Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: We are confused but terrorists are not!, The Daily Times, February 21, 2015

Those who are arrested under allegations of blasphemy cannot find a lawyer to defend them in a court of law but, on the other hand, recently a procession led by a team of 90 lawyers volunteered to defend a convicted murderer, Mumtaz Qadri

Dr Haider Shah

The terrorists are back in business in dead earnest. From Shikarpur to Peshawar and then to Islamabad they have come hard on the state, which is confused and directionless. The ‘look busy, do nothing’ official fanfare may delude many naïve followers of national media but such spineless rhetoric fails to impress a determined foe. While Operation Zarb-e-Azb is being projected as a grand success, we find that the terrorists are still on the loose all over the country. We are still struggling to find clarity of purpose and sincerity of intent in the overall aim and objectives of the counterterrorism plan. The very nomenclature itself diminishes the plan’s strategic importance as counterterrorism is an operational level activity.

I have, time and again, emphasised the need for a comprehensive anti-extremism plan where counterterrorism can become its operational level plan. We must know that the crop of extremism is cultivated and fertilised over a long period of time before farmers are able to take the harvest of terrorism to the market. The role of the anti-terrorism plan is to stop the harvest finding its way to the market. However, a more comprehensive anti-extremism strategic plan would focus more on stopping the cultivation of the crop that yields terrorism.

Extremism manifests itself in many ways. Our emotional attachment with the issue of blasphemy is a very potent form of extremism in Pakistani society. The essence of blasphemy is in the fact that opinions are silenced by threats of violence. In Pakistan we can identify three forms of blasphemy that are often associated with actual physical violence. First, the most commonly known is religious blasphemy where anyone can be accused of disrespecting a holy personality of the Muslims. Second is if the military establishment feels offended by any statement or accusation. Third is if family honour, often closely linked with females, is thought to be attacked.

Blasphemy laws, introduced by an army dictator decades ago, and which discriminate between holy personalities of different faith communities in the country, and hence are ultra vires of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, are still a no-go area for the so-called sovereign parliament of the country. Those who are arrested under allegations of blasphemy cannot find a lawyer to defend them in a court of law but, on the other hand, recently a procession led by a team of 90 lawyers, which included former judges of superior courts, volunteered to defend a convicted murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. Interestingly, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) heard the appeal case after a delay of three years as no judge was reportedly interested in hearing the case.

When it comes to blasphemy against holy personalities in the military, the situation is not much different. Saleem Shahzad had to lose his life for disclosing that cells within the navy had facilitated the Mehran Base attack. Hamid Mir nearly lost his life and is now tight-lipped for committing the same offence. No wonder no one has dared to ask the question: what accountability has taken place of those uniformed officers who failed in their duty of providing security to a commercially run school in Peshawar even though the attack on the school had been officially made imminent? The king can do no wrong is the basis of the sovereign’s immunity in English law. In Pakistan, its equivalent maxim is the general can do no wrong.

I have argued many times that development means expansion of freedoms and enjoyment of fundamental human rights, and should not be seen merely as launching mega projects. We expected that the new government would also give attention to the dilapidated intellectual infrastructure in the country. However, after about two years in power, we have not seen the senseless ban on YouTube lifted. Is it not ironic to the point of comedy that YouTube is free in Mecca and Medina but banned in Islamabad and Karachi? By retaining such regressive bans on the one hand and declaring a war on jihadi outfits on the other, the government is sending confused signals. The hate preacher in the terrorism-infested Lal Masjid of Islamabad is still a state paid official. Such indicators do not reflect well upon the seriousness of the government in pursuing a well-intentioned strategic plan with a clear vision. Critics are not entirely wrong in asserting that there is a complete lack of coherence in the strategic thinking of policy makers at the highest level.

Anti-terrorism seems to be hopelessly confused with anti-extremism. The former amounts to curing symptoms and not addressing the causes as terrorism is the outcome of the choices we made in the past in various fields of public policy. In one of my previous writings I have argued that faith is used by different sections of society differently depending on their particular social needs. While the haves enjoy religion for contentment and rituals purposes, the have-nots use communal faith for organising and motivational purposes. If the ruling classes are using religion to maximise their social control, it is very naïve to expect that the deprived classes will not use it for their own empowerment by raising motivational slogans of jihad and sharia. Using a comprehensive anti-extremism strategy the state has to take full control of religion and root out all symbols of extremism and intolerance from law, syllabi and other strata of society if we are keen about restoring peace and harmony.


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OVER A COFFEE: Repairing the Imran Khan brand, The Daily Times, February 07, 2015

When the planners of the APS attack were scheming from their hideouts, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was busy demonstrating his dance skills in Islamabad

Dr Haider Shah

About two years ago I wrote about branding in politics. In the private sector it takes years of hard work and success to create an effective brand image but a single folly is enough to shatter such an image. A classic textbook example is of British jewellery company Ratner Group whose chief executive, in a speech, arrogantly boasted about selling his jewellery very cheap: “People say, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, because it is total crap.” This “total crap” comment resulted in the value of the Ratner group plummeting by £ 500 million and the chief executive had to resign as his comments had caused the firm’s collapse.

In the recent past, we have seen a near collapse situation in the case of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The PPP’s strength lay in the Bhutto brand, which was based on perceptions of revolutionary zeal, liberalism and working class struggle. Under Asif Ali Zardari the Bhutto brand was systematically damaged by deliberate attempts to float the Zardari brand, which could not sell well in Pakistan as it did not carry a positive image.

Narendra Modi from India and Imran Khan from Pakistan have been very shrewd in brand creation, like marketing gurus. From photographs to the use of social media, both worked relentlessly in creating and popularising the perception of a messiah among their followers. The strength of the Imran Khan and PTI brand is its newness. The multi-coloured brand attracted buyers of various inclinations. The ultra-conservative jingoists hoped that he would confront the US and would work towards implementation of sharia. Liberal and educated supporters bought the product offered by the PTI in the hope that Khan would develop the country with progressive ideas.

While enjoying power in one of the four provinces, the brand that Imran Khan had cultivated around his person seems to be extensively damaged for many reasons. The first damage to the brand was caused by Imran falsely believing that he had, like Bhutto of the 1970s, touched the hearts of the masses and, therefore, whoever was nominated by him would easily win the election battle. He refused to listen to his well-wishers when he nominated a local financier of his election campaign with questionable credentials and took home a shocking defeat from the Peshawar seat earlier won by Imran Khan. This early damage to the brand could have been easily repaired if Khan sahib had not unleashed a series of unfortunate events.

Further damage to the brand has been caused by Imran’s long list of astonishing U-turns on major public pronouncements. He once used to publicly admire former Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Chaudhry’s judicial activism and severely reprimanded the PPP government for not following the court’s orders. However, when he himself was faced with the demanding task of following the superior judiciary’s orders he began cutting corners. Perhaps one might have admired his free spirit if he had not very sheepishly apologised when summoned over contempt of court charges. And, after a year, he again went berserk with his allegations without caring to substantiate the charges. He also appeared to be involved in a case of stabbing in the back his former benefactor when there was a bad patch between a private television channel and agencies. Again, very wild allegations were made with little effort to substantiate any of his allegations. Like a barrage of misguided missiles he kept hitting public personalities with wild allegations from his dharna (sit-in) stage.

The biggest shock to the brand has, however, come in the aftermath of the Army Public School (APS) incident. No doubt, I am strongly swayed by Imran Khan’s argument that the security of APS was the responsibility of the army and the buck of their professional failure cannot be passed on to the political government. However, there are some other facts that can also not be conveniently ignored. When the planners of the APS attack were scheming from their hideouts, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was busy demonstrating his dance skills in Islamabad. From the federal government ministers to major political leaders of opposition parties, from analysts to an ordinary, sensible layman, all had shown concern over Imran Khan’s ill-timed distraction from the core issue of anti-terrorism in the wake of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the ensuing internally displaced persons (IDPs) problem.

As if that was not enough, the most shocking damage to the brand has been caused by the scandalous manner in which Khan sahib chose to enter wedlock. The timing of the wedding and issuance of wedding pictures in fancy kurta suits while the wounds of the Peshawar tragedy were still fresh carry the Ratner effect for Khan sahib’s brand. Perhaps now he will try cashing in on the negative public sentiment against the government rather than depending on selling his own brand to the voters. At least on social media one can feel the Ratner effect as we see less aggressive marketing of Khan sahib’s image, as his critics on social media appear to be having an upper hand for the first time. To confound the problem the political virginity advantage the PTI enjoyed at the time of the aggressive election campaign in 2013 is now no more available to Imran Khan. So, repairing his damaged brand should be the top priority for Imran Khan. Taking a break from active politics and focusing more on charity work may also be good advice.