Dr. Haider Shah

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


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Negotiations: dangers of a Pyrrhic victory , Daily Times, 28 Sep, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Negotiations: dangers of a Pyrrhic victory — Dr Haider Shah

The Taliban follow the creed where force is considered a necessary element for cleaning the modern day Muslim community of presumed un-Islamic additions
Every social action campaign launched by our media has proved short-lived lately. For instance a few weeks ago the Shahzeb Khan murder case was all over the media, as the arrogant killers were forgiven by the parents of the deceased under the Sharia law. It then was suddenly replaced by the shocking news of the dumping of a five-year-old girl after her alleged gang rape. The tragic news of killing of an army general in the line of duty along with a colonel and a sepoy in Upper Dir changed the headlines once again and now the church bomb blast incident in Peshawar has obscured all previous tragedies.
I am not surprised by the act of those who caused the mayhem in Peshawar. Whether one is a trained soldier or a terrorist, one needs some form of motivation to break the psychological barrier of killing other human beings. For soldiers, it is patriotism that motivates them to expose themselves to the risk of death. Some suicide bombers also get motivation through the Salafi doctrines of takfiri jihad that I would discuss in a separate piece some other time. What surprised and horrified me most was, however, the urge of TV anchors to present maulvis (Islamic priests) and muftis in order to prove that the Church attack was an unacceptable act of violence. One day I would need certificates of maulvis to know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. After Islamic Chemistry, Islamic Physics, Islamic Mathematics of Ziaul Haq days we now have the categorisation of ‘halal’ violence and un-Islamic violence.
The cataclysm in Peshawar was horrendous. But I see another tragedy as well. Political leaders, from bearded ones to clean-shaven ones, appear bewildered, clueless, apologetic, terrified, and stupefied. While the attackers are chopping off our fingers, one by one, we dream of peace and security by any means. A few months back, in a video message, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was named specifically by the current ‘Amir’ of the TTP as a party that would be targeted. Later, a blast killed many JI supporters but the JI chief, Munnawar Hassan, was always found reluctant to even name the TTP as the possible attacker. Similarly, the present KP government did not mince words condemning the police and prison forces for their inability to safeguard the DI Khan Jail but it could not gather courage to condemn the attackers. More recently, Imran Khan expressed grief over the martyrdom of Major General Sanaullah Niazi but, like always, did not deem it necessary to condemn the killers, even though the responsibility had been claimed by the spokesperson of the TTP. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also keeps blowing hot and cold over the issue.
While the criminal gangs have been elevated to the status of ‘stakeholders’, the ordinary people of Pakistan, the real stakeholders, have no idea what lies in store for them. At least they deserved to be told about the red lines that the extremists were asked not to cross if the negotiations had to go ahead. And what is the timeframe of the peace process?
Many analysts express their fear about the failure of the negotiations. I am rather more scared by the prospects of successful negotiations and all that they would engineer for Pakistani society. We can view the future scenario from three dimensions of political, social and economic consequences if the Taliban are given political legitimacy as a result of peace talks. We should not forget that the Taliban follow the creed where force is considered a necessary element for cleaning the modern day Muslim community of presumed un-Islamic additions. The period of peace is, therefore, a strategic period of reorganisation for these outfits. As their status will be legitimised they will open their cells all over the country. They will initially focus on those cities where local complaints against state of affairs are more numerous. The Taliban cells act as a bunch of God-fearing, ‘good guys’ who advocate against un-Islamic activities like CD shops, appearance of women in public and the like. Once they feel confident of their capacity they would then turn to destabilising the local writ of the state. The educational institutions will feel the greatest backlash. Even as banned outfits, their cells are reportedly working in many universities. More worryingly, uniformed forces are reportedly also infected. When they are allowed to work openly they would further infiltrate law enforcement organisations and educational institutions.
The Afghan Taliban will have a significant role in the new power arrangement in the post-2014 Afghanistan if the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the US prove fruitful. In that scenario, the Afghan Taliban will use the Pakistani Taliban as a driver of influence in their relationship with the Pakistani government. Emboldened by their own experience, the Afghan Taliban will further spread their jihadi literature in Pakistan. As the KP government has publicly stated that learning about jihad is important for all Muslims, the re-energised Taliban will find the environment friendly and enriching for working towards long-term strategic goals. The best-case scenario painted by some supporters of negotiations might give us some peace in the short run. However, by letting the preachers of hate and violence go public with the stamp of approval by the state, we are releasing dangerous beasts from the dungeon. The peace agreement, if paraded as a success, might end up as a pyrrhic victory for Pakistani 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


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Shahzeb case: auctioning the dead ! , Daily Times, 14 September, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Shahzeb case: auctioning the dead — Dr Haider Shah

If we wish to retain the Qisas and Diyat law, we need to bring it in conformity with the morality of the present day world 

When the TV channels sensationally revealed that the parents of the murdered young man Shahzeb Khan had forgiven the ‘proud’ killers of their son in the name of Allah, everyone seemed to be shell-shocked. I was not one of those though, as without claiming to be a clairvoyant I had already predicted this outcome in my column titled, “Jessicafication of the Shahzeb case” (Daily Times, January 12, 2013). We are, however, used to not seeing the wood for the trees. In ‘greedy’ parents, we have found a convenient scapegoat for offloading our chests.

Using the Raymond Davis, Jessica Lal and Samia Sarwar cases as case studies, I had proposed three causes of failure of the criminal justice system in my January piece. First, the case is damaged by the investigative agency by its dishonest use of power. Second, even if the police are not complicit, the accused use their influence through threats or bribery, purchase witnesses and other pieces of evidence, and hence secure a favourable judgment from the court. Third, when even these efforts fail to defeat the criminal justice system, the law itself can provide an escape route as we saw in the cases of Davis and Sarwar. I had predicted that even if the first two factors failed, the accused would walk free using the open gate of the Diyat provision (compensation payable to the victims or their legal heirs) in the law.

Centuries ago, a famous female mystic, Rabia Basri, had expressed her desire to torch paradise and extinguish hell so that ordinary people are freed from the slavery of two self-seeking passions of greed and fear. We are unable to feel the urge to call for changing laws that help rapists and murderers go scot-free in the 21st century because we are fearful of a certain group of people who monopolise the business of issuing visas to paradise and hell. Only after overcoming these fears can we have a fresh look at the role of laws in any society. Laws are like medicine. Just as every medicine needs regular re-evaluation to remedy its side effects, every law needs updating once its loopholes and shortcomings become evident. There is neither a single magical cure for all times nor are there any fixed laws forever.

Laws originate from local customs and notions of propriety. Their general acceptance helps ensure the stability of a community. Like humans, cultural norms are also organic in nature and they keep evolving. For instance, Juliet, the love of Romeo, is a 13-year-old and is still taunted by her mother for not getting married. Moreover, no girl could then do the role of Juliet as in Shakespearean times appearance of women on stage was considered a social taboo. Hence young boy actors would do the female roles. Today, the mother of Juliet would be booked for a child marriage offence as the notions of right age for consensual sex have undergone a big change. Similarly, Juliet would have found herself excluded from her voting rights by the Great Reform Act, 1832, and would have to struggle till 1928 to exercise this right at par with her male counterparts. Considering another example, in India, when in 1890 the British government raised the age of consent from 10 to 12, after the death from haemorrhage of a 10-year-old Hindu bride, both Hindus and Muslims found common ground to oppose the change in law, terming it as an attack on their religions and culture. Today, however, even in Pakistan if any child of 10 is married the parents or guardians would be arrested, no matter how many religious citations are made by the offender.

In the tribal Arab society the case of murders or other bodily harm was viewed as a wrong against the person or his heirs, as in tribal societies the notion of the state is underdeveloped. In many tribal societies of the world the wrong against a person was settled either by returning the wrong in equal terms (Qisas) or by payment in kind or money (Diyat). In developed countries both of these remedies are also exercised. However, it is the state that assumes the role of a complainant and prosecutor at the criminal level stage. In religious terms perhaps the notion of fasad fil arz (creating anarchy) comes closer to the essence of a secular criminal system. The Diyat principle is practised not as an option but as a separate legal procedure where the claim of ‘wrongful death’ is filed against the accused as a civil action to claim damages by the heirs of the deceased.

If we wish to retain the Qisas and Diyat law, we need to bring it in conformity with the morality of the present day world. Instead of using Qisas and Diyat as two separate options, these should be merged. Qisas should be the basis of criminal prosecution by the state while Diyat should become the basis of civil action by the legal heirs of the deceased. God has given us the faculty of thinking. He will be very happy if we put it to some use. We also need to develop courage to pass all our laws through the filter of rationality and rescue our legal system by removing the insertions made by a military dictator to please a religious lobby that formed an important part of his support base.

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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YouTube ban: promoting illiteracy in the 21st century, Daily Times, 7 Sep, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : YouTube ban: promoting illiteracy in the 21st century — Dr Haider Shah

It is tragic that while we see all hate preachers doing brisk business over the internet, sites of science and humanism have been axed
Together with countries like China, Iran and Turkmenistan, Pakistan happens to be a place where people cannot access YouTube because of an official ban by the government. The aforementioned countries are well known for human rights abuses. Why Pakistan is in that league is harder to understand.
When Jawed Karim posted Me at the zoo, a 20-second video, commenting upon trunks of elephants at the San Diego Zoo in 2005 on his newly created video-sharing site, few could have guessed that one day this novel idea of users-created video would attract more than one billion users watching over six billion hours of video each month. In terms of variety of content, YouTube serves as the world’s greatest superstore as it caters to the needs of almost all internet users. No wonder it was declared the best invention of the first decade of the 21st century by many analysts including Entertainment Weekly.
Of many sad legacies of the previous government the unjustifiable ban on YouTube a year ago must appear very high on the list along with bad governance and corruption. The government reacted as if Pakistan was the only Muslim country on this planet, as we did not see any other Muslim country so obsessed with causing self-inflicted wounds over religious issues for such a long duration. Condemning a tasteless and sloppy movie was a perfectly sane and appreciable act, both at individual and national level. But the unruly faithful began damaging national property and killing their own countrymen in order to prove how inflammable they were. If government acted irresponsibly, the judiciary also left much to be desired by failing to protect the freedoms of an ordinary internet user.
Banning a popular tool or website is the same as banning pen and paper. We need to understand the notion of literacy first in order to appreciate the issue. An illiterate person is one who is unable to communicate his knowledge through non-verbal means for storage purposes. In the era of printing, anyone who cannot read a book or write with a pen is considered illiterate. In ancient civilisations clay tablets were used, so those who were unable to communicate with their help were the illiterate of those times. In this internet-enabled communications era, the definition of literacy has also undergone transformation and anyone who is unable to communicate through electronic communication cannot be called a literate person. Google, YouTube, internet browsers and various social media have become standard media of literacy in the 21st century. Government and judiciary have done a great disservice to the young by depriving them of one of the most important literacy devices for more than a year.
On July 1, 1977, the weekly holiday was changed to Friday from Sunday by the then PPP government. It was left to the Nawaz Sharif government to take the pragmatic and bold decision of reverting to Sunday. Once again all eyes are on the pragmatic government to clear the mess created by its predecessor in its failed attempt to play Machiavelli with the rabble. The first public statement about banning Google by the lady cabinet member entrusted with information technology however poured cold water over my enthusiasm. Of late there are reports that suggest that YouTube might soon be restored to its millions of users and some sanity might return among our decision makers.
It is not just lifting the ban on YouTube that concerns me though. More worrying is the dictatorial and fascist way in which a few trigger-happy PTA officials decide what is appropriate for internet users. Even more worrying is the tendency of certain members of the judiciary to prove their faith credentials by wearing the mantle of the ‘defender of the faith’. Theological differences have long been debated by Muslim thinkers. We should stop dispensing certificates of true faith as we have a rich legacy of a rationalist past. Ibne Sina, Al Razi, Ibne Rushd and Sir Syed, to name a few, had challenged many dominant doctrines of their times. Faith should be facilitated to evolve, otherwise stagnation sets in. The internet facilitates this process in a non-intrusive manner. Unlike TV and newspapers, the material is not forced on the user. On the internet, we access any material of our own sweet choice as no one can force anything on us. As such, PTA and the courts should keep their interference in electronic material to the minimum. Only porn websites and material that glamourises and promotes violence, hatred and terrorism should be banned. But it is tragic that while we see all hate preachers doing brisk business over the internet, sites of science and humanism have been axed. For example, the famous site of the Oxford University’s science populist professor Richard Dawkins has been blocked for promoting scientific thinking and debunking irrational myths. Similarly a popular Facebook site ‘Roshni’ has been banned for Pakistani users as the site sensitises internet users over human rights abuses.
One hopes, along with lifting the ban on YouTube, the government would focus its energies on websites run by extremists, hatemongers and militants and not impose bans on websites that encourage progressive thinking and respect for human values. It is hoped sanity will now prevail and those in power will find better ways of playing to the gallery.
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