Dr. Haider Shah

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

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Mayhem in Rawalpindi: Who did it?, Viewpoint, 29 November, 2013

Mayhem in Rawalpindi: Who did it?

Our successive governments that customarily turned a blind eye to the activities of preachers of hatred belonging to various faith communities also share the blame

The fact finding commission has fixed responsibility of criminal negligence upon a few police officers. Like many other countless tragic events this one will also soon be swept under the carpet and overtaken by some new cataclysmic incident. ‘ye kaam kis ne kia hey, ya kaam kis ka tha’ (who did this, whose act of commission this was). Perhaps we need to have a dispassionate analysis to answer this question.

Who fired the first shot or who started the trouble is less important to me. As a rationalist I view any ritual in its entirety in terms of its social costs. Various faith communities celebrate rituals and festivals as a manifestation of social bonding. These rituals bring moments of happiness and social cohesion and hence play an important part in promoting stability and order. The rituals associated with Muharram unfortunately don’t play this role. On the contrary they reignite the bloody schisms of a bygone era whose historical accounts are uncertain for want of credible evidence. What happened in that part of the world more than a thousand years ago is reliant more upon our beliefs and communal identities, rather than on any scientifically proven evidences. Recently I watched a religious procession of Catholics in Barcelona. Similarly Hindu ritual of Diwali is celebrated all over the U.K. In all these cases beliefs relating to the past bring moments of joy not only to the faith community but to the society in general as well. But the rituals of Muharram institutionalise melancholy and promote social discord by revisiting religious rivalries of the past.

All religious groups tend to live in the past and bring feuds of those times to the present day. Irony is that little credible history relating to that period is available to us as writing was not a passion of Arabs. Only when Arabs conquered advanced civilizations they were exposed to various disciplines of scholarship. Consequently the history of Arabs from 8th century onwards is built mostly on hearsay and oral traditions. Consequently all sects interpret events of the past in the light of their socially constructed belief systems. The desert dwelling Arabs were in a primitive stage of civilization to produce historians like Plutarch or Herodotus. If we, therefore, wish to see events like Rawalpindi massacre not happen again we need to take accounts of unascertainable past less seriously. If we follow them too passionately we are soon exposed to the power related disputes among major personalities of that era. As per our beliefs the first generation of Arab Muslims was the most righteous. If these questions resulted in civil commotion leading to the killing of third caliph of Islam and later more than 10000 common Muslims killing each other in the battlefield, how can we be so naive to believe that these questions will result differently today? Therefore once we take unverifiable beliefs based history very seriously we lay the foundation of sectarian discord. As the state takes a backseat and allows itself to be blackmailed by the leadership of these sectarian outfits the stage is set for events that we then try to prevent from happening after spending billions of rupees of hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

Every communal group has a right to enjoy its religious beliefs. It has full freedom to swing its fist of rituals but this freedom ends where nose of other communities begins. There were good old days when as a child I would go to 23rd March parade of our armed forces. Due to security concerns these are held no more. Our national leaders have stopped mingling with common people or holding public meetings due to security concerns. In the extraordinary situation that we are in today, holding of religious processions creates an environment which is potentially explosive. Every single group in the country wants security and protection. What we don’t realise is that security means costs. All these security personnel and their expensive equipment and vehicles are financed by tax-payers’ money. Doctors want security, bankers want security, judges want security, lawyers want security, religious minorities want security, shrines want security; the list is endless. Can we afford this much extravagant expenditure on providing security? All religious groups should therefore take responsibility for their own security and conduct their business in such a way so that security situation is not further weakened.

Portion of the blame should also go to the honourable members of judiciary. In order to prove their populist and divine credentials, their excessive exuberance in Lal Masjid case did not augur well for enforcing writ of the state. Law of the land had been wilfully challenged by the clerics of Lal Masjid and the state had no other option but to enforce its writ by use of force. The judicial inquiries that later followed would have made all law enforcement officials jittery about using force in future. In situations like Rawalpindi the state was required to show zero tolerance. But police officers feel insecure as they face the worrying prospects of facing inquiries and investigations later on. No doubt the Supreme Court deserves appreciation for its role in highlighting the need for rule of law in Karachi and Baluchistan. But in the case of Lal Masjid it did not help the cause of rule of law as without a strong state there can hardly be any rule of law.

Our successive governments that customarily turned a blind eye to the activities of preachers of hatred belonging to various faith communities also share the blame. Laws relating to religious mischief and glorification of terrorism have rarely been used against those who openly flout them. Day and night we see religious sermonisers using mike, loudspeaker, pen, and social media to spread their venomous propaganda. Acts of violence are mere culmination of the mischievous discourse unleashed by these clerics.

Some police officials have been held responsible for the Rawalpindi mayhem. They will be taken to the altar and the cycle of violence will, unfortunately, raise its head again somewhere else.

Dr. Haider Shah 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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The social cost of enjoying religion, Daily Times, 23 November, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : The social cost of enjoying religion — Dr Haider Shah

If we keep on piling ammunition in every nook and corner of our house and one day a child ignites the whole dump with a single matchstick, who is to be blamed for the resulting mayhem?

Recently, a story in the western media touched my heart. A five-year-old leukaemia patient contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation and desired to save the world like Batman. Thousands, including San Francisco police, politicians, media and social media volunteered to help the five-year-old realise his dream of becoming a ‘Batkid’ for a day.

In Pakistan, we all live permanently in an imagined world created by rhetorical speeches by religious preachers belonging to various creeds. While the above-mentioned ‘superkid’ saved people in distress, our heroes are in the habit of putting the whole country in distress. With Moharram we are told that the month of peace has commenced. What we actually observe is that all law enforcement agencies remain on extraordinary high alert. Even after sealing the whole country with containers and suspending mobile phone services we are still unable to prevent incidents in Rawalpindi, Multan and Kohat.

A few days ago, I happened to listen to Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi and felt devastated. Not that what he said was repugnant but rather surprisingly whatever he said, I felt he had stolen my ideas. He very eloquently stated that billions of rupees were lost on account of extraordinary security arrangements necessitated by a few rituals of a religious sect. This money could have been utilised for alleviating poverty in the country, he argued. Quite rational and sensible comments from someone who is considered an icon of sectarian hatred in the country. There is one problem though, which is not unique to Ludhianvi sahib alone.

From our experience of debates at the Rationalist Society of Pakistan (RSOP), we realise that all believers use rationality as a weapon of offence but will instantly turn the filter of rationality off when others question their faith as well. We have seen Ahmedi brothers rationalising religion and criticising traditional beliefs but when their own belief system is opened to scrutiny they also run for the shelter of beliefs. Similarly, even Christian members of our forum are found wanting when the spotlight of rationality is fixed on them. Mr Ludhianwi made a strong case for banning all rituals that resulted in massive economic waste but then we should be ready to consider the whole faith industry and ask what net contribution it makes to the GDP of the country. The reality is that the economy is bleeding profusely in order to continue supporting these non-productive clerics.

As the days of Moharram drew nearer, the governments in all provinces nervously finalised security plans to thwart any terrorist attacks. But, on the 10th of Moharram, we learnt a very clear lesson: you can safeguard against a suicide bomber, you can prevent a terrorist act by bringing life to a standstill but what will you do with your own blood that is brimming with the poison of faith-led hatred? How can you guard every mosque, bazaar and imambargah? When thousands feel motivated by religious identities of all sorts, it is only a matter of time before acts of violence erupt at the slightest provocation. Yes, a few scapegoats can easily be found and, after hopeless reliance on religious leaders, we imagine that we have remedied the situation. We are in the habit of sleeping over grave issues.

Whodunnit? This term always plunges the national discourse into emotional outbursts of accusations and counter-accusations. We then customarily also hear a few ‘foreign hand’ conspiracy theories. Let us first dismiss these foreign hand theorists to the dustbin as they want to keep us blindfolded while our self-inflicted wounds become cancerous. Just browse the social media and you will notice that the demon of extremism is not confined to the boundaries of mosques and imambargahs. It has taken hold of our daily narrative. Despite the fact that heinous, inhuman crimes were perpetrated in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi, I do not feel that they were the actual perpetrators. If we keep on piling ammunition in every nook and corner of our house and one day a child ignites the whole dump with a single matchstick, who is to be blamed for the resulting mayhem?

Every stakeholder has used religion to serve his or her vested interests. The military establishment used it to wage proxy wars in our neighbouring countries. The media has used it to sell its television programmes and politicians have used it to garner political support. One cannot treat the wayward driving of a drunk driver unless he stops heavy drinking. Europe also was once obsessed with questions of faith and religious groups were at each other’s throats. Gradually, they overcame that obsession and, after much turmoil, also experienced the hollowness of other belief systems like excessive nationalism and communism. Sectarianism is a by-product of overindulgence in religion at the social level. If we, as a society, become less obsessed with religion and treat it as a personal matter and not a question of life and death, we will see that the sectarian balloon will also get deflated.

The superkid story had a happy ending except for the fact that the child himself is fighting his cancer, but he is doing so bravely. Our saga does not appear to be ending any time soon despite everybody seeing that the imagined world created by maulvis (clerics) and zakireen (preachers) only exists in their fantasies. Is it not time to ponder the price we are paying in terms of actual and opportunity costs for merely listening to their fantasies and then living in their imaginary world?

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


The extent of Munawar Hasan’s mischief , Daily Times, 17 November, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : The extent of Munawar Hasan’s mischief — Dr Haider Shah

Martyrdom in its religious sense is a contested notion ever since the outbreak of civil wars that characterised the periods since the third Caliph

I am not a fan of Mr Munawar Hasan’s views but somehow I like him as a person. His propensity to share his views without any embellishments of verbosity or coverings of sugarcoated hypocrisy is worth appreciating. Through him we get an opportunity to showcase the logical conclusion of the way of thinking that our religious groups utilise to interpret the world around us. Sometime ago, he stated in an interview that it is better for rape victims to hush up instead of publicising their ordeal. Outrageously shocking it might be but in all honesty this is the logical outcome of the so-called Islamic sharia relating to rape crime. Rape, despite its severity as a crime, does not get mentioned in the scripture even once, though crimes like theft and consensual sex are repeatedly discussed. The requirement of four witnesses to prove rape would automatically lead us to the conclusion that we are all too afraid to admit but not Hasan who is bold enough to state it bluntly.

The Jamaat chief again proved true to his reputation when he answered Mr Salim Safi’s question about martyrdom of Pakistani military personnel at the hands of militant extremists. The massive confusion that our national discourse suffers from was brought to the fore by the crispy clear answer of Hasan. I can appreciate the intensity of dismay and pain caused by his remarks, but the military establishment is also a contributor to the confusion that has today led to the sleazy debate on martyrdom. Without withholding fullest credit to all those who sacrifice their lives in the line of duty, I also find the hands of the military as an institution not fully clean.

The Pakistan military was painstakingly carved out of the British Indian Army by Iskander Mirza in his role as the first defence secretary. The pre-1947 Indian army, the mother organisation of the Pakistan army, was a secular institution that drew inspiration and motivation from institutional ethos and discipline. Despite varying religious beliefs, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian soldiers laid down their lives in the line of duty. The insurgencies of the tribesmen of the present day FATA were crushed by deploying units that mostly comprised Sikh and Gurkha sepoys. The Pakistan army also inherited that secular outlook in the beginning, but while our obsession with Kashmir has stunted our growth as an economic power, it has also radicalised our military establishment. The Afghan jihad under Ziaul Haq destroyed the soul of the army and turned it into a jihadi groups generating outfit. Whenever I have had a chance to speak to officers of the army I found most of them confused souls who remained suspended between a western lifestyle and fundamentalist beliefs. There is little evidence that the situation has since then changed much.

No doubt, some recent speeches of the army chief General Pervez Kiyani were encouraging in terms of their clarity on the nature of the war that the Pakistani nation is confronted with. Unlike our mainstream politicians, he was very clear in declaring the war as our own war of survival against some determined enemies. I have been stating in my earlier pieces that nations do make new choices when they are faced with a changed world. Japan and Germany befriended the US in 1946 even though the armies of both countries were destroyed to a great extent by the US. We are also faced with choices in the changed world of today. Hamid Gul represents a stream of thought that characterised the army establishment’s worldview in the 1980s. But the world has changed since the heyday of the Afghan jihad of Gul’s golden era. Today, both Pakistan and its army leadership need a new doctrine after shelving the jihadist identity. The Pakistan army has to return to the ethos that characterised its parent institution.

The demon of extremist jihadi identity has to be fully exorcised from its body. ‘Pakistan first’ was the correct slogan of Pervez Musharraf, however much I may loathe his person. I will join the army in condemning Hasan as a traitor after the army severs its links completely with the jihadi outfits. Handling the fires of extremism, our army not only burnt its own fingers but also exposed the country to the risks of extremism. Merely a few declarations are not enough. It must join hands with the prime minister in repairing relations with the neighbours so that we can focus on radical groups.

No de-radicalisation can happen in Pakistan unless the military as an institution fully de-radicalises itself after purging all overly fundamentalist tendencies in its rank and file. Martyrdom in its religious sense is a contested notion ever since the outbreak of civil wars that characterised the periods since the third Caliph. In its secular sense a martyr is a hero who sacrifices his life for defending his country. In that sense there is no debate that the law enforcement personnel who laid down their lives for our country are our heroes and martyrs. But if the religious sense of martyrdom is claimed, I am afraid we then run the risk of handing over control from our hands to the religious establishment and are then at the mercy of obscurantist minds. With clearer identification of religious discourse, and living like their imagined heroes from the Arab world, the Pakistani Taliban are better poised to win any match of martyrdom. Put this way, Munawar Hasan’s dictum rings like a painful and bitter truth.

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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Conspiracy theories: An interview with Viewpoint

Thursday, 07 November 2013 10:09by Haider Shah |

There is a wide gap between our real capacity and our lofty ideals. So it becomes necessary to fill the gap with conspiracy theories of all sorts

‘Our commentators in popular media invoke conspiracy theories to create a smokescreen in which no one is able to see the omnipresent reality. ‘It’s all because of the villainous West’ is the sum total of their discourse,’ says Dr Haider Shah.

Dr. Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. In an interview with Viewpoint, he discusses the growing popularity of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. Read on:


Why do you think conspiracy theories have gained widespread currency and hold sway over popular opinion in Pakistan?

Society is a social invention of humans to satisfy their socio-economic needs. In addition to our physical needs, we also have psychological needs. ‘To feel important’ is the most important human need. When you cease to feel important, you experience depression and can develop suicidal tendencies even if all physical needs stand fulfilled. A society is made up of individuals. It can also, therefore, suffer from psychological conditions. It also needs to feel important. Individuals who feel that certain people or in extreme cases everyone else is conspiring against them are said to be suffering from the disease of ‘paranoia’. This can be thought of as a perverted way of ego satisfaction. They prefer to live in their imagined world where their own failures appear as the handiwork of deep rooted conspiracies of others. They engage in a self-pitying exercise believing that they would have won laurels had the world not been actively conspiring against them. Often people with little real potential but lofty ideals about themselves develop such tendencies. There is no shortage of such individuals in our society so popularity of conspiracy theories is in fact a symptom of ‘paranoia’ at societal level. We have condemned our women, more than half of population, to the life of eternal captivity within the four walls of our houses. Most of the remaining 50 per cent waste their working hours on account of socially institutionalised rituals. The upper echelons neither work nor pay any taxes. The list of failures, embarrassments and follies is a long one. But just look at our social discourse. We are Islam’s fort. We are a nuclear power. We want to be treated at par with a neighbour that is many times our size in economy and population. There is a wide gap between our real capacity and our lofty ideals. So it becomes necessary to fill the gap with conspiracy theories of all sorts.

These so-called conspiracy theories are not popular merely in Pakistan. Almost all over the Muslim world one comes across similar cock-and-bull narratives. It seems Pakistan is not an isolated case. But contagion has plagued the entire Muslim world. Your comments

Yes, I agree with this. Except for oil what else the Muslim world can boast of. Even this oil is discovered and extracted for them by the Western oil companies. In an ordinary Muslim’s scheme of things, taught by elders, he or she is the centre of the universe. God is on his side and hence all the rest in the world are doomed. In reality he is also aware that over last 500 years his community’s contribution towards any humanity serving knowledge is almost nil. His community is just a proud consumer of the goods and services generated by knowledge created by others. This realisation can be very painful. So the Muslim community as a whole has also created an imaginary world where the Muslim nations are always innocent victims of the cunning non-Muslim world. This way the bruised ego finds some solace.

Another aspect is: these so-called theories are popularized by the media outlets, political bodies and ‘scholars’ with far-right or right-wing ideological bent [many of them can be tagged as fundamentalists]. Do you think the tendency to popularize conspiracy theories to explain away a complicated world is in fact an intellectual failure of the political Islam and conspiracy-theories-as-discourse mirror the intellectual bankruptcy of the political Islam?

Just as I mentioned earlier, you need to be making solid contribution to the knowledge based economy of modern times in order to claim your piece of the pie of importance. The Muslim world has invested very little in rationalist scientific knowledge in terms of money, time and energy over last many centuries. If you google for books on Islamic theology you will find an unending list of books written by infinite number of Muslim scholars from around the world. But if you google for genuine and original works of science you will be struggling to find any good references of Muslim names. If there are a few books their writers also were educated in Western universities. With this bleak picture, it is not surprising that our commentators in popular media invoke conspiracy theories to create a smokescreen in which no one is able to see the omnipresent reality. ‘It’s all because of the villainous West’ is the sum total of their discourse.

What have been the consequences, especially in the Pakistani context, for political culture where conspiracy theories have become a framework for a world outlook?

When Spiderman movie captured the imagination of young children there were reports in media that many kids suffered serious injuries when they imagined themselves to be Spiderman and tried to copy his moves. Our leaders also live in an imaginary world created by the conspiracy theories. Repercussions of living in an imaginary world are same for kids and adults.

What about the role of mainstream electronic and social media? Both forums, it seems, are largely dominated by conspiracy theorists. Consequently, technologies with liberating potential have become instrumental in holding mass mind in dark. Your comments

No doubt there is a demand for conspiracy theories in the developed countries as well as this craze for conspiracy theories is not monopolised by Pakistani society, in particular, and the Muslim world, in general. Even today books and documentaries based on conspiracy theories about killing of J.F. Kennedy are popular with a certain section of the American society. What differentiates this trend from ours is however the fact that the consumers of conspiracy theories form an insignificant minority in these societies while in our country interpreting current world events through conspiracy theories is a well-accepted norm. A famous (though obsolete) law in economics claims ‘Supply creates its own demand’. The dictum may have gone out of favour in classical economics but in the realm of public discourse supply of conspiracy theories through popular media outlets can have long term devastating effects. Not only popular media but increasingly social media is also being used by preachers of half-baked conspiracy theories for discrediting truth and rationalism. We have seen it in the case of Malala in the recent past. Just as a few bold rationalist voices become more audible, the extremists also become more active to destroy new discourse with the venomous stings of their conspiracy theories. It is a sad state of affairs but rationalists have to continue their important work. Silence is no longer an option now.

Dr. Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding  member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at  

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The power of beliefs — II , Daily Times, 9/11/13

OVER A COFFEE : The power of beliefs — II — Dr Haider Shah

Some beliefs, both religious and secular, can have devastating effects. Take the example of the pseudoscience of phrenology, which caused wide-ranging injustices and miseries
The western world believed the cosmos to be earth-centric, as both the Bible and Aristotelian science advocated the same. Such beliefs only impeded the development of scientific knowledge. But some beliefs, both religious and secular, can have far more devastating effects. For instance, take the example of the pseudoscience of phrenology, which caused wide-ranging injustices and miseries. A German physician, Franz Josef Gall, the father of phrenology, theorised that the human brain had 27 distinct zones, with individual responsibility for certain functions and predispositions. He further contended that the size of each zone depended on how much it was used, like our other body muscles. He expanded his apparently harmless theory to senseless speculations by linking the zones with lumps and bumps on the anterior of the skull. As a consequence of the wide acceptance of this theory, perfectly normal persons found themselves as potential murderers or lunatics as they unfortunately had similar bumps or lumps that had been identified by the science of phrenology for murderers or lunatics. Such was the sway of these beliefs that even authors like the Bronte sisters and Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular character Sherlock Holmes promoted these ideas in some of their stories.
Phrenology also found its way into the personnel recruitment of private sector companies, where experts would check bumps and lumps in the heads of applicants. Even the courts entertained the theories by imprisoning defendants on the strength of ‘expert witness’ given by professional phrenologists. While phrenology gradually lost its craze in the UK by 1850, it captured new ground in the US where the Fowler brothers, Orson and Lorenzo, became its chief advocates, winning the support of inventors like Thomas Edison. Lorenzo, finding his lecture tour in the UK in 1860 very lucrative, decided to establish the Fowler Institute in London. Interestingly, the famous American humourist Mark Twain tried to expose Lorenzo’s claims by visiting him in a lower middle class disguise. Lorenzo declared him lacking in a sense of humour and creative ability because of an alleged depression in his skull. But such is the power of popular beliefs that Lorenzo continued making fools of the believers of phrenology. Phrases like ‘high brow’, ‘low brow’ in English owe their origin to the dubious science of Lorenzo.
The power of beliefs gives rise to the vulnerability of gullible individuals to charlatans. But at times this power can take an even more ominous turn. The case of phrenology gives a good illustration. The Belgian colonial office, led by phrenology science, carried out measurements of skulls of natives in Rwanda and declared the Tutsi tribe to be racially superior to the Hutu tribe. Accordingly, the two were racially discriminated, setting the foundations of ethnic warfare, which later resulted in the 1994 genocide in which Hutu extremists killed about one million Tutsi and the moderate Hutu.
Another example of scientific beliefs resulting in widespread harm can be found in the so-called science of eugenics. The foundational idea of this science is attributed to Francis Galton, who was related to Charles Darwin. Scientific knowledge is neutral in its essence. Like a knife it can be used for both useful and destructive purposes. While Darwin’s ideas heralded major scientific innovations in various branches of science, some have also put his ideas to nefarious use. Galton is one of them. In the Greek language, ‘eugenes’ means a noble race or birth. Eugenics, in the garb of science, advocated controlled breeding to improve desirable characteristics of a race. Developments in the field of genetics further encouraged the advocates of this pseudoscience. Mendel had used pea patches to derive his inheritance laws. Galton wanted to extend Mendel’s findings to the human race. He postulated that defective individuals should be sterilised so that the human race is improved. This way he equated the human race with the selective breeding of dogs or bloodstock. Galton preached that the adoption of eugenic techniques would usher in a new era of peace and progress for Britain. The new science-led beliefs were embraced by prominent personalities such as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb, the founder of the London School of Economics. It is not that eugenics gained popularity only among right-wingers. Many left-leaning leaders and authors were also ardent supporters of eugenics. Examples include the socialist Fabian Society, WB Yeats, the leader of the Suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst, Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell.
Hitler is often associated with active implementation of eugenics in his German empire. But in reality, Hitler had borrowed the concept of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic super-race after studying the Californian eugenics programme that kicked off in 1909. Big financial institutions, like the Rockefeller Foundation and Stanford threw their active support behind the eugenics development programme. Even the US Supreme Court validated the science of eugenics in its landmark case Buck v Bull. Hitler put eugenics to full bloom by making it an integral part of his official policy. After the fall of Hitler, the intelligentsia in the western world recognised the darker side of this pseudoscience and eugenics fell out of favour. 
The purpose of sharing these examples from the world of science is to showcase the dehumanising power of taken-for-granted beliefs. But science is humble in accepting that it can get things wrong, and hence once that is realised, it does not hesitate to embrace the better evidence. If people of faith were as humble, the world would have been a more peaceful place today.
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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The power of beliefs — I, Daily Times, 2/11/13

OVER A COFFEE : The power of beliefs — I — Dr Haider Shah

When someone is under the spell of greed-led beliefs, this simple fact is not comprehended that if lead could be turned so easily into gold then the gold would become cheaper than lead
I have been planning to write a piece on the power of beliefs for quite a while but was prevented by urgency of other events that keep happening in Pakistan. No, I am not going to discuss religious beliefs, even if the title might be suggesting so. On the contrary, I am discussing how scientific thinking can also be muddled by intoxicating power of beliefs. The history of scientific thought is replete with many examples of taken-for-granted beliefs. For illustration purpose I am choosing only a few from Graem Donald’s reader friendly book When the Earth was flat.
Alchemy, the precursor of Chemistry, is famous for its obsession with turning other metals into gold. It is a good case to begin our re-examination of scientific theories as it has many metaphorical parallels in our society even today. Aristotle, father of empirical science, thought that all matter was alike. As per his concept, a cabbage and a brick had the same inner substance and any difference in form was due to an inspirational spirit. So after controlling the spirit in matter, lead could be turned into gold. Early alchemists had divided all matter into four classical elements: earth, fire, water and air. They thought that the spirit of all of them was same. This search for finding a way to control the spirit was termed the Magnum Opus by alchemists. When someone is under the spell of greed led beliefs, this simple fact is not comprehended that if lead could be turned so easily into gold then the gold would become cheaper than lead. But in medieval Europe, charlatan alchemists took full advantage of gullible simpletons by ripping them off with the help of a few tricks presented as miracles.
Just as not all religious leaders use beliefs of followers in a deceitful way, and are rather inspired by believing genuinely in the truthfulness of the faith system, not all alchemists wanted to fleece the unwary victims. Some very bright minds of those times joined the quest for the key to all matter and, unwittingly, they also made some remarkable discoveries. For instance, the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus was the first to identify and name zinc. John Dee, consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, and Sir Isaac Newton, one of the science world’s most influential pioneers, were also devotees of alchemy. A 16th century celebrated alchemist, Dr Faustus, blew himself to smithereens while he experimented with glycerine and acids in his search for the ‘Water of Life’.
Along with these genuine explorers, charlatans also made brisk business. The Austrian alchemist Johann Richthausen, after duping Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III with a gold creation trick, made off with the proceeds he had collected. When Leopold I was also hoodwinked, Empress Maria Theresa banned all such practices throughout her realm. Those were the times of alchemy when science was driven by beliefs. Today, guided by robust knowledge of nuclear physics, a scientist named Seaborg successfully transformed several thousand atoms of lead and bismuth into gold by removing certain neutrons and protons from the sample. The cost of operations required to turn elements into gold is however many thousand times the gold extracted from mines.
Alchemy reigned supreme a few centuries ago. But beliefs in weird pseudoscience are rampant even in modern times. For instance, in the late 20th century, Serge Voronoff, a Russian born French surgeon, experimented with slowing down the ageing process. Starting with injections of extracts from ground-up dog and guinea pig testicles he published many papers, projecting his research as the way forward in the fight against everything from flagging desire to schizophrenia. Somehow, both media and the European and American medical profession did not question his claims, allowing him to popularise his name and methods. In the early 1920, Voronoff began transplanting the testes of executed criminals into the gullible rich. To cope with increasing demand he began grafting thin slices of the glands of monkey testicles into the scrotums of the rich and famous. Soon Voronoff earned fame in the medical profession, attracting many heads of state, including Kemal Ataturk. He also generated huge income from teaching other doctors and surgeons to expand the ludicrous medical practice across the rest of Europe and America. Such is the power of beliefs that in 1923 more than 700 high-status delegates of the International Congress of Surgeons hailed Voronoff as the father of rejuvenation. By 1930, Voronoff had packed monkey genitals into the scrotums of over 500 wealthy patients in France alone. Preying on the desperation of victims, Voronoff diversified into the female market, by transplanting monkey ovaries into women who feared the onset of age. Men and women both looked upon Voronoff as a saint who could do miraculous treatments. But in the world of science, deceit cannot live long, if evidences to the contrary begin appearing. The euphoria gradually began giving way to rising concerns. Not only that Voronoff’s female patients failed to experience any discernible change in their natural ageing, many of the men Voronoff had treated in the early 1920s began to die in large numbers. By early 1930s, more reliable testing methods exposed hollowness of Voronoff’s methods and he retired himself from the medical profession.
Next time I would discuss a few more follies of scientific beliefs of the past. Revisiting history with sincerity is always a rewarding experience.
(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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You need a beard, not a PhD, RationalistPakistan (Originally published in Viewpoint)

You need a beard, not a PhD

November 1, 2013 at 20:07

Haider Shah:

Kamran Shahid’s programme reinforced the commonly held perception that neither a Nobel nor a PhD in physics from one of the most prestigious universities of the world is eligible for respect. A sizable beard and a few extremist clichés, then Pakistan is all yours


Discourse and actions go hand in hand. New discourse always threatens the existing social order and consequently those who profit most from the status quo respond instantly to nip the evil in the bud. This explains the evident wide gulf that exists between humanists and fundamentalists in celebrating the recognition that a young Pakistani girl has received with regards to her advocacy of human rights from the international community. Sensing that the fatally injured girl had triggered a strong anti-Taliban sentiment against extremists , the apologists and promoters of extremist ideology unleashed their conspiracy theories through social media, while the little girl was still struggling for her life. Now as the girl has risen from the bed, and her innocent charm is captivating all and sundry the world over, the proponents of militant extremism in Pakistan are smouldering with boundless jealousy. They have gone berserk in their attempts to malign the iconic anti-Taliban image of a Pakistani Pakhtoon girl.

The latest episode of schizophrenic behaviour was seen in a TV programme where the host Kamran Shahid and his two fanatic guests ganged up to pounce upon one of the most prominent scientists of Pakistan Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy (PH). One may not necessarily agree with PH all the time. For instance, despite my immense respect for Dr sahib’s invaluable services as a teacher and populist of science in Pakistan when calls were made in the social media for supporting PH’s renewal of contract at LUMS I had opined that the issue was a petty one given the stature of PH and it was advisable for him not to press upon it even though personally we would have liked him to continue with his teaching contract. Similarly when in one of her interviews Malala stated that even though she was living in the U.K she was living according to ‘Pakhtoonsaqafat’, I found the statement highly distasteful as she should not present herself as a stereotype and should rather keep her choices as entirely personal. But despite these occasional differences both Malala and PH serve as icons of our love for education, rationalism and human values.

In the TV show the host Kamran Shahid, and reporter turned analyst Ansar Abbasi and the journalist cum government servant Orya Maqbool employed same tactics that Molvi Khalid Chishti had used in his attack on poor Christian girl Rimsha Masih. The consequences of entering a coal mine and attending a talk show with hosts and guests of very questionable integrity are often not hugely different. PH has however clarified that the T.V programme was a case of criminal negligence of professional ethics, if not outright conspiracy. Upon sharing of concerns, PH confided with well-wishers that if he had been informed beforehand that Malala’s book would be discussed he would have made the book readily available to negate any concocted allegations. He also said that he was kept in dark about the two media extremists in whose presence he would not have participated. PH also complained about deliberate manipulation of his mike and picture so as to give the two extremists much stronger coverage.

The programme reinforced the commonly held perception that neither a Nobel laureate nor a PhD in physics from one of the most prestigious universities of the world is eligible for respect in Pakistan. If you have a sizable beard on your face and you can utter a few extremist clichés then you are the most honourable man and Pakistan is all yours. In addition to this worrying perception, the episode also raised the question about the basis of selection of presenters these days. Used as cash cows, various channels are making an abusive use of talk shows. I am not sure with what academic credentials Kamran Shahid interviews guests that have served in the academia and research for decades. Same is true for many other T.V talk shows. The nature and quality of discussions often reminds me of the cock-a-doodle competition of roosters in ‘Bin Tere Laadan’ movie. Many of these talk show hosts are more suited for supervising such tournaments.

With a bit of smile, the programme also rekindled my own recollection of my postcard written to Orya Maqbool Jaan [OMJ] on Eid ul Azha in 2012. At the Rationalist Society of Pakistan [RSOP] a member shared a column of OMJ in which he had severely criticized Geo’s pro-education ad campaign. OMJ felt so aggrieved that he used some references to build a case that India was teeming with education before arrival of British forces and that those who differed with his assertions were ‘Abu Jehl’. Two members of RSOP, Mr. Waqass Goraya and Nadeem Ahmad also supported the cause and with their help and persuasion I decided to write an Eid postcard in my weekly column in which I exposed how OMJ was misrepresenting contents of old books to mislead his gullible readers. When my column got published and attracted OMJ’s attention, firing a shot of ‘jahalat’, he turned his cannons towards me. As a self-appointed vice chancellor, OMJ conferred the honorary degree of ‘jahil’ on me as a mark of his appreciation and labelled me as ‘jahalat ki faseel mein qaid danishwur’ (an intellectual imprisoned by ignorance) for questioning his references.

After mildly accepting some factual inaccuracies in his earlier account, he quickly retreated to the safety of his Nasim Hijazi-style history. Interestingly, OMJ’s opening paragraph convinced me how careful he is about ascertaining facts before making them public. The ‘defender of the faith’ referred to me as a liberal hailing from Lahore. Like my friends, this was news for me as apart from my one year stay at Civil Services Academy, Walton I have never had any link with this great city of learned people. I would share briefly the blatant misuse of historical material by OMJ in a follow up article soon.

Dr. Haider Shah 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 The article was originally published on Viewpoint Online.