Monday, December 26, 2016


Of Augurs and Haruspexes and Dying Airlines

There will come a time any time now, in fact it’s almost here, when the Houbara Bustard will become extinct. Even beaters will not be able to flush a single bird out of the brush, beat as hard as they may. Driven by frustration and unable to think of a another way of destroying the environment, Arab princes will resort to the time honoured solution: oil; they will lower oil prices to crazy levels, and the stupid world, unable to believe its luck will manufacture and buy more cars and yet more, thereby doubling, tripling, quadrupling its consumption of oil. Even more than now planet Earth will come close to polluting itself to death until finally some guy out there will come up with a wonderful idea. “Marhaba!” he will say (to the idea), and “Oh, ya Habibi!” (to the Royal Advisors). And then, because my Arabic fails me at this point, he will ask the Advisors to advise their royal patrons not to give up hope. He will reveal for them yet another way of destroying the earth, as efficient as any the princes could desire, and much more fun than lowering oil prices.
Remember how we destroyed the wildlife of Pakistan, he will say? And its people fell over their own laws helping us do it? Well, they have another animal on the brink of extinction now, the familiar ‘bakra’ya Habibi. Not only do they (and we) kill bakras on a mass scale on the occasion of Eid, but they kill one every time they wish to propitiate the diety in that country. There is in fact one of its politicians who kills a black bakra every day, he is so scared of turning up his toes. The good news is, the idea man will tell the advisors, that now that country’s national airline also sacrifices a black bakra every time one of its planes takes to the air. So the black bakras are going fast. Now’s the time to move in for the kill.
And after this the poor bakras will never know what hit them. Arab princes will arrive in hordes to kill black bakras and when the black bakras are closer to extinction the country will pass a law against killing them. Whereupon officials will come into their own. They will charge big money to override the law to issue licenses to kill the endangered animal until there is not a single black bakra to be found in the country.
And that is the comment for this week, frighteningly close to reality, and as frighteningly close to coming true.
Not that politicians and other mutts are new to superstition. Ne Win, who ruled Burma on and off between 1962 and 1988 considered the number ninety to be a lucky number. As a result he replaced the hundred Kyat note in the Burmese national currency with a ninety Kyat bill. He hoped by this move to win the blessings of his countrymen, and escape some kind of gory fate in the next world. Unfortunately it became a No Win situation. Excuse the pun. But for those of us who have a hard enough time calculating even in hundreds, the ninety Kyat bill proved to be as gory a move as the fate that hopefully awaited Ne Win in the next world. It’s hard to figure out how Ne Win imagined he’d win the blessings of his countrymen by such means.
He didn’t.
In India politicians are known to believe in black magic. They use tantric rituals to ward off the evil eye, wear certain colours during election time, and possess a preference for particular numbers which they incorporate into registration plates for their cars.
Yet it is still animals that suffer the most.
Pakistanis have what it takes to be entrepreneurs. Considering the lack of goals and materials, no impetus, and little encouragement, we manage to come up with remarkable results. The way some of us have done it is by identifying greed, fear, and the desire to work as little as possible as goals; politicians, officials and the Arab world as material; religious ignorance as impetus – and all of that as encouragement. How do you take these ingredients and turn them into your own advantage? They did it historically all over the world and they’re doing it now right here.
The joyous and morbidly non-vegetarian practice of ‘reading the entrails of animals’ and predicting the future was (and is) an art practiced in many countries. The Greeks and Romans did it but it was the latter who turned it into an art form.
You may have heard of the term ‘this augurs well’, which means that something bodes well for you. The term ‘augur’ comes from the Roman. It refers to the men who divined the Roman god’s will from various signs…weather patterns, animal behavior, crop growth. For special occasions they had a person called the ‘Haruspex’ who was trained in the particular art of reading an animal’s entrails. Just as we have state sponsored terrorism today, they had these state sponsored ‘entrail readers’ (which could stem one from the other, really) who ‘inspected the entrails of sacrificed animals’ to divine what these entrails foretold and got rich upon the proceedings.
It was a haruspex who warned Julius Caesar about the famous ‘Ides of March’ (coming up in under two and a half months, folks). It seems you did not ignore these people if you knew what was good for you.
Coming closer to home, there is apparently some self-styled religious authority, who clearly has a peeve against the RSPCA. This ‘authority’ is daily consulted by the Acting Chairperson of the PPP, and it is he who is responsible for the massacre of a hapless bakra every day to keep the evil eye averted from the Chairperson’s person.
And of course the National Carrier, once a proud symbol of a promising nation, once a great airline to fly with turned a great airline to die with, was not to be left behind. But why bother going into details? We know them already. That is not what this is about.
This is to encourage us all to pray for the black bakras, who to their great astonishment are held to have some kind of clout with the Divine. Please don’t disappear on us, black bakras. Go in peace, rather than in pieces. Stay off the tarmac and may you escape the joint wrath of the PPP, the PIA and the UAE.
May God grant our people wisdom to deal with issues as issues deserve to be dealt with, by diligence and hard work, proper maintenance of aircraft and other things. And may God have mercy upon the animals upon whom the eye of the augur turns, to the great detriment of that animal, its entire tribe and the country, but always to the great material advantage of the augur.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Strikes and dharnas are passé in the country

Seeing that there are invariably two sides to a coin it might be a good idea to start off with the pros.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has done well in some fields. Polio cases have been halved this year in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), down to seven cases from fourteen in 2015. Experts predict that if the province continues to do as well in coming years the KP will manage to become polio free. That will be a wonderful achievement. The other achievements are somewhat mixed.
In the field of education, the PTI’s reforms have been applauded by the Wilson Centre’s Asia Programme which says that initiatives taken by the PTI government have accelerated education reforms in the province.
Actions less deserving of applause in the field of education in the KP are mentioned later in this column.
It was good to see the KP’s stance where the Houbara bustard is concerned. Although it is against Pakistan’s laws to hunt this endangered bird, rich Arabs coming to Pakistan are issued hunting licenses in the rest of the provinces, but licenses to kill the Houbara bustard were not issued, even to bloodthirsty neighbours, in the KP. It was the one province to put its foot down in this matter.
There is nothing creditable about hijacking the capital territory making its citizens unable to go about their business. There is nothing creditable whatsoever in unleashing hooliganism and chaos in the country’s National Assembly. You wonder what is likely to happen in the country at large if this party were to come to power, and also whether the political party that instigates such behavior can be even aware of such a thing as procedure, and law and order. While it is good to know that the PTIs right to protest is not being curtailed, it is worth pointing out that time spent protesting by creating a furor in the National Assembly (and elsewhere) is the nation’s time and resources wasted. That should pose a problem for any country. For a poor country like Pakistan, anyone or any party causing such waste is the problem.
Perhaps the PTI thinks it must create chaos to bring the corruption within the ruling party to public attention. That is if its behavior is the result of any kind of considered plan, which, given the number of times it changes tack is almost certainly not the case. Besides, two wrongs cannot result in a right. The fact remains that if a government is not performing well or if its leadership is flawed, there are constitutional ways of dealing with such matters that do not require strikes, dharnas and disruption in the Assembly. Strikes and dharnas are passé in a country sixty years past its prime.
Is the PTI a rudderless organisation? Its leadership possesses a romantic affinity for dangerous institutions such as jirgas. The kind of inflammatory, emotional, invective laden rhetoric indulged in by its leaders points to this lack of direction, and is also responsible for irritated columns like this one. There are things which if they are addressed would go much further towards disposing the electorate towards the PTI, which once seemed to have something going for it.
Pakistan is lagging very far behind world standards in health and education (the above examples notwithstanding), in all aspects of prosperity and well-being of its people. If the standard for poverty is set very low thirty percent of Pakistan’s population falls below it. If it is raised a little more, fifty percent of Pakistan’s population falls below it. We need more efficient systems of taxation, social security, functioning labour laws, and a unified system of justice. At present the KP falls very far behind in the matter of justice with its dual legal systems, the jirga system in addition to the regular legal system of the country. It was a jirga that recently condemned a sixteen year old girl to death by burning in Abbottabad. It doesn’t matter for what crime. No crime warrants such horrific punishment. As it happens there was no crime.
The KP has a major problem with violent militants whose weapon of choice is the IED (Improvised Explosive Device), which is easily made, even at home. This year in 2016, more than two hundred and ten cases of IED blasts have been reported in the KP. Clearly something has to be done to counter militant indoctrination.
An editorial note in the Criterion Quarterly says that ‘many suicide bombers and those fighting non-Muslims, for whatever reason, are dropouts or graduates of secular institutions of learning. Those attending madrassas are almost all poor, and an estimated 1.5 million were enrolled in these institutions in Pakistan in 2005. If militancy is to be decreased, the government will have to take measures for equitable distribution of wealth and provide justice to the poorest who are compelled to send their children to madrassas. On a parallel track, the state must stop arming and training religious cadres to promote its security objectives.
Haroon Khalid says in the Huffington Post, the ‘Pakistani education system is increasingly producing students who are sympathetic to Islamic militants, who too espouse a puritanical version of Islam similar to what is taught to these students through their formal education.’
Clearly monitoring both mainstream schools and madrassahs is required.
In June this year the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly was informed by Shah Farman, a provincial Minister that a certain madrassah in Nowshera had been allocated Rs300 million in the 2016-17 budget. The madrassah is run by Maulana Sami ul Haq, chief of the Jamiat e Ulema e Islam, Sami group. Maulana Sami ul Haq has been dubbed ‘Father of the Taliban’ and has had closed ties with Mullah Omar, a leader of the Taliban.
With such a scenario does it matter what the government in the KP does or does not do with secular educational institutions, given the very large numbers of students attending these madrassahs?

Sunday, December 11, 2016


‘Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn’ (Benjamin Franklin: the guy who tried to figure out electricity using a kite and a key…in a thunderstorm)
A couple of years ago, the earth stopped revolving around the sun. It was when Sheikh Bandar Ali Khaibari a Saudi cleric, participated in an event during a visit to Khor Fakkan in the UAE. On that occasion the Sheikh was asked by a student whether the Earth moves or if it is stationery. The Sheikh replied quite categorically that the earth did not move. As reported by a United Arab Emirates newspaper, the cleric even demonstrated his reasoning by means of a cup, saying that if he were to take off into the air from a point on this cup (Earth) to go to China, and in the meantime the cup rotated, China would also rotate with it and his plane would never get there. Really, his reasoning was logical enough except for the small matter of the laws of Physics which were not included in the cleric’s argument. Maybe he did not believe in Physics. It turned out he did not believe in the lunar landings either and dismissed them as fake news. Another of the many conspiracy theorists around the world.
The newspaper reports that Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abdullah bin Baaz, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, now deceased, held similar doubts regarding the Earth being flat. Apparently he changed his views after talking to Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud a Saudi Royal Air Force fighter pilot and the Sheikh’s fellow countryman, who went into space in 1985. The Prince witnessed the fact that the earth was round for himself and related the sight to the Sheikh.
So hold that thought.
It was mentioned before in these columns that many students of government schools in Pakistan, even at the level of Intermediate and BA, have never seen a magnifying glass, and do not know what it is. Recently this was checked again, and true enough of a class of eight none had seen a magnifying glass. When asked to use their imagination and figure out what it was, even after the glass was accidentally on purpose placed on a book so the students could see what it did to the letters the best answer was that it was perhaps an instrument used to wash clothes. One girl shook it to demonstrate how it could be used to beat cloth to clean it. Once they were clearly shown what it was though, they understood and were interested.
There’s something to be learnt from both these cases. The first is that a lot appears to have changed in the way a society that produced the likes of Ibn e Rushd (Averroes), Khwarizmi, and Avicenna, thinks. The towering intellect of these men revolutionised philosophy, mathematics, geography, medicine and many other fields, pushing the horizons of learning beyond anything achieved before. Even Google did not try to change the spelling of their names.
The other thing to be learnt is that the people in both these examples were willing and able to learn from examples of people or events that fell within their limited experience. It took a fellow countryman to break through the conspiracy theorist mindset of the cleric, and the evidence of their eyes to get through to the girls.
And this is what is needed for education here, practical evidence-based teaching with familiar examples that people can relate to. Clerics and the general population of Pakistan would likewise benefit from such teaching, which could also for example (and this is not a facetious suggestion) require students to interact closely with minority groups to experience the lives of people they do not respect, so they may see for themselves what telling them would not achieve, that minorities are neither demonic nor aliens, that they have lives, values and aspirations like anyone else.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, writing in one of the national daily newspapers spoke of a biology textbook published in the KP last year that ridiculed the idea of evolution. And of his next door neighbour, an educated man, who did not really believe in either mathematics or modern medicine. So, clearly, knowledge is not education, nor is it enough. Imagination is also required, something that is as obstructed by our current syllabi as education.
The text book gurus in Pakistan once discarded a children’s book in which the author had included animals talking to each other. Their objection was that the book taught children lies, since animals do not speak. A circumscribed point of view. If education remains on this track our ambit will remain very, very limited. There, and back, and nowhere else.
Albert Einstein said that ‘the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, it is imagination,’ and also that ‘the only source of knowledge is experience’. Better the two together, since there comes a point when knowledge goes beyond experience, and further knowledge can only be acquired by a leap of imagination.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Pakistan needs a secular liberal ideology

Judging by electoral victories and losses the left wing is losing ground to conservative right wing politics not just in Pakistan (where it has already lost), but all over the world. It would be more interesting to watch this steady decline if it were not so distressing.
With Modi as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for the first time in India’s history the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha, and a whopping one at that. The BJP, a right wing party has close ideological links to the Hindu Nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in turn is a party thrice banned in independent India for its extremist views, including for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. With a religious rather than progressive thrust, these parties concentrate upon the Hindu nation.
Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party, heads the British Government. The previous government led by David Cameron, also Conservative, was a coalition composed of the Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats whereas the current government takes a further shift to the right with a majority mandate.
In Australia Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott. Both Turnbull and Abbott lead the rather misnamed Liberal party, positioned at centre-right. The current government however is a coalition composed of the centre right liberal, and further right conservative parties.
In France, Francois Fillon, a candidate who likes being compared to Margaret Thatcher, possesses, according to the Economist, a ‘Catholic-hued social conservatism’. He was recently elected as the conservative candidate for the centre right Republican Party. Following elections next year he could well be the next President, a huge shift to the right from Hollande’s socialist radical left.
There is of course Donald Trump’s victory in the US which means…well it’s not possible to pinpoint what Donald Trump believes in. According to an NBC count the President elect has made ‘141 distinct shifts on 23 major issues’. The only certain point is that Trump’s policies are neither left wing nor socialist. In other words the US is in for a period of politics as right wing as they come. It’s sad, because these are not the principles that allowed the country to achieve great things.
It is interesting and troubling, this shift to the right, since it is likely to make the world an even more violent place. It is worth studying the phenomenon to determine how left wing governments have failed to respond, even though they are meant to address problems faced by the masses, something that is not paramount on the conservative agenda.
In Pakistan left wing politics died an early and painful death many years ago leaving the field to the Awami National Party (ANP) Pakistan’s secular and left wing Pashtun party now led by Asfandyar Wali Khan, a party that is basically restricted to the Pashtun areas of the country, the secular MQM, at present in a state of confusion and flux, restricted to Karachi, and of course the PTI, which for the present is just plain confused. The left has been deserted even by the PPP when Asif Ali Zardari claimed that left wing politics were ‘the ideology of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, they are no more relevant now.’ In fact he was talking about left and right wing politics both. All this leaves room for little else but ultra conservative religious parties which is all Pakistan has now, with the centre right and conservative PML (N) the most liberal it gets. It is a depressing situation.
In Pakistan there is a tendency to surround prominent persons with highfalutin words ignoring the principles these persons stand for, as in saying ‘sallallahu alaihi wasallam’ (may the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) with a great show of piety for the Prophet Muhammad while ignoring his great teachings of equality and non-discrimination. It happens, funnily enough also with the ultra-secular Jinnah who is called ‘Quaid e Azam’ (the great leader) followed by ‘rahmatullah alaih’ (May the Blessings of Allah be upon him) with little heed for his ideals which did not include marginalising segments of society. Jinnah made his ideas clear often, such as when he said: ‘Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission.’
Poor Jinnah.
In what is definitely a ha-ha moment, given the vociferous criticism each side levels against the other, Pakistan is not too different in its stance now to those Western countries mentioned above. The only way to stem this drift to the right, or rather to pull the country back from where it already is, is to work liberal secular ideals into the manifestos of political parties, for the purpose of safety in numbers, to keep them away from right wing policies. Having said that it should be mentioned that the ANP has been the principal target of the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), leading to the assassination of more than a hundred of its workers. The MQM, sadly, has been more a victim of its leadership than anything else. In spite of the problems faced by these parties, liberal secularism is the only way to fight feudalism and the great economic divide, with which this country is so riddled.
In Pakistan ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ have become terms of abuse used and manipulated by right wing individuals against independent thought. This has fostered the misconception that to be liberal or secular is to be anti-religion. Quite the opposite is true. Secularism is simply the separation of government from religion. It does not prevent the practice of religion. To be liberal is to believe in a ‘relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty, to believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law.’ (Paul Krugman). A genuinely liberal person would keep religion out of the public arena but he would die for the right of each person to practice religion as the person deems fit. A right wing ideology on the other hand would be unjust in the name of religion, and extreme right wing ideologies would kill to ensure that their distorted brand of religion continues to dominate the public arena.
In short, Pakistan needs political parties that will further a secular liberal ideology, because at the risk of laboring the point neither secularism nor liberalism stand for violence, neither is anti-religion, and they alone can lead to peace. Perhaps it was different once, but we live in this age now, and the greater the religion the more nimbly a secular stance can adapt to co-exist with that religion while keeping the principles of both safe.