Ammar Rashid and the frailty of Pakistan’s state narrative

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ImageI don’t personally know Ammar Rashid, but I know many people like him and many people who either went to school with him or moved in the same circles. Unlike many (most?) Pakistani students who study abroad and develop a deep understanding of the mess that is Pakistan, Ammar Rashid chose to return to his country. He lives his life according to what he believes in (no matter how unpopular those beliefs and ideas may be), and not a lot of people in Pakistan can say that. I heard him singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Intesaab (Acknowledgement) many years ago, and that is my favorite version of that verse ever sung. I do not agree with everything that Ammar believes in (Listen to him eloquently explain his positions here: soundcloud.com/howtopakistan/episode-14-awami-workers-party-the-pakistani-left), he is an officeholder for the Awami Workers Party (AWP), an artist, writer, and a teacher. He participated in the 2018 national elections for a National Assembly seat. He was one of the leaders of the movement to preserve katchi-bastis (slums) in the I-11 sector, Islamabad.

Why was he arrested?

He was protesting alongside his comrades against the arrest of PTM leader, Manzoor Pashteen. Pashteen galvanized the youth and adult population in former federally administered tribal areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan. The presence of PTM threatens the ‘national narrative’ put forth by Pakistani establishment that they ‘cleared’ FATA of all militants during the Zarb-e-Azab operation (2014-2017). PTM contends that during and after the operation, military demolished homes and business places of non-militants living there and killed (or facilitated the killing of) many tribesmen who were actually anti-militant (Pashteen wrote about this for the NYT, read here. )

Following Ammar’s arrest, there were more protests in different cities in Pakistan. In Faisalabad, many protestors were picked up by the police today for protesting against the arrest of Ammar, who was protesting the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen.   This suppression of dissent is reminiscent of fascist regimes around the world. There are not a lot of people as well-read and politically conscious as Ammar and his fellow protestors and muzzling their voices by force merely exposes the fragility of the military’s narrative. The number of people who think like Ammar in Pakistan is probably less than five hundred. Compare that to the numerical strength of Army proper: half a million (and millions of admirers). Since January 2017, when bloggers were abducted by agencies (and later released), there has been an uptick in ‘disappearances’ of progressive activists and students. Due to the abovementioned numerical mismatch, these abductions don’t always get the media coverage they deserve, and mainstream political parties almost never defend these dissenters. In such dark times, just a safe release of these protestors would be a welcome step.

P.S A twitter thread of tributes to Ammar by creative comrades: https://twitter.com/tooba_sd/status/1224025720873275394?s=21

 

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Junaid Hafeez and Teaching in Pakistan

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I could have been in Junaid Hafeez’s place. He was born in a small town in Punjab and was ‘foolish’ enough to leave a career in medicine to pursue the arts. He got a Fulbright scholarship and studied literature, photography, and theatre at Jackson State University in Mississipi before returning to Pakistan and working as a guest lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University. In 2013, he was arrested on charges of blasphemy. In 2014, his lawyer, Rashid Rahman, was killed in broad daylight, and some lawyers in Multan celebrated that killing. According to witnesses, when Rahman’s body was being bathed before being buried, someone was beating the dhol (signifying happiness) outside their house.  This month, Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death (link from BBC). He has been kept in solitary confinement for years, for his own protection. What was Junaid Hafeez’s fault?

He chose to say (or just think) things that are not supposed to be said or thunk in Pakistan. He could have chosen to return to the United States or to another country where his life was not in constant danger and where he would not be held in solitary confinement for his own sake. He also chose to teach younger generations and give back to the country, which is also a grave sin in the land of pure. (Read my friend Komail’s experience in his recent piece here).

Sometime during medical school, I myself got disillusioned with medicine and thought about alternative careers. It took me a few years to figure that out and in the meanwhile, I graduated from medical school and completed the necessary medical training. I also got a scholarship to visit the United States and was writing for blogs and newspapers during that interim period. I got sick and tired of sitting at home and applied to be an instrutor in Anatomy (never my favourite subject but that was the only job open at the time) at a private medical school in my hometown. I had never formally taught a class, much less a class of fresh faced medical students on their first day. I did my best effort to hide my nervousness (using my experience as an actor during med school) and hopefully succeeded. There is not a lot of ‘concept-based’ teaching in Anatomy which made my life hard and the fact that in Pakistan, most med schools spend an inordinate amount of time teaching anatomy that students will never use (2-3 months on upper limb!!). I tried to mix things in, just because i wanted them to pay attention. Some of my first lectures would include a mention of the theory of evolution and anatomic signs of that alongside the scientific method. I once started a presentation with a small biography of Karl Marx that I had written for an urdu newspaper, as the day was Marx’s birthday. I tried to not bring up religion or politics in class (other than that one Marx episode, and I wasn’t even a Marxist!) because i wasn’t teaching them social sciences and didn’t want to get into trouble. I was however once asked what an atheist is, to which i gave a very diplomatic answer. The place was run by a political family, who had bought the land for that med school when one of their members was a local nazim under in the Musharraf era. They ran the school like a traditional patriarchy. Female students were prohibited from openly mingling with their male classmates. They eventually started giving ‘tickets’ to such micreant girls and started calling their fathers when they were ‘found’ talking or sitting with a male. I taught at that place for about a year and then moved to Lahore to start my residency.

During residency, we were supposed to oversee students during their labs but there were very few opportunities to actually engage them in a conversation. I took a break from residency after ten months to study for USMLE exams and got a teaching job at another med school in Lahore. That place was the worst of my three experiences mostly because it was a diploma mill. It was also a hybrid campus, so med students would attend classes alongside pharmacy, physical therapy and social sciences students. The social sciences segment was a net-negative for the med school since there was a lot of reactionary views (Orya Maqbool was a frequent guest at their events) going on. One day, I was studying in the lab (the only reason I went to campus every day) when a media student came in and asked if he could do a mock interview for his project to which I agreed. He wanted to ask generic questions so I fed him generic answers without delving too much into specifics. Otherwise, that place was quite toxic. The lab staff (high school graduates and diploma holders) treated female teachers (all of them doctors) as their equivalent and misbehaved with them. One of the lab staff tried to sell the annual exam questions to the highest bidders and was caught on tape (thanks to WhatsApp). Before anything could be done against him, he had fled. I felt sorry for the students and their parents who spent millions of rupees on their offsprings’ education.

No wonder the best and the brightest (not including myself) don’t bother coming back to Pakistan.

 

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The role of Comedy in our age

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I am an aspiring stand up comic (‘aspiring’ the operative word here). I was attracted to quick-witted, slapstick comedy while I was at an all-male boarding school in Pakistan. Since I was not physically strong enough to compete with the big boys, I had to use my tongue as an asset/weapon. I grew up watching mild-mannered comedies in Urdu on Pakistani television. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that I discovered ‘Seinfeld’ as a syndicated show on an Indian TV Channel. I had started watching ‘The Daily Show ‘ with Jon Stewart almost at the same time, through pirated websites (broadband internet was a late arrival in our household). There was no broader culture of stand up comedy in Pakistan, except a few souls with western education who were briefly on the scene in the early-to-mid 2000s (Sami Shah, Saad Haroon, etc.), mostly clustered in Karachi (which was as culturally far away for me as New York City). I used whatever avenues I could to write humor. I wrote parodies and mockeries in Urdu, first in boarding school, then in med school. Urdu has produced some great humorists (Ibne-Insha, Patras Bokhari, Khalid Akhtar, to name a few), but written humor is different than performative comedy. The only parallel I could find was in stage dramas that were mostly, if not entirely, produced in Punjab and consisted of varying degrees of ‘jugat baazi,’ which is pure slapstick comedy. It can consist of monologues or a back and forth between two men (and it is almost always men) who take turns to insult each other. While it is quite entertaining, it is most often misogynistic and hinges upon common tropes.
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The TV show ‘Hasb-e-Haal’ ushered in a new era of political comedy in Pakistan. Before that, there was ‘Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain’ (literal meaning: we are all hopeful; a double entendre since ‘umeed se hain’  can mean hopeful or pregnant), which consisted of parodies of major political figures. Hasb-e-Haal had regular news and humorous analysis of that news by Azizi, a character played by veteran stage actor, Suhail Ahmed. The show was competing against completely serious political shows and shot to popularity in the late 2000s/early 2010s. Soon after that, there was a deluge of TV shows offering political comedy, in varying degrees of success. There was no ‘Saturday Night Live’ analog that poked irreverent fun at every possible institution in the society. Noone could criticize the judiciary, the military (and its proxies), or the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ (TNT).  I remember watching a stage show that was quite popular in 2013-14, written by Anwar Maqsood (famous playwright), in Lahore. It was a miniature, middle-class, sanitized version of the nightly news shows. The state of humor in Pakistan was bleak, a nation taking itself too seriously and too afraid to laugh at ourselves. I actually wrote a parody show that was educational at the same time as it was humorous, in 2012, which was filmed by a friend but did not make it to the screen, partially because it was my first experience writing in that format.
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Recently, there have been some positive developments like Aurat Naak, an all-female comedy troupe, and satire sections in newspapers (dearly-departed/banned Khabaristan Times and The Dependant, both of which I contributed to). However, satire in English newspapers and blogs has its limitations: Very few people in Pakistan read English papers regularly. A few years ago, Nadeem Farooq Paracha (cultural critic for Dawn and one of my early heroes) wrote a blog for Dawn.com that portrayed Malala Yousafzai as a polish agent planted in Pakistan (there were enough hints in the piece for it being a satire column/blog). The article was soon shared by people who took is as gospel truth, and some local newspapers even published Urdu translation of that piece as evidence that it was proof of Malala being a fake (a common enough conspiracy theory in Pakistan). Dawn had to label the piece as Satire at the front and bottom of the page as a response. A year or two later, when I submitted a satire piece to Dawn, I was told to ‘tone it down a bit’ in light of the Malala story. In Pakistan, there is a very fine line between humor and absurd reality, and as a writer, I was often treading that line, veering from one side to another.

It is not as if Pakistan does not have people who are funny and can poke fun at the ‘holy cows.’ I know dozens of people who do that in private frequently but cannot, for their safety, say those things in public. There is no First Amendment guaranteeing free speech rights in Pakistan. ,’ 19 of the constitution explicitly identifies the holy cows (military, judiciary, TNT) and prohibits speech against that. Adding to this fuel is the firepower possessed by Pakistan’s right-wing media and loudspeaker power wielded by molvis who can commandeer people to form a mob against anyone at the drop of a hat. A few years ago, a fellow journalist and friend wrote an article about the ‘homosexual question’ in Islam on a popular Urdu website. A week later, Orya Maqbool Jan, former civil servant, and lifelong windbag dedicated a whole TV show to that one article and targetted that Urdu website. A case of hate speech was filed against him with Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). For his hearing, Orya brought a bunch of goon (including lawyers, molvis and other members of a for-hire mob) and disrupted the hearing. Nothing ever came out of that hate speech case.

When I moved to the US in 2017, I had the opportunity to see stand up comedy myself. I went to a place in Miami that had bi-monthly comedy shows and to a place in Fort Lauderdale that had an open-mic. I wrote some material myself, which I performed in front of a group of friends but never on stage. In Houston, I went to an open-mic and was going to perform my set, but I was supposed to be on stage around 11 pm, which is way past my bed time, and I had friends in the audience who had to go to work the next day. In Washington DC, I went to a show titled ‘Black Side of the Moon’ in December 2016. It was a combination of monologues and sketch comedy by an all-black cast. The most memorable moment in the show was when a white volunteer who came on stage was given the ‘Full African American Experience’, including being sold at a slave market, denial of place in a sports team despite his qualifications, and being shot dead by a black policeman. It was probably my first exposure to live, politically conscious comedy. A Pakistani version would have Ahmadis or Baloch people mocking the majority Sunni population or Punjabi elite. That show is not going to happen any time soon.

Sadly, the only Pakistani import to the US in terms of stand up comedy (Kumail Nanjiani) is a good actor but a subpar stand up comic. His film ‘The Big Sick’ was an amalgamation of stereotypes and some mildly emotional scenes. He does quite well in the HBO TV show ‘Silicon Valley’ and was admittedly quite good in the movie ‘Stuber’. Many of his Karachi acquintances are on the record saying how he fabricated things about his life in Pakistan (you can google that). Do You Believe in Madness?

I was in Chicago recently and saw a show at the famed Second City theatre titled ‘Do you believe in Madness?’. It was a powerful sketch show with a diverse cast and ranging in topics from Abortion to Impeachment, global warming , Brexit and including a song with names of all the people who have left the current white house (sung to the tune of Billy Joel’s ‘We didn’t start the fire’). It was like watching SNL but better. This is my long-winded way to say that the satte of comedy in the US, is strong, and long may it continue!

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Book Review: The Battle for Pakistan by Shuja Nawaz

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In the post 9/11 years, a multitude of “Pakistan experts” emerged and the bookshelves were flooded with books containing the words ‘Pakistan’, ‘crisis’, ‘storm’ or ‘battle’. In my opinion, very few writers from outside Pakistan (and even inside) have explored the country, its politics and its regional dynamics pre- and post-9/11.  I consider Shuja Nawaz as one of the authors who, both as an insider and an outsider, written about Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance and foreign policy while maintaining balance and equanimity. I would like to disclose here that I have benefitted personally from Shuja Nawaz’s actions in the past. I was selected as one of the fifteen ‘Emerging Leaders of Pakistan’ (ELP) selected by Atlantic Council’s South Asia center (headed by Shuja) in 2012.

A little backstory: I was in a strange place in my life at the time. I had just finished medical school and had started my internship in internal medicine. My life was in flux. In the last year of medical school, I had drifted away from medicine and towards political science and history. Following Salmaan Taseer’s assassination in 2011, I had taken night classes at a makeshift school on political economy and history (more on ST’s assassination and my transformation here ). I had also started writing for my own blog and later for express tribune’s (ET) blogs and for Viewpointonline, a fledgling left-wing weekly. By the time I started my internship in May 2012, I had been published in ET, Pakistan Today and Dawn Blogs. During medical school, I had taken part in student politics and was aware of the brewing ‘Doctors Movement’ which was headquartered in the same dorms where I lived. In June-July 2012, there was a massive strike across Punjab and many of my classmates who were interns got arrested and were placed alongside death row inmates in Lahore. I wrote about this for ET and Dawn and engaged in twitter and Facebook wars with people who saw no benefit in our strike. A week after the strike was over, I received an email from Shuja that I had been selected for ELP and would be visiting the US in October-November 2012. I had earlier done an online interview and an in-person interview (after a typical 40-hour shift at the hospital) during the selection process. The other 14 people came from different backgrounds (Activists, NGO people, media people) and I was selected as a writer.  We met General Mattis at Shuja’s house in Virginia, Lt Gen Douglas Lute (Obama’s special rep for Af-Pak) in the West Wing of White House and Chuck Hagel at the Atlantic Council. We also visited the Pentagon and Hoover Institute in San Francisco where we met George Shultz. Most of these meetings came about due to personal connections and efforts by Shuja and his staff. One of the dominant themes of our conversations was the status of Pakistan post-2014 ‘withdrawal’ of the US from Afghanistan. We also got a two-hour masterclass in US-Pakistan history from Shuja while we were stranded at our hotel in NYC due to Hurricane Sandy (and had to cancel our meeting with then-Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker). I wrote a few blogs for the now-defunct website for the fellowship that can be accessed here, courtesy of way back machine.

Personally, that first visit to the US in 2012 changed a lot of things for me in the short and long run. The fact that I’m writing this while sitting in the United States with a pretty stable life owes a lot to that selection. I have met Shuja over the years both in the States and in Pakistan and have learned a lot from him. I rate his earlier book ‘Crossed Swords’ (which I have a signed and amended-by-the-author copy of) as one of the best books on Pakistan’s military-industrial complex and its impact on Pakistan’s history.

Moving on to the next book. Shuja has been close to many of the protagonists in the book on both the US and Pakistani side. He grew up in a military family and his brother Asif was Chief of Army Staff in the early 90s, before his sudden death. He has been called the ‘Pakistan army’s man in DC’ by some people in Pakistan over the years.  Having read books on Pakistan-US relations in the last decade (including but not limited to: Directorate S, The Dispensable Nation, War on Peace, India vs Pakistan, Sleepwalking to Surrender, The Wrong Enemy, The Way of the Knife), one gets a general outline of the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two countries. What Shuja’s book does is to add an insider’s narrative on the events and puts things in perspective. It starts off on the Pakistan side with the political reshuffling underway in 2006 when Musharraf wanted to sign an NRO with Benazir Bhutto (BB) and a few months before that Nawaz Sharif and BB had signed the Charter of Democracy. Musharraf wanted to share power with BB but on his own terms, as a dominant partner. BB was not interested in such a lopsided setup and was gathering allies in the US before her trip to Pakistan. Musharraf was fighting many fires in 2007, the chief one among them was ‘Lawyers Movement’, allegedly an internecine conflict involving different intelligence agencies. BB landed in Pakistan in October and faced a bomb blast in which she survived but more than 100 of her dedicated party workers perished. In December, BB was not so lucky and became the target of another assassination attempt. Musharraf had lost the plot. Fresh Elections were held and BB’s party took control of the Federal government. Musharraf tried to maneuver a role for himself in the democratic setup but had to resign in August 2008. It was a new era for Pakistan and the political class was in charge after 9 years of complete military rule. Shuja was a first-hand witness to BB’s deliberations in the US and provides an insight into her mindset and that of Zardari at the time.

There was a change of guard in the US as well. Obama was elected President on the promise of quitting the useless, forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first Obama term, there was the morass known as ‘Af-Pak’ policy review with State Dept, CIA, Military on one side and Richard Holbrooke on the other. In the end, with all possible information, Obama chose to announce an exit timetable from Afghanistan alongside a surge of troops. That was a blunder, as has been acknowledged by people in the Obama Foreign Policy team. The details of this process have been documented by Steve Coll and Vali Nasr in their respective books but Shuja provides further insight gained from candid interviews with key stakeholders and policymakers including Bruce Reidel. One particular thing that caught my eye was the discussion on Haqqani Network. I have always wondered why Pakistan protected them with such rigor and passion. A ‘senior Pakistani army officer’ told Seymour Hirsch that Haqqanis had “facilitated the evacuation of ISI personnel and their friends from Kunduz” and that was why they were regarded highly. Shuja thinks its not the right answer and I tend to agree with that. I wrote about the infamous Kunduz airlift here (link) and wish more Pakistanis would know about that incident.

With the arrival of Obama, the Musharraf-Bush ‘bromance’ post-9/11 was also over. Pakistan had received generous US aid and support (Non-NATO ally status and more) as a result of that relationship. The year 2008 changed that. Things went from bad to worse in 2011 though. Shuja has reserved a major chunk of his book on what happened in that fateful year. It was the year of Raymond Davis, of the OBL operation (my first ever blog for Dawn was on the OBL raid and I remember writing about the incident in Urdu while sitting in a General surgery lecture during May 2011), Memogate and Salala. I remember being quite up to date with the news at the time but Shuja’s narrative on all of these events, particularly the Memogate and Salala has added to my understanding of how the events unfolded and divergent viewpoints of protagonists.

He devotes a chapter to the issue of Financial Aid from the United States to Pakistan. It is a complex topic that involved failures on both sides. I have talked to many friends in Pakistan about this who work in development/human rights organizations and they told me stories of how cumbersome the process of getting funds from USAID is and the need for publicity often has to be weighed against the image that the US has in Pakistan (which is overwhelmingly negative).  That is the reason why some of the leading human rights organizations (e.g HRCP, Shirkat Gah) in Pakistan don’t even apply for grants and funds from US sources. There was (still probably is) a whole industry of ‘grifters’ who arose from the post 9/11 largesse by the United States. In the mid-2000s till recently, using the words ‘combating religious extremism’ was a very good way to get international aid in Pakistan, a fact that has been criticized by actual human rights activists. Many religious figures also used this opportunity to get US visas and money in the guise of fighting religious fundamentalism. Shuja writes about the much-maligned Kerry-Luger bill (in 2009) that was supposed to prioritize civilian aid to Pakistan and was disparaged from early on by the military. In the Tierney Repot in 2008, prepared by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, it was admitted that “US brand in Pakistan had become ‘toxic’ over time”.

The New York Times wrote an editorial in 2015 titled ‘Is Pakistan worth America’s Investment?’ which Shuja quotes (and I find very true):

“Since 9/11, the United States has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help fight extremists. There are many reasons to have doubts about the investment. Still, it is in America’s interest to maintain assistance—at a declining level—at least for the time being. But much depends on what the money will be used for. One condition for new aid should be that Pakistan do more for itself—by cutting back on spending for nuclear weapons and requiring its elites to pay taxes.

Doubts about the aid center on Pakistan’s army, which has long played a double game, accepting America’s money while enabling some militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban who have been battling American and Afghan troops in Afghanistan”.

Military Aid and what Pakistan did with that is no different. The details about how the Navy claimed $445 per sailor from Coalition Support Funds (CSF) in June 2005 but $800 per sailor in December 2005 would be comical if not tragic. In contrast, Air Force charged $800 per person in 2004 and $400 in later years. The Army charged steadily at $200. Similarly, Navy charged $5700 per vehicle per month as opposed to Army’s less than $100 per vehicle per month.

For Pakistan-watchers and students of civ-mil imbalance in Pakistan, there are frequent nuggets of interesting information. For example, about the 2014 PTI Dharna, US Ambassador Olson told Shuja that “We received information that Zahir-ul-Islam [DG-ISI] was mobilizing for a coup in September of 2014. General Raheel Sharif blocked it by, in effect, removing Zaheer, by announcing his successor. Zahir was talking to the corps commanders and was talking to life-minded army officers. He was prepared to do it and had the chief been willing, even tacitly, it would have happened”. We also learn about the inroads made into military by Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) and the ‘Pir-Bhai’ system which distorts the discipline of army.

In my opinion, the book is recommended reading for people interested in Pakistan, its civil-military relations and how the US treats its relation with Pakistan.

 

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A letter to Gandhi

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(In 2017-18, an Indian friend wanted to collect essays from Pakistanis on how they view MK Gandhi across the border. I wrote this short letter to Mr. Gandhi that I recently saw in my collection. Sharing it with the BP community. )

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Birla House,
New Delhi.

Dear Mr. Gandhi,

My name is Abdul Majeed and I am writing to you from the city of Lahore, Pakistan. I have been asked to write about you by an Indian friend of mine and I accepted his proposition. I feel ambivalent writing about you since I have thought about you in myriad ways over the course of my life. I grew up in a conservative Muslim household in a small Punjabi town called Sialkot and first learned about you in the ‘Social Studies’ textbooks taught to schoolchildren. My first impression of you as a person was quite negative since the role assigned to you by virtue of ‘Two Nation Theory’ (or TNT, as I now call it) was that of a Hindu politician who opposed the formation of Pakistan and probably hated Muslims. Like many schoolboys of my age, I idolized Mr. Jinnah, your arch-nemesis and a founding father of Pakistan. For us, Jinnah was the David to your Goliath, a defender of minority rights against all odds, an impeccably dressed man who stood up to the might of Hindus and saved Muslims of India from a cultural annihilation. In our imagination, he was everything you were not. We used to make fun of your attire and your persona. I grew up in a society where violence was the channel through which you expressed your masculinity and thus we thought your non-violent methods were signs of cowardice. I learned that All India Congress, a party you led for many years, did not support the idea of an Independent Pakistan (or a divided India, depending on whom you ask) and refused to believe in Partition even after two separate countries had been established.

My outlook towards history and towards your personality changed when I went to boarding schools in the northern part of the country. While the basic ideological framework remained in place, facts added up through the years. At one point in time, I could recite the whole ‘Pakistan Studies’ book by heart in two hours, including names of the books written by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a Muslim educationist and reformer in Nineteenth-century, charter of demands presented by the Shimla deputation to Viceroy of India in 1905, consequences of Bengal’s partition in 1905, Minto-Marley reforms of 1909, Fourteen points of Mr. Jinnah (a proposal for constitutional reform in British India) and the Islamic clauses in Pakistan’s three constitutions. You might be astonished to know that history books in our schools start the story from the Nineteenth century as if nothing happened in this land before. The boarding schools I went to, were located near Mansehra (containing artifacts from two thousand years ago) and Taxila (where the oldest University in the world was once present) respectively, sites containing artifacts from a past I never had. I knew you as a wily politician who duped Muslims during the Khilafat Movement. The word ‘Mahatma’ was used as a prejudicial slur towards anyone ‘Indian’. I often got called by this name because I was a vegetarian.

Years later, I ended up seeing you in a different light. I was roaming the streets of New York City in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy when I chanced upon a statue of you in Greenwich village. A week after that, I saw another one of your statues at the MLK memorial in Atlanta. I learned about your influence on Martin Luther King Jr. and the strategy of non-violence resistance. It was around this time that I read Arundhati Roy’s foreword to ‘Annihilation of Caste’ and ‘The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire’. As I grew up, I came around to the idea that human beings contain multitudes and having contradictions is partly what makes us human. On one hand, you paid lip service to the idea of caste in Indian society, on the other, you made public displays of spending time with the untouchable community. You accelerated the fusion of religion and politics in India during the late 1910s and the Khilafat movement and you also held fast when Pakistan was not paid money it was due after partition. You used elements of Hinduism in your political and social message and were eventually gunned down by a Hindu nationalist. You didn’t subscribe to the Two nation theory but the last century proved you wrong. India and Pakistan have grown and keep growing apart as a Sunni state and a Hindu state. Some of your ideas were as controversial then as they are now. You were in favor of treating Nazis with peace and non-violence and you lived to see how that turned out. In Pakistan during the 2000s, some people wanted to talk to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and that didn’t go as planned either. The question then is, how does one deal with groups whose founding ideology is based on violence? With this, I’ll leave you in peace in your forever abode.

Greetings from Lahore,

Abdul Majeed Abid

 

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Film Review: What Will People Say?

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**Caution: Spoilers Ahead**

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I was watching the film ‘What will people say’ (courtesy, Kanopy), an official selection at the Toronto film festival in 2018. It is a story familiar to anyone who grew up in Pakistan or in a desi family abroad. A young, second-generation Pakistani teenage girl (Nisha) in Norway wants to live her life like any other teenager in her peer group but is restricted by her parents. Like most rebellious teenagers anywhere in the world, she finds ways to do what she wants to do (go out partying with a friend in the middle of the night) but stops just shy of having physical relations with one of her guy friends. One such day, she gets caught by her father who finds one of her male Norwegian friends in her room and starts beating him and then turns his fury on her. A neighbor calls the police and Nisha is escorted to a safe place by Norway’s version of the CPS.

After spending a night at CPS, Nisha’s mother calls her to tell her that everything will be okay and that her father will pick her up from CPS in a few minutes. Nisha, being a teenager, falls for this trap. She ends up on a flight to Pakistan with her father. Her father leaves her at his sister’s house and returns to Norway the next day. Nisha tries to contact someone in Norway but she has no access to international calling or internet. Her first night, she tries to run away in the streets but comes back to find her aunt at the door telling her that the nearest airports in 350 Kilometers away. At another instance, she tries to send a message to one of her Norwegian friends via facebook through a net cafe but is caught and her Norwegian passport is burned. She spends eight months at that place. While she is there, she falls for one of her male cousins living in the same house.

One night, they are caught kissing at night by local police who beat him mercilessly and ask her to strip at gunpoint. The police then ask the guy to fondle her in front of them, all while taking photos of them. The couple is then dragged to their house and police demand money in exchange for deleting those photos. Nisha’s father is summoned from Norway by the Pakistani relatives and she is sent back. While Nisha’s father is in Pakistan, he spits at her face and then takes her in a taxi to the top of a mountain and orders her to jump from there. She tries to plead with him while he throttles her and tries to push her. He is unable to, and they end up back in Norway.

There is a family meal and her mother tells her that they are giving her a final chance. The prospect of her becoming a doctor is brought up and that it would be one way in which the honor of family can be redeemed. Some of the dialogues used by her mother upon her return are,

People don’t even invite is to weddings anymore.
I wish you were stillborn”.

Within a few days of her return, she comes back from school to find that there is a ‘match’ ready to happen. The boy (Adnan) is a doctor in Canada and from a Pakistani family. Adnan’s aunt is visiting Nisha’s house and he is present via Skype.

Her father muses out loud that she can study and later work once she is in Canada. The boy’s aunt says ‘No, there is no need for studies or work. Adnan earns plenty of money. She’ll later be busy enough with children and the house”.

Nisha’s mother agrees with this statement.

After a brief chat, the ‘match’ is finalized and they are officially “engaged”. Sweets are consumed by everybody present (they are Pakistani, after all). The boy’s aunt then says, “Nisha, we are doing it only for your wellbeing”. The following night, Nisha, who had been rooming with her younger sister, decides to run away from the house again. It is snowing outside and before she leaves, her younger sister (who is about 6-9 years old) wakes up and sees her leave but doesn’t say a word. Once she has climbed down from her third story apartment, she walks towards the street outside their apartment complex and looks back. Her father is standing in the window, looking at her. Their eyes meet for a few moments and then Nisha takes off in the snow, running far away from the house. The End.

I thought the movie was generally well-made. There is some exoticization of Pakistan, as one expects in most films for a primarily western audience. The narrow streets, old houses, mountains in the background and a dilapidated bus, with Khawaja-siras (transgender people) selling boiled eggs to passengers, the old school vegetable and fruit market, classrooms without whiteboards and households without domestic servants. I read later that the story is loosely based on the life of its director, Iram Haq.

The premise, as I said earlier, is familiar to a Pakistani or a Pakistani-origin person. The rank hypocrisy of Pakistani society, the guilt-trapping (Pakistani parents’ favorite sport), violence in the name of honor and efforts to ‘save face’ in the community are daily realities of a desi household. While honor killings get splashed as headlines (deservedly), there is a lot of ‘micro-violence’ that happens every day in a middle-class Pakistani household with young girls (I’m talking about a representative sample). Some of the statements that I have bolded and put in quotation marks in the synopsis are familiar tropes of Pakistani parents, once they find out that the human being they created is not a robot that they can program. The situation, however, is much more dire for girls than it is for boys. Particularly when it happens abroad. One of my mentors used to say that Pakistanis in the diaspora tend to be normal people until their daughters start growing up. If it were up to Pakistani parents, they would bottle up puberty of their children and throw it away in the trash, instead of dealing with it like people everywhere else.

I write this not just as a commentator but as a witness. Both of my sisters, at different times in their lives, were ‘disciplined’ when they developed an interest in men that my parents had not chosen for them to marry. Sister number one was a teenager and had a crush on one of her teachers (which is the most teenager thing that I can think of). The guy in question used to visit our house for coaching (a normal occurrence for our household, to be clear) and he belonged to a lower-middle-class background. Once the ‘crush’ was discovered, he was banished from our house and my sister was warned never to mention his name again, or there would be dire consequences. She was 16 at the time. Around the time that she turned 17, she was engaged to a cousin who was studying abroad at the time. She got married at 18 and has lived abroad ever since. She has always been an obedient and slightly-passive child and has done okay in life, despite the obvious disadvantage.

Sister number 2 has always been a more outwardly emotional and strong character. Her first ‘issue’ arose during teenage years when she was found talking too many times with one of the male cousins. She would also ‘dress up’ (as much as one could in a provincial Punjabi town) when she went to coaching centers in the city during her high school years. Later, when she was in college, she needed some help with coursework and an acquaintance who worked in that profession was asked to help. The acquaintance deputed one of his juniors to help my sister. Fast forwards a few years and they were romantically involved. My parents were having none of that. They tried to ‘arrange’ her marriage at different places but she would stage some sort of stunt (act cold/be sarcastic/or just being rude) to get out of it. She tried to kill herself at least twice during this period. She was probably physically beaten more than once as well (I was at boarding school between 2000-2006 and in med school for 5 years after that so I only heard these things second-hand). I had met the dude in question and found him to be okay, nothing too spectacular or bad. As the firstborn male, I held a certain role in the family so I first cajoled my mother (who hated the guy partially because he was 10-12 years older than my sister and partially because he came from a lower-middle-class family and my sister has always had ‘high’ ambitions) and later my father (who felt guilty for having introduced the couple in the first place) and sister number 2 finally got married to him.

Were my parents monsters or merely representing the middle class, small-town, religious morality that they themselves grew up in? I don’t know the answer to that question. They are otherwise very decent, educated, ‘honorable’, pious people and a neutral observer meeting them for the first time won’t be able to see anything wrong outwardly. The pathos inflicting my parents is not restricted to them, it is shared by everyone around them, most of the society is rotten. And it’s not getting any better with time.

P.S A book that deals with issues of ‘honor’ in the Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Britain, is ‘Maps for lost lovers’ by Nadeem Aslam. One can also glean some knowledge about this from certain portions of the movie ‘Blinded by the Light’.

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The damage done to third world countries by Harvard and UChicago

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I recently read an article in The Economist about Jair Bolsonaro and one of his prominenet supporters  (a UChicago economist) and it remineded me of the damage done by such ‘luminaries’ to other third world countries such as Pakistan.

“In July, at a convention of his small and inaptly named Social Liberal Party, Jair Bolsonaro unveiled his star hire. Paulo Guedes, a free-market economist from the University of Chicago, has done much to persuade Brazil’s business people that Mr Bolsonaro can be trusted with the country’s future, despite his insults to women, blacks and gays, his rhetorical fondness for dictatorship and the suddenness of his professed conversion to liberal economics. At the convention Mr Guedes praised Mr Bolsonaro as representing order and the preservation of life and property. His own entry into the campaign, he added, means “the union of order and progress”.”

Further in the article,we learn more about the adventure of ‘Chicago Boys’

“[Chile’s dictator from 1973-90, Augusto] Pinochet sensed, rightly, that corporatism would require him to share power with his military colleagues. Instead, he called on a group of civilian economists, dubbed the “Chicago boys” because several had studied at the University of Chicago, where the libertarian economics of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman held sway.

The Chicago boys applied these principles in Chile, whose economy had been wrecked by the irresponsibility of Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist overthrown by Pinochet. Their programme would eventually lay the foundations for Chile to become Latin America’s most dynamic economy at the turn of the century. But it was akin to a major operation by trial and error and without anaesthetic. They slashed import tariffs and the fiscal deficit, which fell from 25% of GDP in 1973 to 1% in 1975. They privatised hundreds of companies, with no regard for competition or regulation. Worried that inflation was slow to fall, they established a fixed and overvalued exchange rate. The result of all this was that the economy came to be dominated by a few conglomerates, heavily indebted in dollars and centred on the private banks.

In 1982, after a rise in interest rates in the United States, Chile defaulted on its debts and the economy slumped. Poverty engulfed 45% of the population and the unemployment rate rose to 30%. Pinochet eventually dumped the Chicago boys and turned to more pragmatic economists, whose policies contributed to Chile’s post-dictatorship prosperity.”

Pakistan was one of the countries that was ‘advised’ by economists from Harvard during the 1950s and 60s.

M. Ziauddin, veteran Pakistani journalist, wrote about the influence of Harvard and UChicago on Pakistan’s economy in his piece titled: Way Out of Deepening Inequality.

Some critique of the Harvard Advisory Group’s (HAG) broader actions can be found in a paper (found here and without paywall here) by Nadeem ul Haque and Mahmood Hasan Khan (Haque obtained a PhD from UChicago and Khan from a Dutch University).

“The HAG vision was flawed in three respects and sowed the seeds of the distorted development of the economics profession in these three respects.

First, it did not attempt to develop an economics profession that was rooted in the country. They left the universities and colleges in a state of neglect attracting resources to these new non-academic, semi-bureaucratic institutions and attempted to give them the lead in the profession. Without the seed of the pure profession being nurtured and jealously guarded in academia, the profession was bound to have a distorted growth.

Second, the HAG trained economists were very different from the economists of the time. The HAG training was very development oriented and specific to Pakistan. They were not encouraged to do any theoretical or pioneering research. Third, given the importance of HAG and the new institutions and the symbiotic relationship between these institutions and the bureaucratic and political setup of the time, these HAG trained economists acquired a large and visible role in the economy. These visible economists not only played an important role in Pakistan’s history but also distorted the country’s perception of an economist, the economics profession and economic policy.

By design, the HAG group was interventionist, plan and budget allocation oriented. They mistrusted the market and had the arrogance of having more information than the market and the rest of society. Interestingly enough, the HAG training of development economics was collapsing on itself. Because these people had no behavioral relationships in mind and no faith in markets, they did not merely push policy levers and study response lags and dynamics. Instead, they developed lengthy plans or wish lists and used the bureaucratic structures to control the environment to make these plans happen. This control-oriented and market-mistrusting civil service loved this new intellectual force given to their view.

A second element in the thinking of the HAG economist was the concern with inequality. Haq and Baqai (1986), two important economists of the HAG era, note with concern that “early writing on economics in Pakistan surprisingly did not contain much reference to poverty related themes.” It is very interesting that most of the early econometric or behavioral research is done mainly by the HAG advisor, whereas the work on measuring poverty, productivity (the ratio calculation work) is done by the Pakistani economist. Before anything about the economy was understood, poverty indices, regional inequality indices, and declines in real wages (when hard wage data was hardly available) were the main areas of concern.

The manner in which these economists were trained itself created a certain perception of economists in the country which lasts till today. These economists were trained to be policy-oriented development economists. A sharp distinction was made between such economists and those who studied more theoretical and academic economics. The erroneous impression was unintendedly cultivated that the study of theory or more rigorous economics is of limited use to the country. Such a pursuit was considered a luxury that the country could ill-afford. This view has persisted and developed over time and reinforced the perception that to be a good economist for Pakistan a grounding in economic theory is not only not required but perhaps may even be a hindrance. The result is that there is a tremendous disrespect for academic and theoretical economics. The term “ivory tower” intellectual was used to describe anyone who attempted to read and keep abreast of academic economics. Instead, an amalgam of general knowledge and mild development verbiage has been established as sound Pakistani development economics.’ Fragmentation of the Profession”.

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Book Review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

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One of the many things in life that fascinate me is the way something becomes news. In my previous life in Pakistan, I had the opportunity to explore this issue further. I interacted with plenty of journalists, both as a source of news and sometimes as a reporter. I was never involved in decisions that happened in the newsroom or any particular editorial decisions but I saw journalists working at close quarters. I was intrigued by many things and asked a lot of questions. One of my friends who used to work at BBC Urdu service once said that BBC’s way of reporting a story is to give everybody a chance to speak. If a bicycle is stolen from an apartment complex, BBC journalists would like to talk to the owner, the thief and if possible, even the bicycle. BBC’s standards are not widely followed in Pakistan (based on my limited view) and a lot of local reporting by correspondents of major newspapers and TV channels is cursory. I also became aware of this issue when I talked to people working at Punjab Lok Sujag, a non-gvovernmental organisation with local roots which had previously worked in making Punjab’s culture more popular (by staging plays in Punjabi, translating major works of fiction in Punjabi and holding an annual Punjabi mela [fair]).

I recently read a excellnt book that dealt with issues of all things ‘news’. It was published in 2007-8 by British journalist, Nick Davies. He spent most of his career working at the Guardian and The Observer in England but he did oversees stints in Australia and United States as well. The book starts off with an exploration of the ‘millenium bug’ story that gripped the attention of a lot of people at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ll let Mr. Davies do most of the talking here.

Where did the millenium bug story start?

“As far as I can tell, the story first hatched one Saturday morning in May 1993, in Toronto, Canada. Inside the city’s Financial Post, on page 37, there was a single paragraph. Under the headline, ‘TURN OF CENTURY POSES A COMPUTER PROBLEM’, the story recorded that a Canadian technology consultant called Peter de Jager was warning that many computer systems would fail at midnight at the start of the new century and that few companies had taken steps to head off the problem.

Rather like the B-movie egg which is laid by the alien in the dark corner of the peaceful suburb, this little story broke out of its shell and slowly started to distribute its offspring around the undefended planet. By 1995, it had spread out of North America into Europe and Australia and Japan. By 1997, bug stories were being sighted all over the globe. By 1998, they had multiplied tenfold, infiltrating media outlets of every kind, and they were still mutating and dividing, still penetrating more and more newspaper columns, more and more broadcast news bulletins until finally, as Millennium Eve approached, they achieved a global conquest of the media, tens of thousands of bug stories infesting almost every news outlet on the planet.”

The financial cost of the story

“Journalists reported that the British government had spent £396 million on Y2K protection. They also reported that it had spent £430 million. And that it had spent £788 million. The American government had spent far more, they said – $100 billion, or $200 billion, or $320 billion, or $600 billion, or $858 billion, depending on which journalist you were reading. Anyway, it was a lot. Beyond that, the private sector had spawned a mini-industry of companies selling millennium bug kits, while publishers turned out bug books and bug videos, and estate agents sold bug-resistant homes, and a few families sold their houses and fled to remote cabins in order to give themselves a chance to survive the coming bug-related chaos.”

How he defines ‘Flat Earth News’

“This [millenium bug story] is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda”

An issue that befuddles ordinary consumers of news (like myself) is the difference between objectivity and neutrality. Should journalists be telling the truth (Objectivity) or just giving both sides of the story (Neutrality)?

“Neutrality requires the journalist to become invisible, to refrain deliberately (under threat of discipline) from expressing the judgments which are essential for journalism. Neutrality requires the packaging of conflicting claims, which is precisely the opposite of truth-telling. If two men go to mow a meadow and one comes back and says, “The job’s done”, and the other comes back and says ‘We never cut a single blade of grass’, neutrality requires the journalists to report a controversy surrounding the state of the meadow, to throw together both men’s claims and shove it out to the world with an implicit sign over the top declaring, ‘We don’t know whats happening-you decide’.

The damage goes further than merely abandoning the primary purpose of journalism. It actually transfers the truth-telling judgments out of newsrooms and into the hands of outsiders.”

Mr. Davies mentions that most of the news stories in major newspapers are lifted straight from news agencies, which could be local and global. Two global agencies that he talked about are Associated Press (AP) and Reuters.

“Just like PA (Press Association, England), their concern with accuracy is deliberately different from a newspaper’s concern with truth. One man who has spent many years as a senior executive from Reuters echoed Jonathan Grun from PA explaining to me that Reuters was not concerned about the truth. The agency would try to provide an accurate amount of an opposing point of view: ‘But it isn’t an agency’s job to start choosing between these voices and saying who is telling the truth’. All the great flat earth news stories have travelled via wire agencies into the unprotected global media.  It was AP and Reuters who told the world about the millenium bug and the weapons on mass destruction, who carried the myths about drugs and crime and radiation and education and all the other Huckers, big and small. All these stories were accurate, in that they faithfully recorded what somebody had said; none of them were true”.

The epilogue of the book starts with some golden words from The Simpsons: “Journalists used to question the reasons for war and expose abuse of power. Now, like toothless babies, they suckle on the sugary teat on misinformation and poop it into the diaper we call the six ‘o clock news”.

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Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 3)

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Shahab Ahmed began the first chapter of his book ‘What is Islam?’ with these words,
” I am seeking to say the word “Islam” in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large.”

The difference between ‘literal’ Islam (something I had been taught all my life-till that point) and ‘human experience’ of Islam (as theorized by Shahab Ahmed in the lines above) became acutely aware to me in the days and months following ST’s assassination. Where did the theory end and practice start? Does believing in something and doing things contrary to those beliefs hypocrisy or just the way things work? Are the five ‘essentials’ (Tauhid, Namaz, Roza, Hajj, Zakat) of Islam necessary to be performed if you just gain brownie points with God by killing infidels/blasphemers? I was also growing up in an environment of Islamist terror. Militants who professed to be better Muslims than us mere mortals (who performed the aforementioned ‘essentials’) were killing innocent people in Lahore, in Karachi, in Swat, in KP. How does a practicing Muslim reconcile his faith with the Islam professed by the militants? How does an ordinary Pakistani Muslim view the history of Islam? (a pol sci-major friend of mine recently said something very interesting on this topic. According to him, “actual” history doesn’t really matter to people. History in the public imagination is whatever the elites/mil-establishment want it to be )

Following my basic introductions to political theory and rudimentary economics(at IPSS and beyond), I began to think about the intersection of religion and politics. I probed some fundamental concepts regarding political Islam and how accurate they were, like the concept of Muslim Ummah and the statement that ‘Islam is a complete code of life’. While I was pondering over these questions, I was still living in the same social milieu that had existed around me.

I remember debating some 9/11 ‘truthers’ among my medical school classmates. They refused to entertain the notion that it could have been an Al-Qaeda operation, done by fellow Muslims. One day, I got into an argument with a burly, 6 ft 4 in guy in m class about the ‘complete code of life’ theory. I had probably mentioned it on my Facebook wall or in some Facebook group that I didn’t believe in the veracity of this claim because it was a newer (19th/20th century) addition to Islamic teachings. That tall, muscular guy approached me in the lecture hall the next day and said that he didn’t like my comment and that he was offended by it. I tried to reason with him but he got agitated and asked me to shut it because I was questioning religion which made him angry. I switched gears and changed the topic to save my skinny ass. A few days later, I was talking to a classmate who was among the very few friends I had and she said, Please do not get killed for your ideals.

For me, the public reaction to ST’s assassination was an eye-opening experience. There was a notion of a ‘silent majority’ in Pakistan, people who didn’t like mixing religion and politics (this theory was bogus and had no basis in fact). Fasi Zaka, a very intelligent commentator and writer on Pakistani society wrote, “After Salmaan Taseer’s death, Pakistan’s ‘silent majority’ finally spoke up. They liked it.”I heard someone in the ‘liberal’ (secular liberal or group B) circle say that ST’s death closed the door on critical discussion of blasphemy laws in the near future. It was a battle that we (secular-liberals) lost. We were grossly outnumbered and there was a very remote chance that we could incrementally chip at the edifice of blasphemy laws, for example by changing/improving the law of evidence or publicizing the historical consensus among Sunni Ulema that blasphemy is not punishable by death.

Instead, we have Khadim Rizvi and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), a ragtag group that can publicly mock the most powerful people in Pakistan and get away with it. ST’s death and Qadri’s hanging opened an avenue for these peddlers of hate to come out of their cubbyholes and wreak havoc on the “silent majority”(pun intended). Mohammad Hanif wrote about the aftermath of ST’s murder for The Guardian (full piece here), an excerpt of which is relevant to what I’m saying.

“So who are these people who lionize the cold-blooded murderer? Your regular kids, really. Some Pakistani bloggers have tried to get these fan pages banned for inciting hate. But as soon as one shuts down, another five crop up. Those who have trawled the profiles of these supporters have said that they have MBA degrees, they follow Premier League football, they love the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Miley Cyrus figures on lots of these pages.”

Qadri’s name became a brand (see here and here) that became synonymous with love for the prophet and the whole blasphemy debate. One could argue that in a country that was premised on the idea of a separate homeland for a particular religion, that religion would become the yardstick by which you proved your nationalism and patriotism.  As for me, I moved out. It became apparent a few years after the ST murder that things weren’t getting any better in my homeland. I could either suck it up and keep living or leave and start afresh. It was very hard to choose one of the routes but I chose the way out.

What about the few liberal spaces left in Pakistan? They are constantly shrinking. IPSS blew out of steam (and funding), NGO-funded youth groups and ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE) forums ran out of money after the US decided to decrease its footprint in Af-Pak. I was on an exchange visit (a misnomer, really, since no one ever visited Pakistan in return) to the US in 2012 and everyone at the policy level was talking about a post-2014 withdrawal scenario. There are still some valiant people working on secular ideas in Pakistan. Social media has helped but only a little bit. It has gotten the proverbial 72 seculars in Pakistan together on Facebook but it has also fueled the rise of a neo-Islamist political class that takes part in TLP protests and roadblocks. There are also certain bubbles in which you can dare criticize the state narrative such as LitFests and English newspaper op-eds. I remember talking to a pharmacy student whom I knew from a former workplace at Lahore Literary Festival and asking him what he was doing there since most of the conversation on stage there is in English (by decree or by choice). He replied that he was there just as a spectator to see how the ‘1%’ live in Pakistan and had not understood anything that was being discussed. The most important pockets of secular space consist of indigenous movements and organizations that work with people in their own language. I worked with two such organizations that communicated with people in their languages (Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi etc).

Social media also helped tremendously in the information warfare raged by Milestablishment, turning former Musharraf-lovers into Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) followers. There is a lot of talk about a ‘youth bulge’ in Pakistan but policymakers and commentators rarely talk about the dangers of having a majority of poorly-educated young people who are taught actively and passively that they are victims of some unknown ‘agenda’ and that if they were given the right set of circumstances, they would conquer the world. I used to teach at private medical schools in two different cities of Punjab and I saw the moral and mental confusion that young people had about their lives and their futures. Youth and Naivete go hand in hand, however constant ideological propaganda about Islam’s greatness and Pakistan’s underdog status is a terrible fertilizer for young minds.

ST was not the first victim of this madness. Sabeen Mehmood was killed in cold blood on the streets of Karachi, Raza Rumi was attacked and his driver was killed, Mashal Khan was lynched to death. Each of these individuals tried to talk about secular values in society. What would become of the society? I don’t know. I don’t make predictions. Omar Ali asked me in November 2015 (in Lahore) about my thoughts on Pakistan’s future and I told him that things were doing downhill every passing day. I standby my pessimism.

 

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Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 2)

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I showed up at the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS) a few days after the rally. The person who had called the meeting was running late so I just loitered around. It was a two-room apartment that had been modified into a makeshift office space with some spare area for sitting, with floor cushions etc. There was a book rack full of books in one corner. The lady who managed the place was present there and said Hello. A few minutes after I had arrived, two boys a few years younger than me showed up as well. We started chit-chatting and it turned out that one of them was a student at LUMS and the other went to another private school. We were talking about democracy when they revealed that they were not in favor of democracy at all and then spent the next hour arguing why they thought so. They were under the influence of Hizb-ut-Tehrir, an Islamist organization that wanted to establish a caliphate. I tried to argue with them using rationality and logic but they were not willing to listen to a counter-argument and eventually stormed off. I discovered that IPSS was offering a short course in Political Economy and History and all I had to pay for was a copy of their syllabus.

Salmaan Taseer (ST) was a larger than life person. He grew up in a literary family, with his father passing away at an early age but the familial ties and his family’s social standing in the Lahori society gave him a footing in the tightly-knit hierarchy of Lahore’s elite circles. He was an active member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) during its heyday, starting in 1968 and through Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule (1972-77). After Mr. Bhutto was hanged (1979) and PPP was under threat by Dictator Zia’s government, ST wrote a biography of Mr. Bhutto. I attended a talk by one of the fact checkers on ST’s book (at the cafe, Books n Beans, a small liberal enclave for such events) and she remembered how hard she had to work to meet ST’s standards. ST was instrumental in arranging for Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Lahore in 1986 and the grand reception that ensued. He was elected in the PPP wave that swept most of Pakistan during the 1988 elections. He didn’t win another election in during the rest of his political life. However, he was considered PPP’s man in Lahore, someone who could take on the Sharif’s of PML(N). ST started an English daily in the early 2000s, called Daily Times (DT) which started with much fanfare and even had an Urdu counterpart. Continue reading “Aasia Bibi case comes full circle (part 2)”

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