Monday, May 28, 2012


Pakistan Today 28 May 2012

by Rabia Ahmed

The biggest enemy of the Muslim world lurks within the fold, the mullah cabal that rules the hearts and minds of the poor and the illiterate, and nowhere more so than in this luckless land of the pure. One of the biggest crimes they will have to answer for is their relentless campaign against the vaccination of children against polio.

Polio, one of the most dreaded diseases this century, is caused by a virus only rarely contracted by adults but causing crippling lifelong disability in children. Those who contract it are moreover susceptible to a debilitating Post Polio Syndrome in later life.

There were no known means of preventing polio until the discovery of the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Since its introduction in 1955, the polio vaccine, administered orally to children, has helped to eradicate polio from the United States, a country where alone in the 1940s 35,000 people were disabled by this disease every year. Since then the World Health Organisation has reported an almost 99 percent decrease in reported cases between 1988 and 2010 all over the world, a result of concerted effort by the governments of the world to vaccinate children in their countries. It is no coincidence that the three countries that are an exception to this success story belong to the Muslim bloc: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. In these three countries polio remains endemic.

Religious leaders (with surprising exceptions such as Jamiat e Ulema e Islam Maulana Sami ul Haq) in all three countries have used their sermons to propagate the view that the oral drops are an American ploy to depopulate the Muslim world, since, (they say), these drops induce sterilisation. They also claim that the drug used is contaminated with pig fat and is therefore haram.

Nigeria, once close to its targets in the eradication campaign has recently seen a resurgence of polio while Pakistan and Afghanistan have always remained far from their goal. And now, giving credence to this propaganda is the campaign by Dr Shakil Afridi, him of the CIA backed fake polio campaign fame, some say it was a Hepatitis C vaccine…the end result is the same.

Honestly, I don’t know if I care as much about Osama eradication as I do about the eradication of the polio virus, maybe because I have seen what it does to people at close hand. I’m glad Osama is gone, but like a shark’s teeth his place will be taken by another, and another…and then another until we eradicate the whole mind set, and nothing at all has been done about that as yet. But every child vaccinated is another child saved and by putting that process in jeopardy is where Dr Afridi betrayed his country. Call it treason, call it treachery, it works the same way whichever way you look at it.

The Americans are looking at the matter from a single view point, their own, an angle from which they are prone to view most issues, as perhaps we all are. But sitting here in this chair in front of a computer in Lahore, Pakistan, the prospect of trusted public health professionals running fake campaigns and dancing to the tune of foreign intelligence agencies is none too appealing. I don’t care who they are attempting to shoot down, such insidious workings cannot be conducive to public health in any country anywhere.

A public official should be answerable to a single authority in temporal terms, the one of the country whose passport he/she holds which must be of the country where he/she holds public office. In simple terms (with what must appear to be a sudden change of subject right at the end of this column), this means that public officials must not owe allegiance to any country other than their own. In other words, public officials must not hold dual nationality. But this is not a sudden change of subject. It pinpoints what is so irksome (to put it mildly) in the Afridi case, the fact that the doctor was working for a foreign agency all the while he pretended to be working for his own, an agency belonging to his other country of allegiance, one moreover whose agenda in this case happened to be detrimental to his country of employment, and I am not speaking of the capture of militants, however much carnage they may have caused in this world, in or out of New York.

With due respect, Ms Clinton, there are harmful things out there other than Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Because of your country’s obsession with both it is possible that the bulk of the polio cases in the foreseeable future may be from Pakistan. More collateral damage?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed
Pakistan Today 22 May 2012

An overlap of religion and superstition
Our dog, normally an endearingly goofy canine, bit a child on the bum the other day while being taken for his daily constitutional. The mother of the child, an even tempered lady, did not waste her breath on recriminations. Instead she borrowed some red chillie powder from our cook. Apparently, if you pack a dog bite with red chillies (ouch! ouch! and aargh!) taken from the dog’s owner’s kitchen, the wound heals fast and well.

We’re naturally grateful to have escaped the mother’s ire, but that poor kid, surely the antidote was worse than the bite?

It is said that ignorance and superstition bear a close mathematical relation to each other. Therefore, superstition is naturally rife in Pakistan where you find advertisements such as these:

“Within few minutes, we’ll make your life cool and calm, Insha-Allah.

Bad-mannered husband/wife, hurdles in love marriages

Demon’s effects (jinnat ka saaya), improper love affairs

Family disputes, bounded business

Sexual diseases, effects of evil spirit (Aasaib)

Infertility, unemployment

Psyche problems, adversity

Study problems, visa problems

Property disputes, other problems (sic)”

What a delightful mix of nasty predicaments, and you know its Pakistan when visa problems are right up there with STDs, demons and infertility. I wonder what antidotes they prescribe to such problems. Would wearing an amulet with a few scribbled lines take care of ‘wife hurdles in love marriage?’, whatever that means?

Other than that the advertisement is a prime example of the overlap between religion and superstition, and heck no, I’m not going to say the two are one and the same. Other than the fact that I value my life, I definitely don’t think they are. But in this country, where if you have warts and would like to get rid of them you are advised to take a broom and sweep around a shrine, they are hard to separate, especially when the devil is likely to dive into your cup of tea if you leave it uncovered at night.

There are the ubiquitous black cat phobias, and taboos against sleeping under jinn infested trees; the portentous tics (a different portent for each eye) and the firm belief in the ability of scissors to give rise to quarrels. There is a pre-marriage ceremony where the bride’s clothes are cut and stitched by female family and friends without the aid of scissors: they sit around tearing the fabric along the dotted line having first rent it apart with their teeth.

There is the belief that lunar eclipses cause birth defects (such as cleft lips) and disasters, even though the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was at pains to teach otherwise. This only goes to prove the same point further, that superstition often overrides religion, and in their ignorance can have a greater hold over people’s lives.

And so pregnant women must not attend funerals or pay visits of condolence because a proximity to disaster is likely to influence the destiny of the unborn child. A widow on the other hand, or a divorcee, is not invited to participate in wedding rituals. This is said to be part of the Hindu belief system, but because it certainly does not constitute any part of Islam can only be categorised as superstition here.

If you have a backache you are advised to locate an adult once a breach born baby and get him or her to kick you in the back. Presuming you fail to find such a person, a tight hug from a professional janitor will cure you just as well.

If you need to pick mushrooms remember they grow where snakes urinate, while the best way to tell edible mushrooms from poisonous ones is never to pick those a snake has licked. And if that snake happens to be a two-headed one make sure you kill it because two-headed snakes bring bad luck. However, beware that once you kill that snake you are likely to be pursued for life by its mate.

Foot and mouth disease may be cured if you lure a monkey within kicking distance of the sick animal and coax it to ride on the bovine’s back. Snatch a cat’s placenta away from it before it can devour it, and bury it in your lawn to keep evil spirits at bay, and unless you wish to develop vitiligo avoid milk after a meal of fish.

And here’s another tip for farmers (who have already been informed of ways to cure their cattle): write the names of ten individuals who profit from interest (of the banking variety,) and bury the names around your field. This will, if you please, prevent an infestation of white ants.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed 
15 May 2012
Pakistan Today
Where will change come from, if it comes at all?

The hundred year old Perth Mosque centrally located in the city of Perth, Western Australia, awoke one day to an interesting neon sign that flashed in garish letters from across the street: Girls! Girls! Girls! it screamed.

Appalled, the management raised the mosque walls to block out the offensive words.

We were particular about taking the children to the mosque on Eid but began questioning the exercise after the third year of my small son, daughter and I saying our prayers in a dingy basement among the Imam’s hastily discarded clothes, shoes and bedding. In that mosque that was the space reserved for women and children.

The following year we tried the Turkish mosque, a nicer place where women and children, although too close to the toilets, were much better provided for in a large hall well lit by a chandelier. It however was switched off by an arm that appeared through the dividing doors in the middle of Eid prayers. The lights remained on in the men’s section.

It is a theory close to many pious hearts here in Pakistan that all evil stems from the West. The other school of thought reckons that Islam, distorted beyond all recognition in today’s Muslim world, will be renewed from the West despite the policies of Western governments. Which of these opinions proves correct, it remains to be seen. Certainly neither of the two mosques above disproves the first theory.

Living in the USA on and after 9/11 was a traumatic if interesting experience. It was traumatic when the FBI came knocking with questions about Arab neighbours, a group of young boys sharing an apartment. The two men walked past the living room right into the bedroom before they spoke. Eid prayers at the DC Armory Washington DC following 9/11 were especially unpleasant with sharp shooters stationed above worshippers’ heads, guns at the ready; it was unsettlingly uncertain whether we were being protected or being protected against. Distrust of Muslims was like a crackling in the air, but in most cases it did not exceed a certain limit, and in time it dissipated to near usual levels, at least for the most part. This was better than in Western Australia even prior to 9/11. There were heart warming stories in the USA such as of the pastor who gave his Muslim neighbours the keys to his church after their mosque was bombed by zealots (there is never a shortage of these), and the non Muslims who formed a human chain around a local mosque in a symbolic gesture of protection of their Muslim neighbours.

It isn’t until a visit to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque in Northern Virginia though that one is reminded of the expectation of renewal from this quarter.

ADAMS supports a community of some five thousand Muslim families in a large building in a pleasant neighbourhood. Probably the most striking feature of the ADAMS mosque is a prayer hall that doubles as a badminton/basketball court when not in use for worship. In addition there is a bookshop, and rooms where language, computer and vocational courses are held, and drug and marriage counselling offered. There is a fair sized pleasant library, scouts and martial arts groups, a community medical clinic, and plenty of inter-faith dialogue.

Mohamed Magid, the Imam of the mosque is also President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). At no time while encountering the man or his mosque does one feel censured, either as to appearance or gender, which explains the busy, friendly atmosphere of the mosque Imam Magid leads, frequented by men, women and young people alike.
Imam Magid of ADAMS

It couldn’t be easy being an Imam in a country so sensitive to the mere existence of mosques, and Imam Magid admits that it isn’t. “Islamic scholars, centuries ago, never faced these issues,” he says in an article about him in the Huffington Post, referring particularly to the time he had to research and determine his stance on the issue of surrogate motherhood in Islam.

The success of the ADAMS mosque and its Imam underlines the importance of both an educated leader and community as a prerequisite for a healthy approach to religion. The Muslim community in Perth at the time consisted of a majority of less educated persons. Virginia and particularly its county of Fairfax where the mosque is located, is home to some of the best high schools in the country and the Muslims of that area chose it as their home for this reason.

Surely it is more possible for the real enlightened Islam, quite different to today’s version, one more attuned to the times, to re-emerge from such a background?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


By Rabia Ahmed
Pakistan Today 7th May 2012

Poised for flight?

Information, often used as a tool for control, is either freely available or else has curbs placed upon its availability.

Freedom of information is well explained in the American Library Bill of Rights which says that libraries, as the centre of ideas and information must cater to the information needs of everyone in the community, that no information must be excluded on the basis of the origin or views of those generating it. Every attempt is to be made to include different points of view, current and historical, none of which must be excluded for reasons such as doctrinal difference.

The opposite camp believes in curbs on the free availability of information.

On a league table ranking nations on the basis of freedom of press, the UK and the USA find themselves at 28 and 47 respectively this year. Pakistan ranks at 151.

Upon cursory examination, people in the West although more passionate in defence of freedom of information, and often with a higher rate of basic education appear to be less well-informed about world affairs than their poorer more illiterate counterparts in the Third World. I am not speaking of the Sarah Palins of either world who have a life of their own, but of the common man on the street.

It is usual, in Pakistan, to see a group of men squatting around their one literate member who reads from a newspaper. This suggests a relationship between the freedom and/or ability to procure information and the will to seek it out at the street level. The inference is that where information is easily available people lose the urgency to obtain it, as compared to when it is harder to access when there is a greater urge for it, although there are other related reasons.

It is important to remember that there is a lack of information, and then there is misinformation. The first is more common in the illiterate Third World and/or in countries where the state controls the media. The second…misinformation, of the rabid right wing variety, is freely available everywhere.

‘There is a propaganda campaign to make the public believe in the presence of an identified entity representing the ‘devil’ only in order to drive the TV watcher to accept a unified international leadership for a war against terrorism’. Former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Correspondingly, for many countries around the world and certainly Pakistan, all things evil originate in the West and all current social ills are laid at its door.

There are analogies for the suppression of information in incidences of suppression and control of other kinds. One of the oldest, an attempt at suppressing rebellion by the murder of all newborn Jewish males resulted in a well known uprising. Today, the separation walls built by Israel along its borders restricting the freedom of movement of its citizens and neighbours have not succeeded in containing violence. And yet Israel is building another wall along its border with Lebanon.

The banning of books…Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja all failed to restrict readership. The first was translated into almost twenty languages even before it was published and won its author a Nobel Prize for literature. The Satanic Verses became a prime favourite overnight and was smuggled in every suitcase into countries where it was banned, while Lajja sold 50,000 copies within the first six months of its existence. The most recent, a controlled re-release of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kamp’ is set to be as ineffective seeing that the book is already available everywhere including online. The electronic age has of course opened another Pandora’s Box.

The presence of these restrictions and misinformation is a commentary on the short sightedness of the instigators. Governments that fail to deliver, schools that fail to educate, ideologies twisted and out of synch with the people they claim to represent, flawed projects and plans, (or their lack thereof)…and backwardness of implementation…these are the sources from which these restrictions and misinformation originate.

Anyone interested in controlling an electorate should think in terms of making information freely available, and to enable persons to access and disseminate it in safety. Chances are, the common man, being no academic, once able to access information with ease will no longer fall over himself to do so. So long, of course, that he is content where he is and is not eternally poised for flight, when of course he will be looking for information of the world around him. This is one of the other reasons for the urge for information mentioned before.