Dr. Haider Shah

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

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OVER A COFEE: Terrorism and globalisation, Daily times, 21/11/15

Strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi maintain the delicate balance between warring tribal groups and warlords. Remove them and the whole structure falls apart

In the last few years,I have written twice about the Arab Spring. When it was in full bloom many analysts were calling it the unfurling of a democratic era in the Muslim world. Even then I wassceptical as, on a cautionary note, I had stated in 2011 that many masked robbers could be seen accompanying the caravan of Arab revolutionaries. The second time, I wrote that the Spring was withering away and even the most optimistic had to agree that the short-lived Arab Spring was no more. I then feared that the worst was yet to come. The democrat in me found the spectacle of tanks rolling over the bodies of supporters of a party that had acceded to power through ballot in Egypt repugnantly obscene. What disturbed me even more was the relative quiet in the case of Egypt and vociferous activism in the case of Syria,which in awayexposed the hypocritical side ofinternational players.

I had then aired my concerns that in Syria another Afghanistan was being re-enacted. The recipe of forging a tactical alliance with jihadis recruited through Saudi Arabia and bringing down a regime was simple and fruitful in the short term but,over the long run, it amounted to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. When consequently those jihadis become a pain the superpowers send troops to clean the country of the mess they create over there. We have seen this before and, when lessons are not learnt,history repeats itself even for very clever readers.
Globalisation is defined as the interconnectedness of the world where events in one part influence happenings in other parts of the world. The effect of a shrunken globalised village is that not only have finance, trade and culture become universalised but terrorism has also assumed the dimension of globalisation. Modern technological innovations have removed the barriers of time and space. A preacher sitting in the Middle East can fill the hearts and minds of anyone living in a western country with radical ideas and fantasies of an imagined world. The super powers, therefore, need to be more attentive to what they do in other parts of the world. The attention should be on two counts: one, the actions themselves and, two, more importantly, the perception of what they do in foreign lands. Iraq had already created a perception that the US thrusts its view of the world upon others and demands that others must see the world in black and white as well. Vietnam and Afghanistan had established that US policymakers do not necessarily get their decisions right every time. It, therefore, should have been more watchful when it decided to intervene in countries like Libya and Syria.

The Middle East has two problems that have been inherited from history. One, despite the illusion of modernity because of good infrastructure thanks to petrodollars, it remains tribal in essence and hence has preserved tribal feuds from bygone ages. Two, the religious divide along sectarian lines that the spread of early Islam engineered further exasperates the schisms between warring tribes. Political power,therefore, is contested by various contending tribes where the Shia or Sunni identity plays an important role in legitimising political opposition at the soft end and insurgency at the hard end of the continuum. Strongmen like Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi are the naturally evolved remedies of this situation. Like a lynchpin they maintain the delicate balance between warring tribal groups and warlords. Remove them and the whole structure falls apart. Nothing is more instrumental for the spread of terrorist groups than the chaos created by a sudden collapse of state structure.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no doubt an authoritarian ruler. The eye specialist turned president can be castigated as an embodiment of 45 years of personal rule in Syria. But what are the alternatives if he is removed from the scene? We saw in Egypt that Hosni Mubarak was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood and, ultimately, the army seized power. Why do we think that the same recipe will yield a different result in Syria? The secular Syrian leader enjoys the support of educated middle classes while opposition groups are mostly a ragtag of extremist outfits. Islamic State (IS) is just the culmination of the directionless, interventionist policy of the US-led coalition against the Syrian government.


The European governments compound their problem of security by following a politically correct idealistic policy towards new entrants in their societies. In the name of multiculturalism and human rights they have allowed radicalism to develop strong roots. Some political parties become apologists for radical groups as they treat them as their potential voting blocs. Others hesitate to take stern action again troublemakers as they fearthe alienationof certain communities. Faith schools keep mushrooming and organised groups spread radicalism among the vulnerable with no checks from by state.

Just as the Army Public School (APS) attack changed the resolve of the Pakistani nation the Paris attack is hopefully going to be a watershed in the collective will of European countries against radicalism. A desperate situation needs desperate remedies. It seems Putin is the right remedy for terrorist groups like IS.


OVER A COFFEE: From Saleem Shahzad to Raza Rumi. The Daily Times, 5/4/2014

Raza Rumi narrowly escaped becoming another martyr on this list of solo warriors. In a country where neither a serving governor nor a former prime minister are safe from the evil designs of motivated and organised assailants, I do not know how any man with some sense of dignity can live in peace

 Dr Haider Shah  April 05, 2014

Like many other fellow columnists, I had also penned a piece of condemnation and condolence when Saleem Shahzad was callously murdered under mysterious circumstances. We are, however, all busy people. Now is an urgent meeting. Tomorrow is an important conference. Then there is a splendid wedding ceremony. Entertaining family and friends in a newly opened restaurant is also a priority. Many of us did express concerns over the brutal murder of Saleem but then we slipped back into our extremely busy routines of life. 

Acting upon the urge to be truthful in a society where hypocrisy is institutionalised and where national mythology reigns supreme is like stepping into a den of hungry snakes. Raza! If you wanted to play it safe you should have preferred doing some kind of ‘aalim’ or ‘qutub’ talk show where you would have won accolades by selling faith-coated sweets to keen buyers. If that did not suit your taste, well you might have then considered providing our idle and superstition-prone elite with a programme on star signs or Tarot cards and by making callers happy with predictions about their future. You chose to create and promote a discourse of new thinking. New discourse is never liked by those who are living comfortably in a given status quo. Who fired at you we may not know for certain as yet, but why they attacked you is not difficult to figure out. Not only did they wish to silence a clear headed voice of rationality but also wanted to give a clear message to all those who questioned the authority of the guardians of the status quo. 

I recently watched this movie, The Rise of Evil, which is a Canadian two-part miniseries on Hitler. Fritz Gerlich, a German journalist and opponent of the Nazi party, figures prominently in the movie. When his wife alerts him to looming danger, the journalist-cum-historian expresses his inability to disown his struggle as not resisting madness amounted to communal suicide. Towards the end of the movie, Fritz is arrested and put in the Dachau concentration camp. His wife is shown receiving his bloodstained glasses in the packet delivered to her by the Nazi authorities. The movie then displays the quote often attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The actual quote by Burke on which this is based is: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Saleem Shahzad, Wali Babar and Musa Khan fell one by one. Bad men are highly organised, very resourceful and extremely institutionalised. If our good men do not form an association, they will fall one by one. 

Raza Rumi narrowly escaped becoming another martyr on this list of solo warriors. In a country where neither a serving governor nor a former prime minister are safe from the evil designs of motivated and organised assailants, I do not know how any man with some sense of dignity can live in peace. The governments in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tell us that they are negotiating peace with the Taliban. We wanted to win the T20 cricket tournament with the strength of communal prayers alone. Perhaps we also want to bring peace and tranquillity to our country by praying for peace. 

In the media, the assassination attempt on Raza Rumi in broad daylight was eclipsed by the Musharraf trial. When, soon after Musharraf’s appearance in the special court, rumours of a special plane from the Gulf began making the rounds, I felt the doctrine of necessity had returned from its grave. Luckily, the rumour died young and Musharraf remains incarcerated inside a military hospital. However, what irks me most is the constant campaign of trivialising the offence of high treason. On a recent television talk show I was stunned by the intellectual dishonesty of a couple of prominent senior lawyers when I heard them arguing that Musharraf’s offence was merely “unconstitutionality” and not “treason”. I wish the learned advocates had read my piece on this topic where I had quoted many constitutional and statutory provisions in other countries whereby any move to dislodge a government or subvert the constitution was considered high treason. Every unconstitutional move does not necessarily result in treason proceedings. In the US’s constitution, the president has a veto power so that if he feels that any law passed by the Congress is unconstitutional he can veto it. Similarly, the Supreme Court was empowered to declare any law or executive action void through judicial review if it was found to be against the constitution. Subverting the constitution is, therefore, totally different from ‘acting unconstitutionally’. Regular coups have been responsible for weak democratic systems in developing countries. Pakistan’s political system has also suffered at the hands of ambitious adventurists. Hence, Article 6 was introduced by the founding fathers of the 1973 constitution to discourage any military takeovers. It is important that we do not allow the trivialising of Musharraf’s offence. He is charged with the offence of high treason under Article 6 and we should not let anyone mellow down the severity of this offence.

Saleem Shahzad and Raza Rumi did not put their lives on the line to see the Taliban getting amnesty and an accused of high treason receiving special treatment from the state. I hope we do not disappoint them. 

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Taliban and our conspiracy theorists , Daily Times, 19 Oct, 2013

OVER A COFFEE : Taliban and our conspiracy theorists — Dr Haider Shah

The various militant groups have no confusion about their strategic priorities and associations. Our political leaders, however, suffer from lack of clarity and vision
Eid-ul-Azha has been observed in the country with traditional fervour. A small but very impactful section of the Muslim community has, however, revived the ancient ritual of Aztec times when humans were butchered to please the imaginary gods of nature. The Law Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became the latest victim of this lunacy practised under the banner of religion.
Being mortals, humans die in every part of the world for various reasons. But it is only in Pakistan that organised gangs of killers are revered by leaders of many political parties. Only in Pakistan we see complete strategic chaos in dealing with terrorists. For instance, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa wasted no time in declaring those who had been blasting school buses and killing law enforcement officers as sons of the soil. After killing of two MPAs in the recent past, even now when a cabinet member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government has been murdered in a suicide attack, the PTI chief has not condemned Taliban or other militant groups while issuing his public statement. When the Dera Ismail Khan jail was broken the local police was blamed. Now the federal government has been blamed for not surrendering to the arrogant leaders of militant outfits through negotiations. Imran Khan is hardly doing any service to this besieged nation by assuming the role of a devil’s advocate and thereby adding confusion to the national discourse on terrorism.
Like Agha Waqar’s water-propelled car, the apologists of militants keep inventing one conspiracy theory after another. A little careful scrutiny of these theories, however, reveals their hollowness and self-contradiction. One is even more surprised at the stubbornness of these conspiracy theorists to cling on to their world of paranoia. To begin with, let us examine the most often heard theory of foreign hand. The theory has many variations. In its most pure form it states that the Taliban are our heroes who are struggling for glory of Islam against enemies of Islam aka yahood-o-nasara (Jews and Christians). The bomb blasts are the work of these despicable enemies to bring a bad name to the peace loving soldiers of Islam. This theory is smashed by Taliban themselves by claiming responsibility for such attacks. In many instances they issue videos of attacks to media and, as well as put them on their websites. In some video and audio presentations they explain in detail why they consider killing of civilians justified as per their interpretation of tenets of faith.
The next variation of the theory is that some militant groups are agents of the US and are working on its directives. This sounds a little more plausible than the first one. But as Taliban are fighting against the US such groups would then become traitors to the jihadi cause. Taliban should have, therefore, first dealt with these traitors. But Taliban, instead, have officially declared them their faith brothers. So this either disproves the theory or makes Taliban US agent as well. Some conspiracy theorists, in fact, do find refuge in this theory. These theorists kept selling the theory that Saddam Hussain was a CIA agent and the Iraq war was a part of his grand plan. After Hussain’s execution they no longer talked vociferously about that theory. They then began accusing Osama bin Laden to be a CIA agent. After his killing in Abbottabad, they moved to Gaddafi as the new CIA agent and when he also went out of business the theorists continued finding new names. If Taliban as a whole are American agents then why are they fighting Pakistan that is supporting the US-led war on terror? Why are their havens consistently attacked by drones and why do they keep attacking and killing US soldiers?
Another variation of the theory is that there are good Taliban who are fighting against US-led forces in Afghanistan and there are bad Taliban who are fighting against the law-enforcement forces in Pakistan. This view comes closer to the one traditionally held by the military establishment. The theory, however, overlooks the close bonds between Taliban outfits in both countries. If the Pakistani Taliban were working against the interests of Afghan Taliban, then they would have been in a state of conflict. They both live and operate from the Pakistani tribal area. Without having strong relations of common faith, one would have decimated the other. We have seen how Taliban have mercilessly wiped out opposing seats of power such as the Maliks and groups like Ansar ul Islam. Reality is that both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban owe allegiance to Mullah Umar and share a common strategy of establishment of an Islamic emirate in the tribal areas combining Afghanistan with Pakistan.
A more recent theory singles out the Swat fugitive Maulvi Fazlullah, who is operating from the Afghan province of Kunar. This group is claimed to be working on behest of the Afghan regime. The problem with this theory is that if Fazlullah is a stooge of the Afghan government then he is taking orders from the US. As the Afghan Taliban are fighting against the American presence, it is inconceivable that they would allow the border area of Afghanistan used by a group that is operating under US orders. Activities carried out by that group have regularly been owned and defended by TTP leaders.
To summarise it all, the various militant groups have no confusion about their strategic priorities and associations. Our political leaders, however, suffer from lack of clarity and vision.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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From Afia Siddiqi to Tamerlane Tsarnaev , Daily Times, 27/4/13

OVER A COFFEE : From Afia Siddiqi to Tamerlane Tsarnaev — Dr Haider Shah

After the Boston bombing we should have all felt the urge to see inwards so that the malaise afflicting the Muslim world could be correctly diagnosed and adequately cured 

When the breaking news of Boston Marathon bombings appeared on the TV screen my immediate reaction was Ghalib’s line “kahin eisa na ho yaan bhi wohi kaafir sanam nikle.” (Lest even here the same wicked beloved pops out). I was thinking in terms of characters like the failed New York Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and London suicide bomber Siddiq Khan. In the end, as a partial relief, they were not traced as of Pakistani origin, however, they did turn out to be angry young Muslims. Perhaps making virtue out of necessity, we need to analyse the Boston bombing scenario as a case study.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, born in 1986 into a Chechen family in Kyrgyzstan moved to Dagestan in 2001. His parents immigrated to the US in 2002 with the younger son Dzhokhar. In July 2003, Tamerlan came to the US along with his two sisters and began pursuing his boxing interest by training and fighting in local tournaments. In 2008, Tamerlane is reported to have developed interest in religion. According to his uncle, Tamerlane once stated that he was not concerned about work or studies because God had a plan for him. The same uncle claimed that the young man’s radicalisation had started not in Chechnya, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a local mosque. According to one source, an Armenian Muslim convert was instrumental in brainwashing the mind of the budding boxer. While on one hand, radicalisation was gradually creeping into the personality of young Tamerlane, he had also been dating Katherine Russell who was then a typical college student and introduced to him by friends in a nightclub. A carefree daughter of a doctor, Katie, as she was then called was a top graduate from her high school in 2007 who wanted to go into the Peace Corps. Instead she ended up as a wife of a radicalised boxer who made her become a hijab-wearing Muslim and leave her university and her dreams. After the birth of their daughter Zahara in 2011, Katherine worked long hours as a home healthcare aide while Tamerlane stayed at home taking care of their daughter.

Such is the spell of jihadi indoctrination that neither a wife who had sacrificed her lifestyle and was working long hours as the bread earner, nor the love of an innocent two-year-old daughter could restrain him from pursuing a terrorist plan. The investigators are still probing various aspects of Tamerlane’s life as he was killed during a shootout with the police. The surviving 19-year-old Dzhokhar is helping the investigators as he is recovering from his wounds.

A wikileaks cable mentions Afia Sddiqi getting arrested by the Afghan police along with her son while she was on a daredevil mission of attacking the governor of Ghazni as a suicide bomber. Her purse contained bombs-making documents. Siddiqi was already a suspect for the FBI because she had been named by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as an al Qaeda operative.

These case studies tell us that young people like Tsarnaev and Siddiqi who suffer from internal confusion and state of depression find pleasure and contentment in religion. But like any anti-depressant, small doses do not remain effective and the patients continually keep increasing the intake. If we look at the lives of educated Muslim terrorists we can notice one common feature. Some elder is usually there to give a biased view of the world to the youngster. In both Tsarnaev and Siddiqi I identify their mothers for performing this role. These individuals while benefiting from the opportunities offered by their host countries create a parallel world populated by ideas of victimhood, self-pitying, self-glorification and vendetta. As social networks are teeming with sermons of hate preachers and glorification of terrorism as a religious duty, these glory-seeking wannabe jihadists can trigger into action on their own or used by a local franchise of terrorist organisations.

But we seem determined not to learn from anything. After the Boston bombing we should have all felt the urge to see inwards so that the malaise afflicting the Muslim world could be correctly diagnosed and adequately cured. On the contrary, the spin doctors are again deflecting the need for generating the right discourse. For instance, on Pakistani sites a story became viral in which a drone attack on the boat in which the surviving bomber was hiding was theorised to promote self-consoling victimhood mentality among the readers. The comparison was absurd to say the least. How can we not realise that ordinary local police had no problem in accessing the boat in the backyard of a house where the young fugitive was hiding. All the residents of the area fully cooperated with the law-enforcement agencies and went into a partying mode once it became clear that the surviving terrorist had been taken into custody. Compare this to the situation in Waziristan and other inaccessible areas of the FATA. Serving as havens to the terrorist groups even army commandoes find it difficult to enter these areas without massive causalities. Taking advantage of their safe havens the terrorist groups plan and then execute deadly attacks inside Afghanistan. If we cannot enter these areas to bring the culprits to book for violation of our national laws as well as international laws, what other options are available, if drones are not used in retaliation. The fact that the nonsensical comparison between the two scenarios on our social networks sparked so much interest demonstrates how gullible and fickle minded our internet users tend to be. 

How can we save our children from becoming Faisal Shahzad, Afia Siddiqi, Muhammad Siddiq and Tamerlane and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? That is what we should be pondering in earnest.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com