Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reason is not automatic

"Reason is not automatic. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone." – Ayn Rand in the introduction to Atlas Shrugged.

Admission is the First Step

Zardari was very impressive in his address at the UN Interfaith Conference. Despite spending half the speech effusively praising the Saudi King, he did admit – though very briefly – that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are both serious problems that need to be dealt with. His exact words were:

"Bigotry manifested in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism must be combatted."

Yes, he mentioned anti-Semitism only once, but implicit in the lumping together of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism was the idea that they are two sides of the same coin. The West's Islamophobia and the Muslim world's anti-Semitism are both a result of grievously mishandled geopolitics in the absence of meaningful people to people interaction.

Muslim anti-Semitism is based solely on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Muslims never had anything against the Jewish faith. In fact, while anti-Semitism raged in Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Muslim world gave protection to Jews. Now, however, Jew is a dirty word in places like Pakistan. Synagogues have been burnt down in Karachi, the old Jewish cemetery desecrated and Jews – South Asian Jews mind you – have been run out of the country. Pakistani hatred of Jews is blind and overwhelming and rests on the false premise that Israel and individual Jews are the same.

The West's Islamophobia rests on the same misconception: the Muslim terrorists and the rest of the Muslim world are the same. Hate crimes against Muslims in America and Europe have been on the increase. In the US presidential elections, the label of Muslim was used almost as a slur on Obama, and the most revealing thing about it was that his Muslim middle name, Hussein, was a big concern for Americans.

Yet Americans acknowledge their problem and many in the liberal media try to fight Islamophobia. But in Pakistan, anti-Semitism has never been challenged by the media, intellectuals or politicians. Zardari's admission of the problem is a first step. His proposed solution, which followed the admission also seems to be in the right direction:

"Dialogue, and not discord, between civilizations and faiths must be encouraged... Let us not isolate people, let us engage people."

It is vague but it is something. Of course it would have been infinitely better if Zardari had said this to the Pakistani people and not a bunch of diplomats and world leaders and talked a little more specifically and extensively about anti-Semitism. There is a rumor that he might meet Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at one of the dinners. I for one hope he does. I hope that Pakistanis are allowed to go to Israel and Israelis allowed to come to Pakistan. Getting to know each other as human beings as opposed to demonic caricatures will only further the mission for tolerance for which all these distinguished persons have gathered at the UN this week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Order (I)

More pictures from my visit to the Shahjehan Mosque can be viewed on my Flickr profile.

Order (II)

This weekend, I went to see the Shahjehan Mosque at Thatta. Everyone must have seen pictures of it in coffee table books about Pakistan, but seeing it in real life was a profound and beautiful experience. I sat in one of the nooks in the covered courtyard for nearly an hour mesmerized by the infinite geometry of the arches and tiles. Tracing the order of the architecture was the most therapeutic thing I had done in months; it felt like all the mundane anxieties left my mind and all the tension drained from my body.

Shielded from the relentless sun, enjoying the cool breeze that circulated through the quiet courtyard, I thought about how important order is to the quality of our lives. The daily traffic jams, the near accidents when some asshole breaks a traffic light or some pedestrian with a deathwish darts in front of your car, the general chaos of Karachi takes an immense toll on people. The unnecessry honking, the inconsiderate cutting of a line at the nanwallah, the need to yell to get the grocer's attention, the neighbours dumping their trash outside your house, it all builds up slowly in our body and mind. It is betrayed by that tension in our shoulder, our sharp reply to someone's innocent question, the unconscious gnashing of ours teeth, that nervous shaking of our legs and most importantly by that slowburning anger – or alternately – leaden fatigue that characterizes our existence.

This Mughal architecture in the middle of Thatta seemed to comprehend our need for order, for the psychological comfort it affords. To be part of an ordered regulated society and to live in an ordered regulated space where the law of the jungle and ruthless self-interest are held in check by laws and institutions – both government and civil – that function effectively, without favour or prejudice, that is my hopelessly idealistic dream for Karachi, for Pakistan, which the Shahjehan Mosque anticipated 400 years ago.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Since September, the newspapers have been awash with news about pro-government jirgas and lashkars being assembled by tribesmen in various areas of FATA to resist the Taliban. This is good in that after nearly seven years, the locals are taking a firm stance against the militants, whom they initially treated with much hospitality. Support of the people of FATA will be key to success in what has now become a full-fledged war on the militants there. The locals' knowledge of the area and the simple fact that they will no longer give refuge to militants will help tremendously.

But this whole business of the lashkars fighting a proxy war for the government makes me very uncomfortable. Tackling the militants is the government and the military's responsibility and not of civilians living in that area. For the government to garner their support and make sure they are not harboring militants is one thing, but for it to use these armed tribesmen as a buffer against the ruthless militants is inhumane.

To make matters worse, not only is the government encouraging lashkars, it is, as the Herald reported this month, also arming them. Our experience of arming the mujahideen to fight the Soviets and the Taliban to fight in Kashmir should be proof enough of the folly of such endeavors. These groups that the state arms have a tendency of using those very arms against the state later. When the militants have been controlled, I am sure, the last thing we will want is to have to fight another war to check armed lashkars.

On a related note, I find it hard to be very enthusiastic about the so-called "vigilance committees" that have sprouted up in Buner. These committees are basically armed vigilante groups that guard villages in Buner against militants. The Herald speaks of these committees in glowing terms, calling them "a miracle" and encouraging people of Swat to follow suit and "become the masters of their own destiny". Such glorification of vigilante groups is quite unnecessary. They are a woeful symptom of the state's failure to protect its citizens and can become a threat to the state's authority. The media was right in condemning acts of vigilante justice in Karachi and in calling on the government and society to address its root causes. In an editorial, Dawn called the burning of robbers by civilians in Karachi a "terrifying new phenomenon". They should be consistent and do the same with the armed and organized vigilante groups in NWFP.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ministerial Glut

After the Feb 2008 elections, many of us had hoped for a change in governance and for a move away from nearly a decade of cronyism, corruption, ineptitude and failed government policies at the hands of Musharraf and the PML-Q. And while the new PPP government has brought new faces into power, it is continuing many of the old Musharraf-PML-Q government policies. It is certainly continuing the PML-Q tradition of appointing a legion of ministers, a practice which is both costly and unnecessary.

Yesterday, 40 new ministers were sworn in to the federal cabinet bringing the total to a whopping 55. This means that now 16 percent of the 342 members of the National Assembly are part of the cabinet. 53 percent (50 out of 94) of PPP MNAs are also now part of the cabinet.

Why does Pakistan need 55 cabinet members when a 15 member US cabinet governs a country of over 300 million people? The answer of course lies in the perks of being a cabinet member. While an MNA gets a monthly salary of 17,000 rupees, a Federal Minister gets 40,000 rupees and a Minister of State (a junior cabinet member) gets 37,000 rupees. Here are the other legal perks of belonging to the cabinet(1), (2):
  1. Monthly payment of rent by the state up to 19,550 rupees and 17,825 rupees for official residences of Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively;
  2. Monthly payment of rent by the state up to 19,550 rupees and 17,825 rupees for personal residences of Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively;
  3. Monthly utility allowance of 15,000 rupees;
  4. Daily allowance for gas and electricity of 550 rupees;
  5. The free use of a 1600cc car for the minister and his/her family;
  6. One free telephone line for the office and home, with free calls inside the country;
  7. Subsidized air travel;
  8. A one time 5,000 rupee equipment allowance;
  9. A one time furnishing allowance with a maximum limit of 100,000 rupees;
  10. An annual discretionary grant of 600,000 rupees and 400,000 rupees for Federal Ministers and Ministers of State, respectively.
There is of course the unquantifiable but surely not insignificant perk of bribes in holding a position in the cabinet, too.

Not counting the bribe or perks 5-10, the annual expense to the people of Pakistan for each Federal Minister is 1.33 million rupees and for each Minister of State is 1.25 million rupees.

No wonder everyone in the National Assembly wants a piece of this pie, and the PPP government seems more than happy to oblige. The facts that we are in a major fiscal crisis and that we desperately need to balance our government budget and stop government borrowing from the SBP to bring inflation down from over 30% seem to be lost on our government. It is very happy to withdraw subsidies from struggling Pakistanis and slash developmental expenditure for the sake of government frugality but sees no contradiction in feeding the greed of the ruling coalition's MNAs out of the taxpayer's pocket. Pakistanis will now be paying over 71.8 million rupees in salaries and perks to cabinet members every year.

This is a far cry from 15 August 1947, when a 6 member cabinet was sworn in under Liaquat Ali Khan. Instead, this expanded cabinet is shockingly reminiscent of Shaukat Aziz's 66 member whale of a cabinet.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Native Tongues

I have lived in Pakistan for an overwhelming part of my life: nineteen out of twenty-two years. Yet my first language is English. I understand Urdu; I speak, read and write it, but I am just not as comfortable in Urdu as I am in English. It takes me long agonizing minutes to decipher just one sentence in Urdu newspapers and I speak Urdu searchingly, stumbling through the grammar and tripping over the diction. I think in English, write in English, read in English and am most expressive in English.

There are lots of people here who think that this makes me less Pakistani, less authentically native. I have always contended that that is utter nonsense. For one thing, Urdu is not the native language of a majority of Pakistanis. Balochi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Seraiki, Pushto, Hindko, Dari etc are the first languages of a lot of Pakistanis. In fact, I have met many people on trips to Thatta and Swat who cannot speak or understand any language besides Sindhi and Pushto, respectively. And what's more, according to, in 1993, only 7% of Pakistanis were native speakers of Urdu.

It seems a little preposterous to me that this 7% can lay sole claim to being Pakistani, disenfranchising the remaining 93%. It was such linguistic chauvinism that ultimately cost us East Pakistan.

As for the ridiculous claim that Urdu is more native to Pakistan than English, let me point out that both Urdu and English were brought to the subcontinent by colonial armies, the Mughal and British, respectively, and that too around the same time, in the sixteenth century. Urdu and English have equal history in the subcontinent.

The actual reason why most people have a problem with English is that it does not fit in well with the post-independence narrative, which, somewhat artificially, binds Pakistanis to the Mughals, spiritually, culturally, linguistically and historically, and distances us from the British and their legacy in the subcontinent. This is the outcome of Pakistanis – an extremely heterogeneous group of people – desperately looking to define themselves. But it is a misguided effort. Defining ourselves through a monolithic narrative (and language) is to marginalize the local histories, cultures and realities of the people of Pakistan. We are a diverse, pluralistic people with many differences and the sooner we learn to embrace and celebrate these differences instead of demonizing and suppressing them, the faster we will evolve a more cohesive and inclusive national identity for ourselves.