sense — Daily Times, 29/09/12

OVER A COFFEE : Holocaust of common sense — Dr Haider Shah

In the face of overwhelming archival evidence, when one denies the occurrence of communal violence, it can be an early warning sign of more sinister things to come

Of late, in the backdrop of the blasphemous movie outrage, there has been a rising chorus of equating Holocaust denial with blasphemy-related offences. Mimicking some honourable media juggernauts, our young e-jihadis have also been citing it profusely over social networking sites. The Holocaust-related discourse, however, took a very serious turn when even our worthy prime minister used the catchphrase of ‘Holocaust denial’ while announcing a national day for rioting, pillaging and killing with impunity. Ignoring the historical context of laws and usages is a dangerous pursuit and must be corrected to purge our discourse of overheated utterances. With this in mind, let us examine why Holocaust denial is a sensitive issue.

In the 1930s, a deep sense of unfair treatment by the victors of World War 1, laced with claims of racial superiority, dominated the discourse of German nationalists. The genocide of non-German communal groups by the Nazi regime was, therefore, not a sudden or accidental action. Hitler was infested with extreme racism when he was destitute and relied on state welfare support. A staunch believer in the supremacy of an Aryan ‘master race’ in order to attain ‘racial purity’, he was determined to purge Germany of all impure races. On assuming power, he propagated his racist ideology through publicly displayed posters, radio, movies, classrooms, and newspapers. Even science was not spared as German scientists applied eugenics to lend credibility to the Nazi ideology of racial cleansing. The Romani people, an ethnic minority of about 30,000, were the first target of this ideology in Germany. Even Germans were not safe from Hitler’s lunatic ideas as handicapped individuals and about 500 African-German children were subjected to forced sterilisation in 1933 so that they were unable to produce offspring. Schoolteachers were also employed for the purpose of poisoning young minds of pupils with the so-called ‘principles’ of racial science. Based on the skull size, nose length, and colour of pupils’ hair and eyes, school children were categorised as pure and impure Germans and the process would result in state-sponsored humiliation of Jewish and Romani students.

The Holocaust was the culmination of this racist policy of a totalitarian regime imbued with a perverted notion of nationalism. Europe had been witnessing the eruption of racially motivated violence after the volcano would remain dormant for some time. Being successful in trade and education, Jews would often qualify as convenient scapegoats whenever the economy had taken a downward turn. Unlike gypsies and disabled Germans, Jews were a thriving community and hence attracted the wrath of the Nazi racist regime with full force. Starting with a social boycott of Jews, the policy soon turned to the ‘Final Solution’, i.e. physical elimination of the impure Jewish community from the German-controlled lands in Europe. A wide body of archival material is available on the net that can help any curious reader know more about the state-sponsored genocide of the Jewish community by the racist Nazi government.

After World War II, western nations woke up to the reality of dealing with the spectre of racism. Since then it has come a long way and special legislation now protects the rights of disabled persons and members of ethnic minorities. People in these countries are haunted by a feeling of guilt as their silence facilitated the genocide. The governments in the western world are aware that the proponents of racial hatred are still alive and in the form of Neo-Nazis want a revival of those unfortunate times. This time society is, however, more alive to its duty of not letting that happen again. It is against this backdrop that ‘Holocaust denial’ is taken seriously, as those who resort to denial also harbour the same anti-Semitic ideals that drowned Europe in a pool of blood 73 years ago.

Historical revisionism is not to be confused with a denial of atrocities committed in the past. Revisiting incidents of the past in an academically robust way is a scholarly activity and helps us sift myth from reality. But in the face of overwhelming archival evidence, when one denies the occurrence of communal violence, it can be an early warning sign of more sinister things to come. Robert Kahn in his book on holocaust denial cases in Europe contends that society must criminalise Holocaust denial “for its assault on truth; the offence it gives to survivors; or the danger of a right-wing (or anti-Semitic) revival it carries with it.” If the western states had denied the genocide of Bosnian Muslims then Holocaust denial would have been a perfect comparison. In the Bosnian case, American and British soldiers risked their lives to rescue Bosnians from a Holocaust kind of situation. As an encouraging development, even Serbia has turned its back upon racist violence and has handed over war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal.

Enjoying the right of freedom of expression, we must tell lunatics of all kinds that their attempts at causing wilful offence to the members of other faith communities are obnoxiously distasteful. But in our zeal to do that we must not mutilate history. Today, Neo-Nazis and right wing extremists harbour hatred against Muslim communities living in the western countries. If they come to power and if the floodgates are not strong enough, the gushing waters of deep-rooted racist sentiments can sweep away Muslims this time to the gas chambers of the Holocaust. All of us, including the prime minister, therefore, need to be more careful when crooked comparisons are made.

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


Burning between fire and fury, Daily Times, 23/09/12

OVER A COFFEE : Burning between fire and fury — Dr Haider Shah

As desired by some, the UN may agree on a convention on blasphemy, but in that case, Pakistanis will have to refrain from offending followers of other belief systems as well

As the death toll reached 258, the inferno in Karachi made the fire of Lahore look mediocre. However, the blistering anguish that has shaken the whole country is not caused by the flames that burnt hundreds of fellow fellow citizens alive. From the rabble-rousers to the members of the cabinet, no one is talking about the lack of safety arrangements in our workplaces. Just two days ago, a TV channel aired a documentary where a factory owner, wearing the green turban of a religious sect, seemed least concerned that the working conditions in his factory were not different from the ones that were gutted a week ago. From Karachi to Peshawar, my fellow citizens are furious over something that happened thousands of miles away and was the outcome of a perverted mind. After the cabinet announced a holiday to join the protesters, one of Kahlil Gibran’s stories flashed through my mind that I would endorse as a compulsory lesson in all school textbooks of Pakistan.

There was a king who was loved and feared by his subjects and was held in great regard for his just and wise rule. One night, a witch entered the kingdom with the intention of causing unrest and mayhem by turning everyone mad. She poured a few drops of a magical liquid into the well from which the king’s subjects drew water for drinking purposes. The next morning anyone who drank water drawn from that well lost their sanity and within a few days, the whole kingdom was abuzz with whispers that the king had become mad and unjust. The king and his ministers kept defending their position but to no avail. One day, a wise minister whispered something into the king’s ear and he ordered a golden goblet filled from the well be brought to him. The king and his ministers drank from the goblet one by one and lost their sanity. Within days, the whispering campaign against the king died down and everyone was lauding his just and sane rule again.

The Supreme Court that kept mum over the violation of fundamental rights of a minor in Rimsha Masih’s case was also swift in taking a suo motu action over an issue that did not originate in Pakistan. It seems that The Prince of Machiavelli is read and revered by all those who are in high seats of power. No wonder no opportunity of playing to the gallery on faith-related issues is ever missed by both the executive and the judiciary. When there is a fire, it is not difficult to spread it by fanning or stoking it. Putting a fire out requires a high level of energy, acumen and sincerity. While some media personalities have tried to bring back some semblance of sanity into the national discourse, the popular media in general has done little in containing the fire.

In Bollywood, promoters of a new movie are often said to create a controversy to bring it into the limelight. The mischievous maker of the blasphemous movie desired to promote his pathetically produced work but all his previous attempts had fallen flat as no one was impressed by the movie. What no amount of marketing could have ever achieved we have done for free for the movie. Not only has the movie been ‘popularised’ but in an ironic way, we also helped the producer achieve his malicious objective of portrayal of Muslims as followers of a violent faith. The unruly protests, resulting in loss of life and public property, will only help the cause of those who are using the movie to spread anti-Muslim sentiments all over the world.

The chances of being captured by a barbarian army and sold into slavery are less likely today than a thousand years ago. But the digital age has brought its own perils as it has enabled even a 10-year old to produce a movie and then share it with the whole world in no time. In this dangerously changed world, old notions of privacy and sensitivities are no longer applicable. A princess believes herself to be far from the madding crowd, having some private moments with her husband, and the next morning finds her topless pictures in a magazine. Just a few days ago, two unarmed female police officers were shot dead by a rogue criminal in a British town and the next day, thousands of perverted minds eulogised the killer on his Facebook page. Old ways of handling sensitivities are difficult to sustain in this digital world. Unfortunately, the Muslim community is taking a bit too long to come to terms with the realities of the present era.

In his latest column, Thomas Friedman advises the Muslim community to “look into the mirror”. This advice needs serious consideration even if it sounds a bit offensive. Hundreds of video clips can be found on the Internet in which Muslim religious scholars trade extremely offensive remarks against the holy personalities of one another. More horrible are the comments on videos, where extreme vulgarity is resorted to by adherents of these sects. As if verbal assaults were not sufficient, nowadays fellow countrymen are being killed with impunity to cause offence and grievance to members of other faiths or sects. As desired by some, the UN may agree on a convention on blasphemy, but in that case, Pakistanis will have to refrain from offending followers of other belief systems as well. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Those who want equity must come with clean hands. We have a lot of washing to do before we can demand respect for our sensitivities.

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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Blasphemy law and fundamental rights — II , Daily Times, 8 Sep, 2012

OVER A COFFEE : Blasphemy law and fundamental rights — II — Dr Haider Shah

It is often argued that people will take the law into their own hands if blasphemy offences do not carry death or life imprisonment penalties. This is an outrageously irrational argument

In the previous part published last week, the premise of this analysis was developed. It was shown that the original chapter 15 of the Pakistan Penal Code dated back to the Indian Penal Code of 1860 and was non-discriminatory towards the religious sensitivities of all communities that lived in Pakistan. The Fundamental Rights in our Constitution also follow the principle of non-discrimination and equality. However, new sections added to the original sections during Ziaul Haq’s period changed the situation completely. Let us examine the effect of these insertions. 

Section 295 declares defilement of ‘any object’ and section 295A declares outraging religious feelings as offences. Important to note is that these original sections use the words ‘any class of citizens’. The original code prescribed two years of imprisonment for both offences, which is understandable as the offence is nothing more than hurting the personal feelings of individuals, which in turn can become a potential threat to public order. In Pakistan’s penal code the first irrational change was increasing the imprisonment term to 10 years under section 295A, thus bringing it at the level of offences that involve grievous bodily harm. Section 295B however changed the whole scheme of non-discrimination by naming one particular object, i.e. the holy book of one religious community, i.e. Muslims, and prescribing the penalty of life imprisonment. This subsection reminds me of the novel Animal Farm where the animals wage a freedom movement under seven commandments, which include ‘All animals are equal.’ Once the revolution is successful, Napoleon, the leader, replaces the seven commandments with a single maxim, ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ While section 295 declares that the sensitivities of all religious communities are equal, section 295B makes it clear that Muslims are more equal as defilement of their religious object will result in life imprisonment while a similar offence against other communities will result in two years imprisonment. Similarly, under section 295C, blasphemy in the case of the Prophet (PBUH) of Muslims would result in the penalty of death or life imprisonment while similar offence with regards to the holy personalities of other religious communities would result in the maximum penalty of 10 years under section 295A. 

Section 298 and 298A further exacerbate the incidence of discrimination. While the original 298 section prescribes one year imprisonment for uttering words to wound the religious feelings of ‘any person’ (i.e. without discrimination), the new section 298A prescribes three-year imprisonment if the offence is in case of holy personalities of Muslims.

There can be two possible arguments offered by advocates of discriminatory provisions in the law. First, since the constitution has declared Islam to be the state religion, the operation of fundamental rights is subject to the injunctions of the Quran and Sunnah. My personal views notwithstanding, since the Constitution of Pakistan places this limitation, we have to honour the law as it stands today. But these advocates need to tell us which verses of the Quran prescribe the penalties of sections 295B, 295C and 298A. A video discussion between a spokesperson of Tehrik-e-Taliban and a common Pakistani is available on YouTube where the spokesperson quotes many citations from scripture and religious discourse to support all acts of extremism. Linking law making with unverifiable traditions of the past is therefore fraught with danger. While we have dispensed with the fundamental right of non-discrimination to impose a law that has no Quranic foundation, there are clearer injunctions of the Quran, e.g. prohibition of ‘riba’ (interest), which we have chosen not to enforce.

The second argument is that the law satisfies the emotional attachment of a section of Muslims. It is often argued that people will take the law into their own hands if blasphemy offences do not carry death or life imprisonment penalties. This is an outrageously irrational argument. In many parts of the country, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, honour killing is considered a part of local tribal norms. Often persons accused of committing honour-related offences are gunned down by rivals in the premises of courts. Does this mean that a person who is charged with an honour-related offence by a rival should be awarded the death penalty by the courts as he or she is often killed by such lunatics? Those who kill innocent citizens over enraged religious feelings are no different from those who practice honour killing. In both cases, there is a shared sense of loss of honour that instigates the commission of the crime against the body and property of others. If in the case of honour killing, the state has declared its policy of zero tolerance; why should it not show the same resolve in the case of those who take the law into their own hands over matters of religion? 

No doubt, the law alone can never ensure eradication of a social problem, but the law is also a declaration of the intent of the state. For instance, if a law against domestic violence on women or children is passed, it will not end violence overnight. It will however, clearly establish what matters of priority for the state are. The leaders of parliament have been claiming that parliament is supreme and sovereign while the judiciary tells us that it is independent and is a custodian of the constitution. Would parliament show its sovereignty by repealing blatantly discriminatory sections of chapter 15 of the Pakistan Penal Code and would the judiciary perform its custodial role by restoring the essence of equality in the criminal law of Pakistan? Hope I am not told that all are equal, but some are more equal.

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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Blasphemy law and fundamental rights — I Daily Times, 1 Sep, 2012

OVER A COFFEE : Blasphemy law and fundamental rights — I — Dr Haider Shah

All over the world, absence of discrimination on the basis of religious faith is one of the most important fundamental rights, which is also conspicuous in the Pakistani constitution

When a tree in a jungle is ablaze, no bird in the nearby trees sleeps complacently. But we have developed an uncanny ability of underestimating the nature of an impending trouble, be it a natural calamity or a storm created by our own national folly. Our inaction over blasphemy laws is one such example. In this two-part analysis, I intend to make a case for repeal of those provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code, which were inserted by Ziaul Haq by establishing that they contravene the fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution.

The Constitution of Pakistan, vide its Article 8, declares all laws and usages in Pakistan void if they violate the fundamental rights spelt out by Articles 9 to 28 of the constitution. Comparing the language and tenor of the fundamental rights enumerated in the constitution with those found in democracies such as the US, Canada, India and the European Convention on Human Rights, it is not difficult to see that our fundamental rights derive their inspiration from the modern humanist movement. All over the world, absence of discrimination on the basis of religious faith is one of the most important fundamental rights, which is also conspicuous in the Pakistani constitution. For instance, Article 10A ensures the right to a fair trial and due process of law. Article 14 guarantees inviolability of the dignity of man and Article 19 guarantees freedom of speech. Articles 20 to 22 guarantee all religious minorities of Pakistan equal rights of professing religion, running religious institutions and no discrimination in taxation matters. The last mentioned fundamental right is important in its symbolic value as it does not honour the principle behind jazya — a long-standing usage among Muslim rulers of the past, which historically legitimised higher taxation of non-Muslims. The upshot of specific fundamental rights is in Article 25 where all citizens have been declared equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law. It is therefore not difficult to conclude that our fundamental rights are based on the principal notion of equality of all citizens and even a hint of discrimination in valuing the life, liberty and dignity of any citizen would make any law, custom or usage void as per our constitution.

Now let us turn to our Penal Code. Long before Pakistan was created, in the times of the Muslim rulers of India, Shariah formed the basis of the then legal framework. As the imperialism of the Arabs, Afghans and Turks gave way to European imperialism in the 16th and 17th centuries, the British emerged as the new dominant force in India. Clive was not wrong in claiming that with just 2,000 Europeans the whole of India could be subdued. After conquering a new territory and its people, every imperialist tries to develop firm roots by introducing its socio-legal structure to the area. English law, therefore, took centre-stage as the British gradually enlarged their scope from trading to revenue collection, administration and judicial functions. The penal codes today in force in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have the common origin of the Indian Penal Code of 1860, a masterpiece of the Law Commission headed by Thomas Macaulay. Upon a plain reading of the original code, one can see a very rationalist categorisation of various crimes wherein punishments clearly correspond with the gravity of the harm done by an offence to the body, property or sensitivities of an individual or to the peace and tranquillity of society in general. In India, various religious groups have been living for thousands of years and religious bigotry has often remained a prominent source of communal violence in this part of the world. The penal code therefore contained one chapter, i.e. chapter 15, on ‘Offences relating to religion’. The chapter recognised five types of mischief in this category. First, defiling places of worship; second, hurting the feelings of a religious group by wilful acts of insult; third, disturbing religious assembly; fourth, trespassing on burial places and fifth, uttering words to hurt the religious sensitivities of others. In the common classes of both Hindus and Muslims, it was not uncommon to see that Muslims would slaughter cows in public and Hindus play loud music in front of mosques to hurt each other’s feelings. The chapter on religion-related offences therefore recognised the need for maintaining peace and was applicable to all religious communities without any discrimination.

After the partition of India in 1947, both India and Pakistan adopted the same code as one of the primary pillars of their legal system. The chapter on religion-related offences was in line with the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution of both countries. Sections 295 to 298 of the Penal Codes made no distinction on the basis of religious faith and applied equally to all religious communities. They, therefore, reflected the spirit of non-discrimination guaranteed by the constitutions of the two countries. When Bangladesh came into being it also adopted the penal code and retained the same non-discriminatory provisions about religion-related offences. In the case of Pakistan, the period of Ziaul Haq is the source of many troubles that we encounter today. Not only was society brutally indoctrinated with jihadi propaganda, the laws of the land were also disfigured. Insertions were made in chapter 15 of the penal code, which had categorised offences relating to religion. The non-discriminatory nature of the chapter was turned upside down by the new insertions. The sensitivities of the dominant religious community were valued much more than those of all other minorities. The rational scheme of one to three years of imprisonment also got lost by introduction of harsh punishments like death and life imprisonment.

(To be continued)

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