Dr. Haider Shah

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

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Development: evolution or revolution? Daily Times, 30/3/13

OVER A COFFEE: Development: evolution or revolution? —Dr Haider Shah

We should help mainstream parties reform themselves by constant vigilance and provision of rationalist input to the national discourse

Last few days have been like a roller coaster of mixed feelings about the direction in which Pakistan is moving. There were happenings that whispered mildly that good days were coming and there were events that screamed ominously reminding one of Ghalib’s line ‘Na haath bag par hei, na pa hai rakab mein’ (neither reins are in hands nor feet are in the stirrups). For instance, Akhtar Mengal’s return with the intention of taking part in the forthcoming election augurs well for healing the open wounds of Balochistan. For me, however, the biggest news item was the reported changes in the Urdu textbook for class 10 whereby material that nurtured jihadist leanings in the impressionist minds of teenage students was removed. I was upbeat in my assessment that finally the biggest province of Pakistan had decided to make a fresh tryst with destiny leaving religion-propelled nationalism behind.
My optimism proved extremely short-lived as I realised that if you happen to be a prominent journalist and can publish a story on the front page of a well-known national daily effectively you run the country. Whether the honourable members of the judiciary or the respectable office bearers of government, all seem to be too sensitive to the need of playing to the gallery. When an overly pious journalist suddenly cries wolf about obscenity the Supreme Court turns into a state of pandemonium in a country where just recently a female teacher was shot dead in the tribal area for educating children and where polio vaccination remains halted due to the threats issued by certain groups on faith grounds. How could then a story written by Mr Ansar Abbasi prominently published on the front page of a major national daily with scandalous insinuations could have gone unnoticed? As a kneejerk reaction the former chief minister of Punjab wasted no time in vetting his religio-patriotic credentials by reversing the good work done by the clear minded subject specialists of Punjab textbook board. A friend rightly suggested to me that we missed the golden opportunity of bestowing the arduous responsibility of the caretaker prime ministership upon Mr Abbasi who, if given a free hand, would have cleansed this country of all the ills spread by liberal fascists, and thus, would have made Pakistan a true Islamic state.
Mr Najam Sethi has become the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. The pendulum-like movement between revolutionary struggle and corridors of power notwithstanding, I have great regard for the veteran journalist as a balanced, insightful and well-informed analyst. It is, therefore, pleasing to see a rationalist occupying a very important seat of responsibility in these turbulent times. It is hoped that he would do justice to his calling in two ways. First, ensures that elections are held in an impartial and transparent manner. Second, takes decisions as the chief executive of the province that set the biggest province on the right course of history. Top of the list is modernisation of school syllabus as political governments are often reluctant to take such decisions due to the perceived political sensitivity of the issue. Hope Mr Sethi feels the pulse of this historical responsibility because such courageous decisions are needed to put the country back on the right direction.
As the election season is now in full swing we can hear different discourses. One cultish discourse is promoted by the supporters of Imran Khan. The central theme driving this discourse is that Khan is the last hope of this country. Men are mortals and equating survival of the country with one human being is an extremely risky system of beliefs. Survival and development of countries depend on the growth of institutions. No doubt, we are faced with a difficult economic situation, but many European Union countries are in much deeper waters. In Cyprus, banks remained shut for many days to forestall a run on the banks by frenzied depositors as the country faced the imminent prospect of bankruptcy. A similar situation had developed in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain as well. So we should not try to paint a very grim picture of Pakistan in order to justify gate-crashing of various messiahs. Yes, our deadly embrace of extremism is a constraint on our progress, but there are some positive indicators as well, which should not be ignored when assessing the current situation.
Over the last five years we have seen gradual strengthening of institutions. The judiciary is not only independent but assertive. Media has become a powerful watchdog whose say cannot be taken for a ride. The election commission is headed by one of the most respected personalities of the country and is showing its teeth behind friendly smiles. Political parties are becoming more sensitive about their brand image and respond immediately when aspersions are cast on their image. As a positive trend we also see greater visibility of young women in the top cadres of mainstream political parties. In terms of political developments we find that one province finally gets its name and the political party, which once was considered a traitor, is now an integral part of federation. Constitution has been purged of many impurities and the thorny provincial autonomy question has been settled through 18th amendment. We should be more hopeful about future as we are heading towards an election that marks the beginning of peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to another. Revolutionary slogans are addictively soothing but slow and steady wins the race. We should help mainstream parties reform themselves by constant vigilance and provision of rationalist input to the national discourse. Revolutionary ambitions cannot hasten the arrival. It is only through evolutionary process that development will come.

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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Metro bus: from Gojra to Badami Bagh — II , Daily Times, 25/3/13

OVER A COFFEE : Metro bus: from Gojra to Badami Bagh — II — Dr Haider Shah

In matters of blasphemy-related social violence, it appears that rabble-rousers reign supreme and, everyone feels obliged to embrace madness, and hence, become safer

In the port city and capital
hub of Pakistan, a selfless philanthropist was murdered by masked men a few days ago. Land mafia is suspected of carrying out the attack on the female architect who had been contributing to the community development projects in Orangi Town of Karachi. A highly respected academic was also killed by unknown assailants in another part of the same city. In Peshawar, a court bursting with legal activities was attacked by suicide bombers in broad daylight. After numerous attacks on law enforcement personnel, the daring attack on a courtroom emits a menacing message.

While these grisly games of death were claiming lives on daily basis, another gory drama of demonic nature was being performed in the plains of Punjab. A lecturer of English, who studied American Theatre and Literature at Jackson State University in the United States, has been arrested after a local university’s vested lobby accused him of blasphemy over his discussions on the facebook page. I neither know the hapless academic nor have access to all details relating to the story reported in the print and social networking media. What transpires from media reports is that the charge was allegedly motivated by self-seeking rivals who want to accommodatesomeone against the lecturer’s post. From Aasia Bibi to Rimsha Masih, we observe that the initial charge is often levelled as a result of a personal feud. The local community then suddenly goes berserk with blood seeking schizophrenia. Not long time ago a case was made against some school child for his note in an essay, and in another incident, a school principal was arrested after some photocopying mistake resulted in blasphemous sentences. A guilty mind is a prerequisite for establishing any criminal offence but in cases of blasphemy the mere raising of a finger at someone often proves sufficient to cause the damage.

The crazy situation reminds one of Khalil Jibran’s story that is worth sharing many times. A king was loved and respected for his just and wise rule by his subjects. One night, a witch entered the kingdom and poured a few drops of a magical liquid into the well from which everyone drank water. One by one every citizen lost sanity as water was drunk. Within days the whole kingdom was abuzz with whispers that the king had become mad and unjust. After defending their position without success, the king and his ministers also drank water from the same well and all noises of rebellion died down instantly. In matters of blasphemy-related social violence, it appears that rabble-rousers reign supreme and, from legislators to media to the courts, everyone feels obliged to embrace madness, and hence, become safer. A bird sleeping tight in her soft nest when woken up by the noise of falling trees may like to ignore the raging fire that appears to be destroying distant trees.

Universities are supposed to be nurseries of critical thinking where ‘intellectual depth and breadth’ is a necessary attribute of all graduates. But what kind of intellectual stimulation our universities are providing to their students when teachers themselves frown upon free thinking and conspire against educated men and women who exercise their God-given right of using their brains. If in exercise of this right someone crosses the line and causes wilful offence, the law should stop such individuals from hurting sensitivities of a common man. In the recent past, a British-born Pakistani posted an insulting comment against soldiers returning from Afghanistan. A case was registered against him and upon apology in the court he was cautioned and let off. Punishment should always correspond to the harm inflicted upon us by the offender. It is, therefore, something akin to the Stone Age reasoning to kill someone because he hurts our feelings.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in its previous rule showed extraordinary courage in reversing national holiday to Sunday despite stiff resistance of religious lobby. It is hoped that the long overdue rationalisation of the blasphemy laws will be carried out if it comes to power, as some opinion polls suggest. If the new government finds itself powerless against the rabble rousers and deems it pragmatic to remain part of the national madness, then it is left to the international community to pay heed to the advice of Heiner Bielefeld, the United Nations’ top expert on the freedom of religion. In a report to the UN Human Rights Council, he has demanded that all countries should repeal laws that punish blasphemy.

Establishing Danish schools with the aim of providing high quality education to disadvantaged children is a positive achievement of the outgoing Punjab government. But education is more than mere good buildings or securing top grades in examinations. When members of a particular faith community abandon their houses in fear for their lives as an enraged crowd approaches their colony, and when a university teacher is on the run due to mischievous charges of blasphemy, something has definitely gone terribly wrong. There is, however, a growing consensus that religious extremism — whether manifesting itself in the form of sectarian killings, or communal violence against religious minorities or blasphemy related vindictiveness against other citizens — is taking a heavy toll on our national progress and needs to be properly tackled. Promises of establishing metro bus projects in all major cities of Pakistan are no doubt encouraging. However, development of social attitudes, based on mutual respect and tolerance, should be given top priority by the future government. Physical and mental developments go hand in hand and a prosperous Pakistan needs to be successful on both dimensions.


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Metro bus: from Gojra to Badami Bagh — I

OVER A COFFEE : Metro bus: from Gojra to Badami Bagh — I — Dr Haider Shah

There is a method in the madness of religious violence. It begins by attacking the weakest section of a society and then like a jungle fire spreads in all directions

Every time I think that the 
worst is over a new incident drills a hole in my upbeat optimism about future. As a horrific reminder that time remains frozen in certain parts of the world, in FATA’s Shia-dominated agency, a Pakistan army soldier was stoned to death by a tribal congregation after being accused of developing romantic relations with a local girl. And the heartrending episode of torching houses and private property of fellow citizens on flimsy grounds of communal rage makes us wonder if the Pakistani society travelling in the opposite direction has entered the Sumerian and Aztec times when humans were sacrificed for pleasing imaginary gods of heaven.

Just recently the Punjab government launched the Metro bus project and then followed it up with completion of the Kalma Chowk underpass, which deserves appreciation. But when in the same city, a rampaging crowd burns down houses of a religious minority, I am not sure if development is actually taking place. Aboard the Metro bus I feel like travelling between Gojra and Badami Bagh witnessing charred houses of Christians and incinerated school bags and books. The hounds of extremism and fiends of blind faith patrol the streets everywhere.

A good IT system needs latest hardware as well as software. In societal terms, projects like the Metro bus help in hardware development but without paying attention to the mental development of ordinary people the benefits of physical infrastructure related progress alone remain extremely restricted. For instance, Hitler spent a lot on economic development of Germany, but being a bigot himself he cultivated dogmatic thinking among common supporters of the Nazi party with devastating long term consequences. It is, therefore, important that along with megaprojects like the Metro bus the important duty of rationalising the thinking of our common citizens and updating their operating systems is not completely ignored.

Whether the customary foreign hand is to be conveniently blamed or the footprints of some conspiring land grabbing mafia are to be searched, the gravity of the situation in Gojra or Joseph Colony does not go away. The fact that one single accusation by a semi-illiterate member against another near-illiterate member of a locality should soon galvanise thousands of enraged people belonging to almost all age groups is a sign of a more serious malaise that has gripped society as a whole. Let us be more objective about the situation. The inflammable dogmatic mind-set of an average resident of Punjab is well known since the days of the British Raj. Near the partition time in Punjab millions of human beings turned into blood seeking vampires overnight once they were under the spell of faith-inspired hatred of fellow human beings. The propensity to violence in the name of religious code of honour was again witnessed in 1953 when clerics found ‘khatm-e-nabuwat’ a convenient rallying point to get organised and prove their nuisance value. The indoctrination carried out by Ziaul Haq only strengthened the forces of obscurantism as Punjab became a recruiting ground for volunteers for Afghan and Kashmir jihad. Since sectarianism helps in getting young people organised and motivated in no time, mushrooming of sectarian outfits was also witnessed in that era. There is a method in the madness of religious violence. It begins by attacking the weakest section of a society and then like a jungle fire spreads in all directions. Just look at the case study of Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the late founder of the Sipah-e-Sahaba organisation. He first earned fame as a basher of the Ahmadis. Then he turned his guns against the Barelvi faith followers and finally went full blast against the Shias. The enabling environment of post-Afghan jihad days facilitated his cause so much that he soon emerged as a political rival to the local influential politicians and bagged around 40,000 votes against Abida Hussain. After his murder, another stalwart Azam Tariq began winning the Jhang seat by big margins. What we experience today has always had its roots in yesterday. So for understanding the current religious extremism-inspired violence in Punjab we must not ignore the influence of the past. But the problem of extremism is spread all over the country. A Pakistan People’s Party MNA in Sindh brazenly patronised alleged abduction and forced conversion of Hindu girls, and the federal minister from the Awami National Party Ghulam Ahmad Bilour stunned everyone when he announced a reward of millions of rupees for killing the producers of a blasphemous movie made in the US. In both bases, the parties that call themselves liberal and progressive did not initiate action against their leaders.

The Joseph colony incident reminded me of London riots when the rioters took full advantage of police’s reluctance to use strong measures, and consequently, shops were looted and private property damaged. There was then a big outcry in the UK media over police’s inaction. The police salvaged some of its lost pride by making sure that anyone who took a part in rioting was prosecuted and brought to justice. Photos of miscreants were displayed at public places and on social networking sites as well. Judiciary also threw its support and maximum punishments were handed down to all those who participated in acts of rioting. We can give the Punjab police the benefit of doubt that it did not want to aggravate an already charged situation. But now it can restore our faith if we see all participants of arson attack get exemplary punishments. Only this way the Metro bus will remain on its route and not shuttle between Gojra and Badami Bagh.

(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


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Pakistani woman: is frailty still thy name? , Daily Times, 9/03/13

OVER A COFFEE : Pakistani woman: is frailty still thy name? — Dr Haider Shah

As new opportunities become increasingly available, old definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ undergo a fundamental change

Two years ago on this day I had asked if frailty was still women’s name and today I am raising the same query again. The question is all the more important as the official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day is ‘A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women’. Referring to the gang rape case of Delhi and Malala Yousafzai’s shooting in Swat, the Secretary General of the UN in his message for the day rightly stated, “These atrocities, which rightly sparked global outrage, were part of a much larger problem that pervades virtually every society and every realm of life.”

Society is a human invention and evolved from the hunting packs of our early forefathers who had to compete with much stronger and fiercer animals to stay alive. Morality is also not a straitjacketed notion as it keeps evolving over time. In Greece today one can see women participating in every walk of life. For the ancient Athens, however, women and slaves did not have a voting right, despite Athenians’ obsessive interest in questions of liberty and political engagement. For Aristotle, women being a defective form of humans, were inferior to slaves. We see such prejudices prevailing in the British society as well. In Shakespeare’s times women were not allowed to perform female roles in stage dramas and young boys would therefore perform those roles in accordance with the social taboos of those times. Women were denied voting right till 1928 despite a very spirited movement by feminist suffragists in Britain.

But societies gradually change for the better. They create more space for their neglected social groups by removing hurdles in their endeavours. We can identify three main hurdles. First, physical limitations; second, legal restrictions and third, social norms and taboos. Women are considered fit only for firing the imagination of poets and artists by their tender build and looks. Those occupations that require hardships or physical risks are therefore considered out of bound for women. These notions are also now changing. In Saudi Arabia, women may not be allowed to drive a car but in many countries besides driving buses they have been flying planes as well. To further slay the social taboo, women in India, Pakistan, China and even Afghanistan have recently joined military career as combat pilots. Recently, a local TV channel aired a show on three Pakistani girls who had climbed some of the highest and most dangerous mountain peaks. Enabling societies make conscious efforts to remove physical hurdles that come from nature. Motherhood is paid emotional lip service in our society, but how a working woman can be facilitated so that her motherhood service does not prove a death knell for her career. In developed societies special laws have been enacted to address this dilemma like situation for working women. We need to follow suit.

Custom is considered to be a primary source of law. Customs and usages often date back to the times when different social stratification was in place. As new opportunities become increasingly available, old definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ undergo a fundamental change. Notions of morality can therefore also change to a great extent. For instance, till a few centuries ago slavery was a thriving institution, not abolished by any social or religious system. Today it is universally banned, even if milder forms of slavery still exist in many parts of the world. Another good example is the minimum age for consensual physical relations in Britain. Even a genuine marriage with a girl less than 16 years old can result in a charge of paedophilia against the male spouse. Compare this to the popular play of Shakespeare where the heroine Juliet is only 13 years old contemplating marriage with Romeo. In Hindu scriptures divorce was not recognised but today in the Hindu Personal law there is not much difference between matrimonial rights of husband and wife. Thus, if evolution is allowed its natural course laws can be updated by the collective wisdom of a society exercised through the chosen representatives. Problems emerge when this evolution is artificially stopped by adherence to cultural norms or religious faith. If a comparison of substantive legal rights of men and women in areas of matrimony, inheritance, career, and recourse to legal justice is done for various communities of the world, it can be seen that while others have updated their legal systems we, in Pakistan, still have failed to do so.

Social taboos against women can be challenged with the help of education and greater media sponsored awareness. Many defenders of the old order invoke religious dogmas in order to sterilise the debate on gender equality. I have developed even higher respect for our rationalist forefathers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali and Bacha Khan who despite being practising Muslims spoke passionately in favour of gender equality a long time ago. Their dreams remain in tatters though. From domestic violence to terrorism, we see images of Fakhiras and Malalas all around. Whether a woman demands her right in parental property, or shows a passion for education, or volunteers for administering polio vaccination drops to innocent children, a bullet is often waiting for her in certain areas of the country. All this must change. But nothing will ever change unless women themselves become champions of their cause.

Frailty’s name might have been woman in the past for understandable reasons. To know if it has changed today we do not necessarily need to look at the west. The answer can be equally clear if we cast a glance over pure eastern cultures like China, Japan and Korea. The world has increasingly become gender neutral. We better change as well.

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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Peace: as envisioned by Bacha Khan, 2/3/13

OVER A COFFEE : Peace: as envisioned by Bacha Khan — Dr Haider Shah

Though himself a practising Muslim, Bacha Khan did not approve of projecting the identity of Pashtuns along religious lines only

In less than a month, two All Parties Conferences have been held to endorse the need for bringing back peace to terrorism-stricken Pakistan. Of late, the Awami National Party (ANP) has become very vocal about negotiations with extremist groups. It therefore seems pertinent to revisit the dreams of the legend of his times — Bacha Khan, the Sarhadi Gandhi (Frontier Gandhi). Peace, yearned for by the ANP leaders today, to what extent is different from the peace envisioned by the tall Pashtun leader? A humanist par excellence, Bacha Khan, despite his determined opposition to the British rule in India and years of incarceration, drew his earliest inspiration of serving the community from a British missionary, the headmaster of Edwardes School in Peshawar. A Buddha of his times, Bacha Khan embarked on reforming his society after experiencing a kind of nirvana while living among his villagers. When other men of his age were either busy in romances or settling scores through vendetta, the young Khan at 20 opened his first school in Utmanzai, which proved so successful that other villages also began inviting him to do the same. Thus was born one of the most significant political movements of the subcontinent with the name of Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God). In Bacha Khan we see a fusion of the spirits of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, as a social reformer, and of Gandhi, as a political leader using non-violent protest as a strategic tool. 

Bacha Khan, as a conscientious and principled anti-imperialist politician, is well known. The rationalist reformer side of his personality is however less covered in our national discourse. As J S Mill tells us, challenging a cruel despot is much easier than challenging the tyranny of social norms and customs. Bacha Khan had the courage and sagacity of fighting the battle on both fronts. He not only promoted the cause of education but also went a step further by challenging the cultural norm that an ordinary Pashtun took for granted as the essence of the Pashtun code: the cult of violent revenge. This is not less than a miracle that without using any threats or violence he trained a corps of political workers who would swallow insult and provocations but would not retaliate or break the law. And more surprising is the fact that he was transforming those people who were known for vendetta at the slightest excuse. 

In 1926 when Bacha Khan’s father died, the local mullahs turned up in expectation of alms. But after consulting the gathered villagers he declared that the alms of 2000 rupees would go to the school instead of the mullahs. To achieve his ideal of reforming society he formed a Youth League of graduates of his Azad schools. One of the most cherished objectives was the empowerment of women in a male-dominated society. Unlike many hypocritical leaders, Bacha Khan practiced whatever he preached. His sisters, therefore, became leaders of the gender equality movement. They began touring various districts where they delivered speeches — a daring break with the taboo-ridden Pashtun society. To help spread his reformation message, Bacha Khan, like Sir Syed’s ‘Tehzeeb-ul-Ikhlaq’ magazine started a Pashto journal ‘Pushtun’ which soon gained popularity. Many authors in the magazine engaged in critical introspection. For instance, one female author bitterly complained in one article, “Except for the Pashtun, the women have no enemy. He is clever but is ardent in suppressing women…O Pashtun….when you demand your freedom, why do you deny it to women?”

Though himself a practising Muslim, Bacha Khan did not approve of projecting the identity of Pashtuns along religious lines only. Once he said, “You have heard of America and Europe. The people in those countries may not be very religious, but they have a sense of patriotism, love for their nation, and social consciousness. And look at the progress that has been made there. Then take a look at ourselves !”

Not only the followers of Bacha Khan showered him with boundless love and respect. His name became dear to all freedom loving leaders of India and other countries of the world. God also seemed to be generous in bestowing honour on Bacha Khan. His sons also made names in different walks of life. Abdul Ghani Khan became a noted artist and philosopher-poet of Pashto whose poetry has gained international fame and has been translated into many languages. Abdul Wali Khan became one of the most prominent nationalist progressive leaders of Pakistan and the third son, Abdul Ali Khan, distinguished himself as an academic and became the Vice Chancellor of the Peshawar University. 

A few lines here can do no justice to the greatness of a man who was a called a “match to his mountains” by his biographer Eknath Easwaran. The Pashtun leader dreamt of three things happening in Pashtun society. First, it is free from the British rule after gaining political independence. Second, every child gets education of the highest quality and third, there is no gender discrimination in terms of social and legal rights. The extremist militant groups have left no stone unturned demolishing these dreams. Today the British no longer rule us so the first dream has become a reality. But when the political inheritors of Bacha Khan’s legacy make demands for negotiations with the militant extremists, one hopes that they have not completely disowned Bacha Khan’s dream of a progressive and thriving Pashtun society.

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