Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberal War Drum

It occurs to me that we are in a perpetual state of internal conflict. Salman Taseer’s murder got the ball rolling for 2011. This time, during the dispute over amendments to the Blasphemy Law, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri took a drastic route in expressing his opinion on the matter. So now, the battle lines are drawn between the ‘liberal’, secular side and the conservative, religious one. Because I get my news from the Express Tribune and Dawn, I am inundated with news and blogs denouncing the Mullahs and celebrating the heroic life of the controversial Governor.

So this time, we all stand together and decry the hard-line stance of the Barelvi sect in Pakistan. Last year, of course, we liked them, because the main villains were the Wahabis who have been gaining some notoriety by being blamed for suicide bombs and whatnot. We were told that their brand of ‘fundamentalist’ Islam was inevitably going to cause trouble. Sufiism was the way to go.

I have spent most of my life only marginally aware of the existence of such sects. Now, of course, they are all the rage.

Sectarianism wasn’t the only issue in the year that was. Mobs and violence were associated with religious violence against religious minorities. There was a host of problems along ethnic lines. The Sialkot incident shook the country. And of course, politics has also become a source of violence recently.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that all these incidents could be related. While bloggers compete with one another in their condemnation of each event individually, these ‘liberal’ voices are fast losing ground in the physical world. The fact that Qadri is being treated as a hero in certain sections is a shocking indictment of this situation. So, why are liberals losing ground? In my opinion, it’s because of their failure to relate to the on-ground realities in the country. It is their misdiagnosis of a basic problem stemming from an inability or reluctance to ask the basic question: why are people so willing to turn to barbarity?

Try this on for size. Pakistan, as a state has failed miserably to cater to the needs of its population, and to provide it with the basic necessities needed for growth. Among the musical chairs played out between military and civilian rule, neither has succeeded in providing people with a truly representative government. Time and again, an autocratic, pro-US military government has been replaced with a disconnected, even more pro-US civilian government. In successive oligarchic (or colonial) governments the well-being of the people of Pakistan has at no point featured in the equation. This, of course, is becoming more and more apparent with the crumbling infrastructure, the rising inflation, the mass unemployment and the total despondency of the ruling elite and the upper classes to these issues.

The root of all this evil, in my opinion, is the one dirty word that it is now unfashionable to quote in liberal audiences – corruption. The atmosphere of social, moral and financial corruption ensures that people have little or no faith in the working of the state machinery and have no one to turn to for protection of their rights and property. Since there is no supreme arbiter in the land, everything is up for grab and/or sale, sending out the very dangerous message of ‘every man for himself’.

This gives birth to what I call the Scavenger Mentality. The Scavenger Mentality is on display everywhere in the country, and among almost all strata of our society. It’s on the roads, where people are more willing to crash their cars than have to give way to someone. It’s at any social gathering you have to form a queue. Our newspapers are littered with stories of one person killing another over a minor altercation. We are not willing to give an inch because we live in perpetual fear of exploitation, and therefore always ready for confrontation.

With government institutions rendered impotent by their corruption, as well as their reputation for such corruption, there is a vacuum in the market for providing their functions. No longer possessing the moral right to govern, these institutions cede control of many of their functions to other groups, such as feudal structures, jirgas, mafias or religious groups. These groups are now free to exploit those that subscribe to them for their own purposes. Religious groups are in the unique position of being able to offer a better afterlife.

The government, like all governments, is eager to play up the terrorism/religious extremism issue. It provides a good distraction from their day-to-day corruption and incompetence, and absolves them from any culpability in causing the situation. Following suit from the Americans, it chooses to turn this into a battle of good versus evil, rather than a predictable outcome of the states inability to enfranchise and provide for its citizens. People aren’t being pushed towards extremism by rampant social injustice; the Mullahs just have a magic sermon that turns people into savages.

The upper and upper-middle class (of which I consider myself to be a member) ‘liberal’ voices are repeatedly talking of going to the mattresses. The language in recent blogs is of war: war against the extremists, war against the Mullahs, war against intolerance. We will not tolerate the intolerant! But the intolerant aren’t reading these blogs, and even if they were, they are beyond caring.

The fact of the matter is these classes have not been pulling their weight in the country. We study in private schools, go to private hospitals, and work in multinational companies. Matters concerning law and order are dealt with by some uncle or the other. Our political and social opinions are formed in a culture isolated from the vast majority in the country. We are not politically active, and have never taken on the task of questioning our leadership. The educated elite that was to protect the rest of the country from exploitation at the hands of foreign and domestic powers has completely dropped the ball in enabling both.

Now, our little fortresses are under attack. The chaos outside the city walls occasionally finds its way inside our comfortable little worlds, and we respond violently. Someone complained recently about not being able to ‘live and let live’. Unfortunately, the educated elite have spent too long living and letting live or die. Now, the time is to act for the collective good of the country, and not just for the protection of our own lifestyles. Instead of trying to ignite or escalate a conflict between liberal and conservative that will only result in strengthening the corrupt leadership on both sides, this elite should be moving to correct the basics.

Telling a population that is steadily losing everything to turn away from extremism and violence is an exercise in futility. The liberal elite need to stop beating the war drum and start asking their government institutions why the situation has come to this, and what they are doing to correct this. We need to educate ourselves as to what is going on in the country, and try to get some perspective as to the causes of our current predicament. We need to stop condoning corruption and sacrificing honesty and practicality for the sake of liberalism. And we need to get out of this confrontational stance. The battle lines along beliefs are a distraction from what really ails the country.

Unless we are some extremely unlucky exception, genuine psychopaths are statistically rare. While the support of militancy and religious extremism by previous governments (again both civilian and military) has been a strong contributor to their rise, the growing polarisation in our cities has deeper reasons to it. Growing violence in countries is the hallmark of states that fail to function cohesively in economics, social welfare and in providing justice. These should be our focus if we are to find a way out. Liberals should be more concerned with actively strengthening our institutions by purging them of incompetence and corruption.

After living in isolation for a long time, liberals have been thrown into the deep end. They may now choose to pick a romanticised fight that will further polarise the country, or try to tackle the major practical problems that face its common population. I have long written off the idea of revolution in the country as impractical, but the rising violence is making me revisit my stance. While I condemn the killing of Salman Taseer, I am more worried that the rising wave of frustration and discontent may result in even more frequent and indiscriminate attacks.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Physically Illogical

-This was written in response to an article in Express Tribune on 4th January, 2010. It was an excerpt of one of Pervez Hoodbhoy's talks.

While reading the article published under Pervez Hoodbhoy’s name, entitled ‘Why do they pick on us Pakistanis?’ I was still trying to assess the arguments when I hit the second last paragraph.

“For example, Imran Khan — who speaks of the West as the fountainhead of evil — prefers to keep his family in London and New York, owes his fame to a game invented by British colonialists, and employs real doctors rather than hakeems for his cancer hospital.”

Now, I have never been to MIT, and do confess to having limited education, but clearly, logical thought is not part of their curriculum for physicists. Before I move on to the rest of the article, the mind-blowing absurdity of this statement has to be addressed. While criticising Imran Khan’s choice to keep his family abroad seems a reasonable argument in pointing out his hypocrisy (which it is not… but we’ll come to that), the good doctor has seen fit to point to his fame in a ‘colonial’ game, and his employment of medical professionals as signs of his closet western-ness.

So apparently, anyone who indulges in the most popular sport in the subcontinent automatically loses his license to criticise any action being conducted in the West (of course, it’s all one big area over there that invented the game among their other achievements). Anyone who has ever been to a doctor is also out. Unless you frequent hakeems or any other local forms of medical professionals, you too have no right to criticise the West. I’m assuming this is because ‘the West’ gave us modern medicine. Presumably, anyone who has ever used algebra in America has no right to criticise Arab policy either.

Let’s move on from this staggeringly illogical statement, with the assumption it was made in a moment of madness, and try to get to the core of the text. Firstly, the idea is presented that Pakistanis have a hard time at American Immigration because of a bad track record. While I can understand the frustration and humiliation of people subjected to ‘the special line’, the measure in itself is logical enough.

The second point, however, seems a little extreme. The only two options that presented themselves to Dr. Hoodbhoy during his inflamed rage towards the American bombing of Vietnam were either to bomb Harvard Square or to leave the country. Why was he not out there, protesting like everyone else? Why was he not withholding taxes or picketing the White House? Of course, his move in itself is commendable, he returned to Pakistan, and the impoverished country no doubt gained an eminent physicist. But his flight did little to pacify the Vietnamese. I don’t know, perhaps he did protest, but his return to Pakistan made the war go away, at least for him.

Then, in the soul-searching that ensued, Dr. Hoodbhoy came to another staggering conclusion. Since injustice against the weak has been practiced by every strong party in history, the weak should just accept it and get on with their lives. Quite brilliant!

The article then turns into an ode to Western liberalism. People are safer there to practice their religions, their rights are secure and so on and so forth. Critics of the US are not contending any of this. Even extremists like Faisal Shehzad never claimed they were protesting local American prejudice. The US comes under attack from the likes of Imran Khan because of their overbearing ‘bull in a China shop’ foreign policy. In the sentence where Dr. Hoodbhoy mentions the decency of Americans in protecting Muslims in their own country, he is also completely flippant about the two illegal wars that George W. Bush started which killed thousands of people. Of course, I forgot, it’s the way the world works.

US forces currently occupy bases all the way from Pakistan to North Africa, where they prop up despotic, repressive regimes. They have gone against UN policy time and time again, and bombed innocent civilians in almost every part of the globe. People in these areas do not have the option of going home and forgetting all about it.

Obviously, I am not endorsing terrorism, but surely the only other solution is not to lie down and accept the status quo as morally correct. Pervez Hoodbhoy seems as resigned to being a second rate citizen of the world community, tiptoeing around American whim, as he claims minorities are in Pakistan.

Finally, let’s make the distinction between Pakistani Americans, and Pakistani students in America. Pakistani-American’s who live in America, and have adopted the American way of life should of course be shunning radicalism and violence, but that’s not the entire story. They do also have a right, and perhaps to some extent, a responsibility to protest and criticise unjust actions by their own (or as Dr. Hoodbhoy would prefer ‘adopted’) government. They are not there to quietly and apologetically keep their heads down, and keep out of sight; they are there to live a normal life.

Pakistani students, on the other hand, could, and should be acting as ambassadors. They should obviously be shunning radicalism in their own country, but also educating common Americans about what makes the US so unpopular in the third world.

Perhaps, from a purely practical perspective, one could argue that immigrants should try to adapt to their host country, but surely commentators in Pakistan have the right to criticise Western policy they disagree with?

As this is an excerpt, I suspect (and hope) that there is a great deal that is incoherent and could possible be taken out of context, but by and large, the apologetic theme that is willing to fatalistically accept illegal wars, while criticising its blowback is troubling. Perhaps if eminent Pakistani intellectuals such as Pervez Hoodbhoy were able to make more of a fuss about the injustices of American foreign policy and its disastrous effect on Pakistan, misguided youths such as Faisal Shehzad would not feel the need to express their own discontent in such a violent way. Instead our leading minds tend to shirk away from any such responsibilities, perhaps for fear that the next time they won’t even have the opportunity to stand in the slow-moving line.