Dr. Haider Shah

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


History telling the Nasim Hijazi way , Daily Times, 1 /12/12

OVER A COFFEE : History telling the Nasim Hijazi way — Dr Haider Shah

His readers see an imaginary historical past where a young, brave and kind-hearted Muslim prince is always pitted against a vile, treacherous and cruel non-Muslim ruler

Nasim Hijazi has made a  considerable contribution to the treasure trove of Urdu literature with his historical fiction writing. Little conscious of the distinction between historical fiction and history, a whole generation of unwary readers of Hijazi has, however, become unable to sift literary myths from reality. His readers see an imaginary historical past where a young, brave and kind-hearted Muslim prince is always pitted against a vile, treacherous and cruel non-Muslim ruler.

As Hijazi never claimed to be a historian, he can be exonerated of the charge of radicalising our gullible impressionist young readers. However, more glaring are the writings of those who masquerade as historians in the popular media outlets and provide opiated doses to a hallucination-prone circle of readers. One luminary, Bashiruddin Mahmood, an engineer associated with the nuclear programme, authored many books with the sole aim of Islamising physics and then claimed that Pakistan’s energy crisis could be solved by trapping energy from jinns (genies). More recently, the self-proclaimed father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Dr A Q Khan appeared in a popular TV talk show where he endorsed Agha Waqar’s water kit-run car as a great achievement of Pakistan. If these scientists were developing our nuclear bomb, I am not sure whether we possess nuclear bombs or some inflated balloons lying inside the bunkers.

On the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, I was asked by some of our rationalist society friends to do a gentle surgery of the claims made by Orya Maqbool Jan in one of his Urdu writings. The rebuttal from our respected friend came swiftly with a tinge of venom. I was declared “Jahalat ki faseel mein qaid daanishwar” (an intellectual imprisoned in the fortress of ignorance). I have no qualms about accepting the charge up to “imprisonment in ignorance” bit but the burden of being a “daanishwar” is too heavy and better be left in the exclusive domain of Jan and his tribe. Like my fellow rationalist members, from Socrates I have learnt to ask questions of the knowledgeable ones, and from Julius Fuchik acquired an inspiration to paint life on the walls of the gallows. We never claim to know it all but we are never afraid of asking questions when they crop up in our minds. It is our belief that stating a half-truth is more dangerous than a blatant lie and hence must be properly scrutinised.

Jan repeated the same references that due to obscurity are not readily available to a common reader. While extolling the virtues of the Mughal rulers, especially Aurangzeb and the rulers of Bengal, he conveniently ignores well-researched and highly respected works, e.g. of Sheikh Muhammad Ikram on the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire. I do not want to become an advocate for the British colonists. The East India Company (EIC) was a business venture of London-based merchants and the British traders had come to the East Indies in search of corporate profits and not for charity. Just like any other nation, they had many self-enriching crooks and some thrill-seeking adventurists. My problem, however, is viewing history as pure black and white, as we need to be objective in our reading of past events. An important fact must not be missed that the European nations were then often at war in Europe, which had a spillover effect in the Indian subcontinent as well. They, therefore, fortified their trading positions and gradually got involved in the local wars of succession that were frequently happening among Indian rulers and were supported by rival European traders. A dispassionate analysis of history would help us learn why the British were able to conquer the whole of India with just a few thousand soldiers.

Jan fondly uses some references to build a thesis that prior to the arrival of the EIC, India was teeming with knowledge and that there were thousands of educational institutions. The chief references that Jan relies upon for this bold assertion are quotes from Will Durant’s Story of Civilisation and Major Basu’s use of Max Muller’s quotation in his book on Indian history. Using Durant and Muller for establishing the claim of a highly developed educational system in medieval India is just like using a quote from Charles Darwin to support the Intelligent Design theory of creationists. While Durant views Muslim rulers as a bunch of barbarians who did not miss a chance of looting the treasures of an advanced civilisation of those times, Muller, a German philologist, was a popular critic of the Hindu belief system and advocated its cleansing by Christian reformers. When they mention village schools, they refer to the elaborate system of Brahmin-led theology teaching in ancient India.  Alexander Hamilton is also quoted as a main reference by Jan. Hamilton, a merchant and a ship’s captain in the Far East, covers the period of 1688-1723 in his travelogue A New Account of the East Indies. He mainly narrates the local weather and other cultural traits of various inhabitants. There is only one mention of educational institutions when he discusses Hindu theology and its teaching in village schools of Thatta. Hamilton mentions meeting a professor of Indian history who tells him that Alexander the Great had attacked India with magical beasts due to which Porus was unable to defeat him. Perhaps Jan has taken too much inspiration from this type of interpretation of history, and hence, has translated Hamilton’s account as an elaborate arrangement for teaching of ‘uloom-o-funoon’ in India.

Perhaps the readers can judge for themselves if half-baked truths should be taken as accounts of history.

[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]

Leave a comment

Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — IV

OVER A COFFEE : Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — IV — Dr Haider Shah

Our national discourse is increasingly being controlled by religious leaders who run a network of seminaries

The month of Moharram is
hardly a few days old and already all provinces of Pakistan have been rocked by bomb blasts. Every passing day without a major incident is counted as a blessing by the officers entrusted with the job of maintaining peace in the first month of the Islamic calendar. Even if peace is ensured after sealing all major cities and paralysing social life, there is no guarantee that the lull will last long. From the members of religious minorities to the leaders of various sects and from political leaders to honourable judges, everyone demands foolproof security. From places of worship to centres of entertainment and from the visit of a dignitary to holding a simple ceremony, heavy deployment of policemen is needed everywhere. Put simply, the demands for security arrangements are infinite while the resource base is very small. The situation is therefore untenable and cannot be sustained for long.

About a week ago, Qazi Hussain Ahmed survived a suicide attack. Qazi sahib declared soon afterwards that the attack was carried out by the US. The statement issued by Qazi sahib thus aptly describes the unintelligible state of denial that we have grown accustomed to living in. Day and night suicide bombers are being prepared in the areas controlled by militant extremists and every now and then, we witness the horror unleashed by these indoctrinated attackers. Only a few days ago, a 13-year-old boy wearing a suicide jacket was arrested along with his 20-year-old operator who happened to be a schoolteacher while they were entering Peshawar from the tribal area. Our lack of seriousness in comprehending the root cause of the problem is more tragic than the situation itself.

Any organisation, small or big, when it registers a poor performance, needs plain talking to as laying the blame on others hardly ever prevents a further slump in performance. We need to begin a truly sincere discourse on the role of faith in our social life. No doubt, faith is a source of contentment and happiness for many people and it often acts as a natural anti-depressant. In the evolution of human society, religious beliefs have played a pivotal role in transforming hunting packs of humans into stable social groups. We, however, know that improper doses of anti-depressants can cause severe behavioural damage to the patients. Anti-depressants, therefore, are administered by a qualified doctor. History tells us that faith is always practised under the watchful eye of the state because when the ‘faith market’ is left unregulated, the schizophrenic effects are experienced at the societal level. The history of medieval Europe is replete with religious movements that sought purification of the faith and establishing an ideal society according to the belief system of the leaders of those movements. After much chaos and upheaval, one truth finally dawned upon the western mind that there were no ideal solutions to human problems. Only through regular use of rationality, can problems be better addressed.

We have been trying to be even more Arab than the Arabs. Faith is highly regulated in the Gulf countries while we seem to have given a free hand to the faith market. In the process, we have diluted our own cultural identity based on our folklore beyond recognition. But nothing happens without a cause. The over-glamourised two-nation theory has been trumpeted by our establishment as the ‘raison d’être’ of Pakistan, which in turn necessitated the anti-India rhetoric in the official discourse and syllabus of educational institutions. Quaid-e-Azam did try unsuccessfully to put the genie of communalism released in the politics of the Muslim League in the 1930s back into the bottle as it had already served its purpose. But it is the genie that seems to have had the last laugh.

Our national discourse is increasingly being controlled by religious leaders who run a network of seminaries. While the state-run educational institutions are hardly any better, the religious seminaries (madaaris) do not even acknowledge the formal control of the state. The students of these madaaris serve as a convenient readymade material for any procession or protest meeting organised by religious leaders of various organisations. The effect of radicalism can, however, be seen in almost all walks of life. Even our daily language shows clear signs of an imposed transformation. Urdu, which carries a strong flavour of Sanskrit and Persian, is gradually getting Arabised by professional sermonisers and showbiz maulvis. Worryingly, society is being polarised along dangerous schisms. While we see the emergence of a cosmopolitan culture in some sections of the urban youth, mushrooming of Arabic cultural traits is also noticeable.

The media and the judiciary have emerged as the two most important agents of change in the country. There are some obscurantist preachers of hate and irrationality in the print and electronic media, but there are also those who are using their pen and intellect to fight off the demons of darkness. Alarm bells were rightly rung when the honourable courts banned Facebook some time ago. The Rimsha Masih case verdict has renewed our hopes that the honourable judges are determined to play the more challenging role of the ‘defenders of fundamental rights’, as the populist ‘defender of faith’ role is more suited to the rabble-rousing politicians.

When a pot is on full flame and the boiling water is spilling over, the best solution to control the situation is to turn the knob to a lower level and decrease the flame. The analogy best describes our survival strategy that seeks the de-radicalisation of society as a matter of urgency.


Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — III , Daily Times, 17/11/12

OVER A COFFEE : Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — III — Dr Haider Shah

The key measure of a de-radicalisation plan should be a complete overhaul of the syllabus of the educational institutions of Pakistan

On New Year’s Eve, Britain comes alive with celebrations, fireworks and parties in every corner of the country. The freezing air fails to deter millions of people from exchanging warm feelings of hope, happiness, love and good wishes amid New Year resolutions. Similar scenes are witnessed in many other countries as well. Ask any police officer what accompanies the arrival of the Islamic New Year in Pakistan. Perhaps just casting a cursory look at the headlines of news during the last one week can be revealing. The news reports tell us that heavy contingents of police, rangers, and other law-enforcement agencies have been deployed to prevent followers of various religious denominations from slitting each other’s throats. Motorbike riding and mobile phones have been banned amid the declaration of a red alert as if, like the US government, the Pakistani government was also preparing for an impending tsunami.

What you sow is what you reap. An effective de-radicalisation plan must therefore examine carefully what we have been teaching our students in schools, colleges and universities. We often hear that extremism is caused by lack of education and if more is spent on education, we shall see eradication of extremism in Pakistan. There is no doubt we need to spend much more on education, but what we need is not just education but, more importantly, the right kind of education. I have hardly seen an illiterate villager joining the extremist movement but have seen many Aafias and Faisals joining the extremist camps even with post-graduate degrees in their hands. Brain injuries caused in early childhood can hardly be treated and reversed at later stages of life. The key measure of a de-radicalisation plan should therefore be a complete overhaul of the syllabus of the educational institutions of Pakistan.

Professor Khurshid Kamal Aziz catalogued historical inaccuracies in the textbooks of Pakistan in his popular book, Murder of History. The author lamented the fact that not only substandard books with low quality material were used as textbooks but more worryingly, the highly mischievous material in those books was populating vulnerable young minds with extremist ideas. Many research studies carried out by different organisations have arrived at similar conclusions with a recommendation that the syllabus of our schools needed drastic changes to bring it in consonance with the needs of modern times. The analysts conclude that the syllabus encourages preaching rather than teaching. It teems with lessons of hate against other faith communities of the world and stifles independent, critical and creative thinking.

Just look at the heavy bag of books carried grudgingly by a six-year-old child in Pakistan. At this innocent and imaginative age when he should be enjoying lessons through creative games and cartoon imagery, he is treated as a battleground by various ideologues. The Pakistani establishment since the first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan’s days wants him to become a true Pakistani according to the eyes of immigrant Indian Muslims; therefore, he has to learn Urdu first. The local politician wants him to be a true Sindhi or Pashtun so he is to be taught his mother tongue first. Those who are imbibed with divinity concerns want him to become a true Muslim first so he has to learn theological stuff first. The poor six-year-old is thus torn between these competing demands with no escape.

As a major measure of a de-radicalisation plan, the primary school syllabus needs complete redesigning. In my view, emphasis in the first three years of primary education should be less on teaching and more on developing the learning faculties of young children. Only three subjects should be taught for assessment purpose at this level: English, Maths and General Science. All moral lessons should be given through the fantasy world of children and not ours, as young children like simple stories with glossy images. Outright preaching should be avoided; however, some lessons about country and religion can be included in the English subject. At the moment, we are obsessed with thrusting all religious material down the throats of young children. But I like Mr Al Ghamdi’s argument that our focus should be on making children good humans through early education because if they become good humans then their chances of becoming good Muslims as a result will also be brighter.

In the early phase of primary education, there should be adequate provision of physical education and other activities that help in the development of learning faculties, e.g. team activities, clubs and visits. In the fourth year, Urdu and regional languages can be offered as optional subjects. We must realise that in the globalised world of today, English is the language of the internet, commerce and science. Urdu and regional languages may have importance in local terms but they add little value in the international competitiveness of our students. The current subject of Islamiat should be replaced by a subject called ‘Religion and Society’, in which up to 60 percent coverage can be given to Islamic beliefs, rituals and history while the remaining portion should cover the other major faiths of the world. The subject should also educate young students about human rights, rule of law and interfaith harmony. While genuine research on Pakistani culture and civilisation is to be welcomed, the Pakistan Studies subject taught in schools and higher education institutions has outlived its utility as it was introduced with the solitary aim of legitimising the Islamisation agenda of General Ziaul Haq. Basic information about Pakistan and its regions can be given in the English and Urdu subjects.

Of late, some attempts have been made to detoxify the school syllabus of obscurantist and hate preaching content. However, the patient needs drastic surgery and not just a little acupuncture.

(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


Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — II, Daily Times, 10/11/12

OVER A COFFEE : Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — II — Dr Haider Shah

What I am more concerned about is the radicalisation of those institutions that are run by taxpayers’ money, and where the administrators of our country are groomed

In the previous part of this
article (Daily Times, November 3, 2012), I had dismissed the need for any referendum on a choice between Quaid’s Pakistan and the Taliban’s Pakistan. But the question itself needs a very urgent analysis that should result in an action plan. We have always been in denial mode while the spectre of radicalisation kept growing and today, it is devouring our peace and development. Sometime ago, the army announced a de-radicalisation plan in the terrorism-ravaged Swat region after it completed its operation. Recently, the COAS declared that the war against terrorism was our own war and after the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the unflinching resolve of the state to continue fighting against terrorists was reiterated. This is indeed a good development to see that the military establishment is also lending its voice to the need for redefining our security paradigm. Taking benefit of this emerging consensus over eradication of radicalisation, we should now begin thinking about an actual action plan.

We need to identify the areas where the de-radicalisation will have the greatest impact upon society. Often, when the term de-radicalisation is used, we quickly think of dealing with madrassas (religious seminaries) and translate de-radicalisation as modernising their syllabus. Let us be honest. I never fancied sending my son to any of the madrassas, nor would any of my valued readers have possibly thought so. Let us not forget that those who study there are the unfortunate children of lesser gods. The religious symbolism generates a sense of social empowerment for these neglected, marginalised, and written-off children of society. Their radicalisation is therefore understandable and pardonable. What I am more concerned about is the radicalisation of those institutions that are run by taxpayers’ money, and where the administrators of our country are groomed. I am very concerned about the end-products of our military academies in particular, and civil academies in general. For me these academies should be the first place for implementation of any national de-radicalisation plan.

The spread of radicalisation inside military formations has been documented by various analysts in the recent past. The late Saleem Shahzad in his investigative reports and book Inside Al Qaeda provides details of infiltration of extremist elements. Investigations of various daredevil attacks on military installations also established that the attackers were in collusion with the faith brothers working inside these institutions. Bruce Reidel in his assessment of this nexus argues that there are often family level or village level relationships between the recruits of the army and those who join banned outfits. The problem, however, is not limited to the lower-level employees with a very limited educational background. The recent court martial of Brigadier Ali Khan and three other officers for links with Hizb-ul-Tahrir is a chilling reminder about the depth and width of the problem of radicalisation.

The social media provides a very insightful opportunity to examine the social discourse of different groups and spot correlations between various tendencies. The trends are quite disturbing and need immediate attention. Behind the veneer of military-flavoured English and trendy clothes, I often discover a highly delusional and radicalised mind that is home to illusions and conspiracies of all sorts. Radicalisation should, however, not be seen purely in religious terms. All forms of belief that are taken for granted can result in radicalisation. There are two strands of radicalisation that can be identified in the rank and file of our military officers. Firstly, there is a belief about their own role in the scheme of things, and secondly, there is the rising trend of religious fundamentalism. In the discourse of army officers one usually comes across declarations that politicians are all corrupt; civil officers are inefficient; and put simply, if the country is still in existence, it is all because of their heroic role. Feelings of pride and esprit de corps are necessary for a highly motivated fighting force, but deriving pride by ridiculing those who finance their training is a clear symptom of a malfunctioning training environment. The recent televised scenes of generals responding to media questions with “shut up” and “idiot” sum up the general attitude of officers trained in academies that are run with a big chunk of the taxpayers’ money. If these were one-off occurrences, we could have ignored them, but unfortunately that is not the case.

On many social networking sites, military officers exchange insulting remarks about political leaders, media personalities and, more worrying, about members of the judiciary. The fact that they do not feel any restraint as uniformed government servants raises serious questions about the quality of training on matters of discipline and respect for the law of the land.

Any plan of de-radicalisation must therefore begin with an Organisational Development (OD) intervention in military institutions. It is suggested that a special task force headed by a respected retired judge such as Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqi and sensible generals like Talat Masood be formed, which should analyse the scale of radicalisation of both types in military institutions with a special emphasis on the following questions. First, what main security doctrines are taught in our academies? Second, whether with the changed world after 9/11, necessary redefinitions of security paradigms have taken place or not. Third, what arrangements are lacking in academies like the Pakistan Military Academy due to which our army officers develop contemptuous attitudes towards the law of the land and civilian counterparts? Fourth, how can motivational drivers be shifted towards Pakistani nationalism from purely religious jihadi motivation? Fifth, whether our military institutions can be right-sized and made more efficient. Sixth, whether they are fit for the terrorism-dominated security environment of today. The Ministry of Defence of Britain recently carried out its study of changes required for its armed forces. Our task force can benefit from this study that is now publicly available.

(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

1 Comment

Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan, Daily Times, 2/11/12

OVER A COFFEE: Need for de-radicalisation of Pakistan — I —Dr Haider Shah

Religious extremism can only be tackled successfully if it is considered a regional level problem as it does not have an on-off switch 

Of all the political leaders, Altaf Hussain has been most categorical about treating the threat of the Taliban as a matter of great urgency. He has now called for a referendum in which people are asked whether they want Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan or the Taliban’s Pakistan. Even though the earnestness behind this clarion call of Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) leader is highly laudable, I do not find any justification for a referendum on this issue. A referendum is needed when a new question of national importance is referred to the people. What kind of Pakistan we want has already been settled by our constitution and if anyone wants to change the nature of Pakistan, the only method available is to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament and then change the constitution.
Quaid-e-Azam, in his oversimplified view of the world, had assumed that with the creation of Pakistan the politics of religious communalism would become redundant. The founder of Pakistan perhaps underestimated the power of communalism with the help of which the Muslim League had made phenomenal gains in various provinces of British India. A genie that comes out of a bottle seldom likes to go back into it. Ever since its release, the demon of communalism has grown in size exponentially with its tentacles of extremism gripping all spheres of life with devastating consequences. Sounding very confident and assertive, Quaid-e-Azam referred to the example of Britain in his address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947. “As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now, there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class…We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step.” After enunciating the principle of equality of all citizens, the Quaid shared his vision of Pakistan. “Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in the course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”
Quaid-e-Azam, unfortunately, did not take into consideration the fact that like a jungle fire, the spectre of religious extremism is also not controllable. He dreamed of a secular Pakistan but did not desist from employing jihadi sentiments of tribal people as a tool of state policy to further Pakistan’s regional claims against her neighbour. Religious extremism can only be tackled successfully if it is considered a regional level problem as it does not have an on-off switch. Earlier, King Amanullah Khan had committed the same folly. While at home he wanted to modernise Afghanistan, in India he was creating trouble for the British government through various franchises of local mullahs. Enraged bees sting all without discrimination.
There is often a debate over the secular nature of our Constitution. It is contended on the basis of Islamic provisions and the Objectives Resolution that the Constitution provides for a theocratic state. To be fair, this viewpoint is not without merit as not only the preamble but Article 227 specifically provides for all laws to be within the confines of Islamic junctions. The Constitution also provides for an Islamic Council to provide help to the legislature in the Islamisation of all laws. For idealists of secularism this must be a very distressing reality, but laws do not exist in isolation and like organic entities reflect the society in which they are promulgated. Our constitution is a good mirror of our confused state of mind as it is a mixed bag of concerns for religious identity and appearing modern as well. It is not difficult to see that the constitution refrains from defining what exactly Islamic provisions are. We do not have an institution of the clergy entrusted with the exclusive right of determining Islamic provisions as in different periods they have been interpreted differently by different people. The final arbiter is the legislature, which alone can decide if a law is Islamic or not, even when the Islamic Council has given its recommendations. In this way, under the constitution, despite the lip service to the Islamic nature of laws, the people of Pakistan remain the ultimate sovereign as they alone decide what is Islamic and what is not according to conventional wisdom. 
While writing these lines I fondly remember an elderly lecturer at my engineering university in 1989. Without mincing words, he would tell us how times were so much better in his youth and would pity the quality of our life due to the radicalisation of society by General Ziaul Haq. Today, when I visit my hometown Peshawar, I not only witness a siege-like situation but also find signs of greater radicalisation among ordinary people. Altaf Hussain, therefore, deserves full credit for ringing the alarm bells over a very important national issue. He may be somewhat carried away with his enthusiasm for a secular Pakistan by demanding a referendum, but one cannot deny the importance of the question raised by the MQM leader. Instead of any referendum on settled issues, however, what we need most is a thorough de-radicalisation plan for Pakistan.

(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