Dr. Haider Shah

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


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Droning rationality all the way, Daily Times, 25 Oct, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Droning rationality all the way — Dr Haider Shah

By connecting Salman Rushdie with Malala Yousazai in a sloppy overstretching of the context, one can easily see mischief floating on the surface of Orya Maqbool Jaan’s writing
Reading columns in Pakistan’s Urdu media or listening to discussions in TV programmes often proves an excruciatingly painful experience. Last week, the pain levels crossed the threshold many times. Ever since the announcement of the prime minister’s visit to the US, the media seems to be suffering from ‘dronocitis’ infection. The narrative presents drones as the only worthwhile issue in Pakistan. The staged discussions make us believe that Nawaz Sharif has gone to the US to threaten President Barack Obama of dire consequences if the drone attacks were not stopped. A sane but feeble voice came from Mr Yousuf Raza Gillani, who said that instead of over-projecting the drone issue, we should be demanding of the PM to discuss Pakistan’s overall security situation, and how the two countries could jointly deal with the existentialist threat of militant extremism.
The energy crisis has nothing to do with the drone attacks. Our unsustainable population growth rate and our inability to eradicate polio disease have no connection with the drone attacks. General Sanaullah Niazi and Israrullah Gandapur — who represented the state of Pakistan at the highest level — were not killed by drones. To add insult to injury, the militants who claimed responsibility for bombing General Niazi’s vehicle, posted a lengthy video on social media sites, in which they not only glorified the act of killing the army general but reiterated their resolve of killing everyone that resisted their campaign of imposition of shariah in Pakistan. Somehow, we see drone attacks on these kinds of militants as a national calamity, while we are ready to look the other way in the face of tens of thousands of murders, from school children to senior police and army officers, by those who find a safe haven in the tribal region.
In one popular TV talk show, a journalist-turned-politician was dishing out a sermon on  ‘how to be courageous’, and was advising the prime minister to act like a Hollywood hero. The worthy Senator wasted all opportunities of any demonstration of such valour when he was a part of General Pervez Musharraf’s ruling team after betraying his political benefactor in the mid of night. The honourable senator, relying on half-baked theories, concluded that the US was in great need of Pakistan, as only Pakistan could guarantee a safe passage of US troops and equipment in 2014. The victorious tone of his analysis reminded me of Somalian pirates who feel very powerful during negotiations when the hostages are in their custody. The governor of Sindh and Ansar Burney paid millions to the Somalian pirates in order to secure release of the kidnapped Pakistani crew. Thanks to our association with criminal militant gangs, should we also feel proudly powerful in the same way when interacting with the international community? If that is what such commentators make us believe then they should also not forget that as we see the Somalian pirates, we are also viewed in the same way. Isn’t it high time we brought some sanity back to our foreign affairs? Mr Nawaz Sharif has expressed this desire many times. He cannot do it alone, and it will be a criminal failing on our part if we do not help him in this arduous task.
Pakistan is gifted with many assets; however, its progress is stalled because of the dearth of rationality in many spheres of life. The droning of rationality is mercilessly done by Mr Orya Maqbool Jaan via his Urdu column, and his saintly appearances in TV talk shows. If like Ibne Safi, he was generating fictional literature I would not have even mentioned his name. But glorifying ignorance, he is regularly abusing his taxpayers’ paid position as a government servant in misleading our youth. The jurors of ancient Athens would find a more fitting case for the charge of corrupting the youth if they could visit us today. In a recent column, Jaan went to extraordinary lengths to express derision for Malala Yousafzai, who has bewitched the world with her innocent charm. Liking or disliking another person is our basic human right, and therefore, one cannot question Jaan’s right of disliking a girl that symbolises our pursuit for education against all odds. But the carefree author went below the belt by invoking the sensitive blasphemy issue. There are much better ways to gain attention. By connecting Salman Rushdie with Malala Yousazai in a sloppy overstretching of the context, one can easily see mischief floating on the surface of Orya Maqbool Jaan’s writing. Some time ago, I had exposed his maverick use of obscure historical references to generate a misleading narrative for unwary readers. But unfortunately, in our media professional ethics have little sanctity. Fake degree holders and users of profane language become hosts of religious programmes for corporate reasons. It seems to be a no-holds-barred game.
When I decided to make my non-conformist opinions known in the public, I resigned from a civil service career and joined academia. I am rather surprised to see people like Orya Maqbool Jaan enjoying the best of both worlds. In the evening, he lambasts the west for conspiring against Pakistan, and condemns the government, and in the morning, he shows Hilary Clinton around the Badshahi Mosque. ‘Rind ke rind rahe, haath se jannat na gaee’ (remained disbeliever, didn’t lose paradise either). It appears that the government is incapable of enforcing its ‘Efficiency and Discipline Rules’ on government servants who bring infamy by issuing statements that often contradict official policies. In that case, why should we complain when the gun-toting Taliban take the writ of the state for a ride?
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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Taliban and our conspiracy theorists , Daily Times, 19 Oct, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Taliban and our conspiracy theorists — Dr Haider Shah

The various militant groups have no confusion about their strategic priorities and associations. Our political leaders, however, suffer from lack of clarity and vision
Eid-ul-Azha has been observed in the country with traditional fervour. A small but very impactful section of the Muslim community has, however, revived the ancient ritual of Aztec times when humans were butchered to please the imaginary gods of nature. The Law Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became the latest victim of this lunacy practised under the banner of religion.
Being mortals, humans die in every part of the world for various reasons. But it is only in Pakistan that organised gangs of killers are revered by leaders of many political parties. Only in Pakistan we see complete strategic chaos in dealing with terrorists. For instance, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wasted no time in declaring those who had been blasting school buses and killing law enforcement officers as sons of the soil. After killing of two MPAs in the recent past, even now when a cabinet member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government has been murdered in a suicide attack, the PTI chief has not condemned Taliban or other militant groups while issuing his public statement. When the Dera Ismail Khan jail was broken the local police was blamed. Now the federal government has been blamed for not surrendering to the arrogant leaders of militant outfits through negotiations. Imran Khan is hardly doing any service to this besieged nation by assuming the role of a devil’s advocate and thereby adding confusion to the national discourse on terrorism.
Like Agha Waqar’s water-propelled car, the apologists of militants keep inventing one conspiracy theory after another. A little careful scrutiny of these theories, however, reveals their hollowness and self-contradiction. One is even more surprised at the stubbornness of these conspiracy theorists to cling on to their world of paranoia. To begin with, let us examine the most often heard theory of foreign hand. The theory has many variations. In its most pure form it states that the Taliban are our heroes who are struggling for glory of Islam against enemies of Islam aka yahood-o-nasara (Jews and Christians). The bomb blasts are the work of these despicable enemies to bring a bad name to the peace loving soldiers of Islam. This theory is smashed by Taliban themselves by claiming responsibility for such attacks. In many instances they issue videos of attacks to media and, as well as put them on their websites. In some video and audio presentations they explain in detail why they consider killing of civilians justified as per their interpretation of tenets of faith.
The next variation of the theory is that some militant groups are agents of the US and are working on its directives. This sounds a little more plausible than the first one. But as Taliban are fighting against the US such groups would then become traitors to the jihadi cause. Taliban should have, therefore, first dealt with these traitors. But Taliban, instead, have officially declared them their faith brothers. So this either disproves the theory or makes Taliban US agent as well. Some conspiracy theorists, in fact, do find refuge in this theory. These theorists kept selling the theory that Saddam Hussain was a CIA agent and the Iraq war was a part of his grand plan. After Hussain’s execution they no longer talked vociferously about that theory. They then began accusing Osama bin Laden to be a CIA agent. After his killing in Abbottabad, they moved to Gaddafi as the new CIA agent and when he also went out of business the theorists continued finding new names. If Taliban as a whole are American agents then why are they fighting Pakistan that is supporting the US-led war on terror? Why are their havens consistently attacked by drones and why do they keep attacking and killing US soldiers?
Another variation of the theory is that there are good Taliban who are fighting against US-led forces in Afghanistan and there are bad Taliban who are fighting against the law-enforcement forces in Pakistan. This view comes closer to the one traditionally held by the military establishment. The theory, however, overlooks the close bonds between Taliban outfits in both countries. If the Pakistani Taliban were working against the interests of Afghan Taliban, then they would have been in a state of conflict. They both live and operate from the Pakistani tribal area. Without having strong relations of common faith, one would have decimated the other. We have seen how Taliban have mercilessly wiped out opposing seats of power such as the Maliks and groups like Ansar ul Islam. Reality is that both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban owe allegiance to Mullah Umar and share a common strategy of establishment of an Islamic emirate in the tribal areas combining Afghanistan with Pakistan.
A more recent theory singles out the Swat fugitive Maulvi Fazlullah, who is operating from the Afghan province of Kunar. This group is claimed to be working on behest of the Afghan regime. The problem with this theory is that if Fazlullah is a stooge of the Afghan government then he is taking orders from the US. As the Afghan Taliban are fighting against the American presence, it is inconceivable that they would allow the border area of Afghanistan used by a group that is operating under US orders. Activities carried out by that group have regularly been owned and defended by TTP leaders.
To summarise it all, the various militant groups have no confusion about their strategic priorities and associations. Our political leaders, however, suffer from lack of clarity and vision.
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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‘Taleem ko vote do’ but what kind of ‘Taleem’?, Daily Times, 12 October, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : ‘Taleem ko vote do’ but what kind of ‘Taleem’? — Dr Haider Shah

Stoking fires of hatred to gain transient glory is not something that any responsible journalist would aspire to indulge in
“Taleem ko vote do” (Vote for education) was a popular public service pre-election campaign by a TV channel in Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai has also become an international icon for promotion of education in Pakistan. But can literacy alone cure all the ills Pakistan is facing today?
Education finds prominence in the discourse of almost all streams of thought. Plato’s ideal state in The Republic is built around his education system. In Islamic traditions iqra (read) is one of the most revered words. All advanced nations owe their progress to their strong educational systems. However, education and literacy are not synonymous. We not only need education, but more importantly, we need the right kind of education.
The strategists of al Qaeda and the 9/11 bombers were all highly educated individuals. One of the London 7/7 bombers was a primary schoolteacher. So raising the banner of increasing the literacy rate is not enough. We should also investigate what we teach and what we don’t. In the education sector the most crucial stage is the primary level. It is at this stage when a child begins developing the paradigm through which he or she later makes sense of the world. If a pregnant mother is not careful, serious birth-related disorders can happen to the infant. And if we are not careful in the content of the education given to the inquisitive but tender minds of 5-10-year-olds, we can cause permanent damage to their faculty of understanding the world rationally. Brain injuries in childhood are much harder to reverse at later stages of life.
I normally avoid naming media personalities unless it is impossible to raise an issue without referring to the one who had generated it. Mr Mubashir Luqman, a TV presenter, professes to speak the naked truth in his programme. Recently a programme was aired that demonstrated how economical with truth this self-appointed messiah is. As a part of the advertisement campaign the anchor tweeted: “Tonight one segment in show is about LGS (Lahore Grammar School). Watch a horrendous thing they are doing to our children.” I never waste my time on such TV shows. However, those who dislike extremism found the programme itself horrendous. Wearing the robes of a spiteful cleric, the presenter, very proudly and very loudly, declared himself ‘the new defender of the faith’. The former ally of Pervez Musharraf found the teaching of ‘Comparative Religions’, a subject in LGS, a great conspiracy against Pakistan. In Jinnah’s Pakistan of the 21st century it beggars belief that teaching the history of various religions can be a discussion point, let alone becoming a national uproar. One can understand, and to some extent feel sympathetic to Mr Luqman’s frantic efforts to resurrect himself after his debacle in Malik Riaz’s show. But provoking inflammable religious sentiments to gain cheap popularity is the last thing that one can ever appreciate. It is this mindset that has resulted in the burning of Christian colonies by charged crowds of lunatics on the one hand and militant extremism on the other. An opinion maker performs a very sensitive job. Stoking fires of hatred to gain transient glory is not something that any responsible journalist would aspire to indulge in.
We have seen in cases like Rimsha Masih how easy it is to stir trouble by striking the religion chord. I have many times pleaded in this space that the widespread violence we are experiencing today is the direct consequence of overindulgence in faith matters at communal level. If we turn the knob to a lower level, we can stop the boiling water of the faith pot from spilling all over. In this regard the syllabus in early stages of education can play a very crucial role. In an earlier piece on deradicalisation, I had suggested that we should introduce a ‘Religion and Society’ subject, replacing ‘Islamiat’ in primary and secondary classes. In that subject children should be taught how to become good human beings and good citizens. How various religions teach this lesson should then be taught to our children. As we are a predominantly Muslim country, therefore 60-70 percent of that subject can be about Islamic teachings on being a good human being and citizen. In the remaining 30-40 percent they can be taught about the basic teachings of other major religions and also about fundamental rights in the Constitution and other basic rights and duties of a good citizen. Such a subject will improve the chances of young students becoming good human beings and consequently, as Mr Javed Ghamdi argues, the chances of such students becoming good Muslims will also be much brighter.
According to media reports, the Punjab Education Board banned the teaching of Comparative Religions subject in the school. If this is not Talibanism what else is? To be responsive to public sentiment is a necessary element of democracy. But buckling under to the blackmailing pressure of gutter journalism and destroying a laudable initiative introduced by some progressive and enlightened educationist is not something that we can celebrate. If the education policy of Punjab is to be dictated by Ansar Abbasi and Mubashir Luqman, then I sincerely wish that Shahidullah Shahid should become the education and culture minister after negotiations with the stakeholders sitting in Waziristan prove successful. The government has made many declarations about building motorways and transportation schemes. One hopes that it gives some importance to investments in intellectual infrastructure 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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Redefining Pak-India relations, Daily Times, 5 October, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Redefining Pak-India relations — Dr Haider Shah

Despite many apprehensions and media-led hullabaloo the prime ministers of India and Pakistan held a high profile meeting in New York. As widely predicted no fireworks or breakthroughs resulted from the meeting whose importance lay in its symbolic value. The meeting was helpful in setting the tone for Paki-India relations after formation of new government in New Delhi next year.

Quoting the example of Serbia sometime back I advocated the need for redefining our relations with the international community in general and our neighbours in particular. Serbia’s past is much more bloodstained than ours, but in order to join the European Union (EU) and improve economically, the Serbian government, backed by its civil society, made a conscious decision of projecting a new image to the international community. Making a break with the jingoist past, the national heroes of the past were handed over to the UN war crimes court for trial. Nations — much bigger and stronger than us — made paradigmatic shifts in the past as well.

Look at the UK, France and Germany, the three biggest powers of Europe. One of the wars between UK and France is named 100-Year War because the hostilities between the two countries continued for almost a century. Germany conquered the whole of France in 1940 in less than six weeks. Germany and UK bombed each other vehemently in the World War II. India and Pakistan have never seen the scale of destruction the peoples of these countries experienced in various European wars. Lessons were, however, learnt and after Germany was destroyed as a military power in 1945 the European powers redefined their relationship and today they are almost approaching the status of a federal state in the form of EU.

If we don’t like Western countries’ examples, we have an Asian example at hand as well. Japan, a military superpower in 1930s, also redefined its relationship with their arch foes in the changed realities of post World War II era.

National doctrines or ideologies are not cast in stone. Ideologies are for people and not the other way round. This Darwinian principle of evolution is equally true in the realm of international affairs. When the external environment changes we have to adapt in order to survive. Unfortunately, hawks in Pakistan fail to understand that living beyond means not only destroys personal lives but it is also a destructive force at national level as well. As a part of our national mythology we assume that as Pakistan is India-fixated so is India and her military build-up is in competition with Pakistan. The reality is that China and India have historically been the regional powers of trade for European merchants for thousands of years. Today, both countries are 1.3 billion in population and are tipped as the future top two economic giants of the world. In this historical war of supremacy between two great regional powers other countries are either helpers or nuisance. If we just cast a glance at the GDP figures of India and Pakistan we find that Indian GDP is almost nine times bigger than ours. And with a steady growth rate that ranges from five to eight percent, while we are struggling around three percent, the wide gap between economic muscles is further widening. We need to wake up to the fact that we are not a rival but a nuisance to India in the region. If we keep this imagined rivalry status to cricket alone, we will do ourselves a great favour.

Smaller states in Europe have synced their economies with those of major powers of Europe. We have so far failed to recognise the importance of this lesson and have not integrated our economies with the economies of the region. The trade between China and India is much healthier than our trade volume with either of the two heavyweights. While the state of affairs is very dismal the only ray of hope is the right discourse of our prime minister. He recently aired his concern over poor trade figures with both China and India. His narrative is less about browbeating neighbours and more about boosting economic relations. In the past, when we were unable to gain recognition in the field of economic performance, we tried to compensate that by nursing terrorist outfits and earning nuisance value in foreign affairs. Both India and China, to a varying extent, have been complaining about this.

We are at a crossroad and choices are in front of us. We can continue playing the discourse on terrorism like a 20-20 match and feign ignorance about links of Pakistan with terrorist networks. Yes, Osama bin Laden was just holidaying in Abbottabad. Ajmal Kasab and other assailants were not brainwashed and trained in Pakistan. Employing offensive defence, we can utilise the services of the likes of Sheikh Rashids, Hamid Guls and Zaid Hamids to enjoy the state of blissful denial. But has this strategy worked so far? We have hardly impressed anyone in the world despite emotional outbursts of our hawks. And as a consequence, the Frankenstein’s monsters created to frighten others are now roaming our own streets and are holding the state to ransom.

We need a complete disconnect with the past. Just as European nations and Japan did in 1940s and Serbia has done recently. Redefining our relationship with India, we should consider terrorism as a joint problem and should make trade the defining feature of our new relationship.

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