Monday, December 28, 2015


Galileo once said: ‘I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.’
Well, here’s Christmas come and gone with a fa la la la la, and Eid Milad-un-Nabi over too with some ringing sermons and a bunch of na’ats. One I heard was set to the tune of one of Noor Jehan’s earlier songs.
I really don’t know if Christ would have approved of Santa Claus, or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would surely be aghast at the way his birthday is celebrated in this country today, quite apart from his grief at all the other things that are done in the name of the religion he taught. This is the man, remember, who strapped a stone to his stomach when food was short, and ate as little as the next man, to withstand a lowered consumption of food. Yet in Pakistan, which is undergoing an acute power shortage, ‘district administrations, government and private organisations made elaborate arrangements to illuminate and decorate buildings and parks’, and ‘major mosques in cities and towns were festively illuminated to celebrate the birth of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)’. That’s the government and the clergy, of whom one ought to be able to expect better… but we know better than that.
According to the Associated Press of Pakistan, Pakistan has an electricity requirement of 18,000 megawatts, but with a generation of just 13,240 megawatts it faces an electricity shortfall of 4,760 megawatts. As a result, Lahore undergoes a total of ten to twelve hours of load shedding every day while the scheduled electricity load shedding in Karachi is ten hours. In addition the people of Karachi face an acute water shortage because of the power shortage, since pumps are unable to work without electricity. In the rural areas, the bread basket of Pakistan, the daily power outage has gone up to a mind boggling sixteen hours a day.
During this last summer a heat wave with temperatures topping 44 celsius killed more than four hundred persons in Karachi alone because of power shut downs. Also during one of these prolonged power outages, the incubators in which four premature babies were being nursed shut down and the four little babies died.
The textile sector provides employment to around forty percent of Pakistan’s industrial labour force but it has suffered huge losses because of the high cost of gas and electricity with expected repercussions for the workforce. Due to the power shortage factories are working at around sixty percent of total capacity and exporters have been unable to meet their commitments.
And yet on Milad-un-Nabi mosques, streets and buildings were decorated with enough lights to illuminate the city for a month. Can we really think our Prophet (PBUH) would appreciate this method of celebrating his birthday? Where in this landscape of dying infants, homeless, unemployed, heat-exhausted citizens do we see that man with a stone strapped around his middle?
The birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) could be celebrated in a million better ways. Some people have come up with wonderful ideas for helping the poor and needy and what is to stop us from supporting them as a means of paying homage to the greatest humanitarian the world has ever known?
A young man has been distributing quilts to homeless people sleeping out of doors. A quilt means the difference between a warm night’s sleep and hypothermia to a homeless person with perhaps a small child. A single quilt costs around a thousand rupees. That’s less than the cost of a single large pizza and much, much less than a night out on the town for a bachelor and his friends.
The livelihood provided by a rickshaw can mean the difference between hunger and a full belly for an entire family. A rickshaw costs around a hundred and eighty thousand rupees to buy, the price of some laptops and less than the price of others gadgets using which we play useless games, watch movies and listen to songs.
A retired army officer runs a free clinic and education centre. He also distributes bags of ration to the poor every month. The smallest of these bags includes two kilos of ghee, ten kilos of flour, spices, tea etc and costs eleven hundred rupees. It fills the basic requirement for a small family for one week. It costs just under the price of a thick burger, regular fries and a 16 oz soft drink – junk food, still it is lunch for that very tiny segment of this society that can afford it.
In choosing illumination above any such action where does Islam or its Prophet (PBUH) or any of the principles and priorities taught by either come in?

Monday, December 21, 2015


Why migrate to another country and then stay away from its people?

In an effort to preserve their identity many migrants, particularly those from Pakistan, keep themselves and their children aloof from the wider community in their adoptive country.
‘I am so grateful our mother lives with us here,’ said one lady whose family had migrated to the US a few years ago. ‘Ammi neither lets my children go anywhere after school, nor does she let their friends visit them at home.’
‘By the grace of God,’ declared anotherPakistani expatriate, this time in Australia, ‘we have never visited any kafir nor has any kafir visited us’, referring to all non-Muslim Australians out there. The speaker and her family had migrated to Australia several years ago, and were happily availing all facilities afforded to Australian citizens.
Far from preserving their identity such people remain eternally insecure, neither part of their adoptive country, nor of the country they have left behind. On the other side of the fence, their aloofness creates some very justified resentment. Perhaps it’s time for integration seeing that segregation has so patently failed to work.
After the acts of terror in Paris and California, Muslims and mosques have been threatened and in many cases attacked all over the world. Baroness Warsi, a British lawyer, politician and conservative parliamentarian of Pakistani descent, has suggested that mosques should be constructed to look more like other British buildings.
Integration is defined as fusing, meshing, blending into a larger whole. This could be in an emotional sense, or in the physical, which is what Baroness Warsi’s suggestion sounds like. A box-like brick structure with a sloping roof and no minarets that still houses Muslims who shun the influence of British society is a cosmetic solution that hardly solves any problems. What is needed is a stress on the values shared by different societies. There are plenty of these, more affinities in fact than differences.
Most Muslims, like most Christians, Jews or anyone else, are law abiding, peace loving citizens of wherever they happen to live. We donate to charity, we help our neighbours, we celebrate festivals, we cook interesting food, educate our children, and try not to lie, steal or hurt anyone. These are the things that should be stressed in a bid for integration. A group that is seen to participate in such values together with everyone else becomes part of the community and is better liked and understood. What they worship or wear becomes less important to others then.
As much as the Muslim public, its clergy (which isn’t really supposed to exist) needs reformation — education for a start. Seeing that it exists, it wouldn’t hurt for the clergy to study the strengths and weaknesses of its counterparts in other religions.
The current head of the Catholic church Pope Francis, probably the most popular Pope in the history of Catholicism, is known for humility, charity, and for his willingness to reach out to other faiths. He is also more prone to stress on Divine Mercy rather than punishment. He has chosen for himself a less opulent lifestyle than previous Popes. Rather than the papal palace he lives in a modest suite of rooms in the Vatican guesthouse, and wears an iron cross rather than the gold one worn by Popes before him. For his first appearance as a Pope he wore a plain white cassock rather than the elaborate red ermine trimmed one normally worn on the occasion, and on the night he was elected he went back to his hotel with other cardinals in a cab, rather than to his palace in solitary splendour in the papal car. Pope Francis has initiated dialogue with other faiths including the Islamic community as well as non-believers. His election has been welcomed by the Muslim world which had a strained relationship with his predecessor.
Muslim clergy and scholars for the most part are an unwelcoming lot who label any kind of lighthearted enjoyment as haram. In their sermons, too, they lay stress on what is forbidden and incurs punishment. It is their indoctrination of divisiveness and mistaken ideas of jihadthat is responsible for much of the violent extremism currently prevalent in the Muslim world. In a letter to every mosque in the UK earlier this year, the British government urged Muslim leaders to force out extremists so as to ‘protect young men and women from being radicalised’. In a letter to a newspaper a resident of DHA in Karachi mentioned that theImam at a local mosque praised the Taliban, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and was drumming up support for these organizations in his sermons.
Muslims everywhere need to get organised and involved in community work. They need to educate themselves, strive for rationality in religion, and participate in academia, politics and legislation. They need to be part of community groups, corporations, public and government organisations, strive for a presence in whichever country they live in. It is only when children have Muslim friends, adults have Muslim colleagues, friends who attend their parties, who come along to the Friday evening at the pub (choosing to drink orange juice… nobody insists on anyone drinking alcohol except in Pakistan) that the Muslims in society will become part of it. It is only then that locals and immigrants will understand the issues that face the other. This understanding will inevitably reflect in foreign and internal policies on either side, going a long way towards creating a better world; there can be little doubt about that.

Monday, December 14, 2015


This is a good time to bring about change
If you are forced to stick your head in the water closet now and then, that would be unfortunate, but thenceforth you would make sure the loo is clean. The situation on the ground is similar in that it makes you examine and hopefully fix some issues. A year ago, on 16th December, there was a terrible massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar. In fact, all across the world, from the shootings in California to the blasts in Beirut and the carnage in Paris, people are living through awful events. If there is anything positive about such things, it is only that they make people more prone to introspection which makes this a good time to bring about change, to achieve peace in the region and in the world.
A retired army officer was shot dead in Lahore last week. His first name was Ali. The TTP claims responsibility. Until investigations say otherwise we presume this was a sectarian murder. At the Army School in Peshawar, 144 people were killed, 132 of them schoolchildren. Remember the time when you and I played cricket and badminton, ran around and climbed trees? Remember how young, innocent and harmless we were? These children were that age.
In the West, the attacks in Paris and California, following on the heels of the massive influx of refugees from Syria, have linked violence and refugees in the public’s mind. They are linked but not in the way the public perceives it because these refugees are not the perpetrators but the victims. The refugees attempting to enter Europe and North America in such numbers are fleeing from radicalised militants, the product of decades of bungled interference in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and a result of the disorganised American withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq after an uncalled for occupation which created a power vacuum.
Just as following the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) his followers used the vacuum created by the dying Byzantine and Persian empires to spread out, this contemporary withdrawal worked for the less benevolent followers of radicalism. It is these militants, created by the US against Russia and others, who are now pursuing their own agenda which was never hidden in the first place, and that we don’t like. It is their actions that have created that huge refugee crisis. Security has obviously been increased and Western societies have arrived at a crossroads: turn right for zero tolerance and to push the flood of migrants away from the door, or turn left for a more compassionate stance. Paris appears to have chosen the first route with the rising popularity of the Nationalist Party’s Marine Le Pen and her anti-immigration stance. Germany, led by Merkel, and Canada by Trudeau after voting out Harper, appear to have chosen the second.
That refugee crisis is for the West to deal with, coupled with the question of whether or not to interfere in the affairs of nations by toppling regimes and bolstering rebellion. These ought to be uppermost in the minds of the Allies and Russia at this time.
We get to deal with the blowback and with the problem of the support given to radical groups right here at home. The question that needs to be topmost in our minds is: where did we go wrong and what to do about it? Because, as mentioned before, this is a good time to bring about change.
In one of his articles Irfan Husain recounts that when a young suicide bomber’s vest failed to explode, he was questioned about his motives. He pointed towards a young woman saying that his teacher had promised that if he succeeded in his violent endeavour, ‘I would be propelled to heaven in a rocket where I would get houris like this lady.’
Such opportunistic manipulation of the compulsions of youth, poverty and ignorance and God knows what else, coupled with an almost morbid propensity to blame the West for everything, has given rise to groups such as the TTP and the willingness of its members to kill and be killed. Obviously, it is not only the West that is to blame; it is the support that such groups find within our public right here that is equally at fault. This makes it easy for radicalism to take root and find a cause because causes are there for the taking, most often related to religious, sectarian and gender issues well fostered by madrassas, other religious groups and the average school. The remedy lies with more lasting measures, with education rather than force, police and Ranger action. Force is a band-aid measure only and while it has its place in the scheme of things, its effect is never lasting. How can it be since it cannot address the root cause?
To re-examine what is being taught not just in religious seminaries but in schools throughout the country should be the first priority, and then to produce a counter-narrative, teaching it in an interesting fashion. To counter arguments for khilafat with those supporting modern states, to clarify issues such as those relating to blasphemy, apostasy and the punishments believed to accrue to them, to foster tolerance, enlightenment and justice, to produce a better understanding of the rights of citizens and the duties of the state, and to disabuse people of the advisability of taking the law into their own hands; this is what will make a difference. A debate to this end has to be undertaken giving all persons an opportunity to speak. I am no great fan of Geo television but its show ‘Report Card’ is a great example of a forum where people speak and allow others to do the same. Recommendations should be acted upon, and then and only then can we look forward to peace in the region, and in the world.

Monday, December 7, 2015


There is no sign of measures to make Basant safe

The All Pakistan Kite Association and Paper Association have both appealed to the CM to bring back Basant, saying that the livelihood of more than 300,000 people in Punjab has suffered because of the ban on the festival. To mitigate the risks of flying kites in urban surroundings, they have suggested the establishment of a Kite City at some distance from Lahore.
It’s surprising that our self-serving governments have not revived Basant already. Not only is Basant a major intangible cultural heritage but its revival would also pull citizens out of the angry slouch they have fallen into, and may also get the government additional votes.
UNESCO, which deals with intangible cultural heritage, defines it as that segment of a society’s cultural heritage which deals not only with monuments (such as forts and mausoleums) and objects (such as handicrafts) but also with ‘traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants’. These include ‘oral traditionsperforming artssocial practices, rituals, festive eventsknowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’
This is the definition of, for example Nauruz, Flamenco dancing, and also Basant, the spring festival, which once filled the skies of Lahore with colourful kites.
Versions of spring festivals exist in many cultures. It is the prerogative of each separate culture to give its spring festival a secular or religious face. In his excellent article on the subject in an English weekly, Ally Adnan mentions these various faces, and gives some interesting information about the festival. The important thing to know is that A) In Lahore,Basant, when celebrated, did not involve religion. It was a secular festival in which women wore yellow to denote spring, and everyone flew kites; B) Basant did not involve causing harm to anyone or anything other than the other person’s kite. If in the course of this pastime people died, this was never the intention.
And yet the religious lobby frowned upon Basant because it suspected it of possessing un-Islamic undertones. The religious lobby of course frowns upon any practice that fails to produce ferocious ‘ghain’ sounds, or anything bright and cheerful which it equates with the devil’s fart.
Basant was one of Lahore’s hallmark traditions, something in which the entire city and province participated. Thousands of people were employed in the making of kites in the Punjab, amongst these several thousand were women who made kites at home. Basantalso brought in huge profits in tourism and as much again in good humour and improved morale, something that successful cultural practices achieve which is why it is important to maintain them. I suppose it was difficult to expect anything better from Chaudhry Pervez Elahi but Basant was banned by his government and the ban has been in place for some ten years, which indicates the strength of the religious lobby and sheer government inaction.
Concerns regarding safety during Basant are very real and these were also partly responsible for the ban. They must be addressed and one great way of doing this is the suggestion offered above, a kite flying zone in safe surroundings away from the city where all aspects of the festival can be monitored.
Basant in Lahore is announced with drums and fireworks the night before. Beautiful kites dot the sky, the aim of each kite flyer to cut the dor of an opponent’s kite with an experienced flick of his own. A fallen kite is pounced upon with glee and is for anyone to hook and take, often with long poles with a grip at one end.
As happens with monotonous regularity, ‘unscrupulous elements’ in society spotted an opportunity, and kite string which once cut by means of knots and practiced movements now comes coated with glass and even metal. This has been the cause of severe injuries, even death. Hopping from one roof to another in pursuit of kites, thanks to roofs that almost touch but not quite in the inner city also resulted in injuries and death. As if this was not enough the crazy practice of aerial firing in celebration, common at weddings where it often ends marriages at the very outset, migrated to this festival and added to the injuries and death.
These risk factors should be monitored and they can be monitored in a special kite flying zone, instead of banning the festival itself. After all, one does not find a similar ban extending to marriages which lead to almost as many deaths due to the same aerial firing and as a result of domestic violence and childbirth later on.
One must look to statistics elsewhere since we have none ourselves, and besides our children are too busy earning a living: In the US, 67 percent of the injuries in children’s playgrounds are incurred on swings, while in Pakistan we know that injuries are incurred during playing cricket and gulli danda. In the US it was noted that ‘adequate protective surfaces were not present in most of the serious cases’. The relevant organisation CPSC ‘developed recommendations for protective surfacing on playgrounds to address the risk of serious head injury’. And they reported that ‘it is encouraging that the proportion of public playgrounds having protective surfacing has increased in recent years’. It however adds that ‘a number of recommendations in the CPSC Handbook and standards address fall hazards through modification of the equipment, such as with guardrails and barriers’.
The above is an example of an effort to monitor something to eliminate risk factors. Playgrounds and swings still exist in the US. Any attempts at banning them would result in the fall of the incumbent government.
The second weekend of February, which once upon a happier time was celebrated as the beginning of spring, is not far away now but the question of Basant remains up in the air. Still. There are no signs of any government initiatives or measures for preventing injuries on the occasion, no public education against the dangerous ‘manja’ that causes the injuries, no action against aerial firing.
If the powers that be were to indulge in a modicum of introspection they might realise that banning things has become a silly habit. They may also perceive that from Salman Rushdie’s book to YouTube, banning has only resulted in turning one into a bestseller and the other into one of the most watched vehicle of interesting information online. Perhaps it is foolish to expect wisdom from such quarters, but one can try, so here goes:
Respected CM, please bring back Basant. It would provide your voters (aka citizens) with employment, and bring back some happiness into an increasingly dull city that was once home to a joyous event.
Or no, let me put it another way: Please Mr CM, un-ban Basant because that is when people eat haleem. And nihari. Let’s celebrate Basant together and eat haleem and nihari. And ride your Metro buses to and fro.
(That might achieve something. For this government the promise of haleem and biryaniworks. Like a cattle prod. The Metro buses were just an unnecessary adjunct).

Monday, November 30, 2015


A convicted person may well be innocent in Pakistan

As we await the ultimate fate of Abdul Basit, a paralysed man, to know whether or not he is to be hanged, the question arises: Should the death punishment exist, most particularly in Pakistan?
Abdul Basit was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2009. While in prison he contracted tubercular meningitis and lost the use of both legs due to a lack of proper medical attention and care. Such neglect is common in prisons in Pakistan. A report put together by the organisation Death Penalty Worldwide says, ‘Prison doctors (in Pakistan) are incompetent and uninterested state employees, and prisoners are given severely substandard care.’
Abdul Basit’s execution has been delayed a couple of times, once only minutes before he was to be hanged because it was raining at the time of execution, and again just this month when the President of Pakistan ordered a two-month delay in execution only a few hours before the event.
Another prisoner Shafqat Hussain was hanged in Karachi in August this year. He had been in prison since the age of fourteen, a minor convicted of murdering another minor. Hussain confessed to the crime but maintained that the confession was tortured out of him. An excerpt from a statement made by him earlier this year describes what it was like to be on death row: ‘I have been told I am going to be executed seven times. The first time was in 2013. I am alone in my cell now. Both my cellmates were hanged. I had shared a cell with them for six or seven years. I cannot even begin to explain what I went through when they were executed because I myself was scheduled to be executed the next day.’
Hussain was hanged just a few days after this statement was recorded. At the time of his death he was just twenty four. He had been in prison for ten years.
These are only two examples but together they serve to highlight several things about the death punishment in Pakistan: That prisoners suffer neglect and their physical condition makes little difference to their sentence as in the case of Abdul Basit whose execution has only been postponed now, not commuted. It highlights the fact that although the law does not allow the death sentence for minors, this law is broken as in the case of Shafqat Hussain. Overall it highlights the fact that the adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ holds little meaning in Pakistan. Both these men have been imprisoned for several years and have had their date of execution pushed around arbitrarily, thereby suffering the torture of everything but execution itself several times over.
Not that living on death row is much better, physically speaking. That report put together by Death Penalty Worldwide also describes conditions inside a typical death cell in Pakistan: ‘The norm is for seven prisoners to be confined in one death cell, which also contains the prisoners’ toilet. In some cells, inmates must take turns sleeping for want of space to lie down. Families are allowed to bring food for loved ones but prison officials often withhold food intended for prisoners, and prisoners are given watered-down rations. Mentally ill prisoners are often kept together in one cell. In one jail in Punjab, there are forty of them and they all have one arm chained to the wall. Only one hand is free. They are kept like this all day. In some prisons the gallows can be seen by the prisoners from their death cells.’
The report notes that as always, wealthy people are able to buy better conditions, even in prison, but almost all death row inmates are “extremely poor and helpless”.
The report goes on to say that ‘some officials abuse prisoners in custody. Female prisoners may be subjected to abuse including custodial rape. Condemned prisoners can walk outside for only about an hour a day, are subjected to lengthy periods of shackling—a practice the UN has concluded as torture — may be excluded from social or recreational activities, and have severely restricted visitation rights. A condemned prisoner may face impending death while under these conditions for more than 10 years.’
The fact is that even outside of prison living conditions in Pakistan are good only for the select few. For prisoners in daily expectation of death, they are pitiful. No human deserves to live this way, not even convicted murderers for whom civil and religious norms both prescribe justice and humane treatment, and neither justice nor humanity may be found in any of these cases. It is time we re-examined the very existence of the death penalty everywhere but most particularly in Pakistan where even more than in other places a person convicted of murder may well be innocent.
Persons who would otherwise be awarded the death penalty should be sentenced to life in confinement without a chance of parole, yes. But if there is any doubt as to their guilt they should not receive the death punishment and their case should be investigated immediately rather than being allowed to drag on for years. Living conditions in prison should be humane. Unfortunately, practical concerns make it necessary to consider finances when evaluating death vs life under confinement. Feeding and housing a person with any semblance of humanity is difficult to afford particularly for a poor country like Pakistan. But with a little ingenuity and some organisation an alternative can be managed tailored to the particular requirements of this country. Long term prisoners could perhaps be confined in a place similar to a commune where they could grow their own food and work at a cottage industry to pay for their keep.
Citizens of any country and all humans everywhere have rights in life, and in death, as well as when they are under sentence of death. We have been instructed in this in the best of ways: ‘Be just, for this is closest to righteousness….’ (Quran 5:8)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


This article was printed in the WWF quarterly magazine Natura (vol 39)

The air over Pakistan is polluted and often unhealthy for its population which is about three percent of the total population of the world. In October and November this pollution and its effects become worse due to a practice known as crop residue burning that takes place in many places but particularly in the agricultural region of the Punjab of both India and Pakistan.
October - November is the period when rice is harvested and the harvested fields prepared for the planting of wheat, the next major crop. The wheat is in turn harvested April-May. When a crop is harvested (cut), a stubble remains. The next crop in the recently harvested field either incorporates this stubble or is planted after removing it, in a clear field.  The quickest way of removing the stubble is to set fire to it. In October –November due to the recent monsoons and other meteorological reasons smoke is slow to disperse.  The smoke from these fires lingers over the region like a noxious blanket affecting both health and visibility. 
In more leisurely days it was the practice to allow stubble to remain in the field for a while before another crop was planted.  This allowed the stubble to degrade and pass its nutrients back into the soil. The next crop was nourished by both the old and fresh nutrients.
A few decades ago however, farmers decided to waste less time and started burning the stubble to remove it.  This is now common practice in Pakistan. 
Burning leaves a layer of ash over the field, which may be useful depending on several factors.  Not all plants produce nutritious ash for a start. Then, burning removes the nitrogen and sulfur depriving the soil of these nutrients, while calcium, potassium and magnesium remain.  The carbonates and oxides present in the ash raise the soil’s pH balance, which is good only if the soil is acidic and if the crop being planted appreciates alkaline soil.  Not all crops do. Alkaline soil is outright harmful for a crop of potatoes for example because it creates a favourable environment for a kind of potato scab.
Burning stubble is useful if the soil contains termites and ants because the fire gets rid of these insects quite effectively. 
In the final analysis though the burning stubble method of soil preparation appears to do more harm than good.  Crop residue burning has significantly raised greenhouse gas levels. Satellite data reveals high levels of these gases over many regions of the world, including over the Indian Ocean region. Smoke travels surprisingly long distances. The smoke produced in the Indo Gangetic Plains sometimes carries over and across the Himalayas. People breathe in this smoke and fumes and suffer from respiratory disease, particularly the young and the elderly.  In addition to humans, small wildlife living, nesting and feeding off the area also suffers.  Their food sources and nesting sites are destroyed.  These fires can be particularly disastrous for animals that nest on or close to the ground, and for those animals whose young are less mobile.  Other harmless creatures such as bees and some rodents that are ecologically valuable also suffer. 
The old method of preparing fields for harvesting is therefore preferable, the one that allows the stubble to remain while the new seeds are planted around it. This method which does not require the field to be tilled is called ‘zero till’.
Today crop residue is also being converted into bio-energy in many countries.  In Zimbabwe in fact almost half the power used is provided by plant residue.
Pakistan, with its huge energy crisis needs to explore this source of energy. Manufacturing plants could be constructed close to agricultural sites and farmers supplied with the means of transporting plant residue to collection centers. Animal waste such as dung can also be collected in the same way. Together this waste material can be used to produce both kinds of bio-energy, electricity and gas.  
Natural resources that would otherwise go waste used to make clean fuel, produced in a way that is friendly to plants, humans and animals… that is definitely something to work towards. We have the raw material in abundance. Three other things are required to make this work: The will to make it happen, planning and investment.
How about it?

Monday, November 23, 2015


What are we doing about it?

We’re in the midst of a war described by Pope Francis as a ‘piecemeal Third World War’ because it is so scattered over time and place. It is not always obvious in this war who the aggressors are. Are the so-called ‘Islamic’ extremists solely responsible for the aggression or does everyone share the blame, since these terrorists have been fostered by deprivation, and lack of education, by the atrocities committed by the Jewish state, the mad Western scramble for oil, the terrible governance in countries like Pakistan? The end result either way is death and destruction.
The First World War began in 1914. The German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires fell. The League of Nations was created in 1920 specifically to maintain international peace and security and prevent another such war, but it failed. With its economy in tatters, burdened with legal and military sanctions, an embittered Germany became an easy prey to the National Socialist ideology, or Nazism. Nazism’s claim that the Germanic races were the purest of the Aryan race resonated with the recently humiliated Germans by instilling in them a sense of superiority. This contributed to the Jewish Holocaust, and Germany’s invasion of others’ territory.
Another war took place in 1939. East Germany came into being in 1949 and it is said that by the 1950s every fifth West German was a refugee from the East. In 1948 Israel was created followed by another refugee crisis.
The United Nations was founded with the Declaration of Human Rights as its charter. Perhaps the world needed to wash itself free of the large scale massacre of civilians, the Jewish Holocaust, use of biological and chemical weapons, and ultimately the two nuclear bombs dropped over teeming cities in Japan that ended the war in 1945.
Yet humans possess short memories. Every new generation that has not lived through the horrors of the one before is willing to resort to violence once again, producing its own Hitlers, Mussolinis and Trumans… the man who signed off on the atomic bombs. There is always a reason. That the nuclear bombs ended the war was Truman’s.
The German humiliation is reflected several times over in the poorer segment of society in Pakistan, one of the prime breeding grounds for extremism. Its people are marginalised, humiliated, economically subjugated and deprived. Their lives are unimportant, their grievances unheard. Extremism breeds best under these conditions as Nazism did following the First World War. With the better private schooling restricted to the wealthy, a majority of the population in Pakistan can only afford government schools where the standard of education is terrible. A large percentage of this poorer segmentof Pakistan’s population is educated in madrassas where their economically deprived background lays them open to extremist indoctrination, the teaching that Muslims are somehow superior to others. The idea meets with sympathy, as the idea of the Germans being best of the Aryan race found support at a time when the Germans were beaten. Graduates of madrassasspread their message of superiority and violence, and succeed in drawing in others, some of whom may not belong to the same background such as the brothers implicated in the attack on Paris. There can be many reasons for these affiliations including force, adventure, blackmail…
Javed Ghamidi, the Islamic scholar, says the reason groups like ISIS exist is the particular interpretation of religion being preached at madrassas and propagated via religio-political movements. According to their interpretation, he says, polytheism or apostasy is punishable by death, and every Muslim has the right to implement the punishment. The interpretation also considers all non-Muslim governments illegitimate and calls for overthrowing them because it says the modern nation state is a form of kufr. It prescribes a single Islamic government called the Caliphate.
Mr Ghamidi suggests educating Muslim civil society, teaching them the counter-narrative, stressing the need to abandon the system of madrassas because the religion centred teaching at madrassas violates the basic human rights of children by denying them the initial twelve years of broad based education. He also says that the Friday pulpit belongs to the state not to religious scholars and Muslim governments should reclaim it. Unless these measures are taken, says Mr Ghamidi, extremists will continue to emerge and the Middle East will become a living hell for the rest of the world.
As it has. The world is witness to another refugee crisis. Killing sprees by groups that are as Nazi as they come — the ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Daesh and others — have become commonplace. This is not a crisis that can be dealt with by means of war. It requires a concerted effort by the entire community of nations which must work for the uplift of all segments of society everywhere, and this includes the provision of education and other basic facilities to every single man, woman and child. That is the only way to combat extremism and take away its appeal. Meantime, for all the violence committed, terrorists are immediately responsible, yes, but not alone. We also share the blame. What are we doing about it?

Monday, November 16, 2015


The Building Code of Pakistan contains a waiver which ends with the caution that only qualified persons must be employed for construction but adds that eventually: ‘the power to ensure compliance vests only with the Government of Pakistan.’ That bald statement was not meant to be applied generally to the role of the government but it does, since whatever goes on in the country it does eventually rest with the government and no one else to ensure that everything comes together and works. An effective government will ensure this, an ineffective one will not. No one else can step in and make it do its job. It’s as simple as that.
The reason I quote the building code is that I read it following the collapse of the plastic bag manufacturing factory at Sunder Estate in Lahore following the earthquake in October.
A report summarising the investigation into the Sunder Estate factory collapse holds the owners of the factory responsible for the tragedy. It was, however, the overarching responsibility of the relevant government body to confirm that this building which contained machinery and workers complied with the building code and was safe following the strong tremors on the 26th of October this year. The government body failed to do so.
It was also the responsibility of the relevant government body to check the ages of the workers employed by the factory, which, again, it failed to do so. After the collapse it was reported that several children, some as young as 12, had lived and worked at the factory, and some were said to be trapped in the rubble.
A ‘child’ is defined by the Employment of Children Act 1991 and the Constitution of Pakistan as a ‘person below 14 years of age. Article 25(A) says that the state must provide compulsory education to all children between five and sixteen which implies that a child may not work until the age of sixteen, unless he or she works in a business run by his own family or in any training school run and recognised by the government. It also stipulates that that no occupation that a child indulges in must be hazardous for children. The government has failed to comply with all these stipulations. The number of children at school constitutes a minority in Pakistan while the number of children working, many under hazardous conditions, is incalculable.
The same earthquake that weakened the factory destroyed many homes in the north of the country. Now, several weeks after the earthquake, the snows have arrived to find the affected people still waiting for government aid that should have arrived within the week. The locals report that it is mainly non-government organisations that have stepped in and provided aid since the earthquake.
The best thing you can say about this government is that it appears to be consistent. As much as any previous ones has, it proved its disinterest and incapability in looking after the interests of the people it was elected to serve. So why has there been such an uproar following the ISPR’s recent statement? If it did cast a slur on the government’s performance, wasn’t it only stating the obvious?
In the ISPR’s press release on 10th November, the COAS acknowledges the support the army’s ongoing operation to eliminate terrorism and extremism has received from the people of Pakistan and the government. It however ‘underlined the need for matching/complimentary governance initiatives for long term gains of operation and enduring peace across the country. Progress of National Action Plan’s implementation, finalisation of FATA reforms, and concluding all ongoing JITs at priority, were highlighted as issues, which could undermine the effects of operations. (The) COAS also directed to expedite return of TDPs, overcoming all obstacles for development works in affected areas and rehabilitation of all displaced families.’
Language is clearly not the ISPR’s strong point, but more than this the statement tells you less that the government was being reprimanded and more that it was being told what to do. Here are the armed forces of Pakistan stepping out of line once again… but when have the armed forces of Pakistan ever toed the line?
This inability to comprehend the roles allotted to different government bodies extends to the general public which appears to think it does not matter who does what since we are all in this together. That’s the attitude which has resulted in martial law over and over again.
There is a clearly defined role for every arm of government laid out in the constitution which explicitly states that ‘The Federal Government shall have control and command of the Armed Forces’. It is not the other way around. We possess a dedicated army which nevertheless needs to remember that protocol does not permit it to speak down to the government in a formal statement however much the government may deserve it. The best place to offer its suggestions would have been at the meeting that took place prior to the statement. Having said that it is time that the government sat up and did something to deserve this protocol.
Aristotle said, so many years ago, that ‘dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’. Perhaps he too heard the sirens and fanfare that accompanies our government officials, and snorted.

Thursday, November 12, 2015



In 2009 the Population Reference Bureau estimated that on average every woman in Pakistan gives birth to four children. That’s four children per family to be raised in a suitable manner to adulthood. Can this be achieved in a country where basic facilities are scarce and where the cost of living, although low compared to many other countries, is still beyond the reach of the average family?
The answer is that the average Pakistani family cannot and does not achieve this goal. Pakistan has high infant and maternal mortality rate due to inadequate health and sanitation facilities and a dearth of safe drinking water. It possesses a low literacy rate and, where available, particularly in the public sector, an extremely poor standard of education. To work on providing basic facilities is an obvious solution but even if current levels of corruption and disinterestedness permit, Pakistan cannot afford this option unless its population is reduced.
Several countries have controlled their population growth, some over generations and others more arbitrarily and rapidly. Europe is an example of the first and China of the second.
Prior to the 1970s the Chinese people were encouraged to have several children. As a result China’s population became too large. So in 1978 the government promulgated the ‘One Child Policy’ which was amended this year in October allowing couples to have two instead of the one child only. China claims to have prevented about 400 million births as a result of the one child policy, allowing citizens who complied with it the benefit of increased access to education, childcare and healthcare. This is what we need, but there is as always another side to the coin.
An aging population means that fewer people work to support the many. In China’s case it is feared that this will impact the Chinese economy in the near future. Giving in to the same fear France, with no population growth, came up with policies to encourage families to have three children. It offered financial incentives, a sum close to the minimum wage to mothers during a one year maternity leave following the birth of the third child, reductions on train fares and income tax, three years of paid leave for either parent, and government subsidised daycare for children under three. As a result France now has the highest population growth in Europe.
Population planning may lead to a skewed gender balance. According to a planning report there will be 30 million more men than women in China ten years from now. Traditionally, the Chinese, like some Pashtun tribes do in Pakistan, paid a ‘bride price’, which now that Chinese women are able to choose between several men has risen to include real estate, which is often out of reach of a man and his family.
And then there is the question of aged care.
At the age of sixty Sheng Hailin underwent fertility treatment and became the oldest Chinese woman to give birth when she had twins. Previously, Mrs Hailin had a daughter who died in her late twenties. It was this daughter’s death that prompted Mrs Hailin and her husband to resort to fertility treatment because, as Mrs Hailin said, she wanted another child to ‘survive and free myself from loneliness’. Mrs Hailin had had the one child in compliance with the ‘One Child Policy’.
An estimated one million Chinese families are reported to have lost their sole descendant as a result of the one child policy, and another four to seven million are expected to do so in the next 20 to 30 years. ‘Such families face uncertain futures with no one to help them through old age in a country which emphasises family life,’ says the report.
Because of the one child policy the burden of looking after aged parents and both sets of grandparents now rests with the one child in China. If even this child dies or was never born, there will be no one to care for old parents.
This is not an issue in China alone. We all look to our children to care for us in our old age, more in some societies, less in others, which makes this the most important and poignant issue of all. To make up for a lack of carers within the family the Chinese government gives financial compensation to childless couples. In Europe where the rate of population growth is low there are homes for the elderly. But in Pakistan and other poor countries where the government cannot afford such measures and where most people have inadequate savings for retirement, the elderly are extremely vulnerable.
Care for the elderly is a major reason behind Pakistan’s inflated population. In a poor country with a high rate of infant mortality it is prudent to have several children so that even if two or three die, some remain to look after the parents.
But even several children will not do if they are all daughters since in Pakistan parents traditionally live with the sons, not the daughters. Therefore, those without sons have child after child until they produce sons.
Also, in the poorer segment of the society, burdened as it is with the tradition of dowry, sons are valued as the bread earners while daughters are viewed as liabilities.
For all these reasons and because misguided religious leaders consider birth control to be an irreligious practice, Pakistan has the population figures it does. To raise living standards and eradicate poverty Pakistan must educate its public in the difference between preventing conception and infanticide. This, in addition to providing greater access to birth control, will result in a reduction of the population but only if the people of Pakistan feel they will be adequately looked after in their old age. A drastic one child policy is unnecessary. A two or even an average of three would make a difference. For this it is vital to spend heavily on nursing homes and on care within individual homes. Carers must be trained and agencies set up to provide them, and both carers and agencies must be supervised. This is vital for the elderly, also for those increasing number of persons whose children have left the country.
But first the government of Pakistan has to accept where its priorities lie and be willing to act. These measures are not tangible and are not as visible as others but it is these that will take people within reach of education, health and progress. Metro buses, underpasses and bridges are all very convenient and flashy and they appear to take people somewhere but in reality they leave them standing exactly where they are: on the brink of annihilation. It is time we took a good look at the elephant in the room that is overpopulation, an elephant consuming everything in sight but so far studiously ignored.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


The country’s already struggling to survive

Do we really need the Council of Islamic Ideology?
At a time when what Pakistan needs most is unity the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), along with many of our other religious institutions and personalities, is focused on promoting divisiveness, and negativity.
The chairperson of the CII, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, can be found on Facebook where he expresses in particularly vituperative terms his displeasure with the media and political analysts, accusing the “munafiq” media of distorting his words, and the “liberal” “mulhideen” analysts for presuming to comment on Islam “although” he says “they do not even know how to perform ablutions.”
In a similar vein, he singles out Hassan Nisar and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, dismissing Nisar with an adjective which I will not repeat and Dr Hoodbhoy with the term ‘Pervezi’, which has come to mean a person who attempts to rationalise religion.
It is interesting how the word ‘liberal’ and the concept of a rational religion hold such derogatory connotations for people like the Maulana, whose comments are reproduced here, translated from Urdu:
“Are all religious scholars dead in Pakistan that you (the media) invite such persons to debate upon religion? Has it ever happened that you have sought an opinion on medical or scientific matters from a religious scholar? No! Then why do you subject deen to such injustice?”
The chairperson of the CII has clearly forgotten the occasions on which the CII offered opinions on medical and scientific matters. An example is when the CII ruled that DNA results cannot be used as primary evidence in rape, adding that they could be used as supporting evidence alone.
For the purpose of debating the above point let’s examine the word ‘deen’ which is defined as ‘submission, following and worship by man for the Creator, in a comprehensive system of life with all its belief, intellectual, moral and practical aspects.’ Given this definition, any person has a right to speak on any sphere of life and to be heard with due respect.
Islam leaves it to Allah to judge each individual’s intentions, recommending ‘beautiful preaching’ not disdain and abusive labels. (‘Invite all to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for the Lord knoweth best who have strayed from His path, and who receive guidance. ‘ Sura 16, The Bee, verse 125).
Our ulema tend to forget this, lost as they are amongst questions regarding women.
The CII currently has three items on its agenda which its chairperson is seeking to debate if supported by the other members of the council. These items are: 1) The question of Ahmadis and whether they should be classified as non-Muslims as they are at present, or as those who have left the fold (murtad) 2) Jizya, whether this tax which was once levied on non-Muslims should now be levied on non-Muslims in Pakistan 3) Determination of which sects come within the umbrella of Islamic ideology and which fall outside.
In an unstable atmosphere such as exists in Pakistan today is there scope for deliberation over such volatile matters? Should we not instead concentrate on strengthening our values and institutions paying attention to education, tolerance, patience, peace, peace and peace again? Ahmadis, already labelled ‘non-Muslim’, continue to endure discrimination and violence. The mind boggles at the consequences if they are now labelled as murtad since according to the anti-rationalist mindset the punishment for leaving the religion is death. In any case they cannot be murtad since they call themselves Muslim. Besides who are we to judge otherwise? Remember the words of the Quran quoted above.
We are already witnessing a mass migration of people around the world, refugees who have been driven out by those in whose creation we have a hand. Do we really wish to add to that? Do we really wish to add to the murders that already weigh on our conscience?
Jizya is levied on the non-Muslim population of an Islamic country, which segment is then guaranteed protection. We are neither an Islamic country, nor are we capable of guaranteeing protection to anyone, Muslim or otherwise, nor can the poverty stricken people of this country afford more taxation.
The question of who falls within the jurisdiction of Islamic ideology and who falls outside it has no bearing on the problems currently being faced by this country. What we should really be pondering is: How can we, all the people of Pakistan together, best work towards peace and progress in this country and around the world?
Should our legislature be advised by a body such as the CII, a body that was brought into being by a man who became head of state without constitutional sanction? Are we willing to debate matters which will undermine a country already struggling to survive?

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Responsible schooling, governance, international diplomacy, accountability and conscientious citizens are the demands of modern society. However, popular media despite its presence in every home, remains the most ignorant, irresponsible and manipulative aspect of modern life.
With its capacity to communicate instantly, the world with its current atmosphere of extremism, global stress and social and political upheavals is more open to suggestions in a way it was never before. Therefore, manipulation by entities with access to an audience has wider influence than before.
Labels are among the pithiest vehicles of language. They appeal most strongly to unthinking individuals, starting with those of all faiths in the pulpit to the common man. A single label – apt in a certain connotation, allows a person to categorise every aspect of life, to encapsulate it into that and this, good and bad, safe and dangerous.
The creation of scapegoats is a human instinct. It was the Jews for Hitler and following their immigration to the US, as a result of the potato famine, the Irish Catholics for the Americans. Till well into the 19th century, “negative stereotypes imported from England characterising the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press”.
Since 9/11, language has been powerfully used against Muslims to manipulate global sentiment and perception. Islam and Muslims, the current scapegoats, have been generously helped into the position by Muslims themselves and by others, but none so much as the media. The words ‘Muslim’, ‘beard’, ‘mosque’, ‘jihad’, ‘hajj’ along with many others, have all acquired a potent negative undertone that they do not possess by definition. So much so that anything related to these terms takes on a similar unquestionable impetus which translates into strong social and political consequences.
Reza Aslan, the author of ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ and ‘No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam’, in his bouts with CNN and Fox‘journalists’ such as Lauren Green and Bill Maher underlines this fact. Referring to Maher’s disparaging remarks when he called Muslims ‘mutilators’ (label) and ‘honour killers’ (label), Aslan said that,
“The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush.”
Aslan pointed out the difference, a crucial one between culture and religion. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural not an Islamic or Christian practice. It takes place in countries that may be predominantly Muslim or Christian, and has to do with the social practices of the people, not with their religion. Confusing the two is a common trap. Calling it an Islamic practice lays one more damning accusation on the religion which is now blamed for so much that it lays itself open to whatever comes.
What is cultural does not necessarily constitute the religion of a particular society, although the two may coincide. The burqa in the subcontinent is a cultural and not a religious mode of dress, although it has come to represent the particular brand of Islam practiced in the region.
By allowing these labels to slip by unnoticed, we participate in the prejudices and stereotypes they have come to represent, at times unknowingly placed there by journalists but very often quite deliberately by the media and world leaders. Amongst the youth, jihad,a powerful tool towards good is now synonymous with the act of blowing up one’s self and a great number of innocent bystanders, by a bomb strapped onto one’s body.
By participating in the blame game, we fail to recognise faults where they genuinely lie and to do something about them. We fail to educate ourselves and perpetuate the consequences of these labels into our future.
It would be an exercise to pick out as many of these labels as possible, starting perhaps with the ones in this short piece written on the subject.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Don’t deny it, Pakistan. We are responsible for the teenage couple’s suicide

 Published: September 3, 2015
A teenage boy shot a 15-year-old girl and then himself at their school premises in Soldier Bazaar.
Sadly, there is nothing unusual about teenage suicide. Nothing new about the reason behind it either. Recently, two teenagers, aged 15 and 16, killed themselves at their school in Karachi, apparently because they were ‘in love’ and did not expect their families to consent to them marrying each other.
According to The Express Tribune, the boy shot the girl first as per her request before pulling the trigger on himself. The young couple had left behind two suicide notes for their parents. Both of them said that they were aware that their parents would never allow them to get married which is why they decided to take their lives. Both letters, which appear to be written by the same person, requested the parents to honour their dying wish to be buried next to each other.
Whatever the facts of the matter, keeping in mind that in such cases the facts are never clear, the reality is that these two children died and our hearts go out to their families during this terrible time. May the two children rest in peace, and may Allah give their families strength to bear their loss.
Teen years are never easy. With turbulent hormone levels and uncertain judgement, it is hardly surprising that suicide is a significant cause of death amongst teenagers.
It is as true that parenthood is not easy either, and being a parent of teenage children is particularly difficult. Like any profession, being a parent is learned on the job. To expect a ready-made sage to emerge as a result of a nikkah and the process of childbirth is naive in the extreme. Therefore, to blame the parents for this or any similar case is cruel and indecent. The reaction to this awful incident is what invites comments the most.
Reports of this tragedy elicited scores of comments within the day, most of which passed a harsh sentence on the parents. Strange, because which of us is without error as a parent and can throw the first stone? And how wrong is it to jump to conclusions at a time like this, particularly when all is conjecture and none of the facts are clearly presented before us? Even were it otherwise, it is obvious that our compatriots stand in need of sensitivity.
Other commentators pointed fingers at Hollywood, Bollywood, local television plays, Indian and others, computers, iPads, mobile phones, and free phone packages, 3G networks, video games, co-education, little religion, no love and too many firearms. I looked but could not find any allusions to the CIA or Mossad, but I am sure they will turn up in due course if they’re not already there, camouflaged by the reference to movies.
We must learn the sheer inevitability of technology. It is like the sexual urge. It will happen and suppressing it will create problems. You can only learn to use it in the right way. So TV will happen. Computers will happen, as will books, movies, cartoons, and YouTube. Ban it as much as you will. People will find them, read them, see them, hear them, and more so if they are banned. I would not have cared two hoots for it but because it was banned, I admit to having read the book that was set to become Salman Rushdie’s great flop before it was banned.
The thing that can and must be controlled in some way is the easy access to firearms. What is being done about this? And about the reason why so many persons possess firearms in the first place? The possession of firearms is very often a result of a very real perception of a lack of security. Even so, the possession of firearms is open to abuse. Remember how Salman Taseer was killed?
Security is a state concern which it has shamelessly shirked along with most of its other responsibilities. What is being done to make this country more secure, other than making it over to arbitrary justice handed out by unqualified courts?
And there are many other persons who possess firearms with a view to aggression rather than self-protection. What is being done about them?
The other point in this case is that the young boy, being an Ismaili, would not have been accepted by the girl’s family, or so it is reported in the news. Who knows what the facts of the case are, as I said before, and I stress this again. Certainly, the local SHO had no reservations about claiming that the two were very young and came from different communities, and ‘which parents would have allowed this?’ It could be that he was referring to them being underage, but he could equally be referring to their belonging to separate communities.
And that is probably the saddest thing of all, that the factor of community is ever an issue. Even if that is not the truth in this particular incident, there is the fact that the SHO saw fit to say so, the fact that so many people would agree that two different communities may not intermarry, even if they both call themselves Muslim. If this is not a problem of our own creation, what is? Why, at every instant, do we blame someone else for our problems?
Like other countries, Pakistan has a host of issues. It is time we recognised that our society and no one else is at fault in most tragedies that occur here. We have lost the ability to share, coexist and debate as a society and the results are before us.
Many years ago, a person who committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in the US left a note that read,
“I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
If you go out in any of the cities in Pakistan and smile at a stranger on the road somewhere, he will look at you stonily and walk on. Not one person will smile and offer you courtesy, not one will make way on the road, open a door for you, or smile and thank you if you do. By these standards, all the persons in Pakistani cities should kill themselves forthwith. This is not an issue created by cell phone packages, by Bollywood or co-educational schooling. It is not the fault of RAW, the CIA or Mossad. This is us, the people of Pakistan ourselves as a society.
Let us forget the Golden Gate Bridge and acknowledge the issues right here, in Anarkali Bazaar, in Landhi, Korangi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta, and recognise the ones who created them – we and I.
When something goes wrong, let us examine where we went wrong, and take pity on those who suffer as a result of these tragedies. It’s time to cultivate some sensitivity, a modicum of sense, and learn to live in this world with grace. It is a world where technology rides on our shoulders and a world where all communities must learn to live together now, or die.