Dr. Haider Shah

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


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OVER A COFFEE: A fragile state, The Daily Times, August 22, 2015

No government can make any meaningful national policy unless it has the final say in the interconnected realms of economics, law and order, and foreign affairs
Nations have faced challenges in difficult times of world history. The Soviet Union suffered a human loss of about 26 million — 15 percent of its total population — in World War II. In comparison, the human loss in our war of survival is, therefore, insignificant. From, mainstream politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Salmaan Taseer, Bashir Bilour and Shuja Khanzada to high-raking army and police officers, faith-inspired militant extremists have struck repeatedly but the state is still unclear about the chemistry of the problem. It naïvely thinks that it can fix everything with the haphazard use of guns alone. As a result, the state, despite brandishing its powerful muscle, is getting more fragile with the passage of time. This fragility can be attributed to two overlapping reasons. First, there is a lack of strategic clarity and poor sense of strategic alignment. Second, there is a lack of institutionalism in running the affairs of the state.
I wrote an analytical piece after the National Action Plan (NAP) was announced by the government to deal with situation after the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar. In order to make some sense of the haphazardly listed 20 points in the plan I suggested a rearrangement of the points. Six aspirational points should have topped the list as strategic objectives with the seventh point of “zero tolerance policy for extremism across Pakistan” (appearing as point number 15 in the plan) should have been the first point, serving as an overarching strategic aim of the plan. I had argued that this point of doctrinal importance should have topped the list as militancy and terrorism are the consequences of an unbridled culture of extremism. The national policy is an organic whole that cannot be developed in disjointed pieces. No government can make any meaningful national policy unless it has the final say in the interconnected realms of economics, law and order, and foreign affairs. If home-grown militancy is to be exterminated then the source of militancy should be first dealt with on an urgent basis. Religious radicalisation is the embryonic stage of any subsequent militant action. Indoctrination in turn can be traced to the syllabi taught in our educational institutions and deeni madrassas (religious seminaries). The state also promotes the cause of faith-propelled extremism by the active projection of groups that use jihadi slogans in the valley of Jammu and Kashmir. While trying to pursue its claim over a disputed land, the Pakistani state has allowed the germs of religious extremism to spread throughout the entire body. Since jihad is the motivational slogan for the Kashmir cause, the state is obliged to entertain clerics and shady characters that have polluted the national narrative with their obscurantist discourse.
Banned outfits were once avenues for recruiting irregulars in our proxy war with our neighbours. Foreign relations managers did not bother too much if outfits used sectarian hate speech to carry out their recruitment. A multifaceted problem that has its tentacles in our foreign policy cannot be resolved with isolated military action. The foreign policy, internal security policy and socio-economic policies must be in strategic alignment, trying to achieve the same aims and objectives. If our India policy is based upon jihadi doctrines while we play anti-jihad tunes for internal policy then there is a mismatch and the policy is bound to remain fruitless in the long run. The half-baked paradigm shift in our Afghan policy is also faltering due to our over reliance on using militants as strategic assets in the regional tug of war game. Using the two-year-old ghost of Mullah Omar for negotiations purposes we apparently have lost the trust of both the Afghan and US governments. While the Afghan government has expressed its misgivings about Pakistan’s continued support for terrorist activities for Afghan militants based in Pakistan, the US has also cast a vote of no confidence by withholding the tranche under the Coalition Support Fund as it refused to certify that Pakistan was doing enough to damage the Haqqani network.
If no paradigm shift has so far been noticed in foreign affairs policy, no significant change has been witnessed in the social policy of the government either. Acting like an extremist itself the government has deprived citizens of access to YouTube, which is just one example. The syllabi of educational institutions are still teeming with the germs of extremist ideas. For leaders of banned outfits it is business as usual.
Another source of fragility is the fast erosion of institutionalism. Khakis are good, civilians are bad, much like the sheep in George Orwell’s Animal Farm; this we get to hear in the scripted national narrative. Supposedly, the 18th Amendment implemented federalism in its true spirit but what we see now is that Islamabad and Rawalpindi are effectively running all provinces. This desperate situation needs desperate remedies. Take any newspaper from the archive and you will find that throughout Pakistan’s history we have always faced a desperate situation. Without an institutional form of government, the state remains under-developed and hence remains fragile. I sincerely hope that those who run the affairs of the state address these two interconnected sources of fragility of the state.


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OVER A COFFEE: Mythology of social media, The Daily Times, 8 August, 2015

Unregulated social media has proven to be a mushrooming ground for blatantly wrong and factually incorrect information making rounds on the internet
Dr Haider Shah

The internet has provided impetus to the process of globalisation as smart phone technology has shrunk the world, fitting it into our palm. Every technological breakthrough comes at a price though. If the car engine has made our lives more comfortable by improving transportation it has also polluted our air. The internet is no exception. If it has made all disciplines of knowledge accessible to everyone, it has also made knowledge a drive-through fast food item for the majority of users. Rather than evidence based, well-researched pieces of writing nowadays, memes, nuggets and quotations attract thee attention of readers.

Social media is a product of the internet enabling ordinary users to become opinion makers. While this is a helpful contribution to democratisation of society it has some dysfunctional consequences as well. Today, I want to discuss only one of the unintended consequences: propagation of mythology. Unregulated social media has proven to be a mushrooming ground for blatantly wrong and factually incorrect information making rounds on the internet. Many educated individuals also fall prey to the colourfully presented information that is often accompanied by pictures of famous personalities. Dead people cannot protest so all sorts of quotations are attributed to them.

The myths that are spread on social media can be broadly divided into two classes. One, misquoting without any agenda. For instance, many quotes are wrongly attributed to Shakespeare and other famous authors of the past. “I will die for your right to say” quote is often attributed to Voltaire but, in reality, he never said that; rather his biographer said so. These types of misquotes and inaccuracies do not cause any serious concern for me. What alarms me is rather the second category where a piece of information is manufactured with mischief and an agenda driven intent. Our faith-inspired friends are often the main transmitters of this kind of mythology on the internet. However, many liberal and critical thinkers can also fall victim to the hoaxes that appear abundantly on social media. One good example is the frequently posted excerpt by Lord Macaulay from his speech delivered to British parliament on February 2, 1835. The excerpt makes the reader believe that English was imposed by the British government in order to break the very backbone of the Indian nation by replacing India’s ancient educational system with English and thus making them a truly dominated nation. The truth is that Macaulay was not in England in 1835 and his views are recorded in the well-known minute on education. Para eight of the minute makes Macaulay’s views very clear: “All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.”

At that time one a lakh rupee government grant was given for the promotion of Sanskrit and Arabic. Macaulay, in his minute, argued for using the grant on education in English as then there was a division of opinion on this issue.

Mythology is not limited to the events and quotations of the distant past. Even recent events can also be tainted with a lot of fiction. For instance, one picture regularly appears on social media where a judge of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) is shown to be kissing Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer. The picture usually draws scathing remarks from our liberal friends who, like the faithful, ride on their preconceived notions. In reality, the person in the picture is not the judge but an advocate who looks a bit similar. Despite many clarifications the picture however still makes its rounds.

More recently, another story based on incorrect facts dominated social media. A customs inspector was eulogised as a martyr as he was allegedly killed for being an investigator in the Ayaan Ali money smuggling case. I must confess that I also felt shocked when the story made its maiden appearance. As the sceptic in me does not take any assertion on face value I then carried out a little search on the internet and soon it became clear to me that the inspector had no connection with the case and the story was the figment of someone’s juicy imagination. Basic common sense would have also resulted in questioning the veracity of the story. Why did the court not ask about the murder of an investigating officer in the case when bail was sought? I was surprised to see many educated social media users fervently believing in the story and making sensational comments.

Merely the picture of a celebrity against a quotation or in a meme does not give authenticity to any quote. We can save ourselves the embarrassment of becoming the foolish victim of social media mythology if we develop the habit of not embracing every quotation unless a full verifiable reference is given. Not only a stich in time but a little doubt also saves nine.