Saturday, January 17, 2009

Imran Khan vs Charles Darwin

by Irfan Hussain
(from his weekly column in Dawn)

THIS year will see a large number of celebrations at campuses and scientific institutions around the world to mark the 200th year of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th year of the publication of his seminal work.

Widely regarded as one of the three most influential thinkers of the 19th century, together with Freud and Marx, Darwin has had a stronger impact on our thinking than the other two giants of the era. Since its publication in 1859, his explanation of how life evolved on the planet has been subjected to rigorous criticism and analysis. Generations of scientists have tested it in the field and in the laboratory. And to date, it remains the only scientific explanation of how life on Earth has developed over the millennia.

Many religious people have viewed the Darwinian theory of evolution as an attack on their faith. Others have reconciled belief in a supernatural being controlling events in the universe with a scientific theory that pulls together a vast plethora of evidence. Whatever one’s position on the truth of Darwin’s revolutionary exposition, it would take a foolhardy person to dismiss it as a ‘half-baked theory’ as Imran Khan has done recently.

Titled Why the West craves materialism and why the East sticks to religion, the essay is dated Nov 8, 2008, and was sent to me via email by a reader. In this article, the politician and ex-cricketer describes his personal journey from the westernised, secular outlook of his youth to his present faith-based worldview.

In a sense, Imran Khan’s view of Darwin’s life work captures the essence of our backwardness. By rejecting a vast body of scientific research and analysis as ‘half-baked’, he exposes his own ignorance. He is, of course, entitled to his own opinion on any subject under the sun. But as he is a role model for many young Pakistanis, he has a duty to choose his words with greater care. He may refuse to accept the consensus behind Darwinian theory in the international scientific community, but to dismiss it out of hand risks influencing impressionable young minds into following him.

As it is, there is not a single world-class university or research institute in the Muslim world. The reason for this is not hard to find. By refusing to accept and internalise the rational method of empirical research and analysis, we discourage and suppress scientific and objective scholarship.

In Imran Khan’s mind, as in many others, reason is a western monopoly. So anyone using rational analysis as a tool is dismissed as ‘western’, a pejorative term deployed to undermine any argument. Unfortunately, this widespread trend has had profound significance over the centuries. By ceding scientific research and progress to the West, Muslims find themselves in their current predicament. By contrast, countries like China, Japan and Korea have made tremendous progress by accepting reason as the basis of their education and public discourse. So when Imran Khan says ‘the East sticks to religion’ in the title of his essay, he is effectively ignoring well over half the East.

I have long admired Imran Khan for his cricketing prowess, as well as for the fine work he has done in creating Pakistan’s first cancer hospital. So as a fan, it has saddened me to see him in the constant company of right-wingers like ex-ISI chief Hamid Gul and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami. On TV talk shows, where he is a frequent guest, he has been voicing the most extreme views. Let me hasten to say that I would defend his right to his opinions, but as a hero to millions of young Pakistanis, I would ask that these views be based on logic and facts.

Imran Khan has complained in his article that Pakistan’s secular elites do not study Islam, and hence they are seduced by ‘western’ thinking. I’m afraid this is based on the arrogant assumption that simply because people dress in a certain way, they are ignorant of their own culture, history and religion. According to him, Pakistan is polarised between this group who “react strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam on society”, and religious extremists. Personally speaking, I don’t want any belief or dogma imposed on society. As a secularist, I think everybody should be free to believe in any faith. And in the distinguished company of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, I feel that religion should have nothing to do with the business of the state.

So why is it that today, only Muslim nations seem to deny the validity of the scientific method? It is true that many evangelical Christians reject Darwinian theory as well, and push creationism as the explanation for the development of life on earth. Recently, this extreme position has been replaced by something called Intelligent Design. But among educated people, it would be difficult to find many who close their eyes to the insights contained in Darwin’s groundbreaking research, even though many of these ideas were developed by Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s.

In his important book Muslims and Science published nearly 20 years ago, Pervez Hoodbhoy made the point that the entire output of scientific papers written in the Muslim world every year did not equal those produced in Israel alone. This remains true two decades later. And the reason for this imbalance lies in the position reflected in Imran Khan’s views about Darwin.

If we do not encourage the young to think and reason for themselves, how can we expect them to discover anything new? The essence of scientific enquiry lies in curiosity about how the world works, how matter was formed, and how life came into being. Perhaps curiosity about the universe is what sets mankind apart from the animal kingdom.

But if, as Darwin was in the Galapagos Isles, we are struck with wonder when we see something for which we have no explanation, then we have taken a step towards discovering more about our universe, and ultimately, about ourselves.

Postscript: I don't usually copy paste other people's writings wholesale on my blog, but I read Hussain's column and found it so refreshingly intelligent, outspoken and relevant that I just had to put it up here. Last month, an article in LiveScience cited a 2007 survey by Riaz Hassan in which he found that only 14% Pakistanis agreed with the statement that Darwin's theory of evolution is probably or certainly true. In such a dire situation, our politicians should not be pandering to ignorance nor should they feed this virulent rejection of rationalism that has become Pakistanis' facile but self-destructive reaction to our beleaguered position in the world today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don't you just love this country...

It is half past twelve in the night and someone has been firing a machine gun on the street outside my house for the past twenty minutes. What the hell is wrong with people!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Multiculturalism and the Court of Zafar

Reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, I was struck by how much more complex the events of 1857 were than is taught in school. The common impression that it was a Mughal/Muslim rebellion against the aggressively expansionary British with little or no Hindu involvement is firmly routed by Dalrymple's more nuanced picture.

He describes 1857 as "a very odd sort of religious war, where a Muslim emperor [Zafar] was pushed into rebellion against his Christian oppressors [the British] by a mutinous army of overwhelmingly Hindu sepoys, who came to him of their own free will (and initially against his) to ask for the barakat of a Muslim blessing and the leadership of the Mughal they regarded as their legitimate ruler."

The book highlights the disconnectedness of our modern, religiously and ideologically-monolithic reinterpretation of 1857. The fact that the army raised to suppress the uprising in Delhi, comprised mostly of Pathan and Punjabi Muslims further drives home how little the pan-Islamic creed, so popular today, applied to the subcontinent of 1857.

In fact, Zafar and his court were exemplars of tolerance and multiculturalism. He celebrated Holi, Dussera and Diwali along with the Muslim festivals. His court diaries mention how Zafar refused to see a Hindu who wanted to convert to Islam as he thought it improper. And when his physician, Dr Chaman Lal, converted to Christianity and the city's ulema clamored for Lal's dismissal from the Emperor's service, "Zafar had replied that the doctor's faith was his own private matter and 'there was no cause for shame in what he had done.'"

When on 19 May, eight days after the rebellion started in Delhi, Orthodox Delhi mullahs tried to turn the rebellion into an exclusively Muslim holy war by putting up a declaration of jihad on the Jama Masjid, "Zafar immediately ordered it to be taken down 'because such a  display of fanaticism would only tend to exasperate the Hindus.'"

It was the arrival of hardcore Wahabi jihadis from outside Delhi that threatened the communal harmony so crucial to Delhi and the rebellion itself. On Eidul Azha, the jihadis quite impertinently decided to sacrifice not sheep or goats but cows, to deliberately offend the Hindu population. They planned to do so in the open grounds in front of the Jama Masjid. The threat, however, of imminent civil war because of such an incendiary action was staved off by Zafar who immediately and decisively banned cow slaughter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Rallies Cheering Osama bin Laden in Pakistan?

It boggles my mind that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict happening a thousand miles away from Pakistan has brought Pakistanis onto the street to cheer the very man who has inspired (if not directly orchestrated) around one hundred and fifty suicide attacks on Pakistanis in the past six years. That just doesn't make sense to me.

Friday, January 2, 2009

20 things I want of my government

It's easy to watch this government stumble through its first year in power and criticize everything it does. But the other day I wondered whether instead I could come up with a list of things I expect from the government, a sort of political agenda of my own. I don't expect that many things on this list will come about but that isn't really the point.

I have realized over time that Pakistanis expect vastly different things from their government. Some want the government to leave us entirely alone, others want it to impose their particular morality on everyone else and yet others want it to provide each and everything in life to them. In sharing my expectations of the government, I am hoping that others will share theirs too. I am extremely curious about what most Pakistanis would like to see from our government. And maybe, just perhaps, someone in the government might be curious too...?

Without much further ado, my list:
  1. Repeal of the Eighth Amendment
  2. Decentralization of power to the provincial and district levels, including the power to raise taxes, enact laws and manage subjects
  3. Depoliticization and modernization of the police force, including better training in crime investigation, public relations and gender sensitization
  4. An end to capital punishment
  5. An end to torture
  6. A comprehensive disaster management plan for all the cities of Pakistan
  7. Making only one law-enforcement agency responsible for protecting Pakistanis agaisnt terrorism
  8. A decisive victory in FATA, Swat, Buner, Dera Ismail Khan and other places where the army is involved
  9. More civilian control over the army and more oversight and transparency in its budget-making
  10. Swift increase in our electricity generation capacity and a long-term plan to ensure that power supply keeps up with demand
  11. Cheap and efficient public transport in all cities
  12. Enough government schools, teachers and teacher training institutes to guarantee state of the art primary and secondary education to all Pakistani children
  13. Streamlining and modernizing the syllabi of madrassahs
  14. Stringent consumer protection laws and consumer courts
  15. Laws against sexual harrassment in the workplace and against domestic violence
  16. A social security net for the poor, including food stamps and a bureau to help Pakistanis find work and train them for jobs
  17. Government health clinics in rural areas
  18. Provision of electricity to every village in Pakistan
  19. Modernization and expansion of Pakistan's railway system
  20. It complete its five year term and facilitate free and fair elections at the end of its tenure.