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).