Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: Palestine and the mummification of history, The Daily Times, 26 July, 2014

The ghost of mummified history not only haunts Arabs but is also radicalising non-Arab Muslim communities all over the world along sectarian lines

Dr Haider Shah
July 26, 2014

Whenever a fresh wave of violence hits the shores of Palestine, old questions flare up again. History seems to be mummified in the Middle East.

The Egyptian embalmers who specialised in the art of mummification would remove the internal organs of the corpse and wash out the body with a mix of spices and palm wine to slow down the process of decomposition. Only leaving the heart inside the body, the skilful embalmers would use natron salt to cause extreme dryness. The body would then be wrapped up in linen bandages and put inside wooden frames so it could peacefully proceed to the life hereafter.

Like the pharaohs and other Egyptian dignitaries, history can also be mummified. In this case, faith acts as a mummifying salt by not allowing disputes of ancient times among warring factions decompose and go away with the passage of time. This mummification effect is most vividly observed in the Middle East region. Two distinct time periods of the history of the region appear to be preserved, retaining in their fold all the intensity of disputes of those times. One is the Palestine issue that happens to be one of the oldest territorial disputes to connect the 21st century to ancient history. Second is the Arabian Peninsula, which connects the present world to the seventh century. However, unlike the mummies of Egypt, the embalmed history of the Middle East is alive, forceful and vengeful. Like a volcano it keeps on exploding now and then, causing misery and devastation to all those who live in the region. And it does not seem to be going extinct any time soon.

The biblical story of David and Goliath captures best the conceptualisation of old history as conceived by the Israelites. According to the story, Goliath, the physical giant of the Philistines, terrified the Israelites when the Israelites, under their first King Saul, were facing their powerful archenemies, the Philistines. David, a young Israelite, emerges as a hero as he accepts the challenge and brings down the giant using his sling and five stones from a brook. With little historical evidence, the story appears in the Christian and Muslim traditions as well with some modifications. The belief that God is on their side, promising them the state of Israel, keeps Israelites firmly connected to the disputes of antiquity. The only difference that has occurred over time is that the other claimants are known as Palestinians who believe that God is rather on their side.

In the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) unified the Arab tribal groups and soon the desert dwelling nomads were knocking at the doors of the receding Byzantine and Persian empires. The internal tribal disputes however soon transformed into sectarian schisms in the new faith community, resulting in the mob-led murder of the third caliph, Hazrat Usman, and the ensuing civil war among rival factions. Such episodes are not unusual in human history as we find similar warfare among rival factions in European and Indian history as well. However, what is different in the case of Arab history is that faith has mummified tribal factional disputes of the seventh century where we see a pattern of bloodshed in the Arab world even today along sectarian lines. Worryingly, the ghost of mummified history not only haunts Arabs but is also radicalising non-Arab Muslim communities all over the world along sectarian lines.

The multidimensional Palestinian issue proves a bit paradoxical for many liberal and rationalist writers. If on the one hand the human dimension of the violence-prone problem has attracted the love and respect for Palestinians from revolutionaries like Che Guevara and progressive poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, on the other hand many find the growing influence of militant fundamentalism a cause for concern. Those who condemn Israeli actions see the issue from a human rights perspective as they find Israel a usurper of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. They contend that the policy of collective punishment and using force in a disproportionate way, causing the deaths of hundreds of civilians, amounts to genocide. The sceptics are worried that we do not see the same level of condemnation when the perpetrator happens to be a Muslim militia or army. They also contend that civilians suffer when they are used as a shield by Hamas in their standoff against Israel. To me, condemning Israeli actions from a human rights perspective is a genuine calling but I find it distressing when some overzealous users of social media brandish pro-Hitler messages to vent their frustration. Hitler was a megalomaniac who believed religiously in the supremacy of an Aryan ‘master race’ and found comfort in extreme hate speech against communists, mainstream political parties, communal minorities and disabled persons. We have no right to resurrect the demon that has been laid to rest by the Germans themselves.

In the realm of beliefs, hardcore evidence matters less as it is the communal perception of events of the past that shapes the behaviour of the faithful today. What we learn from Middle East affairs is that faith-led mummification is pervasive and deadly. We need to learn of a way for allowing the past to decompose and die out along with all its discords. Revisiting history with a rational humanist relearning of the past will be very helpful in this regard.


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OVER A COFFEE: Once upon a time there was Hamid Mir, The Daily Times, July 12, 2014

The Hamid Mir episode unfortunately has proved that uniformed institutions have now made inroads inside the electronic and social media, and political parties as well

July 12, 2014

When Saleem Shahzad was abducted and mercilessly killed, I wrote a piece in an Urdu newspaper titled ‘Sheeshon ka maseeha koi nahi’ (There is no messiah for shards of glass) as pessimism had fully eclipsed my Panglossian optimism. Addressing Saleem’s soul, I had lamented that soon everyone would be busy and all his heroism would come to nought. One does not need to have paranormal powers to predict the obvious. Similarly, when Raza Rumi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, I plainly advised him that he should have preferred doing some kind of aalim or qutub (religious) talk show where he could have won accolades by selling faith-coated sweets to keen buyers in a very profitable market. Alternatively, he might have considered doing a programme on star signs or tarot cards for our idle and superstitions-prone elite.

And when Hamid Mir was riddled with bullets in Karachi, despondency again gained a firm grip over my relentless optimism as I sketched the day in a column dedicated to the hospitalised journalist. I contrasted the tale of two visitors to Karachi on the same day. In one plane landed the former dictator charged with the offence of ‘high treason’ while in the other came the journalist who had been campaigning for the human rights of missing persons and against any preferential treatment to an accused on account of his status. The dictator continues enjoying a comfortable stay in a highly secured residence and is readying his suitcases to fly to a foreign destination while the journalist made a slow recovery in Agha Khan Hospital. If Saleem Shahzad could not get justice, why should Hamid Mir be expected to see his assailants and schemers brought to justice? We, as a nation, instead of finding the culprits behind the assassination attack, found ourselves hit by a twister of madness that shook the foundations of the media to the core.

What has happened to a private news channel reminds me of the Khalil Jibran story that I have narrated earlier as well. There was a king who was loved and feared by his subjects and was held in great regard for his just and wise rule. One night, a witch entered the kingdom with the intention of causing unrest and mayhem by turning everyone mad. She poured a few drops of a magical liquid into the well from which the king’s subjects drew water for drinking purposes. The next morning anyone who drank the water from the well lost their sanity and, within a few days, the whole kingdom was abuzz with whispers that the king had become mad and unjust. The king and his ministers kept defending their position but to no avail. One day, a wise minister whispered something into the king’s ear and he ordered that a golden goblet filled from the well be brought to him. The king and his ministers drank from the goblet one by one and consequently lost their sanity. Within days the whispering campaign against the king died out and everyone was lauding the just and sane rule of the king again. It seems that in a country where madness is the norm, the private television channel that has been in the news of late has also been forced to take a drink from the goblet. It did not challenge the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA’s) ban and makes no reference to Hamid Mir any more. According to a report appearing in a section of the press, Hamid Mir has also quietly moved to the UK. Those who refuse to take a sip from the goblet find safety abroad, be it Ghamdi, Rumi or Mir.

In one of my previous writings, I had shared Dr Eqbal Ahmad’s views on the importance of the balanced growth of law enforcement agencies such as the police and army, and the opinion making institutions such as political parties and media for a well-functioning civil society. Pakistan inherited strong law enforcement institutions from the British colonial government but extremely underdeveloped opinion making institutions. After the successful movement of lawyers it seemed that now opinion making institutions were finally ready to check abuse of power by law enforcement institutions. The Hamid Mir episode unfortunately has proved that uniformed institutions have now made inroads inside the electronic and social media, and political parties as well. Those who were largely considered as icons of yellow journalism and warmongering suddenly were rechristened as the champions of freedom of expression. Some channels have dedicated their airwaves to the spreading of social discord and acting as campaigners for certain non-political forces and their political avatars. Journalism has become a golden egg-laying hen for business tycoons.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb is progressing well according to press releases issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). Cleansing the country of militants is important for the return of normalcy to the country. However, without a harmonious balance between civil society institutions and the military, the dream of a stable, thriving and secure society will remain elusive. To me, two indicators are very important: one, after regaining control from the militants the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are facilitated to return happily and content to their homes, and, second, Hamid Mir resumes his popular political talk show. Short of both, Pakistan will remain an extremism-infested garrison state.


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OVER A COFFEE: Operation well done but what’s next? ,The Daily Times, July 05, 2014

No modern state can afford to have ungoverned spaces where the law of the land is not supreme and where armed bandits roam around freely

Dr Haider Shah
July 05, 2014

Operation Zarb-e-Asb now enters the ground forces stage after completion of the aerial and artillery bombing phase. Like any army operation, confidentiality is of paramount importance and hence we do not have access to finer tactical details. In this situation, only inferences can be drawn from the relevant actions of key players and their public statements. The military operation in North Waziristan would have been an insignificant anti-insurgency operation if, in the background, many important watershed activities had not been taking place at the highest level in the region.

On June 16, 2014, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, held an unusually important meeting with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif at General Headquarters (GHQ) in which the ongoing operation in North Waziristan and matters relating to security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border were discussed. Similarly, on June 26, Nawaz Sharif and Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Dr Rangin Dadfar Spanta, agreed at a meeting to go after all terrorists without any discrimination and for that purpose a joint anti-terrorism working group was also established. In my previous writings I had been regularly advocating a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. The prime minister-level declaration with the keen involvement of the army chief is a very encouraging development. It is worth mentioning that the joint working group will be co-chaired by Pakistan’s foreign secretary and Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister, and will have representatives from the security institutions concerned. We have been witnessing consistency in the discourse of Nawaz Sharif about boosting regional trade with improvement in security and mutual trust. Endorsement of this strategic objective from the defence establishments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan is a significant departure from our past.

The resolve of the government to go after the last terrorist also serves as a source of some light at the end of a long tunnel. In one of my previous writings I had referred to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars where the development of the AfPak strategy was investigated by the author. It seems that Pakistan has finally paid heed to the prescription given by the author: “Pakistan has to end its complex, schizophrenic relationship with terrorists in which they are the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time.” It seems that Pakistan has finally chosen the Sri Lanka model of dealing with militancy. No modern state can afford to have ungoverned spaces where the law of the land is not supreme and where armed bandits roam around freely. While some quarters oppose military action in the tribal area on affinity with the Taliban groups on religious grounds, some Pashtun nationalists express their unease on account of the destruction of the life and property of Pashtuns.
Unfortunately, states have to be at times ruthless in order to survive. Whether the D-day landings of the British and US troops or the Red Army’s march on Berlin, civilians are the unfortunate victims when a state wages a war to reclaim control of its territory. The national calamity in the form of internally displaced Pakistanis from North Waziristan needs our urgent attention. This is a good chance to educate our tribal brothers about the benefits of living in an urban society where the law, and not tribal customs, is the organising force. We can win the war against terrorist groups with better weaponry and our properly trained troops. However, winning the hearts and minds of the local population is a far more challenging task. We can declare the operation to be successful only if we are winners on both counts.

Sceptics are still not very convinced. They point out that all terrorists have already moved to safer places. They raise questions about the sincerity of the military establishment in ending their deadly embrace of the ‘good’ Taliban and other strategic assets. Given our indecent relations with terrorist outfits, such misgivings are not without merit. What happens in the coming months will prove whether the sceptics were right in invoking conventional wisdom or whether they misread the developments this time. Some positive indicators can very easily be sent out to calm the nerves of sceptical analysts. The security establishment must help in creating an enabling environment for regional peace. The biggest media group was leading a campaign for the promotion of peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. Hostilities with the media group must now end and no hindrances should be created for the media group to play its positive role in this key doctrinal change. Similarly, the army must show and prove the fact that it gives great respect to its oath of allegiance to the constitution and hence remains subservient to a constitutionally elected government, whoever might be the head of such a government.

The country can ill afford an environment of uncertainty at this critical juncture and hence the army should give the clear signal that it in no way is behind self-proclaimed messiahs and prophets of doom. It is also important that all public figures, whether the leader of a political party or a television anchor, are prosecuted under mutiny and treason laws when they openly incite people to remove a sitting government through unconstitutional methods. As I regularly say, the writ of the state must be enforced in our settled areas before we aspire to establish it near our northwestern porous borders.