Dr. Haider Shah

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


Leave a comment

OVER A COFFEE: Globalisation and the two holy worlds, The Daily Times, January 24, 2015

In the European world, freedom of expression and creativity is holier than any religious symbolism while in the Muslim world religious symbols are considered sacred to such an extent that blasphemy is still a question of life and death

Dr Haider Shah

While the French people braved cold weather and held a million man march in Paris, thousands came out in Pakistan protesting against the offensive cartoons. If someone like PK (from the Indian movie PK) was observing these spectacles from his spaceship, he would have concluded that there lived two different worlds on planet earth. With the passage of time these imaginary worlds also change as our physical world transforms but the rate of change is not uniform across the globe. For instance, we see an entirely different world in Athens when the world in general was defined by savage empire builders. Similarly, Spanish Andalus stands out as a different world when Europeans were practicing the inquisition of those accused of having the wrong faith.

In ancient times, religious symbols provided a sense of security, stability and social cohesiveness in a very volatile and insecure world. Those who questioned religious names, stories and artefacts were, therefore, considered to be undermining the stability and tranquillity of the social order. Europe remained a bastion of religious fanaticism where voices of scepticism were suppressed by violent punishments. Until the early 17th century, speaking against God was punishable by death in the UK and other parts of Europe. The old laws of heresy were gradually replaced by blasphemous libel against those who were accused of disrespecting God, Jesus or the church. Any form of obscene depiction of holy Christian personalities was strictly prohibited. Even doctrinal level dissents were not tolerated by the state and the courts. For instance, in 1656, James Nayler, who belonged to the Quaker sect of Christianity and was charged with claiming equality with God was sentenced by the High Court of Parliament that “he be repeatedly set in the pillory and scourged, that he be branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’, that he have his tongue bored with an iron and be confined afterwards in prison and set to hard labour.” In 1729, a Cambridge academic, Thomas Woolston, was detained until his death in 1733 for writing pamphlets in which he questioned the miracles of the New Testament.

So, we can conclude that Europe was also once in the firm grip of socially accepted norms of punishing those who disrespected symbols of Christian faith. The grip, however, gradually loosened as writers, poets, scientists and other members of intelligentsia launched a spirited campaign against notions of holy symbolism. Indeed, the statement of celebrated British judge Lord Denning, in 1949, quite aptly captures the newly developed social consensus on holiness versus blasphemy: “The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded upon Christian religion. There is no such danger to society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.” The law of blasphemy, however, was not formally repealed until 2008 when, through an amendment in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2007-08, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by the UK parliament.

Recently, Amir Khan’s movie PK made a roaring success in India even though it makes scathing attacks on organised Hindu religion and its symbolism. When some extremist Hindu groups approached the Supreme Court they were curtly told that they better not watch the movie if they felt offended. So, it appears that even Hindu society has evolved over time and finds religious symbolism not holier than the freedom of expression. However, it is entirely a different case with the Muslim world in general and Pakistanis in particular. Though they physically live in the same world, they live in an imaginary world that is still riveted strongly to the medieval era when religious symbolism was at the centre of all social life. They find blasphemy offensive and react violently in the same way as the Christian world used to react a few hundred years ago. The disparity between the two worlds is almost unbridgeable. In the European world, freedom of expression and creativity is holier than any religious symbolism while in the Muslim world religious symbols like names of holy personalities and related stories are considered sacred to such an extent that blasphemy is still a question of life and death.

This unfortunate situation has further been confounded by the impact of globalisation, which Giddens defines as “the intensification of worldwide social relations, which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring miles away and vice versa.” While the modern and Muslim worlds are governed by different notions of holiness, and are situated in two different eras, they feel each other’s impact due to globalisation. If the western world wants a more harmonious world it will have to be more sympathetic to the psychological profiling of the Muslim world with a view to helping it enter the modern era. It has to help the Muslim world soften its links with the medieval period and associated concerns of that era. The Muslim intelligentsia also needs to understand that, while feeling offended is our basic human right, we cannot enforce our notion of holiness on others. The more we react with angry protests the greater will be the likelihood of repeat offences. Instead, by showcasing happy and thriving social communities we can bring greater glory to the names of our holy personalities if we are genuinely sincere in this cause.


1 Comment

OVER A COFFEE: Dawn of Kemalism or return of Caesar?, The Daily Times, January 10, 2015

Turkey is already a very close friend of Pakistan and is investing a lot in infrastructure improvement. Is our national action plan a manifestation of Kemalism?
Dr Haider Shah

The Peshawar tragedy stung year of 2015 has begun amidst a 20-point anti-extremism action plan announced by the government. Perhaps the government was in a big haste and hence jumped to an action plan without any strategic planning. We have to now decipher the vision and objectives from the 20 points included in the plan.

Military courts have been authorised by parliament to assume judicial powers. Four viewpoints can be identified in the national narrative over this debatable public policy issue. First, the positive rationalists take it as the best remedy under the given circumstances as our traditional criminal justice system has utterly failed to deal with the menace of terrorists. Second, apologists denounce the diluting of constitutionalism but declare it a short-term measure dictated by the harsh realities of our country. Third, madrassa or religious seminary affiliated leaders like Fazlur Rehman and Sirajul Haq openly oppose the move as discriminatory as it is ill defined and targets only religious sections of society. Fourth, outright sceptics believe that giving judicial powers to military courts amounts to abdication of the constitutional government. The legal fraternity, led by prominent leaders of various bar associations, is extremely jittery about the new development. Some newspapers in their editorials also aired similar concerns. If the photos of the all parties meeting in which General Raheel Sharif and other generals were also present are seen, one gets the impression that Julius Caesar had entered parliament. However, this entry has one major difference if compared to its historical parallel of antiquity. From Longus to Brutus all politicians appeared firmly to be loyal to the general who wore looks of satisfaction and accomplishment on his face.

Honestly, I find some merit in all four viewpoints. I can go along rationalists and apologists if I am clear about the strategic objectives of the new scheme of things. About a century ago Kemal Ataturk also undertook the arduous task of rescuing Turkey from the jaws of obscurantist traditionalists. Using his charisma and national hero status he forced a strategic change upon his country. At times he was brutal and unfair. However, his is one of the success stories in the inauspicious discipline of change management. Turkey is already a very close friend of Pakistan and is investing a lot in infrastructure improvement. Is our national action plan a manifestation of Kemalism? Have we finally realised the destructive power of placing religion at the centre of public policymaking? In order to make an informed guess let us inspect the 20 points of the action plan.

There are seven points that are aspirational and give some clues about the strategic aim and objectives of the change managers. Point no 15 is “zero-tolerance policy for extremism across Pakistan”. Perhaps this point of doctrinal importance should have topped the list as militancy and terrorism are the consequences of the unbridled culture of extremism. I would have rearranged the remaining six points to make some logical sequence to the action plan: “crackdown on literature promoting hatred, intolerance and extremism”, “complete ban on publicity and glorification of terrorists and their ideology on print and electronic media”, “complete protection for minorities and weeding out religious extremism and persecution”, “decisive action against promoters of sectarianism”, “no promotion of terrorism on social media and internet” and “no to armed outfits or militias in the country”.

After these doctrinal principles the remaining points are what we can genuinely call an action plan. However, the haphazardly listed points can also make more sense if they are assigned four categories after some rearrangement. First, judicial points that include “revamping the criminal judicial system to strengthen counterterrorism departments and empowering the provincial CIDs to intercept terrorist communications”, “execution of convicts on death row” and “special trial courts under army officers for two years”. Second, operational level points that include “reactivation/strengthening of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA)”, “setting up an anti-terrorism force”, “wiping out financial assistance of terrorists” and “dismantling of terrorists’ communication networks”. Third, political points that include “logical conclusion of Karachi operation”, “reconciliation in Balochistan” and “developmental reforms in FATA along with repatriation of IDPs” and, fourth, regulatory points that include “developing a new Afghan refugees policy that includes registration of all illegal refugees”, “registration and regularisation of religious seminaries” and “not allowing proscribed outfits to re-operate with new names”.

These doctrinal seven principles and 13 action points in essence reiterate what many progressive analysts have long been demanding of successive governments. About two years ago I had written a four-part piece titled “Need for deradicalisation in Pakistan” in which I had also argued for a paradigmatic shift in our public policy. I contended that we had always been in denial mode while the spectre of radicalisation kept growing, devouring our peace and development. Has our military establishment responded positively to our clarion calls for ending the deadly embrace of radical jihadists and has it decided to reorient itself as the bastion of liberal, progressive and nationalist values? Under Pervez Musharraf, enlightened moderation was a farce as we continued the double game. Have we finally decided to come clean and act like a responsible democracy? If that is the case then we should give the army a genuine chance to clean the house it muddied and bloodied in the past with its short-sighted strategic depth doctrine: “Fojon ka lahoo janta se mila, janta ka lahoo fojon se mila”(soldiers’ blood mixed with people’s blood and people’s blood mixed with soldiers’ blood”). I hope our generals give a happy turn to our national history this time.