Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: New security policy and national narrative, The Daily Times, 29 March, 2014

New security policy and national narrative

In the 21st century, we are made to believe that God wanted underage girls to be married against their will and that polygamy was every male’s divine right

Sometime back, I wrote a piece titled, ‘Operation or a comprehensive solution?’ where I had contended that militancy was a result of our national narrative of extremism and therefore a military operation on its own would be meaningless unless it was a part of a comprehensive anti-extremism policy. Embracing this approach, the NISP envisages a Comprehensive Response Plan (CRP) as the overarching anti-extremism policy. The second pillar of the policy, the Composite Deterrence Plan (CDP), deals with operational level initiatives. Today, I restrict my analysis to the CRP, which deals with the long-term sustainability of the state by addressing the origins of the militancy problem. 

The CRP aims to focus on five key areas, which are given as ‘infrastructure development’, ‘rehabilitation of victims of terrorism’, ‘national narrative reconciliation’, ‘reintegration’ and ‘legal reforms’. The central theme of the CRP boils down to the need for a new narrative. The following provision of the policy encapsulates the main thrust of the new policy: “Construct a national narrative on extremism, terrorism, sectarianism and militancy to dispel the wrong perceptions created by the terrorists on an ideological basis by engaging media, civil society organisations, overseas Pakistanis and the international community to elicit support and cooperation.” 
The NISP also identifies the need for bringing madrassas into mainstream education. As a policy objective one cannot disagree with the need for modernising religious institutions but the authors of the NISP seem to be assuming that radicalism was a problem restricted to madrassas alone while a very enlightened narrative reigns supreme in other parts of the country. Nothing is farther from the truth. The sad reality is that the environment of many higher education institutions is no less dogmatic. If one gets a chance to discuss national issues with officers belonging to various prestigious services, one finds their narrative highly obscurantist and often extremist. I once wrote about the need for a national deradicalisation programme and suggested that it should begin in military institutions like the Pakistan Military Academy and National Defence College. The jihad-related propaganda and India-fixated doctrines should give way to new doctrines based upon the nationalist vision of a progressive Pakistan. Similarly, the syllabi of schools should also be purged of any extremist content because brains damaged at a young age are harder to heal later on. There is also an urgent need to make higher education institutions genuine seats of learning and critical thinking. The state needs to establish its writ in the University of Punjab where a student wing related to a religious political party runs a parallel administration. 

No sooner had the NISP with its emphasis upon a new progressive narrative been announced than the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) reminded us what kind of narrative our religious leaders wanted us to remain attuned to. In the 21st century, we are made to believe that God wanted underage girls to be married against their will and that polygamy was every male’s divine right. In one of my earlier writings I mentioned that, when in 1890 the British government raised the minimum age of consent from 10 to 12, after a very young Hindu bride died of haemorrhage, both Hindu and Muslim clerics showed uncanny solidarity in opposing the new law as they argued that their scriptures fully endorsed child marriages. The Indian legislature has, however, embraced changes by bringing the family law into consonance with the demands of the social consensus of the 21st century world. Our clerics, however, wish to stay frozen in their imaginary world of the past. One must give full credit to Marvi Memon of the PML-N who has tabled a bill in the National Assembly seeking tougher punishments for the offence of child marriage. We need to give such befitting answers to the likes of Maulana Shirani.

How serious is the government in creating and promoting an enlightened and pluralist narrative? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The narrative of negotiations with militants hardly serves the aim of a new progressive national narrative. The current discourse has glorified the militants to such an extent that they are seen as an equal party to the state. By meeting them at a place of their choice, which was guarded by their men, we seem to have accepted their de facto sovereignty over that region. Similarly, few will believe in the sincerity of the stated objective of a new narrative if on the one hand YouTube remains banned while on the other hand websites of extremist radicals remain fully operational. 


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OVER A COFFEE “Between Amina and suicide bombers”, The Daily Times, March 22, 2014

   Between Amina and suicide bombers lives the other Pakistan that is inhabited by men like the gods of an H G Wells novel

Dr Haider Shah

I never knew her in person. I still don’t know her much as a person. But I can feel the power of her iconic status. While alive she was an ordinary girl with typical dreams of any girl of her age. Now in death Amina has moved the whole country like Joan of Arc, who was also burnt alive. But unlike the legendary French girl, Amina Bibi is not a character from the distant and unobservable past. The ruthless eyes of media lenses made a spectacle out of her flaming body. What were her grievances and to what extent was her rape accusation genuine are questions of fact that can better be answered after judicial investigations. But it is the iconic Amina that is more important today. She has become an icon of protest for the dispossessed against those who wield power. Like the angry young French revolutionaries of Les Miserables, Amina in her final agony-filled voice was asking us:

“Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!”

Hopeless, dreamless and voiceless, Amina freed herself from the slavery of living in an inhospitable environment where grievances are not redressed and where one is pitted against those who are protected by law, custom and social structures. Self-immolation, for Amina, became a vociferous protest as she felt insulted and humiliated. Setting ablaze her body along with all her dreams, she added a tormenting endnote to the traditions of Gandhi and Bacha Khan, who practiced nonviolent resistance to the formidable might of British colonial rule. Amina acted alone and her action was sudden and emotional. Certain young men with grievances against society take a different route. After being exposed to the indoctrination of charismatic religious teachers, they not only end their own lives but take full revenge for their years of deprivation. They find comfort in the self-imagined glorification that comes with the title of fidayeen or suicide bombers. If we look at the profiles of suicide bombers, we can see that they tend to be 15 to 25 years old with weak academic achievements and impoverished backgrounds. Making references to certain Quranic verses, they are told that Allah wants to trade heaven for their lives. When a young person has seen deprivation in his wretched life, the captivating seduction of such glorification can hardly be appreciated by those who are born and brought up in very different circumstances altogether.

Between Amina and suicide bombers lives the other Pakistan that is inhabited by men like the gods of an H G Wells novel. Look at the story of the retired army general who boastfully stated in his televised address that he imposed a state of emergency in the country even though he was fully aware that he was committing treason by subverting the constitution. Despite repeated orders by the court, Musharraf refuses to respect the law of the land. From politicians to media-men, he has an army of lobbyists working for him. Whether you build a bridge that collapses within weeks after inauguration, or cause billions in losses to the national exchequer while heading Pakistan Railways or the National Logistics Cell or subvert the constitution, you can’t be held accountable as being a General you can do no wrong. And at some distance in the land of saeen makhdooms (spiritual leaders) and sajada nasheens (disciples), famine and disease reign supreme. However, even a mild complaint over this state of affairs got Pir sahib of Hala’s hackles up to such an extent that Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah had to visit Makhdoom Amin Fahim’s residence to smooth his ruffled feathers. Dwellers of the Thar desert regions regard death and suffering as written by Providence. Saeen sahib will get votes from his devout followers come what may. Why risk political relationships? In Pakistan neither a general nor a saeen can do any wrong.

Between Amina and suicide bombers lives a happy Pakistan. In exquisitely decorated clubs and messes the exchange of laughter and delicate coughs are heard while rises in their respective pay scales and grades are discussed among self-indulgent bureaucrats. In these exclusive zones you cannot enter if you are not wearing a tie and where, true to our colonial heritage, a large notice often reads, “Maids and servants are not permitted.” In this happy Pakistan, military and civil officers and judges keep piling up one plot of land after another, and while commoners can’t find a ground to play cricket or football on, lush green golf courses are available for this happy Pakistan. Recently we celebrated International Women Day. Hardly had Amina’s incident passed when the news of two women being killed as a human sacrifice in Shikarpur to please the gods of our cultural norms appeared. We have developed a knack for making all important days memorable. Just a day before the Hindu festival of Holi, we torched a temple in Larkana. Thar, Larkana and Shikarpur — Bilawal regularly sounds heroic against the Taliban in his speeches and tweets. But he has yet to demonstrate his heroic credentials in the case of his own province. He has yet to establish that good and responsive governance is something that matters in his scheme of things. Of what use is liberal discourse if in the shadows of the Sindh Festival, jirgas and panchayats continue dishing out death sentences to women.

Between Amina and suicide bombers lives a happy Pakistan that most of us only know from a distance.


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Deadly purchase of peace The Daily Times, March 08, 2014

We forget that the state has already set a precedent. If a man with a gun can hold the capital hostage and a criminal gang can terrorise the whole country into obedience, why should others with grievances not follow suit?
First, the ceasefire announcement by the Taliban provided television commentators with cause for celebration. Then, the sixes of Shahid Afridi electrified the nation starved for happy news and glory. However, soon we realised that darker realities do not go away by sleeping over them, and that the quicksand we are dancing over is swallowing us all. While we were busy with aerial firing over defeating India, shooters of another sort were also busy in their brisk trade. This time it was the judiciary, which paid the price in blood for the collective inaction of the nation against an imminent threat.
What Imran Khan and Munawar Hussain said after the recent incidents of terrorism can be excused because the method in their madness is clear and consistent. However, I am less inclined to take a lenient view of the conduct of our interior minister. His discourse is confused, self-contradictory and directionless. At times, he looks like a mirror image of Imran Khan, except that he is in the PML-N. The two gentlemen share a few more credentials as well. Both give out faith-coated statements frequently and are good at the business of producing anti-west tirades. The children of Imran Khan go to posh schools in the UK while Chaudhry Nisar’s family has US passports. This fact, on its own, is neither objectionable nor condemnable. However, this hypocrisy becomes painful when the two are heard pleading to impose the Taliban upon Pakistani children. A booklet on security policy cannot be an alternative to the clear resolve of eradicating the menace of militant extremism in the country. Some PML-N leaders have been much clearer than the interior minister when discussing our security situation. In the case of the sensitive area of law and order, the ‘right man for the right job’ rule seems to be seriously compromised. 
 
The situation today reminds me of a column by Ataul Haq Qasmi. Commenting upon the trend of gratefulness, he narrates that once he offered condolences to someone over the death of a relative in a road accident. The person replied, “Thanks to Allah that, though the man died, both his eyes are safe.” Perhaps we are trying to find similar sparks of optimism in the ongoing negotiations with the militants. Those who are inspired by the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ principle quickly tell us that the Taliban did not claim responsibility for the terror attack or that groups such as Ahrarul Hind are no more part of the TTP. We forget that the state has already set a precedent. If a man with a gun can hold the capital hostage and a criminal gang can terrorise the whole country into obedience, why should others with grievances not follow suit? Those who have been slaughtering captives have become celebrities for both the government and media. After becoming mujahideen (holy warriors) and fidayeen, drivers, cleaners and other written off members of society attain the status of a ‘stakeholder’ to whom appeals for mercy are made by religious scholars. 
 
Whether it was the Roman empire or Persian empire, once barbarians sensed weakness they made relentless attacks. In Pakistan, the state has paraded its weakness to the whole world. Terrorism has been accepted as a way of according legitimacy to militant groups. The Taliban do not approve of our relations with the US. Another group will frown over our relations with Iran or Saudi Arabia. We succumb to one — we succumb to all. It hardly matters to those who are killed in a terrorist attack whether the perpetrators are members of the TTP or belong to any other little known group. 
 
I have regularly been advocating a comprehensive strategy to deal with the problem of extremism in the country. No doubt, a long-term strategy needs to be pursued to phase out extremism from society. However, in the long run, we are all dead. When a fire breaks out in the kitchen, the first thing to do is extinguish the fire and then think about long-term security solutions. The country is under attack by modern day barbarians. While there are safe havens in the country, groups with all kinds of funny names will thrive in these ungoverned spaces. A military operation will not end terrorist acts but the state will reassert the principle that there cannot be safe havens in the country. 
 
Led by the optimism of Taliban apologists, if we anticipate a peaceful end to the protracted insurgency, we might be heading towards a pyrrhic victory. If peace with the Taliban is purchased with a general amnesty, underground pro-Taliban groups will launch their next phase of ‘jihad’. We will see the flourishing of TTP cells in all towns and villages. Five times a day they will gather in mosques and work relentlessly to make a social space by propagating the ‘amr bil maroof wa nahi un al munkir’ doctrine. How they penetrated the Swat valley through the TSNM door will be the model they will use all over the country. Once they have fully penetrated society, they will resume their jihad with new vigour and tenacity.
 
Do we want to be blown to pieces after giving a hug to a suicide bomber or embrace martyrdom while protecting the country from savage assailants? Perhaps the time has come to make a choice. 
 
 
 
 


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Imran’s bee and mad cows, The Daily Times, March 01, 2014

   While on all fronts we see pragmatic political compromises, there is only one element of discourse that has stood the test of time: he is unwavering in his support for the Taliban

Dr Haider Shah

Neither Mr Bean, the show, nor any Bollywood comedy can be as hilarious as a talk show with Zaid Hamid or Orya Maqbool as participants. Increasingly, I have started finding Imran Khan also very entertaining.

Young voters, women and social media users were enamoured by the cricketer-turned-politician before the last elections as his massive advertisement campaign projected the image of a messiah who was destined to rescue a wayward nation. A leader is, however, not someone who merely capitalises on the negative public image of mainstream politicians. A true leader is one who produces a new discourse after correctly identifying the threats faced by the country. What we expected from Imran Khan was for him to spearhead progressive law making. As I find many educated women idolising him for his looks, he should have led the way for passing an anti-domestic violence law in parliament. He should have championed the cause of minorities. As he promises a new Pakistan, he should have introduced a modern school syllabus. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has been witnessed. All his discourse boils down to is ‘Amreeka ki jang’ (the US’s war). What a criminal waste of talent Imran has proved to be.

The bee in Mr Khan’s bonnet keeps buzzing in his public statements. He is often heard claiming that the Taliban neither wanted sharia nor were against the constitution but had only taken up arms because of Pakistan’s pro-US foreign policy. This is an extremely irresponsible and dangerous viewpoint coming from a leader who promises us a new era of bliss and development. If someone believes in the constitution then he has to know that, as per the constitution, it is the discretion of a constitutionally elected government to formulate its foreign policy. If any group has a problem with the government’s foreign policy it can campaign for a change in the policy by approaching the electorate and winning an election. It cannot dictate by militant means what our foreign policy should be. Supporting such a cause should be considered for a trial under Article six of the constitution as it amounts to subverting the constitution.

Politicians need to be pragmatic and flexible. This allowance can be given to Khan sahib as well even though he himself projected the image of an iconoclast. While on all fronts we see pragmatic political compromises, there is only one element of discourse that has stood the test of time: he is unwavering in his support for the Taliban. At times one finds him to be a better spokesperson for the TTP than Shahidullah Shahid himself. In the recent past he was painfully trying to exonerate the Taliban of any involvement in terrorist incidents. More recently, he bombastically declared in a press conference that the Taliban believed in the constitution and hence all liberal commentators, he charged, had been telling lies as they were all US agents. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Within days, the Taliban announced that they did not consider even a single word of the constitution to be worth respecting. Now if political honesty had any value in Imran’s scheme of things, he should have at least retracted his earlier statements after duly apologising for his amateurish stance in the past.

Another argument floated by Imran Khan and religiously restated by other PTI leaders is that war is not a solution and peace only comes through negotiations. This was the philosophy followed ardently by British leaders in the 1930s. Returning from Munich in September 1938 after concluding a peace accord with Hitler, the then British prime minister, Mr Chamberlain, declared to a jubilant crowd gathered at Heston airport in west London that the accord signalled “peace for our time”. If appeasement has no red line then it is another name for surrender. When Germany entered Poland, the UK declared war on Germany as the red line had been crossed. An estimated 450,000 British military personnel and civilians died due to the resulting World War II. In Sri Lanka many peace negotiations were held with the Tamil Tigers but the Tamil Tigers’ leader Velupillai Prabhakaran refused to compromise and continued murdering those moderate Tamils who disagreed with him. As the red lines had been crossed, the Sri Lankan state saw to it that the terrorist organisation and its leader were conclusively and crushingly defeated. India is investing heavily in its own war against Maoist rebels known as Naxalites as they crossed the red line and did not take advantage of peace offers.

Another oft-repeated argument is that militants are fellow Pakistanis and we should live in peace with them. It is a well-known fact that animal rights activism is a high priority in the UK. Cruelty to animals is an offence and offenders go to jail. Anti-fox hunting became such a big issue that the Labour government had to ban it to keep its voters happy. The same British government, however, culled thousands of cows once the threat posed by mad cow disease became widely known. In Pakistan’s case, the official spokesperson of the main militant group, the TTP, has publicly claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on law enforcement personnel while the government was negotiating peace with them. To add insult to injury, the TTP has dismissed the idea of any negotiations within the ambit of the constitution of Pakistan. When humans go mad, with deadly weapons in hand, they pose a far greater threat than mooing cows. I hope Mr Khan can understand that and appreciate the purpose of red lines in negotiations.