Dr. Haider Shah

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

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While the state lies sleeping , Daily Times, 27 July, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : While the state lies sleeping — Dr Haider Shah

The policy of silencing any critic with the threat of violence must be condemned wholeheartedly and no allowance should be given to any militants by becoming their apologists 

Soon after the arrest of Masoom Billa, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s chief of their death squad, the militants have struck in Sukkur and Peshawar, targeting the ISI and police personnel with daredevil attacks. Once again officials have lost their lives while the state sleeps on, brandishing the lollypop of an All Parties Conference to the dazed onlookers. The incessant barrage of terrorist incidents suggests one thing clearly. The militants are achieving their strategic goals while the state sleeps with intermittent snoring sounds indicating that it is still alive.

The situation in Pakistan reminds me of Sir David Attenborough’s documentary on dragons. In one of the scenes a buffalo is encircled by a large number of dragons. With their coordinated attacks the dragons keep inflicting small wounds while the buffalo does its best to keep the attackers at bay. After hours of standoff, the poor animal becomes exhausted and the poisonous wounds further weaken the hapless creature. Once the buffalo gives up resistance and falls to the ground, the dragons devour the animal within no time. The militants seem to be waiting now for that moment.

The tactics of attacking the icons of the state’s authority have not been invented by our jihadi elements. There is a wide body of literature that was written by various idealists like anarchists and communists, which propagates that government is an instrument of control and hence should be abolished. While the anarchist philosophers argued that voluntary cooperation, rather than force, should be society’s organising principle, many action-oriented anarchists preached that the state could only be dismantled if all icons of the state were demolished by sustained violent attacks. The strategy followed by jihadi groups borrows heavily from the writings of the late 19th century anarchists. They have singled out law enforcement agencies for bringing the state down. They know that they will cause immense despair among the masses if it is demonstrated that the law enforcement agencies are unable to even protect themselves, let alone safeguard the lives and property of ordinary people. Political parties, the courts, media, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions and communal places of worship are the most important pillars of any state. The militants have been attacking all of these institutions so that the building of the state crumbles and anarchic conditions prevail. In militancy-infected areas, civil institutions stop functioning as individuals fear for their lives. The militants then bring their own courts, tax collecting organisations and law enforcement mechanisms to fill the vacuum. We have seen this model implemented in FATA and Swat by the militants. They have done their homework well and have a clear vision and strategic milestones. Planning from their safe havens in Karachi and FATA, they choose their own timing and mode of attack. The state reacts nervously. But no more than that!

From the urban centre of Karachi to the rugged mountains of Waziristan, they are all over the place. They can plan and execute anything. The other day a female journalist narrated her tale of helplessness and today we witnessed an attack on the deputy commandant of police in Peshawar. They are so emboldened that they take pleasure in planning, staffing, resourcing, motivating, directing and executing their attacks on important high profile personalities of the state. Nawaz Sharif has assumed the office after the nation mandated him with a clear majority. They did not even spare the peace preaching prime minister and planned a very cunning terrorist attack on him. And the state sleeps on.

Amid the growing power of the militants, there are some confused leaders who keep harping on the negotiations option. They very fondly refer to the US peace talks with the Afghan Taliban and conclude that Pakistan should also follow suit and hold negotiations with the Pakistani militants. As I have argued in my previous writings, we should not miss the point that the Afghan Taliban when ousted from power were ruling a country where no constitutional form of government ever existed before. One may loathe their view of the world but one cannot dismiss their stakeholder status in any future arrangement of Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian hatemongers have never ruled our country. We have a constitution and if a group differs with the government it can seek the support of voters and when in power can change the policy. In the UK more than a million people marched in London to express their disapproval of the then Labour government’s policy on the Iraq War. But the protesters did not go about shooting those that did not bow to their point of view. If our government chooses a pro-US or pro-China or pro-Russia foreign policy to finance its policy objectives, it is no one’s business to show his anger by resorting to violence. The policy of silencing any critic with the threat of violence must be condemned wholeheartedly and no allowance should be given to any militants by becoming their apologists.

The fact that the army prefers action against the militants, as per media reports, is a positive development. But the real dividends of this thinking will only be realised if the ill-advised policy of good or bad Taliban is also scrapped and terrorism is tackled as a regional problem, which is threatening Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and to some extent China and the Central Asian states. It is high time the state woke up, as the militants call the shots freely while the state lies sleeping.

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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Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — II, Daily Times, Saturday, July 20, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — II — Dr Haider Shah

Why is it that we think certain verses of the Quran are more or less important than others? 

Our students are never exposed to Sir Syed’s views on various socio-religious issues. The great Muslim rationalist is merely presented as the architect of the two nation theory and founder of Aligarh University. The following verses that form the basis of the fasting ritual have been analysed by Sir Syed in his tafseer (commentary) after referring to various viewpoints: 

“Believers! Fasting is enjoined upon you, as it was enjoined upon those before you, that you become God-fearing” (2:183).

“Fasting is for a fixed number of days, and if one of you be sick, or if one of you be on a journey, you will fast the same number of other days later on. For those who are capable of fasting (but still do not fast) there is a redemption: feeding a needy man for each day missed. Whoever voluntarily does more good than is required, will find it better for him; and that you should fast is better for you, if you only know” (2:184).

“During the month of Ramadan the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance to the people with Clear Signs of the true guidance and as the Criterion (between right and wrong). So those of you who live to see that month should fast it, and whoever is sick or on a journey should fast the same number of other days instead. Allah wants ease and not hardship for you so that you may complete the number of days required; magnify Allah for what He has guided you to, and give thanks to Him” (2:185).

The viewpoints analysed range from claiming that 2:183 referred to non-Ramzan fasting to claiming that 2:185 repeals 2:183. After a logical discussion it is concluded by Sir Syed that God proposed fasting and feeding as two choices. If someone is keen on fasting but is prevented from doing so in Ramzan on account of travel or illness, he can fast in later months for the days missed in Ramzan. But if someone is not keen on fasting he can instead feed at least one destitute as compensation. In the carefully shaped popular discourse promoted by the religious establishment, this option of feeding the hungry instead of fasting is never disclosed. Some translators go to the extent of making insertions of their own to hide the availability of this option.

As the Quran is the primary source of law, if some choice has been explicitly given, no opinion of any jurist can take that right away. The last verse also states that God does not want to make our lives difficult. In wars the Holy Prophet (PBUH) would often advise against fasting so that the competitiveness of Muslim warriors was not compromised. What we need to ponder is that if the Quranic verses provide a choice of feeding instead of fasting, how come we deny this choice in our society? At a rational level let us suppose if half of the population, instead of fasting, exercises the feeding choice, wouldn’t we see the eradication of hunger at least during the month of Ramzan? The rationale of fasting given in verse 2:183 is to make a person righteous. Imagine we see a 10-year-old orphan in the street who looks hungry and thirsty. Would it be more righteous for us to remain hungry like him the whole day or instead feed him properly after earning through some economic activity?

A few days ago the news of Pakistan getting a $ 5.3 billion IMF loan was splashed by the media. Apart from a few murmurs from professional critics, we hardly noticed any nationwide protest. Now let us revisit the Quranic verses on the issue of interest-based loans.

“O ye who believe! Fear Allah and give up what remains of interest, if you are truly believers. But if you do it not, then beware of war from Allah and His Messenger; and if you repent, then you shall have your principal; thus you shall not wrong nor shall you be wronged” (2:278-9).

Quranic verses contain very clear admonitions against those who indulge in interest-based trade, and in one verse such transgressors are termed as smitten with insanity by the devil. But from government to the ordinary faithful, some kind of pragmatic silence has been developed over the years on interest-based transactions. Even the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, which recently issued an ordinance prescribing three-month imprisonment or a fine of Rs 50,000 as a punishment for anyone seen eating or drinking in public during the day, has given no indication of scrapping the Bank of Khyber that institutionalises ‘the war for Allah and His Messenger’ by promoting interest-based trading in the province.

Why is it that we think certain verses of the Quran are more or less important than others? In case of fasting we not only don’t see admonitions in the scripture as we see in the case of interest-based trade, we also find mention of a choice between feeding and fasting. Still culturally we feel obsessed with treating fasting as more important than other directives found in the Holy Book. These culturally defined attitudes not only stifle economic activity for one month every year but have also promoted a popular culture of institutionalised hypocrisy and lying as many are forced to resort to ‘pretend fasting’ during the month.

Perhaps the educated sections of society can use their own thinking to rationalise their choices. It’s a challenging task but not an impossible one.


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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Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — I, Saturday, July 13, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — I — Dr Haider Shah

The month of Ramzan with its distinctive social discourse has always been an important feature of our culture. If the ratings-hungry private TV channels have commercialised news and current affairs programmes, how can they spare religion in their cutthroat competition? Leading showbiz personalities that masquerade as distributors of heavenly rewards can be seen doing brisk business after commodifying the holiness of the month of Ramzan.

It is always a daunting exercise to examine a ritual that enjoys the emotional support of an assertively vocal majority in an unbiased and scientific manner. Faith and scientific analysis do not happily go together. Does this lead us to conclude that the potential Galileos, Brunos and Darwins of our society should remain permanently silenced by the muzzling authority of the majority? Descartes’ famous line is, “I think, therefore I am.” By abdicating our birthright of free thinking, we not only turn ourselves into wandering zombies or remote-controlled robots, we also rob society of continuously growing and adapting to the changed times. No doubt freeing oneself from the cobweb of culturally dominant conversation is itself a perilous and an injury-prone adventure. Those who reclaim their inalienable right of free thinking soon find themselves lost in the wilderness of a social community where no one understands their language and they are treated as social outcasts. Despite all these hazards, rationalists should speak their mind with sincerity of purpose.

With this in mind I am setting myself the task of reviewing the social discourse that accompanies the month of fasting every year. I am quite keen on sharing the line of argument presented by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in his commentary on verses relating to fasting in the Holy Quran. But before engaging in that discussion I deem it appropriate to first deal with the issue at a more fundamental level.

The basics of social science research tell us that any assertion or claim made by a proposer is treated as a hypothesis. Taking the positivist scientific perspective, no preconceived notions can, therefore, be allowed to interfere with our analysis. We can easily identify a few hypotheses that are prominent in the discourse of religious scholars that appear on television or in the daily conversation of a layman. One, Ramzan is a month of blessings and special rewards. Second, it helps in minimising vices as we practise self-restraint by fasting for a month. Third, it is a divine recipe for health improvement. Fourth, it promotes feelings of social bonding by making us aware of the sufferings of the hungry. Fifth, it provides contentment and happiness when families and social groups dine together at sehri and iftari times. All these claims have some merit in them but for a rationalist analysis we need to suspend our judgement till we have empirically tested the hypotheses with some credible data-based evidence. Both in the physical and social sciences, that is how textbook-based theories are tested and improved.

For the ‘blessings’ claim we need to collect crime data during Ramzan and Shawwal for, say, the last 10 years and then compare with the crime patterns of the remaining months. If significant changes are spotted then we can be persuaded to believe that the claimed relationship between communal fasting and crime does exist. Similarly, if the correlation is there then over the years we should expect a gradual reduction in crime rates due to the blessings effect in all societies where fasting is practised. More importantly, the crime rate in Muslim societies must be then significantly less as opposed to those societies where fasting is not practised. To test the claim of purification of the soul by fasting, we need to have some quantifiable ‘constructs’. Perhaps the classical demand and supply law of economics can be helpful, which says that the price of commodities is determined by the gap in aggregate demand and supply. If the demand is more than the supply, prices rise, and conversely, if the supply is more than the demand, prices drop to restore equilibrium. Now as the whole society practices restraint in food to feel the pain of the hunger-ridden poorer sections of society, one would expect a sharp decline in aggregate demand for food in the month of Ramzan. This would in turn result in a slump in the prices of food commodities. In reality, we see a surge in prices, which suggests that aggregate demand for food increases. Thus, the actual observations fail to support the hypothesised relationship between fasting and self-restraint known as ‘taqwa’ in the scripture-led discourse. As Durkheim argues, religion is a social construct to perform certain social functions. We see that iftar dinners in reality are a social contrivance to facilitate a brazen display of our love for sumptuous food and waste.

The health-related argument is often emphasised when some rationalist discussion is done by scholars. Giving rest to the digestive system occasionally is no doubt a good idea. But disrupting the natural cycle of food consumption and stuffing the stomach with a massive intake of food and fluid twice a day does not necessarily help in health improvement. In hot, humid weather, our bodies need a regular supply of water and minerals. Rebelling against this law of nature results in a heavy toll on our body, which ranges from commonly observed lethargic and irritated behaviour to more severe consequences like dehydration, heat-strokes and seizures during Ramzan. These observations notwithstanding, if the health statistics of Muslim societies can be shown as significantly better than those of non-Muslim countries, then the health argument would be a clear winner.

(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