New Age Islam Edit Bureau
January 1st, 2016
India-Pak relations: people come first
By Babar Ayaz
The two Pakistans
By Asha’ar Rehman
Danger of cults
By Kashif Shahzada
New Year resolution
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
India-Pak relations: people come first
January 1st, 2016
What has changed of late the sabre-rattling Prime Minister (PM), Narendra Modi, to become a dove when it comes to relations with Pakistan? Many pundits in the Pakistani media are groping for the right answer. Obviously, there cannot be just one reason for Modi’s U-turn. In statecraft policies are dictated in any country to serve the interests of the ruling classes. However, it should be borne in mind that no country has monolithic class interests and these interests are not cast in stone. But they keep changing with time and circumstances. In Pakistan, the tussle on this issue is between geo-economic and the traditionally powerful geo-strategic lobbies. The latter’s policies have led us to the present mess. The much more powerful geo-economic lobby in India is also pushing Modi to ease the tension.
One view is that Modi has learnt from his party’s defeat in Bihar that anti-Pakistan and Muslim bashing has been counter-productive. This may be one of the many reasons. Perhaps, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is conscious of the fact that in the upcoming UP elections a formidable Dalit-Muslim alliance would make its win difficult. Another reason given is that Modi was pushed by both the US and Russia to normalise relations with Pakistan as they want our establishment to deliver its protégées — the Afghan Taliban — to the peace table. Pakistan’s perennial fear has been that India wants to surround Afghanistan by strengthening geo-strategic relations with the Afghan government. To counter Indian influence it has been supporting the Afghan Taliban for over two decades now. Though India does not take foreign influence as it considers itself a big power in the region, it has a strong urge to seek a position at the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC). For that it needs the support of the US and Russia. So, easing the tension with Pakistan is not a big price.
Understanding the downside of the policy to consider insurgent groups as assets is something many sensible writers have been criticizing. The existentialist threat to Pakistan by the terrorists is directly related to this perfidious policy. Having said that we have to accept that after bleeding for so long from terrorist attacks our establishment has launched an operation against the terrorists who challenge the writ of the state. They have now changed path and believe the time has come to cash in their investment on the Afghan Taliban. If this gamble of the establishment succeeds, the flip side is that they will be encouraged to continue using non-state actors for furthering their policies in other countries also. Though everybody knows that Pakistan had been providing safe haven to the Taliban, in the past Islamabad has officially been denying this. That is not the position anymore. We have now come out of the closet and accepted our not so-secret relations with the Taliban. Pakistan has successfully involved the US and China in the proposed talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban to counter any negative moves by India.
In this backdrop, when Modi is being criticised for making an oblique reference to Pakistan supporting the terrorists while addressing the Afghanistan assembly, we should bear in mind that this was to further pressurise Pakistan. Even before he was elected his emphasis was that Pakistan should stop cross-border terrorism. His tough posture on this issue and increase in support to disgruntled Pakistani terrorist groups helped India to make terrorism the number one issue on the agenda for negotiations. On the other hand, Pakistan also realised that India’s support to terrorist groups in the country was not going to let it win the war against terrorism at home. This Indian policy has pushed the Kashmir issue to a secondary position. By moving the talks between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of the two countries to Bangkok it seems both have come to terms that the terrorism issue will get priority in future parleys. It is with this success in the first round that Modi has started moving towards normalising relations with Pakistan. The personal touch in this regard is Modi’s style. Even in Delhi he is blamed by many for not consulting his cabinet ministers and running the government with the help of a few chosen bureaucrats. That is why he praised Shahbaz Sharif’s style of management.
There are unconfirmed reports that his visit was preplanned and not impromptu. This perception helps the critics of Nawaz Sharif who do not miss a chance to please the obese war economy lobby in Pakistan. Once again, they are out raising the Kashmir first flag knowing fully well that this policy has not worked in the last 67 years in spite of our overt and covert adventures. A simple question is: when Modi had shown his desire to visit Pakistan what was our PM supposed to do? Tell Modi “I am a dummy PM and I have to seek permission or advice from the establishment before deciding to receive you”? The discussions on television at times and in newspapers are splenetic to borrow a term from the learned Khaled Ahmed on this issue.
Of course, Pakistan has to safeguard its interests. But here one has to draw the line: are we talking about the interests of the war economy or of the people of Pakistan? Do not tell me they are the same. The people of Pakistan and their self-interest are primary. They know that what we have we could not manage well in the last 67 years. So, to them, Kashmir can wait while we continue to raise a voice against the human rights violations in the wretched valley. The water issue should be dealt with separately, as it was done when the Indus Water Treaty was signed. Mixing it with the sovereignty of Kashmir is in conflict with our interests.
Both countries’ people will harvest a large peace dividend if their governments move to resolve other issues where much progress was made with ‘back door diplomacy’ during General Musharraf’s rule, as painstakingly narrated by Khurshid Kasuri in his book Neither A Hawk Nor A Dove. As this progress was made not by a civilian PM but by an army chief the question embedded journalists should ask is: does the present establishment support the gains made during the military regime including Kashmir’s out-of-the-box solution? This clarification is badly needed to move forward with the peace process. That the Twitter-happy fingers of the establishment are quiet on this peace initiative with India only helps the spoilers who pontificate on talk shows. I am reminded of Omar Khayyam here, who said:
“The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
moves on: nor all thy (civies) piety nor wit
shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”
The two Pakistans
January 1st, 2016
PERHAPS you have also been not lucky enough to miss that ugly altercation between two famous cricket stars of ours, both former Test captains in fact. The argument took place during a television programme, where most of our severest conflicts take place these days, with few if any signs of resolution. In the way we have been trained to view it, these two men appear to represent two very different courses of reaching the high pedestal of fame.
This can be considered a very relevant example since very few can come close to matching the popularity the cricketers here enjoy. They are the perfect stereotypes to carry this story forward.
One party to the live televised show is the modern protagonist. He is the well-educated and well-heeled gentleman who went to better schools in Lahore. He then followed his ‘sufi’ and much-loved and truly enigmatic — bearded in a different sort of way — brother into the national side. He was destined, so to speak, to captain the under-19 team and modelled himself initially on the upright and infallible Majid Khan. After a career as a national cricketer, a selector and a senior cricket board official, he is now one of the few Pakistanis who are on the panel commentators, and regularly covers games all over the world.
Who was the better player of the two? The underdog or the more privileged gent?
His competitor in the shouting match comes from a totally different background. He was born in a far less affluent Lahore, and as a member of a minority faith, stumbled along until he was reportedly noticed by the great Zaheer Abbas. The young man was picked up and went on to be recognised as one of the batting artists this country has produced along with his mentor, Zaheer.
He was in time exposed to the religious sentiment in the dressing room courtesy the Tableeghi Jamaat. Converting to Islam later, he gradually emerged as one of the few prominent members of the group of cricketers born again as social reformers. The members of this group placed their faith in a most rigorous promotion of religious practices as a solution to the materialism they found the world afflicted with.
Thus it is something like this: there is one Pakistani who travels around the globe and who must have been subjected to all the criticism and quite frequently condemnation of his countrymen who do not by any stretch enjoy an impeccable reputation internationally. Facing him is a Pakistani confident that his is the best system over all others.
On this particular occasion, these two sides representing — or seeking to represent — two very different sets of Pakistanis came face to face over Muhammad Amir: should the still young and promising fast bowler be allowed to be back in the national squad after serving a five-year sentence for spot-fixing?
The issue had been complicated by the refusal of two other captains of the national side, both current players, to play alongside Amir. These two had tried to occupy the high moral ground of the well-educated and well-groomed against the more lenient view which the tableeghi cricketer now sat down to defend.
He drew desperate attempts from his ‘rival’. This was a rival who, typically, could have perhaps been saved the embarrassment with some presence of mind upfront and who was now being subjected to the strongest of attacks on his cricketing contribution even prowess.
This was a good enough opportunity to engage genuine cricket connoisseurs of whom this country really has a constant supply. Who was the better player of the two? The underdog or the more privileged gent who had his elder brother illuminating the path for him? If the underdog seemed to at least be a better entertainer, how then were we to overcome our own reservations about the flaunting and mixing of religion and sport?
It is indeed a revealing case for those whose beliefs leave them with no other options but to hope for reconciliation between the two strands displayed so efficiently in this television clip by these two players. This belief is sustained by the original idea that neither of the two images can be annihilated to the permanent supremacy of one over the other. There may be moments where one of these, for whatever criticism it may draw from you and me, will appear to have got the better of the other but this other will surely return to resume the battle, leaving the bystanders bemused, baffled or frightened depending on an individual’s understanding of the situation.
It was quite apt that the televised duel at one place has a participant mentioning Wasim Akram’s name as the final arbiter to clinch the argument in his own favour. Wasim is one person who is thought to have seen both these worlds during and even before his cricketing years. He has courted controversy, has been accused of cheating and has been able to find his way to settlement and rehabilitation each time he was in trouble. He did it with a smile and without any visible, public resort to morals. It’s been said many times that he may be one survivor of the pulls from various sides wanting to make a better person of everyone around.
The experiment, in the meanwhile, must continue for other acceptable versions born of the fusion. There must be others that can truly be described as having resulted from the various influences out there, instead of one having been created in isolation of the other. One thing is for sure that an interaction between the two is necessary to enable the debate which is for now caught by and large in an unending and vicious web of name calling and ridiculing of the other by each of us.
Enabling interaction between the two disparate Pakistanis can be as big a resolution for the year 2016 as any.
Danger of cults
January 1st, 2016
THE phenomenon of cults exists in most religions and has been the focus of much academic research; however, its classification is negligible in our society. When we hear stories of religious exploitation of the vulnerable then what we are mostly likely witnessing is cult phenomenon.
While there are genuine religious guides who offer a transparent exposition of faith and are regarded accordingly in the mainstream, cult leaders comprise charismatic individuals outside the mainstream who claim to uniquely possess ‘special knowledge’ and who use deceptive methods to develop their following.
A deliberate concealment of core beliefs until one is very deep inside the group and a staunch mind-controlling environment that alters reality distinguishes cults from mainstream religion. Once someone joins a cult, then it profoundly affects his or her relationships with family and friends, for then one’s existence is meant for the group.
Cult leaders comprise charismatic individuals.
Cult leaders are adept at manipulation. Reluctant to appear on camera (other than their own), they are adorned not only in a pious garb, but also employ dramatic stage persona. They enthral audiences, and once the show is over they return to their true selves backstage. Unknown to many, their hawks keep a watchful eye on visitors.
Their ideal prey includes the wealthy and well-connected who are religiously not that well-versed. Spoiled youngsters are perfect clientele, as are middle-aged women who may be having problems at home. Youngsters from dysfunctional families and those who have suffered personal bereavement are particularly vulnerable to cult recruitment. Membership recruitment is carried out through misleading advertisements and by word of mouth, as well as the internet, to lure individuals to an indoctrination session disguised as a religious (lecture).
Endorsement from celebrities is also a common marketing ploy. High-ranking officials are prized possessions as followers, because when the time is right their influence will be put to use. The cult always has two sets of teachings — one for the public, and one for the private. Disclosures about ‘special’ knowledge are gradual.
Phobia indoctrination instils the belief that a calamity will befall one if one becomes a turncoat and acts as a strong retainer. Any record of ‘special’ beliefs is avoided and any earlier versions with lacunae are silently withdrawn from circulation. Many local cults should not be seen as registered bodies with audited accounts, but ones which operate out of private residences. In the confines of private homes, members are gradually introduced to supposedly esoteric interpretations and an elitist mindset which paints everything in black and white.
Those inside the group are the ‘saved’ while all those on the outside are the ‘damned’ is the ever-prevailing mindset in an environment where debate is stifled. Critical voices are deliberately suppressed and those expressing them are gradually shown the door. Former members are shunned and existing members are discouraged from keeping any contact with them.
However, fortunately there are numerous Quranic guidelines that prevent us from falling into the trap of cults. They caution: “...There is among them a section who distort the Book with their tongues. You would think it is a part of the Book, but it is no part of the Book; and they say, ‘That is from Allah’, but it is not from Allah. ...” (3:78) alerts us to the presence of deceivers.
Also, the phrase ‘Yasalunaka’ literally ‘They question thee’ — replete in the Quran — proves that the Prophet (PBUH) never discouraged questions. Reason is never to be suspended because “...We have certainly made clear to you the signs, if you will use reason” (3:118).
We are also warned about blind following in the Holy Book as the Day of Judgement will be: “When those who have been followed disassociate themselves from those who followed [them], and they [all] see the punishment. ...” (2:166). No mortal is beyond accountability as “Then We will surely question those to whom [a message] was sent, and We will surely question the messengers” (7:6) while coercion in all forms is ruled out because “There is no compulsion in religion. ...” (2:256).
Moreover, there are to be no secret teachings because “...Those who hide our revelations and guidance after We have made them clear for people in the Book, they are those on whom is the curse of Allah. ...” (2:159). Those with financial ambitions are immediately disqualified because one is to “Follow those who do not ask of you [any] payment, and they are [rightly] guided” (36:21).Instead of believing everything that ‘religious’ personalities tell them, Muslims owe it to themselves to study the Quran.
People should conduct thorough enquiries about religious solicitations aimed at them, being on the lookout for the distinguishing features of cults.
Kashif Shahzada is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
New Year resolution
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
January 1st, 2016
IT is the day of the New Year’s resolution, which, for those well-versed in the traditions of Western societies, combines introspection with a pledge to make oneself a slightly better person in the year ahead. A prototypical Western society ours is not, but the quirks of history have led us to adopt the Gregorian (read: Western) calendar. So dare I indulge the readership and present a new year’s resolution for our beloved land of the pure?
Over the past few years, all of our resolutions — whether at the turn of the year or otherwise — have revolved around the imperative of ‘defeating terrorism’. My scepticism about the entire ‘counterterrorism’ industry aside, it is telling that recent attacks, such as the one which took place in Mardan on Tuesday, have not generated as much alarm as was previously the case.
Are we simply fatigued? Maybe de-sensitised to political violence? Given that much of our public discourse is media-generated, could it be that the establishment has instructed the purportedly ‘free’ media to emphasise the ‘successes’ of the Raheel Sharif clean-up brigade rather than spend too much time dwelling on the fact that right-wing rhetoric and violence remain facts of everyday life?
So far, all our resolutions have focused on defeating terrorism.
In any case, Mardan, Parachinar and other recent orgies of violence confirm that there is no short-term ‘solution’ to right-wing militancy. Indeed, there are no short-term ‘solutions’ to any of Pakistan’s most hackneyed ‘problems’ including, but not limited to, ‘corruption’, ‘foreign conspiracies’, and ‘bad governance’.
In principle, few would disagree that Pakistani society is beset by deep structural inequalities and injustices, and these need to be addressed over the medium to long run. Yet most armchair critics consistently ignore this fundamental reality when they pronounce the Asif Zardaris and Nawaz Sharifs — and their friends and allies — as responsible for everything that goes wrong in the country.
This endemic short-termism is rife in all realms of social existence. As a university teacher, I can testify to the fact that students, faculty members and administrators alike are happy to sustain a culture of mediocrity in which rote learning, the acquisition of grades/degrees and promotions become the be-all and end-all of varsity life. Academic fraud and all manner of corner-cutting are thus the norm rather than the exception.
In classrooms, talk shows and drawing-room conversations alike, we demand solutions but are unable and/or unwilling to accurately identify the problem. The rot, in my estimation, starts at a young age — children are not encouraged to ask critical questions, whether at home, in school, or anywhere else, but instead told to put their heads down and accept the rule of the roost.
The situation is not necessarily better amongst affluent classes — this segment of society is contemptuous of the ‘ignorant masses’ and tends to ape both cultural practice and hegemonic intellectual trends emanating from the Western metropole.
One way or the other, a critical understanding of our own social mores and material contradictions is conspicuous by its absence.
I have in the past flagged some genuine issues of collective concern; the fact that published statistics and figures are poor indicators of an actually existing economy which is dominated by informal relationships and undocumented transactions; the fact that political power continues to reside in the institutions of state created under colonial rule rather than in the parties and individuals that we love to hate; the fact that our rhetorical obsession with religion betrays a cultural composition that is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and generally far more complex than the unitary ‘Pakistan ideology’ admits.
There are certainly many more themes that could, and should, be the subject of intellectual and political debate — only when a critical mass of ordinary people become party to such debates can we start thinking about the fixes that we all want immediately but that can only be realised in the long term.
Of course, a richer culture of public criticism does not guarantee that we can all get along. It is in fact likely to confirm the divisions that run right through the Pakistani body politic, on the basis of class, gender, ethnicity or whatever else. But the sooner we acknowledge these divisions the better, because pretending they don’t exist and then resorting to failed invocations of ‘Pakistaniat’ — along with the standard list of prescriptions to defend Islam and the country — will get us nowhere.
So on this 1st of January, 2016, I propose a new way of doing things — both for this year and for all that follow it — in which we develop the critical faculties of a young population, deeply interrogate our real history, rather than the Ziaul Haq-inspired version, and eventually get to a point where we can call a spade a spade.
It will take much longer than most of us have patience for, but for those who want this to become a more just and inclusive society it is well worth the wait.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.