Dr. Haider Shah

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

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OVER A COFFEE: Culture and dogma, Daily Times, February 27, 2016

When someone invokes culture for the purpose of opposing a change he displays his lack of proper understanding of the concept enshrined in the word. Culture embodies the same duality of meaning as is demanded by our survival needs as a human race


This time it was the turn of the president of Pakistan to take a carefree stroll along the street of irrationality. His excellency is often targeted by humourists in the social media for his lack of visibility as the head of state. I instead always took the view that his elegant silence is befitting of his job. The president is a ceremonial post, like the queen of Britain. It is the PM who is the executive head and must appear as such in our public life. The president is there to make prewritten ceremonial speeches when a ceremony requires him to do so. What are the contours of public policy, neither the British queen nor Pakistani president should have any say in that. So far, Mamnoon had performed this role very well by remaining economical with his public speeches. This month he decided to open his mouth and, unfortunately, only managed to get his image blown to pieces. It is not the job of the office of the president to prescribe how individuals should spend their personal time. The PM of the country had recently desired in a televised address that he be invited to a holi party. The president seems to be totally out of sync with the public policy of his own leader.

Globalisation is the interconnectedness of the world where ideas and practices travel freely from one part of it to another. In ancient times, religious movements were the main agents of globalisation. Religious warriors would conquer new lands and introduce their cultures wrapped up in the new religion. In the modern world, technological advancement has greatly facilitated the hassle free movement of people, goods and ideas, and consequently the world has shrunk to the size of our smartphone today. Now we live in one cosmopolitan culture where our regional cultures are just a shade of the main world culture. If the daily routine and hobbies of a youth of Lahore or Karachi are contrasted with those of a youth in Mumbai or Istanbul we will find that by and large they are not much different.

When someone invokes culture for the purpose of opposing a change he displays his lack of proper understanding of the concept enshrined in the word. Culture embodies the same duality of meaning as is demanded by our survival needs as a human race. In prehistoric times, humans needed the stability of a pack by practicing the same rituals again and again. But, in the long run, they also needed the ability to respond to environmental changes and evolve to remain the fittest. Culture, therefore, should not be seen as a set of static norms and practices that are cast in stone. Like the human race, culture is also organic and changes over time. For instance, a few centuries ago in Britain, challenging another man to a duel, by sword or gunfight, was considered a honourable practice reserved for the upper classes and an essential qualification to be called a true gentleman. “A man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.” The quote belongs to Samuel Johnson who was one of the most famous literary figures of the 18th century and best summarises the motivation for the cultural norm of duelling in the then British society. Today, in the UK, taking the law into one’s own hand is considered one of the most despicable acts. Cultural norms are seldom static.

In British primary schools, all children are taught basic yoga. Societies are learning from each other and happily import practices that they like to other cultural settings. If by celebrating Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Karwa Chauth or Rakhsha Bandhan, sentiments of love and affection get communicated between two humans why should we feel the urge of poking our long noses into the private lives of others? If we want to interfere we should try stopping those who preach hatred and violence in various sections of our society.
Mr President, you looked graceful when you did not speak much. If you remain that way, you will do yourself a service and serve the country better as well.

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OVER A COFFEE: Can Azhar be Pakistan’s Mladic?, Daily Times, January 16 , 2016

Can Azhar be Pakistan’s Mladic?

Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in urging the need for redefining our relations with India and Afghanistan, and hence one can expect that the official heroes of the past will be deprived of their patronage in the same way as has happened in Serbia

The Pathankot attack, like any terrorist incident, was a deplorable act of savagery committed by a band of glory seeking fanatics. Unlike many other tragic incidents it, however, has brought the promise of peace to the region. Clothed in Dickens’ duality, it unfurls before the people of South Asia both the summer of hope and winter of despair. While all stakeholders are waiting for the final outcome of reported high-level investigations in Pakistan, I deem it pertinent to draw a parallel with the situation that existed in Serbia at the beginning of the new millennium.
Five years ago, I made a clarion call to decision makers to learn from the Serbian example of effecting a paradigm change in state level policy. While the case of Germany and France already serves as a good example of how to reorient policies, Serbia is of particular significance for Pakistan because of many common contextual factors. I can count at least six such factors. First, just as a strong sense of narcissism runs deep in Pakistan, Serbians, owing to forces of history, got embroiled in genocidal wars against other communities and a strong sense of national pride became necessary to preserve their identity. If we have gory stories of mass murders as refugees crossed borders in 1947, the period of political turmoil after breaking up of communist Yugoslavia exacerbated ethnic tensions, which resulted in the notorious bloodbath of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Second, just as we saw the rise of jihadi characters as our officially certified national heroes, Serbians found their military commanders with bloodstained hands as their heroes. Mladic, serving as a general of Bosnia’s Serbian army, rose to prominence as a war hero in the1990s. The military commander earned notoriety as he was accused by the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) of being responsible for the illegal siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.As a parallel, we have Maulana Masood Azhar who is accused by India in particular, and the international community in general, of masterminding terrorist attacks. Third, just as there is a strong perception that Masood Azhar, when in trouble, was given protection by the deep state, Mladic could not be apprehended for a trial on war crimes charges. In 1997, when NATO troops were searching for war criminals, Mladic slipped into Serbia where the then dictator, Milosevic, and the Serbian military establishment provided refuge to the general on the run. Despite a huge bounty on his head, the general eluded capture for 14 years. Four, in addition to official protection by the military establishment, both Mladic and Azhar also used the threat of terror to keep potential informers silent and hence remain in a safe haven like a mafia boss.
Five, when military dictator Milosevic fell from power in 2000, the protective shield around the general also began cracking. Milosevic was arrested and sent to the Hague tribunal for a trial by the new democratic Serbian government. Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in urging the need for redefining our relations with India and Afghanistan, and hence one can expect that the official heroes of the past will be deprived of their patronage in the same way as has happened in Serbia. Arguably, the most important parallel is the sixth one: the socio-economic objective. Serbia officially applied for EU membership in December 2009 and cooperated with the EU in arresting and handing over all accused war criminals, including Mladic. Even though the public opinion in Serbia, as reported by various surveys, favoured Mladic, the new government showed courage and worked towards changing the public’s opinion. The security state decided to transform itself in favour of a welfare state driven by economic argument. It, therefore, made a conscious break with its jingoistic past in order to gain EU membership.
Pathankot, though tragic in terms of loss of lives, is a golden opportunity for the two South Asian countries to begin a new era of cooperation in dealing with terrorists and their handlers as a common cause. When in Paris terrorists caused mayhem, France and Belgium worked jointly to nab the ringleaders by sharing information and conducting raids. For terrorists there are no borders. States should also work in the same spirit when it comes to cross-border terrorism. India, despite the media furore, has responded maturely and honourably. Now the ball is in Pakistan’s court. Nawaz’s sincerity on this issue can hardly be questioned. Whether the security establishment will prove a spoiler or a supportive partner for change is yet to be seen. The future of South Asia hangs in the balance, as we wait to see what Pakistan does after India shares actionable intelligence and evidence. The early indicators are no doubt encouraging and the emerging perception is that Pakistan might have finally decided to go the Serbian way. When it is busy finalising the economic contours of its future along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and repairing its relations with the international community, it must be realising that jihadi characters such as Azhar do not fit in the new paradigm. Just as Serbia traded its generals for economic prosperity, Pakistan can also trade the jihadis that have outlived their utility for its economic development

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OVER A COFFEE: Welcoming the New Year, Daily Times, January 02, 2016

One should not be surprised at how IS related identities are gradually emerging in the country. The state of denial in the ruling elite is a cause for great concern

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OVER A COFFEE: Composite to comprehensive: feeling the pulse ,Daily Times, December 12, 2015

Those who have invested heavily in the business of hatred and extremism will not be very happy with the announcement of comprehensive dialogue by Indian Foreign Minister SushmaSwaraj in Islamabad. It seems that doves have something to celebrate after all. If Narendra Modi in a solicitous chat with Nawaz Sharif on the eve of the climate change meeting in Paris vented a sense of purpose, the Indian foreign minister exhaled even warmer feelings of cordiality and goodwill.
No one can labour under the illusion that the theatrical performance of politically correct diplomatic overtures between Sushma and Sartaj in Islamabad means normalisation of relations and can be termed as thedawn of a new era for the two belligerent nations. However, an event is important not just because of what it has achieved but rather by the vibes that it generates. No change can ever happen unless the narrative of change precedes it. The Heart of Asia Conference has helped India and Pakistan listen to each other and thus try to rectify major abnormal heart rhythms that plague the South Asian region.
Composite has become comprehensive in this new round of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan.Whether a rose or talks, names hardly matter. Earlier in July this year a good initiative was made after Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi met on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) Summit in Ufa.The two Prime Ministers (PMs)had then rightly focused upon eliminating terrorism in all its forms. They had agreed on five steps in this regard, which included a meeting in New Delhi between the two National Security Advisors(NSAs) to discuss all issues connected to terrorism, meetings of the Director General (DG) of the Border Security Force(BSF) and DG of the Pakistan Rangers followed by that of the DGs of Military Operations (MOs) to minimise Line of Control(LoC) related tensions, release of fishermen in each other’s custody, along with their boats, within a period of 15 days, mechanism for facilitating religious tourism and expediting the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples. The goodwill achieved in Ufa, however, proved short-lived as extremists in both countries geared into action to bulldoze the newly launched peace initiative.
Listening to analysts and media voices in both countries one can notice a mutual lack of readiness to appreciate the concerns of one other. Some Pakistani media personalities and analysts raisedan uproar over Kashmir while a few Indian anchors sound like Shiv Sena activists on their talk shows. The use of ostentatious titles like composite or comprehensive talks, therefore, to some degree is helpful in calming the most vociferous in the two countries. The patriotic or nationalist viewpoint, however, should not debilitate our ability to do an honest appraisal of the concerns of the two countries.
When India raises the issue of terrorism its cause is helped by three factors. One, India is an emerging economic powerhouse and major international players like the US, EU and Russia give a passionate ear to the concerns of India. Second, if communism was the major occupation of the post World War II NATO countries, terrorism is the new unifying theme of the developed countries. When India raises terrorism as an issue it strikes a chord with the western leaders who themselves are grappling with the menace at an international level. The emergence of Islamic State(IS) and the recent bloodbath in Paris have ushered in a new sense of urgency and firm resolve to tackle terrorism. Third, the resolution of the Afghanistan crisis on a stable basis relies heavily on the promotion of regional tripartite trade between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trade routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia can only be feasible if there is peace in the region and international observers believe that if Pakistan, India and Afghanistan work in tandem then the marginalised terrorist outfits can be eradicated sooner or later.
Now let us turn to our advocacy of Kashmir as a precondition of peace talks. Three factors work against this proposition. One, there is little appetite for this issue at the international level, including the Muslim countries represented by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation(OIC). Second, the religious overtones of groups struggling for the Kashmir cause do not go well with the current realities of the world. The jihadi narrative of those who want Kashmir to be free of Indian rule does not make Kashmir a worthy investment project for the international community. Third, the profile of the advocate itself weakens the cause of the plaintiff. When a country ruled by martial law dictators for many decades in the past and where the military establishment acts like a big brother over civilian rulers makes a case of right of self-determination for others hardly anyone gets impressed.
There is no harm in raising issues like Kashmir at a moral level. But mortgaging the future of Pakistan over an issue that is of little concern to the international community is not a very sensible approach. It is the issue of terrorism that affects every single Pakistani today. When New York was attacked the US crossed many oceans to bomb the alleged hideouts of the planners of the attack. When IS claimed responsibility for bringing down a Russian plane and attacking Paris, both Russia and France vowed to bomb IS out of existence. We have to make an effort to understand the frustration India feels when alleged schemers roam freely within Pakistan. We need to feel the pulse of the times and work towards the eradication of terrorism at the regional level.

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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.


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.