Dr. Haider Shah

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

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OVER A COFFEE: The suicide bomber in cyber crime law, The Daily Times, April 18, 2015

When so much is at stake for the government and political parties in the wake of Yemen and Karachi, why should one worry about the cyber crime bill?

The UAE minister’s threatening jibe over Pakistan’s decision to stay neutral in the Yemen crisis and Pakistan’s interior minister’s tit-for-tat reply are not short of a fast paced thriller. The UAE minister’s tweet culminated in a ‘come at a cost’ threat. Perhaps the haughty sheikh knew well that if a friendly Saudi donation of about $ 1.5 million dollars could rescue a nosedived rupee, what jolt it would receive if Arab benefactors suddenly pulled the rug out from under our feet. A lot of anguish has been rightly shown by all sections of Pakistani society over the irresponsible and rude remarks of a ruling sheikh who believes that Pakistan is populated by child camel jockeys only. But what concerns me is the fact that we are often long on words and short on sustaining the consequences of a bold stance. When beggars decide to be choosers, they have to ready themselves for a bumpy ride on a rough highway. Experience shows that our will and deeds often do not match the ambitions we harbour.

Times are tough for the MQM. It seems that the political organisation has outlived its utility for the masters. It is neither the judiciary nor public opinion makers that count when the credentials of a person or an organisation are to be judged. When the masters make the declaration the national chorus automatically follows. The suspects in the Dr Imran murder case had been in the custody of the agencies for a long time. The government suddenly now has geared into action on this dormant case. The perception is that every possible incriminating evidence against the MQM is being made public at a time when the by-election in NA 246 is heating up. If the beleaguered MQM loses the seat, it would amount to a partial collapse in its stronghold of Karachi. On the other hand, if the PTI does not win the seat despite a very partisan environment, the Imran Khan buzz will receive a severe battering. After the audiotape leak and the return to parliament and a private television channel, Imran Khan needs something big to stall the erosion of his image as a national leader.

When so much is at stake for the government and political parties in the wake of Yemen and Karachi, why should one worry about the cyber crime bill? Let us appraise the new law. The bill has five chapters detailing offences like interference with critical infrastructure, cyber terrorism, electronic forgery/fraud, identity theft, sexual harassment, virus spreading, spamming, spoofing and prosecution formalities. The general scheme and content of the bill appear to be well intentioned and reflect a determined effort to cover as many offences as possible that are normally associated with the use of information and communication technology. But just as the sight of an innocent teenager wearing a suicide jacket is enough to turn a Friday prayer congregation into a potential bloodbath, there is one article that can prove to be the death knell of freedom of expression in the country. Article 31 is reproduced here.

“(1) The authority or any officer authorised by it in this behalf may direct any service provider to remove any intelligence or block access to such intelligence, if it considers it necessary in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, commission of or incitement to an offence.

(2) The federal government may prescribe rules for adoption of standards and procedure by the authority to monitor and block access and entertain complaints under this section. Until such procedures and standards are prescribed, the authority shall monitor and block intelligence in accordance with the directions issued by the federal government.”

My experience of conversing with civil servants shows that many are highly radicalised and are potentially Taliban sympathisers. Armed with these legal powers such officials can play havoc with the ideals of a progressive and thinking Pakistan if they act as custodians of the faith or moral police deciding on what is the glory of Islam or other highly subjective abstractions. In one of my previous writings, I complained that al Qaeda had seized the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) as many liberal and progressive websites had been banned by the organisation while extremists enjoyed complete freedom to run hatemongering websites. For many radicals even the views of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and many Muslim philosophers are against the glory of Islam. With the unbridled power of the new law, these officials will clip the wings of free thinking and will force Quaid-e-Azam to turn in his grave as he had envisioned a liberal and progressive country that was free of extremist views.

In my honest appraisal, I consider the new cyber law a step in the right direction but the suicide jacket wearing provisions need to be removed as they are unnecessary and dangerous insertions. The law should be anti-terrorism and crime-focused. Unfortunately, in the present shape it ends up as a direct threat to freedom of expression and opinion making

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OVER A COFFEE: Arab feuds: from Himyar to Yemen, The Daily Times, 04 April, 2015

Should we turn down the Saudi led Arab states’ request for help, we run the risk of compromising our economic health

Yemen is in the headlines these days resulting in multifarious concerns for Pakistan’s decision makers and analysts. At times, taking a step backwards and looking at an issue from a historical perspective helps in glimpsing a fuller picture. So, rather than reviewing the immediate past of Yemen it is better if we go back many centuries and reach the Arab peninsula as it existed in the sixth century AD. What is now called Yemen was then Himyar where Yusuf ruled. Interestingly, he was the last Jewish Arab king to rule while the world was divided between the Christian Byzantine and Zoroastrian Persian empires. The local population had converted to Judaism in the late fourth century and by about 425 AD a Jewish kingdom was in place. Yusuf took great pleasure in detailing the massacres he had inflicted on all Christians, who refused to convert to Judaism, to his Arab and Persian allies. Religious faith played the role of motivating, organising and aligning the tribal groups of one region against another region and hence was a change lever in the hands of emperors and other key players of international affairs.
Himyar, like Yemen of today, was sandwiched between competing forces of the Ethiopians of Axum in East Africa, the Byzantines in Constantinople, the Jews in Jerusalem, the Sasanian Persians in Mesopotamia and the pagan Arab tribes of the desert. The Himyarite kingdom was supported by the Persian Empire while the Ethiopians were supported by the Byzantine emperor to undermine the Persian Empire. Sailing from East Africa, the Ethiopian army was joined by reinforcements from the Christian emperor in Constantinople and, in 525, the militant kingdom in Himyar was finally overthrown while Yusuf perished in the red sea along with his horse.
This interesting event happened close to the time when the little known desert dwelling Arab pagans were destined to be unified by a common faith and then begin their era of conquering foreign lands. Just as the Pashtun tribes living along the Pak-Afghan border were as fierce in fighting enemies during Alexander the Great’s time as they remained after changing to the Muslim faith, tribal warfare in the Arabian Peninsula along various faith lines has not changed in its fundamental contours. In the seventh and eighth centuries the political scene was dominated by three groups of tribes along a sectarian divide. The ruling establishment supported the traditional tribal method of choosing a ruler while the opponents preferred the tradition of inheritance of spiritual legacy and thus supported the claim of the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. There was a third group that wanted to remain independent of these rival camps and were known as Kharjies. If we look at the political scene today we can see the shadows of past history as various tribes are aligned against each other along the pro-ruling Sunni establishment or the pro-Iran Shia insurgents. Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are the mirror image of the Kharjies of the past. A lot of blood was shed in the seventh century: in the Battle of the Camel and the many skirmishes that followed between warring tribal groupings. The pictures of the bloodstained bodies of children in Yemen appearing these days on social media suggest that not much has changed in the Arab world since then.
The upshot of my historical analysis of the Arabian Peninsula in general and Yemen in particular is that complex tribal cum sectarian strife has always been the hallmark of this region. The alarming development is that we are being sucked into this conflict. Ideally, we should steer clear of any Shia-Sunni conflict in the region but, at times, neutrality is also translated as siding with one of the parties to the conflict. It is an extremely awkward situation for our policymakers. If they make available military support to Saudi Arabia as requested then Iran, our influential neighbour, will be annoyed. We are already experiencing a sectarian wave of militant extremism in the country. Our involvement in the Yemen crisis would further confound the sectarian problem at our end. In case, should we turn down the Saudi led Arab states’ request for help, we run the risk of compromising our economic health as we not only depend on foreign aid from Arab countries but a significant part of foreign remittances comes from these countries and our exports also depend on our good relations with them.
So, it is a case of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. While the government is pressurised by analysts and public opinion to stay neutral and play the role of negotiator, it may end up losing the goodwill of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. At a pragmatic level, we all can understand that if Pakistan willy-nilly supports Saudi Arabia, it will not be because of any preference on sectarian grounds but rather will be dictated purely by rational economic compulsions. While the Iran backed Houthis enter the presidential palace in Aden despite the relentless bombing of Saudi fighter planes, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the EU does not come at the right time for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has to, therefore, be even more careful while it locks its horns with Iran in the Yemeni conflict.