As the current political crisis unfolded and one by one the government’s erstwhile allied parties and dissident members chose their path, an anchor on a private channel asked an undecided member of the parliament whether he had made up his mind. The answer came in […]Farrukh writes
The writing on the wall is overrated. Do you want more of the same? Endless whining or victory laps? Oh-I-told-you-so, at any rate? More of the shame? Egos driving the political agenda or the policy debates? The endless discussion regarding the glass being half empty […]Farrukh writes
“Amy: I have bitten my tongue so long, it looks like a dog’s cushion. But no more! You have made it impossible to do this job. You have two settings – no decision and bad decision. I wouldn’t let you run a bath without having […]Farrukh writes
“Amy: I have bitten my tongue so long, it looks like a dog’s cushion. But no more! You have made it impossible to do this job. You have two settings – no decision and bad decision. I wouldn’t let you run a bath without having the Coast Guard and the fire department standing by, but yet here you are running America. You are the worst thing that has happened to this country since food in buckets and maybe slavery! I’ve had enough. I’m gone.
Selina: (as Amy walks to the door) Well, I guess she’s finished with her little…(Amy walks back to her) oh, nope, look at that, there’s more.
Amy: You have achieved nothing apart from one thing. The fact that you are a woman means we will have no more women presidents because we tried one and she …. sucked. Goodbye, ma’am.” –Veep, Episode 5, Season 4.
Both the quoted lines above and the title of this piece come from one of the finest American political satires immortalised by the stellar performance of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale, and later inimitable Hugh Laurie. Let’s be honest. The wall-to-wall stellar performance is so memorable that name-dropping of any sort will do it a disservice. The harsh language takes some getting used to but once you get over it you cannot help but be impressed by the whole thing. They say another sitcom 30 Rock has the most jokes per minute. But even if that’s true, Veep has the largest collection of political zingers. And clever ones too.
I hope that’s enough of a homage to this wholly remarkable work. But while reading or watching a political satire usually is great fun, living in one is not. And one of my biggest beef with elders is that they did not welcome me into this world with a clear mention of the terms of reference. Something to this effect: welcome to a mediocre sitcom, you tertiary character, you!
Even if one did not believe it, the last three and a half years provide ample proof that we are cursed. That whatever we touch turns to manure. Go figure, King Midas.
The first arrows that one received during this time were from what one called like-minded friends for the last thirty years. One has always believed that there exists a pro-democracy constituency in this country that holds democratic values supreme. But to understand what happened to this constituency I will have to take you on another arduous journey of metaphors.
Music from another room is an underrated but beautiful rom-com. Starring Jude Law and Gretchen Mol, it is a story of a hopeless romantic who returns to his childhood town to fulfill the dream of marrying the girl he once said he would marry. But she has grown up into this morality and a duty-obsessed young lady who thinks she cannot afford romance. Whenever they come close unfortunate things happen. Law decides to give up one day and leaves for the railway station. Realising the love of her life is fleeing the city, Mol follows him and accosts him at the terminal. He is about to leave. After entreaties and his rebuttals, there is one unforgettable dialogue. “What have I done to you? ….. What? ….. You sound just like me”. Listening to your pro-democracy friends spout the same nonsense you grew accustomed to from the anti-democracy fanatics was a constant heartbreak.
In some cases, it was legitimate if personal angst. If you have been accused of “35 punctures”, hounded, and abused, I grant you it is not easy to forget or forgive. Likewise, if you blame one particular party for your job displacement it is not easy to forget in earnest. But when a grievance is manufactured just because you are too politically aligned or simply hate an individual it becomes impossible to make peace with it. Just remember many of us also went through hell in the past ten years but then we got over it. Life must go on.
But that wasn’t the only tragedy. The PTI supporters also turned out to be a remarkable bunch. We knew that when you have spent over twenty years being pushed around and ridiculed for your political outlook you are bound to have developed brittle edges. But this brittle exterior takes one year of being in power to dissolve. Then it is business as usual. But in this case, perhaps because there are too many aspirants and too few jobs, the party’s structure has taken the shape of a coliseum where plotting against your own, grievance politics, and machinations never end. The vacuum left behind by hierarchy is filled by unquestioning cultism. What chance then an outsider has in this space? Fresh vows of fealty become the passport to any room you want to enter.
But a quick question. What does it all remind you of? What do Imran Khan’s language, politics and attitude remind you of? Of Nawaz Sharif’s politics in the 1980s-90s and Bhutto’s politics in the 1960s. What else is common? All three favourites of the permanent institutions of the time. All of them used abusive language against their rivals (Bhutto against Fatima Jinnah, Nawaz Sharif against Benazir Bhutto, and Imran Khan against Bhuttos and Sharifs together. All three declared their rivals (Mujib, Benazir and Nawaz respectively) traitors. All three tried extra-constitutional methods to extend their stay in power. The first two fell from grace and the third one is on the fast track to doing that.
What? Cognitive dissonance? Can’t see the point? The country’s permanent institutions seriously need to revise their criteria meant to separate the wheat from the chaff.
There is also a need for revising the foreign policy criteria. Independent foreign policy means you expand the circle of your friends. Expand means gaining new ones while retaining the old. It should not mean that you go dance at the wedding of the exes of your ex. Because then you will invariably be late to every party.
Finally, in the time of transition, it is difficult to remind people of the rare episodes of decency. A recent incident prompted this reminder. The exchange of harsh words between Fawad Chaudhary and Matiullah Jan. Your politics is your lookout but during the upheavals of the past three years, three people who were remarkably decent with me in the otherwise exceptionally trying times are Chaudhary, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Dr Moeed Yusuf. Thought I’d put it out there because we Pakistanis are so fond of conquering and subduing our own. Especially when they are out of power.
As for the so-called cablegate, a part of my heart wants to see more evidence to surface. Because otherwise, this seems like the remake of Wag the Dog. And that would mean the last three years were irretrievably wasted and nobody would probably want to experiment with a third-party candidate ever again.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2022.
As the current political crisis unfolded and one by one the government’s erstwhile allied parties and dissident members chose their path, an anchor on a private channel asked an undecided member of the parliament whether he had made up his mind. The answer came in […]Farrukh writes
As the current political crisis unfolded and one by one the government’s erstwhile allied parties and dissident members chose their path, an anchor on a private channel asked an undecided member of the parliament whether he had made up his mind. The answer came in the negative. Deliberations were going on and when he arrived at a decision he would reach out to the media and break the news. Then the anchor asked something stunning. Would you first go to ARY or Geo to make the announcement? To most viewers the question was clear. But it was also a rare admission of the posttruth nature of the Pakistani media where one media outlet refuses to see either the government’s flaws or strengths. Opinion replacing objectivity.
But you will say what is new in that? In a country where both Zia and Bhutto are declared martyrs this is no new thing. Also, is it not increasingly true of the entire world? Fox and MSNBC, Sky and Channel 4? The world functions in binaries does it not? The like and unlike buttons. Upvotes and downvotes. Maybe. Maybe not. But here is the problem. You can try to escape responsibility by citing such examples but cannot shut your eyes to the threat such trends pose. For instance, even if these trends now appear old when coupled with the new or the unfixed they can wreak havoc. For instance, name another country whose citizens were radicalised to such an extent that they ended up killing eighty thousand fellow citizens, mostly co-religionists, in the name of faith. Similarly, the civil society (both secular and religious)’s treatment of the acts of terrorism perpetrated by the religious extremists and the sub-nationalist entities as two different realities is another case in point. An act of indiscriminate mass violence meant to terrorise the population can be called terrorism. Why should the perpetrator of any such act be treated as an estranged brother or sister?
This matter is important to highlight because owing to fifty years of state-sponsored piety and then twenty years of the war against the very same characters you once lionised the country has developed a soft underbelly of toxic if populist religiosity. This happened especially because at the time the crucial decision was taken to fight obscurantism and terrorism, there was no elected parliament in the country. Ergo no way to sell a legitimate policy shift to the people. Televised broadcasts can convince some people but they are no substitute for your elected representative reaching out to you deliberately and repeatedly to change your mind. As a result, a huge part of the religious-minded community either views the state’s agenda with apprehension or with hostility. This fact is further complicated by the small matter of there not being any concept of a nation-state in the doctrine of the state’s chosen religion. Political consensus and religious interpretation (ijtihad) had malfunctioned as institutions by the time nationstates emerged. Consequently, the muscle memory of its clergy always leads it to strive for the establishment of empires or khilafa directly undermining your nation-state. Not an empire centred around your capital, but the empire where your individuality merges and dies. So, in the past twenty years, everything has become my way or highway. Many in the religious elite see the Pakistani state as a liability and actively plot against it. This problem could be cured if there was an honest dialogue. The only challenge is that we are so polarised that from the parliament, the constitution to the free press we are ready to burn down every institution that provides us an avenue to resolve differences.
And political and business opportunism further exacerbate the crisis. Ours is not an ordinary state. It may find it harder to cope with the crises like the ones posed by Trumpism and the 1/ 6 attack.
They say that with age, experience and power comes wisdom. If that was so, the state functionaries both serving and retired would have been helping us use critical faculties rather than being swept by the emotionalism of the zeitgeist. Consider this. Even though one cannot spell it out in granular details everyone knows that at the heart of this political crisis lies the crisis of consensus within the state apparatus. That means that not only have we failed to evolve a mechanism in this country where such differences are resolved amicably but we are willing to make this crisis about a conflict between good and evil. Do you remember any country where such systemic inanity and opportunism has led to anything good or constructive? The Soviet Union collapsed because of this polarity.
Likewise, you may find many ex-officials who are so sentimental that the small matter of constitutionality does not matter to them. When you follow the opinions expressed around the ongoing crisis by many who retired after serving in high positions you are sorely dismayed. It is as if they do not even want to pretend that there is a constitution in the country or constitutionally mandated institutions whose job it is to function in a certain manner and in accordance with their constitutional mandate. What can motivate someone who has tasted the salt of the state to do something like that? Ignorance, obscurantism and passion. And who was supposed to shield the citizens from such elemental corrosion? Why the state itself. It is the responsibility of the state to imbue citizens with the desire to use critical thinking and believe in constitutionalism and institutionalism. As I have been shouting atop my voice for a decade and a half now there are no villains here. Only misunderstanding, ignorance and opportunism. But how will the state do this when its own functionaries both current and former allow the polarisation in the society to indoctrinate them? Vicious cycle? Ouroboros? In any case our fate seems sealed.
Let me take you back to the Cambridge Analytica expose by Channel – 4. One CA office-bearer bragged to the channel’s undercover reporters that elections are not won on the basis of the policy debates or rationality but on the basis of emotions. And the strongest of these emotions are fear, anger and hatred. Now these emotions may help you in winning elections and making money but they most certainly can destroy fragile states. Let us hope our state and society or at least the rich and powerful here realise that it is time to restore the proverbial middle ground. If not we are toast.
The writing on the wall is overrated. Do you want more of the same? Endless whining or victory laps? Oh-I-told-you-so, at any rate? More of the shame? Egos driving the political agenda or the policy debates? The endless discussion regarding the glass being half empty […]Farrukh writes
The writing on the wall is overrated. Do you want more of the same? Endless whining or victory laps? Oh-I-told-you-so, at any rate? More of the shame? Egos driving the political agenda or the policy debates? The endless discussion regarding the glass being half empty or full? The writing on the wall is edited, written and deleted, written and updated with the ink of power.
No, if you want things to change you want that which was omitted. That which was deemed inappropriate to be kept on the wall. Why would anyone tell you that the glass whose fullness or emptiness is the subject of all the controversy, does not even exist? Either broken and hidden, pawned and sold, or simply stolen, when you pour more water into this make-believe glass ostensibly to fill it, you in essence are throwing it all away. So, interested in what was kept off of the proverbial wall?
How did we get here? And what is kept on the wall? That another government is about to fall under the weight of its contradictions and that of the system. That this time the departure, if at all, threatens to be messier than usual. And all this goes on our eastern and western borders couldn’t be farther than stable. That no matter who goes and who comes things are unlikely to improve. Somewhere in faint handwriting also that since 1947 the administrative capacity of the executive branch resembles a consistent downward slope and there is no shortcut to improving the situation. That the next budget will be a tough one because the government had expended whatever fiscal space it found on providing the people with short-term relief. And that in Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown there is enough food for thought for Pakistan to convince the country not to even think of putting one toe out of the line mutually agreed with the IMF. And that the absence of recent data on outflows is seriously alarming.
What is missing from the wall is an in-depth explanation of the reasons. The causes we have trained our minds to ignore. The reasons our impatience, egotism, and politics conspire to obscure. The series of bombs planted by our relentless population growth that have been going off since the very inception of this nation eroding our institutional capacity. No matter how pundits underplay our population explosion, the fact remains that the burden on every institution created for the public good has been increasing by leaps and bounds. Take an average class size in public schools. In our school days, the average class strength used to be somewhere around 20-25. A decade later it had climbed up to the mid-forties. Now in many reported cases, it has reached in hundred(s). Likewise in hospitals and other such institutions. No state can be asked to keep ramping up its capacity because the population, in all likelihood, will not stop multiplying.
Our second tragic flaw is our shaky grip on numbers. We do not let verifiable numbers or ascertainable research data come in the way of a seductive if populist policy choices. What we can afford and what we cannot do not matter. Will a said policy proposal have any real traction among the people does not matter either. What matters is the will of the leader. Whatever he says goes. Whatever he or she says is popular. Miscalculations stemming from this insistence lead many governments to their early grave but by then it matters little. The people whose government you wrecked are unlikely to hold you accountable for they are gone. The new ones ask different questions and favours. The wheel is invented again. Until it is too late to learn lessons.
The third problem is our perpetual insecurity. Conservatives the world over are considered an insecure bunch with untrusting, suspicious minds. But liberals everywhere find ways to cut you slack. Granted this is changing rapidly owing to the cancel-culture outbreak but even then liberals are more tolerant. But not in our sweet republic. Here tribalism means severed head of the rival. But the rich are mostly related so there is a mulligan for an estranged cousin. Not for the working class and the poor though. Nah. Ye shall hang for the crime of showing some agency instead of acting like a mindless serf.
The fourth issue is the trust deficit between the federal and provincial governments. This is primarily due to our rather troubling obsession with centralisation and inadequate resource pie. Only sustainable and inclusive long-term growth will enable the country to be just internally and stable externally. Until then we will bicker on the 18th amendment and try resolving disputes by the forced creation of new provinces. Such hard to execute and easily reversible adventures can never be a solution to our problems caused by the absence of a provincial finance commission, powerful local governments, and bicameral legislatures for the federating units where a territorial house ensures the rights of all districts.
Let’s also talk about our intelligentsia, shall we? If you look at the public discourse in the developed world it is dominated by young, dedicated professionals. Not by the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none journalists (generalists) like me, or retired career government officials like many of you. This merit-based discourse might be informed by your and my input because our experiences and knowledge cannot be written off either but its voice will essentially remain predominantly young and prudent. In the absence of such a merit-based system, where exceptions occasionally do surface the majority that fills the void is of the born again revolutionaries devoid of any meaningful insight or regard for the long term interest of the country, adamant on wearing their hearts on their sleeves ready to chop down the hands extended in their support. Often for the sake of ambition.
And finally, the twin crises of patience and critical thinking threaten to seal the fate of this nation. As long as the ruling elite feels obliged to play to the gallery, placate jingoistic sentiments to survive and the yes men around the rulers pretend there is nothing wrong with that, the country is bound to teeter on the brink because real reform then cannot begin. If you want to progress you will have to learn to tolerate the opinions of those who want to speak truth to power. Stop labeling patriots as traitors because then you will also not be able to prove your patriotism.
Also, I don’t know if you are as tired of the demands to pick a side every few months as I am. But somebody should tell these dumdums that that choice was made years ago and that’s why we all are sitting in your boat. Ergo all our sufferings. About time you decide how to bring the boat out of crises.
I see many other things left off of the writing on the wall. But I think this much bitter truth must suffice for now.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2022.
My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation! Where a tradition has been invented – that none shall walk with his head held high If at all one takes a walk, a pilgrimage One must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in pretense and […]Farrukh writes
My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation!
Where a tradition has been invented
– that none shall walk with his head held high
If at all one takes a walk, a pilgrimage
One must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in pretense and stealth
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz
“I said it was crude,” said Dumbledore, who sounded disdainful, even disappointed, as though Voldemort had fallen short of higher standards Dumbledore expected. “The idea, as I am sure you will have gathered, is that your enemy must weaken him – or herself to enter. Once again, Lord Voldemort fails to grasp that there are much more terrible things than physical injury.”
– Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
At the height of the ongoing no-confidence drama, when the government accused the dissidents of accepting inducements worth 20 crores or 200 million rupees a colleague asked me what I made of all this crisis. I told her that politics had never attracted me as a career and I had never even thought of running for public office but all this talk of this much free money was so tempting that it was forcing me to reconsider my position. Mistaking my cruel, acerbic joke for a statement of fact she asked me if the thought of financial gains could ever motivate me to run for public office. I looked into her eyes and barked: almost exclusively. Before we move forward a disclaimer: if you are faint of heart, this piece is not meant for you.
I said a cruel joke because that is exactly what it is. Every person makes promises to ownself at the start of his/her career. I made four. One, never become a willing part of financial corruption. Two, always respect people’s boundaries and never exploit their weaknesses for personal gratification. This includes always honouring our so-called family and professional values. Three, help everyone that you can. Four, anything for the country. It may sound surreal but so far I think I have done a decent job of honouring these four pacts. So it is a cruel joke. Cruel on me, actually.
But what to make of all this din? What do you make of all those pundits who spent the past four years recounting the evils of what they called a hybrid civil-military combine as a threat to democracy and now are content in seeing the civilian side go down with the satisfaction that the two are not on the same page? I make nothing of it. There is a reason why this country is where it is. Mind you I cannot crow about my foresight either. This is what I wrote in this space two weeks before the last elections:
“We will have to address the issues pertaining to the civil-military divide someday. But I am convinced this is not the right time. Let us first conclusively defeat the spectre of terrorism. Also having observed our political masters for the last decade and knowing how little they have done to bridge the civil-military divide, I am looking to find and vote for a leader who can be trusted by both sides, especially our soldiers.” – From “Scars of a patriot” by the author, July 12, 2018.
Mind you on terrorism my views were not very different a week before the 2013 elections when I wrote in this space:
“However, as we gingerly approach the polling day, fear mounts that our counterterrorism agenda may come in direct conflict with the democratic process, as our two major political parties have time and again shown aversion to the war… But the lives of 40,000 martyrs cannot just amount to nothing. Battle-scarred as we are, we cannot afford to become a prisoner of the Stockholm syndrome and end up bonding with our own assailants. War fatigue is one thing but not to notice the existential threat posed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is downright criminal.” – From “A farewell to arms” by the author, dated May 3, 2013.
A journalist must avoid becoming a part of the story. But in the past nine years, especially the past four my resolve to push back against terrorism was severely tested. I found my voice being lost at crucial junctures. I was severely punished whenever I was proven right. Losing jobs, platforms, perks, occasionally basic rights, and as pointed out earlier even voice. After all this, I should have been proudly able to say that my struggle amounts to something. But it doesn’t. That I stand vindicated. But I don’t. There is something about the South Asian soil that refuses to change. Authors from Mustansar Hussain Tarar to Qurratulain Hyder have extensively written on this. Perhaps that is what motivated me to write pieces titled “A case of ‘unevolving’ monkeys” in this space on April 26, 2013 and “The mad who drink their own blood” on December 22, 2011.
Since I didn’t try to keep it a secret many of you must already know that on the 2nd of this month I survived a massive cardiac episode and a part of my heart literally died. As I was lying on the operation table undergoing angioplasty, as is customary, my entire life flashed before my eyes. Did my life amount to anything? Answer: No. Will it amount to anything? Probably not. What becomes of my two daughters? You know what? Since I was blessed with them I have gone out of the way to advocate for women’s rights, in the hope that today I speak out for other people’s daughters tomorrow somebody will for mine too. But do I hope? No.
I feel particularly gratified today because this time I voted with a view to winning the trust of a valiant segment of our society. And now I am told that the reason why this government will go is because of the dissatisfaction of the very same segment. And that happens when we build peace with the terrorists that hunted us for 20 years. Sure. But who will answer for the four years long purity and loyalty tests that we had to go through?
There is a lesson here somewhere dear reader. That if you are in a domain with political or public exposure and you are in it for anything other than the money you are wasting your time. Your life will also be entirely pointless. So, I may soon quit journalism and run for public office. With absolutely correct and realistic motivation. There are those who appreciate love, devotion, and dedication. Others who only see the money. This society belongs to the latter category. Until then I leave you with the following random quotes:
“For 22 years, I’ve lived here. Every morning l take a walk, down this street. Every morning, the street asks me my name… Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here? Do l have a reply? After half a lifetime spent here… this land still remains alien to me, and l to it.” – Opening lines of an Indian movie.
“We can’t even think as to where we want to go
We’re moving forward without a path
We don’t know what we’re searching for
Our hearts are weaving dreams all the time
Time has done such great injustice
You’re no longer you and I’m no longer me” – An Indian song, I am sure you have guessed it.
What? Too much sentimental drama? Tell me you don’t deserve it?
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2022.
Growing up in Pakistan with a hunger for books I found one Pakistani title rather alluring. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s The Myth of Independence has the kind of ring to it that instinctively gets what generations of Pakistani policy pundits have been failing to underscore so succinctly. But […]Farrukh writes
Growing up in Pakistan with a hunger for books I found one Pakistani title rather alluring. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s The Myth of Independence has the kind of ring to it that instinctively gets what generations of Pakistani policy pundits have been failing to underscore so succinctly. But that is where the book’s miracles end. In plain speak, it is yet another uninviting explainer of a politician’s career and choices. A smart politician of course. But a politician, nevertheless. His role in building a relationship with China should be lauded. But that is the extent of his big foreign policy influence.
Every five-six years circumstances bring us to a situation where our leaders or at the very least our pundits are found complaining about our alleged, helpless and hopeless propinquity to the west. The yarn of counterfactuals that then is woven takes us to the lackadaisical journey of make-believe opportunities. But pray, treat all such attempts to reinvent history with extreme prejudice. Second-guessing the past is the most useless of enterprises imaginable because none of us has a time machine to go back and change what was done. And that’s not all. The diplomatic options you were told you had throughout the country’s history, in all likelihood, are lies invented by people like this scribe to make you or your favourite rulers happy. In the realm of foreign policy, Pakistan never had the luxury to choose between blocs. The only freedom of action it had was regarding its own behaviour — competence versus incompetence. The country tried both. When we were competent we did more damage to ourselves. When we were not, the fallout was restricted to the ruling elite. You live in a rough neighborhood. If you have anything valuable, your first responsibility is to draw attention away from it, rather than bragging about it. By being inconspicuous. But I don’t think that is one test our political class can pass. Because there is nothing marketable or sexy in it.
Pakistan is not an unimportant country. With a population of 210 million and endowed with countless resources it can expect to be treated exceptionally. But that has only compounded its problems rather than offering solutions. When your citizens instinctively know that the country is exceptional they expect exceptional results. But then the country’s policymakers know that it is neither the only important, nor the most important country around. For one it is encircled by nations with far older cultures and even more significance. China and India with their over one billion population. Iran with its oil reserves and unique religio-cultural and geographical clout. And Afghanistan, the tip of the spear of every great game played in the region. Some of these neighbours have an unrelenting history of trying to undermine Pakistan. Never a dull moment. Leaders can make clever use of the country’s underutilised dimensions but cannot invent new ones. The variables that define a country’s foreign policy trajectory remain finite, inflexible, and often very limiting. These leaders then often pick and choose between their nation’s relative strengths to leverage foreign relationships and enhance prestige at home. By a remarkable coincidence, Pakistan’s most leveraged feature under every government is its geography and not its people.
Now let us revisit some key myths about Pakistan’s foreign policy choices. First, the Soviet Union invited the first premier of Pakistan to visit but Liaquat Ali Khan chose to visit the US on President Truman’s invitation instead. This story somehow aims to convince us that Pakistan’s elites were so desperate to join the western camp that they openly rejected Moscow’s invitation. But here is a funny thought. There is no record of such an invite neither in Pakistani records nor, to the best of our knowledge in Russia. So what happened? Nehru had already been to the US and Liaquat had not. The report of this invite generated enough interest and shock in Washington to lead to a formal counter-invitation. There is a serious chance that the whole thing was a figment of someone’s overactive imagination, albeit a highly useful figment. Likewise, the country’s entry into SEATO and CENTO came after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, another implausible scheme that feels specifically congealed to endear the country to the western bloc. If it was, it worked. Please do not judge too harshly. A newly born country with little to show for and faced with a powerful if influential adversary, in desperate need of aid, did what it could and I for one am proud of it. Shuja Nawaz in his book Crossed Swords tells us the dilapidated state of military hardware that the country invaded and how a Pak-US military agreement led to a dramatic improvement in the country’s defences. Similarly, the country did not have much choice when faced with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and more recently the US-led war on terror. Today, the ruling party says it did not support the Afghan war. But it was among a few major parties (major now) that publicly supported Gen Musharraf’s referendum that took place after the invasion which amounts to roughly the same thing. I know it because I was aggressively opposed to the invasion at the time and no political parties, not even the religious ones, were truly against the intervention. Twenty years later I can tell you with confidence that the country had no choice.
So today when we hear the promise that Pakistan will not succumb to partisan pressures one fears that those promising this do not even realise what is really wrong with the whole thing. We are conditioned by our circumstances. Our circumstances force us to take sides. Usually, we fear that if we don’t take a position we may lose salience. This fear takes a general to Kabul, a PM to Moscow right when these photo ops could seriously injure the country. In that context, I really wonder what has truly changed.
There are only two reasons why you would be insecure about such things. Fragile economy. And disputes with the neighbours. So, ideally, a truly independent foreign policy would lead you to build peace with all your neighbours in such a fashion that it complements the country’s economy. It matters little who rules these neighbours if it is your national interest that drives the decision. I know it is not easy to make peace with an India ruled by Narendra Modi. But when you establish relations with Russia when Putin is in the middle of invading a sovereign country you are well past moral dilemmas.
Does all of this ring a bell? Geoeconomics over geopolitics? While it is a politician’s job to reach these conclusions independently, in Pakistan it is a man in uniform who reached there first. General Bajwa has delivered a number of public talks so far on the subject. And it all adds up.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2022.
What’s the point? The more you want to fix it the more it all crumbles. You can wake up someone who is sleeping. You cannot rouse someone who is pretending to sleep. You can protect someone who faces an imminent threat of death. How can […]Farrukh writes
What’s the point? The more you want to fix it the more it all crumbles. You can wake up someone who is sleeping. You cannot rouse someone who is pretending to sleep. You can protect someone who faces an imminent threat of death. How can you defend someone who wants to kill himself? The human condition for you in the good year 2022.
In their book The Narrow Corridor, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson quote Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There to introduce you to the term, the Red Queen effect in the following words: In the book, Alice meets and runs a race with the Red Queen. “Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterward, how it was that they began,” but she noticed that even though they both appeared to be running hard, “the trees and the other things round them never seemed to change their places at all: however fast they went they never seemed to pass anything.” Finally, when the Red Queen called a halt, Alice looked around her in great surprise. “Why I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!”
“Of course it is,” said the Queen, “what would you have it?”
“Well in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
What do you do with a world that threatens to blow itself up every five minutes? And then all these crises have this weird The Truman Show-like sensation about them. The world goes to pieces on live television but our camera shot variations capture the spectacles perfectly. After 20 years of relative calm when Kabul falls, the Taliban live footage almost transmits the taste and odour of the desperation and helplessness in the air. The same experience with India’s sudden and heartless lockdown where millions were stranded and had to travel by foot. And now the air of hopelessness in Ukraine.
When recently President Putin delivered his long speech on Ukraine, and Nato, and 1991, shortly afterward he officially recognised the two breakaway territories. As the footage and the pictures of the signing ceremony circulated on social media someone noticed that the watch the Russian president was wearing showed time before the speech. And then started an avalanche of Twitter posts carrying pictures of his Security Council members, all wearing watches that showed a different time. Weird. Did they all wear broken watches? Remind me of another crisis with similar incoherence of time. And the piece se resistance. When the next day (22/2/22) President Biden announced the first tranche of sanctions he concluded his speech and turned back exactly at 2.22 PM the local time. There is some unmistakable hint of historic irony somewhere in there. I mention this because it was being discussed on social media in those days.
But before you join QAnon or some similar cult, here is a simple fact for you. All these sights and sounds are made possible because of technology. The better technology you have the better chances of capturing the sights and sounds of an event. And then there is the matter of the omnipresence of technology. Every smartphone is now equipped with a relatively decent camera. Naturally, you cannot then miss the kind of opportunities that time presents to you. Including some of the most distressing footage like people clinging to and falling from the rescue planes last year. Also, regarding date and time let us remember that they are quantified values we attach to random things and intrinsically these units of time do not have any value of their own. Nor is it the Biden administration’s fault that the year is 2022, the month February and the date happened to be what it was. All they could do was to pick the time and I can imagine the grinning face of a young prankster among the policy circles
Even so, everything that happens seems to want to hurt you. And the cherry on the top: the technology that makes these visual sensations possible seems to be failing to provide mankind with antidotes.
I do share with you these random thoughts because they stand out in daily observation. But then I am always cognizant of the fact that they can easily be weaponised to resemble conspiracy theories. I can only add disclaimers and shrug off. Throughout my working life, people have mercilessly taken and used my ideas without any credit or acknowledgment. Why should I get the blame for the weird stuff when you wouldn’t credit let alone reward me for the good ones that you have taken.
Sharing personal distress about these global events is incredibly difficult in these polarising times. Especially in a region where a sizeable chunk of the population (I can only hope not a majority) by default roots not for Abel the slain but my man Cain. When you do not comport to the predominant view you get marked. The Mark, again, not of Cain but the slain. The most pitiable stigma imaginable.
It worries me a lot, dear readers, to think how this constant reminder of televised cruelty and barbarism will shape the minds of our children. Will it not make it a new normal for them? And what frightens me the most is the lot that can easily rationalise the wholesale disenfranchisement of young women in Afghanistan in the name of realpolitik and national interest. Will they do not the same to our and their children if circumstances brought us to that fork in the road?
The worry continues. The worry to preserve human life. The worry to preserve the difficult status quo, to borrow Galtung’s term, negative peace? With one fault line (Ukraine-Russia) already exploding, what will happen to the other ones that threaten to do the same? Like the ones between China and India, India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, Russia and the West and on?
And then you have the cheerleaders of strongmen to whom moral nuances are meaningless.
We spent an entire cold war under the threat of a nuclear brawl. The leaders of that time did not let it happen. But with hotheads and angry leaders all over the world, we now have those who act on the wild impulses and have fun documenting it all for the viewers. There is a reason why Donald Trump, the reality TV star, got elected to the world’s most powerful post. It is the age designed for reality television. What is life when the Red Queen effect is the end in itself? Why not come to terms with own mortality and be done with it.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2022.
We have read much about the confluence of religion and politics, militancy and politics, and why even military and militancy. But one topic flying under the radar and hovering almost beyond the edge of sight is the collusion between the business class and religion. This […]Farrukh writes
We have read much about the confluence of religion and politics, militancy and politics, and why even military and militancy. But one topic flying under the radar and hovering almost beyond the edge of sight is the collusion between the business class and religion. This might be the most important factor yet to define the contours of our reality.
Have you ever wondered why in every polity where an overwhelming majority is usually moderate bordering on liberal, conservatism keeps winning? Why is it that despite a lot of evidence to prove that the clergy of each nation usually ends up undermining its national interest, states and institutions seem helpless before its onslaught? Need evidence?
Just imagine if a bunch of people with nothing to do with religion, living in a compound mostly built on state-owned land in Islamabad was to declare autonomy, hoist the flag of the country’s known enemies, hold citizens hostage and unleash violence on the streets. How do you think the state would treat it? Needless to say that they would be uprooted and brought to the book in no time. Now, remember we are not judging the state right now. The purpose of these lines is to highlight the paradox we call religious politics in this country. The Red Mosque lot is still relevant despite its showdown with the state a decade and a half ago. Likewise, of the three major sit-ins that paralysed the federal capital two were totally led by religious groups and one partly by one of them. We saw how little resistance they encountered. And in all of this, the sympathies of the vernacular media mostly remained with them. Likewise, the Waco Siege in Texas instantly became a religious right talking point despite mainly being a law enforcement issue.
Bearing in mind countless similar examples from around the world you are compelled to wonder if the game is so rigged that the religious right can never lose. Perhaps it has something to do with how religious identities have shaped over the years in each of these countries. That is one explanation although, as we will see later, not a comprehensive one.
In India, Akshaya Mukul’s brilliant book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India tells us the tale of an affluent Indian trading class vying to assert its identity and driven by devotional sentiment laid the foundation of the country’s religious right. Likewise, during Faizabad dharna, you might have heard accounts of Rawalpindi’s trading class bringing food and supplies to the protesters. But while these examples show you the sympathies among traders for such causes this is not what I mean by the confluence of the religious right and the business interests. These sympathies underscore the symptoms and not the cause. The traders of any country, hailing mostly from the middle class, only represent the dominant narrative instead of setting it. To see who sets the narrative you will have to cast a wider net for the bigger fish.
The regular readers of this space would remember a book I mentioned in one of my pieces. Kurt Andersen, the American writer and the host of the Peabody-winning public radio programme Studio 360, wrote Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. A breathtakingly original tour-de-force, it is a vivid survey of American history that brings key nodal points to light that while making the country unique also contributed to all the ongoing weirdness in the nation today. The use of religion as a grift finds a special mention. Time and again countless men and women conned the unsuspecting, the simpletons, and the gullible out of their wealth. But that too is not the comprehensive explanation we are looking for. A more recent book by the author at least launches you in that direction.
Andersen’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America is less impressive in scope than the previous volume but it instinctively, if unwittingly, touches the nub of the gist of the problem. Instigated by a personal epiphany where the author realised how little the fashion sense had changed between 1987 and 2007 he dove deep into the inner workings of the American economy and re-emerged with one word — nostalgia. Nostalgia not just as the visceral sensation that haunts us all occasionally but the distress caused by the change that compels you to long for a pristine if make-belief past, simpler times, which in turn can be exploited by big businesses.
The radical transformations of the 1960s were too distressing for many. The liberal policies back then were taking America in a more equitable direction when sensing the onset of a cultural shock morphing into nostalgia, the economic right led by Milton Friedman and Lewis Powell pounced. Popular TV series in the 1970s were all set in the 1950s. Nostalgia as a construct led to Reagan’s economic policies resulting in permanent exploitation by the rich and ossification of inequality as an accepted reality of the society. Religious right also banks on guilt, cultural shock, and fear of social change.
In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild does a sterling job of unmasking the unholy alliance between the clergy and corporate greed. So much toxic waste is dumped in Louisiana’s waters that the locals do not eat the red parts of the fish and yet the population remains deeply conservative wedded to the Republican party’s pro-rich policies. How? Through the indoctrination of the right-wing punditry. For the poor the kingdom of heaven, for the rich and the religious elite everything on earth. Collusion to manufacture consent in plain sight.
Then you should not be surprised when you hear about the collusion between Modi’s BJP, Ambanis and Adani. In his recent column, Jawed Naqvi saheb brought up an interesting opposition slogan: “India is ruled by four men from one state. Two are selling the country. The other two are buying it.” All four are from Gujarat and religion is their favourite weapon to addle your brains and manufacture consent. Likewise, why be shocked when you learn that a renowned property tycoon sheltered the Red Mosque people from the consequences of their actions?
In a world where the rich get richer and the poor do not realise that things are being taken from them, religious manipulation works like a charm. And because the rich have money this collusion sets the agenda which eventually envelops the state institutions. Because we all are primed to do what is easy, not what is right.
Let me now break the tension by bringing up a laughable episode of karmic humour. Remember I once mentioned how India under influence of its corporate elite kept pushing for the suspension of patents on Covid vaccines and when it did not get its way conspiracy theories about alleged chips in the vaccines exploded in the world. India is known for its influence campaigns and all of this had Ajit Doval’s fingerprints on them. A few days back a man rammed into Doval’s high-security residence and claimed that he did it because he was being controlled remotely through a chip in his body. Yeah, life comes at you fast. But you haven’t heard the funniest bit. They actually scanned his body for the non-existent chip!
Published in The Express Tribune, February 19th, 2022.
Any noble intention can be twisted, perverted, and weaponised to produce the most troublesome results. Do you need examples? Consider the opposition to the invasion of Iraq. This opposition produced a mass movement across the western world and led to highly publicised million marches. Sadly, […]Farrukh writes
Any noble intention can be twisted, perverted, and weaponised to produce the most troublesome results. Do you need examples? Consider the opposition to the invasion of Iraq. This opposition produced a mass movement across the western world and led to highly publicised million marches. Sadly, this movement could not stop the invasion which would unhinge an America already traumatised by 9/11 and almost Pavlovian conditioning by a highly ambitious political elite trying to capitalise on the paranoia generated by the said attacks to reshape the world. This invasion also broke the Arab world and through refugee crises made Europe highly volatile. It was a Republican president who made this invasion possible. And yet another Republican president honed the invasion-related grievance to demonise his political rivals including many Democrats who never supported the project.
Donald Trump, who originally supported the invasion on the Howard Stern show in 2002, would go on to claim that he opposed it and that it was proof that there was a swamp of dirty politics in Washington that needed to be drained. And who should drain it? Why, he, the Republican candidate, who else?
The conservative forces that supported his candidature from day one were essentially a product of the Tea Party movement, a nominally libertarian resistance to Obama policies which soon acquired highly reactionary and often racist overtones. Libertarianism on its own is a beautiful idea. But in these hands, it was to turn ugly.
When in 2008 Obama won, many of us, tired of the Bush Cheney administration’s endless wars and hunger for opening as many fronts as possible (remember, the axis of evil?) heaved a sigh of relief. The idea was that the newly elected president would close down Gitmo, end the war in Iraq and eventually in Afghanistan and we would return to normalcy. To many like this scribe, his election was incontrovertible evidence that America’s voting public was as wary of these wars and a post-racial society had arrived. But the system made all that nearly impossible. America’s conservative circles often accuse the Democrats of being soft on security. Then the new President was not just black (half black but who would care?) but had Hussein as the middle name.
So he was repeatedly asked to prove his patriotism, toughness in national security-related issues, and above everything else zero tolerance for terrorism which by now thanks to the Bush-era narratives was synonymous with Islam. He bent over backward but even that was not enough for his detractors. As the result of the presidential election was announced word got out that a mournful silence had enveloped the Bagram Airbase.
Bob Woodward in his book Obama’s Wars tells us the impact of the first intelligence briefing on the then President-elect Obama: “When Obama returned, his demeanour was different. He was more reserved, even aggravated. The transition from campaigning to governing — with all its frustrations — was delivering another surprise. His people, the inner circle from the campaign, and the brain trust of Democrats he had carefully assembled to guide his transition, were being excluded. The first customer-elect was going to have to go it alone.”
He had to retain Bush’s defence secretary and most of the security apparatus. Shortly before leaving power, former vice president Cheney said that a hasty withdrawal would destabilise the Arab world and Pakistan. When Obama tried to withdraw forces he had to contend with stiff resistance and snail-paced compliance. In his book Reign of Terror, Spencer Ackerman documents how Trump brought everyone who actively sabotaged Obama’s attempts to control Bush’s unruly War on Terror into his administration. And when the withdrawal from Iraq was complete the entire region exploded as a result of the so-called Arab spring. And today the Iraq invasion carried out by a Republican administration is a Republican talking point and grievance. Remarkable.
Any lessons here? Those responsible for failures often usurp the talking points of their critics and weaponise against them. Governance is a closed model. It takes a while for the criticism to reach the top and by the time it reaches there, those who had hitherto resisted it appropriate it, reshape it to suit their agenda, and put it to use while simultaneously disempowering the real critics. To know why this happens you have to simply look at the cast of characters. From major businesses that profited from the invasion to the public office holders who ended up on the boards of those companies. And allied countries too. Want names? Remember the country Saddam would attack with his missiles? Also, the country that was actively supporting armed resistance against the Taliban before 9/11? Israel and India. While Israel’s main activism stems genuinely from concerns about survival, India’s is driven by ambition to become a superpower. Territorially it wants to absorb all small neighbours and globally it doesn’t mind rising at the cost of its main benefactors.
Speaking of India, here is another interesting example of innocent ideas being hijacked by the wily bunch. Have you seen a movie called Munna Bhai MBBS? The story of an affable goon whose bark is worse than his bite and who in the end wants good things for everyone. Remind you of someone? Why, Narendra Modi’s portrayal in the media and to a lesser extent now of Yogi Adityanath. Any idea can be perverted, you see.
Yet another example. Today, Hindutva politics might be used to terrorise India’s minorities and disenfranchise the lower castes but its proponents try to couch the whole project in the name of decolonisation. Likewise, cow protection values come from Jainism, the world’s most pacifist faith and yet it has been used to kill innocent minorities.
If you want to study the origin of the rhetoric that is unhinging the west today you will need to see the kind of brainpower, money, and effort that is going into it. It seems Democrats in America and liberals everywhere else can’t seem to catch a break. Within minutes their victories turn into dust. Then take note of how dissent has been crushed in the above two countries that were coalition partners in the war on terror. And finally who has access to the western resources. If you are told Russia and China are doing it, it is a bald-faced lie. China doesn’t have access; Russia doesn’t have resources.
The Bush administration’s eight years hardened the security apparatus of allied states. Their intelligence agencies internalised and normalised the visceral hatred of the cultural other, the enemy. Now the tail is wagging the dog. And your antiviruses are programmed not to catch these viruses.
Add to it the rise of billionaires and business executives that have risen in the intervening period. Causes that are close to Elon Musk’s heart from Trucker rally in Canada to reports of ghettoisation of his black workforce. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and its role in the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. If in the face of so much evidence you cannot put two and two together, you are programmed not to notice it and it means the future of mankind is doomed. And even if you do, where is the reset button?
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2022.
As the post-election crisis simmered in the US, a nameless, faceless French programmer (identity withheld by the authorities) decided that the decline of the Western civilisation was inevitable and with his health deteriorating so before ending his life he would send his bitcoin savings to […]Farrukh writes
As the post-election crisis simmered in the US, a nameless, faceless French programmer (identity withheld by the authorities) decided that the decline of the Western civilisation was inevitable and with his health deteriorating so before ending his life he would send his bitcoin savings to far-right pundits like one white-supremacist and holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and several creeps of the same order before ending his life. He posted his death note on his blog which had been dormant since (wait for it) 2014 and killed himself after sending out this money. Fuentes received 13.5 bitcoins (values at a time at approximately USD 250,000). Most of the rest of the 28.15 bitcoins went to 21 other bitcoin wallets owned by other far-right elements. One month later Fuentes would be seen taking an active part in the January 6 insurrection.
The most remarkable thing about this story is that it stinks to the high heavens. For instance one, why is it that authorities are withholding the identity of the far-right donor who is already dead? How many other terror financiers are extended this courtesy. Two, the nature of the original reporting. Research by Chainalysis, a cryptocurrency compliance startup, is referenced in the original Yahoo News story, and the said Yahoo News story is referenced in Chainalysis research. This ouroboros would suggest that certain law enforcement or intelligence agencies are on the trail and revealing this information to the journalist writing the story who in turn takes it to Chainalysis. But why not do it yourself instead of exposing a journalist to potential political consequences. And finally, since this report surfaced in the aftermath of 1/6 the trail seems to have gone cold. Either the intelligence agencies on the trail were too satisfied with the answer or then were too distracted (yeah right) by some factors to follow this through. But wait a minute. You don’t need to read too many spy history books or conspiracy thrillers to know that the whole story seems to be too contrived. A month before 1/6, an ailing computer programmer who incidentally has forgotten to update his blog since 2014 decides to take his life, is overwhelmed by his concerns about the allegedly declining western civilisation, looks into his bitcoin wallet flushed with cryptocurrency, and decides to send money to Nick Fuentes who has never received a donation bigger than two thousand dollars? Okay. The 1/6 commission since then has summoned Fuentes. We haven’t heard if either of the above-mentioned startup or reporter was summoned. The reporter later also filed a story questioning the bona fides of one staff member of the commission from the intelligence community.
The same report also mentioned two other names, malcontents of the same stock. Richard Spencer, the neo-Nazi who will live in infamy for his Heil Trump slogan and salute after the latter’s shock victory. The other name is of Andrew Anglin, the editor of Daily Stormer, an out-and-out neo-Nazi website. Anglin received USD 60,000 worth of bitcoins in 2017 according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both these names are important.
Richard Spencer launched Alt-Right Corporation and the website AltRight.com with the Swedish far-right figure Daniel Friberg. Before joining Spencer, Friberg and his business partner John Morgan established a publishing company called Arktos Media and took their business to India. In India Morgan would convert to Hinduism, live in Hare Krishna Ashram, and help Friberg in making the far-right publishing business successful. All these details have been expunged from their Wikipedia pages but Benjamin Tietelbaum’s book War for Eternity would preserve all of this for posterity. Their four-year stay in India ended in (wait for it) 2014. These names are also linked to other far-right elements like Steve Bannon, Jason Jorjani (a white nationalist of Iranian origin) and Aleksander Dugin.
The Daily Stormer is important because despite being a neo-Nazi website in 2017 it placed Yair Netanyahu, son of the former Israeli PM, in its banner, calling itself his number one fansite. What? A neo-Nazi website/paper a fan of a Jewish premier’s son? Makes no sense, does it? But go back up and look at the year when its editor got $60k. Also 2017. When it comes to neo-Nazis Bibi and his son are a gift that keeps giving. They took steps down this slippery slope in opposition to the billionaire George Soros. But then it morphed into something else. Benjamin Netanyahu’s blaming of the Palestinian grand mufti for the holocaust, his alliance with various Christian Zionists, who want Israel to be fattened as a sacrificial animal to be slaughtered during the rapture and otherwise can’t stand Jews, all speak to what a great gift he was to the racist far right. His policies towards the African Jewish immigrants to Israel also speak of a colour bias. Meanwhile, some of the white nationalists like Jared Taylor, President of the New Century Foundation, now claim to treat the Ashkenazi Jews (European Jewry that looks and sounds white) as whites. Not all neo-Nazis agree though and you can tell it will end in tears.
I do not know to this day whether by the western civilisation Samuel Huntington actually meant only the whites or other colours too because his last book Who are we undermines the idea of a pluralistic western identity and the title of this book sounds eerily similar to William Luther Pierce’s Who we are. Yeah, the author of the Turner Diaries. Pierce’s website is incidentally where I first encountered Savitri Devi’s works, the European Nazi who went to India in search of a caste-based society. What she thinks of all Abrahamic religions will become clear when you read A Warning to the Hindus. She married a Brahmin during her stay in India. Another convert to Hinduism, who jumped on the Huntington train is one Vamadeva Shastri née David Frawley. Read his book Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations to know how this bug got to this lot. Remember a caste-based world order is what the neo-Nazis now want. It requires a major disruption like another world war to bring about these changes.
Castes are important to them. Nothing else can give them an advantage in a fiercely competitive world. Isabel Wilkerson in her brilliant book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents shows how racism is also a form of casteism. She explains how the eight pillars of casteism preserve this linkage. These eight pillars are: 1) divine will and laws of nature, 2) heritability, 3) endogamy, 4) concept of racial pollution, 5) occupational hierarchy, 6) dehumanization & stigma, 7) terror as enforcement and cruelty as means of control, 8) inherent superiority versus Inherent Inferiority.
If all of this doesn’t make it clear to you what awaits you, just read three books. Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit by Manoranjan Byapari and Caste Matters by Suraj Yengde. And of course Turner Diaries. You will be disabused of any delusions.
I highlight 2014 again and again because the invasion of Crimea wasn’t the only thing that happened that year. Modi rose to power in India. And a few months before that Ajit Doval went to Shastra university to pitch for a ten-year rule for the RSS-BJP. And also presented what he called the idea of defensive offence. I have written too much on this. Just look it up and connect all dots.
In my view, if a war between the US and Russia does not materialise then perhaps Iran or North Korea will spark something similar. Constant vigilance is needed.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2022.
Is Russia about to walk into a trap in Ukraine? What are the forces that may want it to invade? Should Russia’s insistence on protecting its sphere of influence be compared to Hitler’s claims on Europe or America’s Monroe Doctrine? And what the consequences of […]Farrukh writes
Is Russia about to walk into a trap in Ukraine? What are the forces that may want it to invade? Should Russia’s insistence on protecting its sphere of influence be compared to Hitler’s claims on Europe or America’s Monroe Doctrine? And what the consequences of an invasion might be? Could it lead to war? Could the resulting sanctions cripple Russia’s economy?
Something about this time reminds you of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the fateful strategic mistake that led him and his country to ruin.
But I think I can do one better. When we want to look for an explanation regarding the rise of the far-right in the west and elsewhere we try to study the second world war. But that was more a consequence of a previous one that broke our world. The first world war known to its contemporaries as the great war unhinged the world, paved the way for the Third Reich and WWII. And if you notice the triggers were quite similar. Back in those days, major armies took a year in mobilising and the war could have been stopped at any time but a copious amount of misunderstandings and miscalculations would give you a war that would break the seals of hell.
You are often told that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Serb terrorists led to the war. But his death was not of that much significance. Owing to his choice in marriage he was a marginalised figure within the royal family. As for the two leaders of the war, Russia and Germany, many still do not pay attention to the fact that their monarchs were cousins and best friends. In fact, their letters written mainly in English addressing each other as Nicky (Czar Nicholas II) and Willy (Kaiser Wilhelm II) are part of the public record. To top it all one must mention another of their cousins, Georgie (British King George V). With that kind of familiarity, the three cousins led Europe to war and its ruin.
The Czar gave up power as a result of unrest and his country would soon withdraw from the war as a result of the Bolshevik revolution. The Kaiser had to abdicate in 1918 and the country remained rudderless until the Nazis took over. Conspiracy theories about the causes of the great war abound. In fact, a 900-page report about the munition industry’s role in starting the war called the Nye Report was presented in the US Congress in 1936.
Wars have consequences. Great wars doubly so. If you look at the annexation of Crimea you will notice that it too was not without consequences. That was more or less the time when far-right politics exploded in Europe, led to Brexit in a year and Trump in two.
This time if an invasion of Ukraine does take place there are clear signs that regardless of the reaction it will lead to a further rise of the far-right all over the world. In fact, if you look at how the far-right pundits like Tucker Carlson are framing the conflict and how it is being misinterpreted by the mainstream pundits. Carlson’s job is not the avoidance of war but only that right-leaning America does not take part. Why you ask? Because when the liberals and moderates have exhausted their energies and their goodwill in an avoidable conflict, the far-right can pick up the pieces and shape America and Europe after its own image. Liberal pundits call Tucker a Russian stooge. But he might be much more than that. And the habit of the western intelligence community of blaming Putin for everything wrong speaks more to their flawed programming that has its roots in the war on terror and Huntington’s clash of civilisations thesis.
If you haven’t noticed it yet the far right is playing four-dimensional chess with the established institutions of the world. The resources needed for such a grand campaign go beyond anything that Russia’s economy could furnish. There are richer countries that could do that. Countries that are allies of the west have unfettered access to western resources. And now a Nazi bent of mind. And allegedly a spiritual connection with the west’s closed spiritual cultures.
Only a couple of days before India’s republic day its government did something unthinkable. It extinguished the eternal flame commemorating India’s unknown soldiers and replaced it with the statue of Subash Chandra Bose, an Indian freedom fighter who raised his own army, allied with the Axis powers, contributed Indian legion to the Nazi forces, and died an untimely death. This statue was a signal that India now was what the RSS-BJP wanted it to become — a Hindu Rashtra and not a modern republic. India’s war heroes would later be referred to by a retired Gen Bakshi as mercenaries. When people pointed to Bose’s tragic choices they were told that he was bigger than these choices. That might be true. People are more complicated than their choices. But the reason why a BJP government chose his statue is down to the exact same choices. There is a pattern of the BJP lionising such individuals in history. For example, Sardar Patel’s tall statue is there because of his Islamophobia. Godse is celebrated because he killed Gandhi. And on.
In my previous pieces I have already highlighted the contributions one Maximianaximiani Julia Portas known to India and western Neo-Nazis as Savitri Devi Mukherji through her links to Savarkar and the Hindutva thought. Recently she has been called Hitler’s Priestess because she believed that Hitler was an avatar of Vishnu. Her works are now contributing to the esoteric Nazism. She came to India because she thought that all humans should not be treated equally and India’s casteism had the world figured out. Through various linkages like these, the upper caste Hindutva Indians believe that they can find their place in a Nazi world capitalising on the Aryan myth. Putin and his detractors are all being egged on by their vessels like Aleksander Dugin and Steve Bannon. Fourth Reich then is just waiting to be born.
Another tell. You can see India’s shadow in the anti-vax campaign around the world as well. For a while, it sought suspension of vaccine patents. When that was not to be anti-vax propaganda exploded in the world. India’s current government also came to power in 2014.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2022.
What makes someone or something great? A work is great if it takes the civilisation a step forward (genuine, innovative work) or if it is a bestseller? If originality, innovation, and progress were the standards for greatness then Socrates wouldn’t have to drink poison hemlock, […]Farrukh writes
What makes someone or something great? A work is great if it takes the civilisation a step forward (genuine, innovative work) or if it is a bestseller? If originality, innovation, and progress were the standards for greatness then Socrates wouldn’t have to drink poison hemlock, Galileo wouldn’t have been blinded, Van Gogh wouldn’t have to kill himself in anonymity, or the Muslim scientists you want to cherish today wouldn’t have been treated as pariahs by the society in their own time. Bestseller then?
And that’s the other thing about the word greatness. It forces you to believe in absolutes. Was Gandhi great? To the world he is. I like to believe he died fighting for Pakistan’s rights. He already had enough traction upon his return from South Africa to compel Tagore to give him the title of Mahatma (great soul). But did you know that the Mahatma did not subscribe to the germ theory and that is why when his wife was on her death bed stricken with pneumonia and doctors told him that a shot of penicillin could save her, he forbade them. Their children begged him to relent but instead, he asked them to be content with holy chants. Ring a bell? He, on the other hand, allowed doctors to save his life with quinine when he was suffering from malaria.
A character made great by way of demonisation is Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last governor-general of India. But when it comes to greatness he was neither here nor there. A bumbling, failing character out of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, with an emphasis on pride in whiteness and close association with Hitler sympathiser King Edward VIII, the uncle of the incumbent queen, who was forced to abdicate. His wife Edwina, again demonised for her romantic escapades, was a better, caring human being. In fact, she was so competent and caring that had she been the governor-general instead of her nincompoop husband probably millions would not have died during the partition. But a woman, right?
Likewise a question about Churchill. Was he great? He saved the world’s bacon from Nazis, didn’t he? So definitely great. But was he good or evil? Depends on whom you ask. The world loves him, India hates him and he and the Mahatma (two greats of history) hated each other’s guts.
Moral of the story so far: people and ideas are complicated and it is bad to approach anything with prejudice or preconceived notions. Please bear in mind that words or ideas like state, society, politics, civilisation, and economy all are constructs put together by ordinary people like this scribe, whose job it is to look for the best ideas for your consumption.
That is precisely why I have made a habit of not approaching an idea with prejudice. Nor do I judge a book by its cover. That is a courtesy usually reserved for the elements like me who at times are accused of growing cowardice with age or giving in to expediency. But that is a cross for the ahle safa, mardood-e-haram, to bear and I for one would wear it with pride while simultaneously offering to volunteer for a polygraph test to prove that I believe in what I preach.
I learned the lesson of shunning all preconceived notions from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s book Ghubar-e-Khatir. In one letter he tells us that his father was opposed to all worldly knowledge because it could lead him astray, away from the faith. Maulana tells us that in the face of repression he did not stop and kept studying. He admits that momentarily he lost faith as a consequence, and says people choose to give up in one of these stages but he did not and eventually he regained faith, and it was his earned faith. I envy everyone who is too sure of himself or herself because I don’t think this world is made for such certainties. No, this life was meant for a never-ending quest, the journey being its own reward. That is why people who want to see meaning in history from Hegel, Marx and why the best one of them all, Habermas, all talk of exchange of ideas, dialectics so to speak.
Approaching without prejudice becomes very difficult in this day and age because everything is steeped in tribalism and you are pressured to choose sides. Renowned psychologist and writer Steven Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. While the title says it all, it was a bold assertion based on the author’s study of historical evidence. But an equally brilliant book by a noted anthropologist and a gifted archeologist titled Dawn of Everything does not just seek to pulverise the central thesis of his book that the emergence of a hierarchical society and a strong state brought peace to our world but bulldozes Rousseau’s soft justifications for a state and Hobbes’ hard ones through a unique take on history. So not just the future but the past too is in contention. When unnerved by such uncertainties I return to people whose work I know and trust. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, for instance, out with another book titled The Narrow Corridor. I love their candor when they assert that liberties are not given but won through struggles. A granular, inspiring work.
Approaching without prejudice is important because we have two instructive examples in our neck of the woods. Maududi, who never went to a seminary and approached the study of the Quran with his own preconceived political notions. Resultantly he ended up interpreting everything politically. You have to read Maulana Wahiduddin’s Tabeer ki Ghalti (just google it) to learn about the damage done here. I had to read his Tafheem, cover to cover for a fourth time to spot the issues after this. And the other, Syed Qutb, the one who went to the UK without any homework about the host country and received a cultural shock so immense that he ended up radicalising generations through his work and Ikhwan ul Muslimin. If you read Wahiduddin you may find he furnishes plenty of evidence that the approach of Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) to amr-bil-maroof-wa-nahi-anil-munkar was individual, not collective, missionary, and inspirational not primarily political. The problem with combining politics and religion through the state is that it invariably hurts religion. Because a state’s approach to everything is utilitarian. An example is of this damage is evident in the Mu’tazila crisis. If it had prevailed, the caliph of the time would have been seeking to amend the Holy Book. Also, a state’s sprawling bureaucracy usually acts as a regressive element, either carrying orders too literally or then seeking rent for selfish gain. Individuality on the other hand is proven by tradition. To seek forgiveness all a Muslim has to do is to turn to God and neither to a cleric or the state to buy indulgences, for God and God alone is the ultimate arbiter of vice and virtue. It should be a state’s job to shelter its citizen from fear, want, disease, exploitation, and ignorance. And that’s about it. It is an article of the Muslim faith that the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was guided directly by God and today’s states are not because of the conclusion of the apostolic tradition.
That said I promise I will keep an open mind for stronger arguments and better ideas.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2022.
The butter versus gun debate has become a perennial part of our national discourse. It was bound to be. The country has faced external existential threats since its inception. No matter what spin India tries to put on its machinations the truth remains that its […]Farrukh writes
The butter versus gun debate has become a perennial part of our national discourse. It was bound to be. The country has faced external existential threats since its inception. No matter what spin India tries to put on its machinations the truth remains that its intervention was instrumental in the fall of East Pakistan. And that was the least of its posturing. Today India’s rulers openly vow to isolate Pakistan in the international arena and the head of the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the ruling party, daily predicts that the Pakistani territories would soon become part of India (Akhand Bharat, if you please). I don’t get this obsession with trying to occupy a sovereign country. Usually, countries that seek to gain territory try to do justice to the people already under their control first. Unlikely to happen anytime soon. But if this is not textbook revisionism I don’t what else is.
This month the butter versus guns debate has acquired new importance for two reasons. The government has finally managed to get the Finance (Supplementary) Bill, 2021, and the State Bank of Pakistan (Amendment) Bill, 2021 passed in the National Assembly. The opposition claims that the bill ensuring the central bank’s autonomy compromises the country’s sovereignty. That is a likely story. The last we checked the SBP was headed by a Pakistani national. I am loath to this particular brand of parochialism that seeks to cast aspersions on the integrity of a perfectly patriotic citizen. Those who question Dr Reza Baqir’s loyalty to the country because he served at the International Monetary Fund should be ashamed of themselves and should look up Dr Raghuram Rajan, one of the best governors of India’s Reserve Bank who served as the Fund’s Chief Economist and Director of Research between 2003 and 2006. Sound technocrats do not fall from the sky. They work and a job is just another job but this should never be used to question their loyalty to their motherland. Let’s do something new. Let’s put faith in people and see if they ever disappoint you.
The second reason why this debate has acquired importance is the adoption of the country’s first National Security Policy. Dr Moeed Yusuf is the country’s fifth National Security Advisor that I questioned more than once about a national security document. While his predecessors were also thorough professionals none could give me a satisfying answer or a definite date for the formalisation of such a policy. From this, I deduced that either there was systemic resistance or that the governmental machinery’s many moving parts were failing to align at the same time. It was only the incumbent who promised that the government was on it. And finally, we see the fruits of his labour. We have finally managed to find a doer, a closer.
And guess what? Dr Yusuf’s loyalty to the country was also questioned when he assumed office. Some went to the extent of calling him a foreign national. I have seen many countries grappling with a critical pundit class but I have seldom seen or heard such toxic punditry where loyal citizens of the country are disowned based on insinuations, hearsay, or egotistical likes and dislikes. In fact, something deserves to be said about the pundits of this country too.
As the abovementioned two bills were being voted on news emerged of a tiff among the ruling party’s higher echelons. Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattak had expressed his displeasure over gas prices and the lack of gas availability in the province. Then guess what happened. It was as if Christmas had arrived early and our pundits flocked to the TV screens and reminded you that their predictions about the end of the current political dispensation were coming true. What I particularly find almost physically painful dear readers is the savage pleasure this lot, nay this rot, takes in the prospect of an elected government’s fall. I know it is not your first rodeo and you vividly recall the previous cycles. When the PPP was in power, you could be forgiven for thinking that this breed of primarily Punjab and Karachi-based hypergeniuses was brought up on the invective and a healthy distrust of all things Bhutto. When the PML-N was ruling you could deduce that this party was brought back to power after a long exile resulting from a military coup. Ergo the apprehensions were systemic if not endemic. But what is the excuse this time? You and I were lectured ad nauseam for decades for allegedly lacking the fundamental patriotic fibre because we were late to support the Khan train. And now that their promised Valhalla has arrived why are they the first ones to jump the ship? I have seen many vices in nations but never an intellectual class that is so hopelessly wired to undermine the idea of democracy. Lest you forget free press and civil societies are functions of democracy and the former two cannot hope to survive without the latter being buttressed. Two explanations present themselves. One, the God complex. We alone know what is good for you and if you put one toe out of line you be damned. Two, naked ambition. Most pundits you see on television are prospective federal ministers. So, when they are not picked (and I dare you to earn their ire by picking one of them, leaving others baying for your blood), they want to derail the system. Let us invent a third and a charitable one. In their infinite wisdom, these pundits have been trying to sell their idea of national security and that’s why they do this. Milking guns so to speak. Too bad then that half-way through their security paradigms magical creatures start appearing, chittering birds hold extensive though instructive human-like dialogues, genies present themselves, pitched battles take place on flying carpets, end of times lay everything to waste and donning blue turbans they work themselves into such a frenzy that watching from your living room you fear that they would soon shatter the TV screens, step out to choke you into submission.
Given such benightedness, you needed a national security policy. As long as everyone has their own, reductive interpretation of national security it is easy to undermine every institution, every good intention. Working as a blockchain this document will ensure that interpreters do not drift too far away from the agreed-upon path. Seen through this prism the said national security policy is a coup de grace against the forces of anarchy and chaos. Hopefully, it will put an end to the dimwitted industry of milking guns. So do not expect the pundits to come welcoming this development. Just feel grateful that the state sees what you see now, that without a sustainable economy no aspect of national security can be safe. This nation is bound for greatness. When you get there, spare a moment for the men and women who allowed their souls to be crushed by this disgraceful insanity, constant questioning of their loyalty, and the disgusting whispering campaigns to take you there.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2022.
27 December 2021: The People’s Party is organising the anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Sindh. In the past fourteen years, the event has become an established occasion of the show of force by her party and her next of kin. […]Farrukh writes
27 December 2021: The People’s Party is organising the anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Sindh. In the past fourteen years, the event has become an established occasion of the show of force by her party and her next of kin. Media on this day instinctively knows not to draw attention away from it. But this time at least one news channel cuts away from the coverage of a rather important breaking news. Maryam Nawaz has just tweeted what Benazir Bhutto meant to her. When on top of the hour the news bulletin begins it leads not with the reports from Garhi Khuda Bakhsh but with Maryam Nawaz’s tweet. This by the way is the news network that finds a mention in Ms Nawaz’s Jayi Thayi media management audio leak beside one of the most controversial media houses in the country. No one asks you to judge the community of journalists, pundits and media owners by any principled standards. Judge them by the standards of simple common sense, at least.
January 5, 2022: The Director-General Inter-Services Public Relations holds the first media briefing of the year. It looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy that on this day of Kashmiri significance the journalists present would ask him to comment on the rumours about the alleged second coming (or is it tenth) of Nawaz Sharif through a secret deal. The DG rebuts the rumours and asks the media to demand evidence from the rumour mongers. Then in a heroic segue, a journalist asks him about the possibility of the army chief’s extension. Sigh.
In case you are wondering, these rumours are important because these days they alone pass the gold standard of ace punditry and journalism in the country. I am sure that the defence beat reporters present there were encouraged by their media houses to ask these questions. Because then the answers are used in the prime time talk shows to shore up ratings. But spare a moment to think about the genesis of these rumours and what kind of lethargic and intellectually bankrupt effort went into them. Ready?
In a country that has seen four military coups, the matters pertaining to transfers and postings are given more importance than they might deserve. Recently the country’s punditry worked itself into a tizzy when a notification regarding the appointment of the new Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence failed to materialise quickly in line with a press release issued by the ISPR. The subsequent statements by various federal ministers would indicate the presence of a communication gap, misgivings or even tensions. But only in our punditry’s Bollywood addled brain, this would automatically lead to one of three scenarios: a military coup, an in-house change through palace intrigue or a secret deal with one of the major opposition parties. You can rule out the first two because the first would require some extraordinary defiance of the myriad regional exigencies and the second some supernatural level of shift in the number game in the parliament. So what’s left? A deal with a major opposition player? Ok, but which one? Hey, how about the folks I met the other day who were nice and cozy and enjoy exceptional rapport with the media house that employs me. Right? So, a secret deal it is. Don’t worry. The story will grow in the telling. Every group has various political sympathisers within its ranks. They will help embellish the story. And even if it doesn’t pan out, I will say something funny and move on.
Sure. Except that this kind of media speculation can make a pig’s breakfast of governance in the country like it has for the past fourteen years of the resumption of the political order in the country. Remember that fine 2010 evening in Islamabad when speculative media reports claiming that the then People’s Party government was about to withdraw the notification reinstating the judges deposed by General Musharraf led to an exceptional late night full court session of the Supreme Court which could easily bring an end to the democratic process. This time too, these speculations took attention away from Kashmir and Afghanistan, the two very serious unfolding humanitarian crises and to a dud invented by the punditry whose imagination oscillates around access and privilege. When this happens some very smart, professional and respected senior journalists eventually fall prey to this charade too because tribalism forces them to.
Want proof of the tribalistic pudding? Double back and go through this piece again. At no point in this discussion did this scribe suggest that no tension existed along the civil-military divide. Nor that it could never lead to disruption. Or that everything was now hunky-dory. If you thought it was suggested it is because your mind is conditioned by tribalism to project the most simplistic interpretation onto every analysis. If this writer is not agreeing with the notion he must be against it. No. I cannot do that either because of two facts. One, frictions are built into our system owning to our unique historical experience. Two, there is not enough data to build a case one way or the other. This is not an AP Creative Writing class and I would rather deal with facts than misguide you just to prove that I am in the know.
But I can share a few pointers with you based strictly on my personal experiences and deductive reasoning. One, if a disruption comes it will start in Punjab. If you thought the PML-N was in any state to work out a deal it would have already brought down the Punjab government. Its internal divides render it incapable of doing that. That doesn’t mean that disruption cannot still materialise. Just do not count on the PML-N to play any part.
Two, with the change in the Balochistan government the next logical step for the former CM was to be elevated to the federal cabinet. Likewise, in the current international scenario, the Governor in Lahore could play a far more important role at the Centre. But because the country’s punditry has no brain cells left to pay heed to these two gentlemen no one is paying attention to the potential advantages.
Three, if a disruption were to take place at the Centre it wouldn’t result in a political dispensation but a technocratic one. Not good for any political party.
Four, about extensions and appointment of the next army chief. First, if an extension is under consideration at all, it will be a short one. The Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act of 2020 imposes an age limit. The maximum age is 64. Gen Bajwa turns 62 by the end of his current term. So a one- to two-year extension is the extent of it if you do not want to reinvent the wheel. And what happens if that extension is neither sought nor given? Here is another extrapolation. Don’t convince yourself that you know who the next chief might be. If you think you know the name, please note that that fact alone makes it an unlikely choice. Nothing local or political here. This post is not meant for domestic consumption.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2022.
Happy new year, dear readers. Or whatever helps you sleep at night. If I were to look for a phrase to encapsulate my thoughts about this year changing business, I would have to borrow another phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five apart from the title of this piece […]Farrukh writes
Happy new year, dear readers. Or whatever helps you sleep at night. If I were to look for a phrase to encapsulate my thoughts about this year changing business, I would have to borrow another phrase from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five apart from the title of this piece that comes directly from the book. And that phrase is — unstuck in time. Let me elaborate.
It feels like only yesterday when as a child one would contravene the bedtime restrictions to experience the onset of the new year. What a time it was! Potential revolutions lurked in every nook and cranny. A world full of endless possibilities. From that to this. The revolution of the other kind. The one that the bullocks at the outdated waterwheel wells (rehat) experience as they go round and round in circles and believe it is progress. Unstuck in time.
As the first morning of the year, 2022 dawns and these lines reach you, you cannot possibly fail to appreciate the insanity of our times. The civilisation is ambushed by a deadly disease that refuses to go away. And the reason why Covid is still around is down to just one fact. Our sheer stupidity as a collective. Our best and brightest came up with a whole host of vaccines in record time. The rich and the powerful came together to make it free for most of us. These variants will not stop coming until we all are vaccinated. All we had to do was to receive the gift of life. And what did we do? We let certifiable idiots like Alex Jones and opportunists like Tucker Carlson lead us astray. The world’s richest man Elon Musk and most successful podcaster Joe Rogan helped because they are helpless before their man-child egos. And the leaders of the most powerful nations would rather fight wars than work in tandem, the minimum need of the hour. So it goes.
The collapse of a 20-year nation-building project in Afghanistan is recent news. But approval rating shock that it generated in the west, particularly in the US, makes it almost impossible for the administrations to pay attention to the hungry children sitting in tents in Afghanistan’s subzero temperatures. And why just blame them. Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. Last month representatives of 57 member nations of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation met in Islamabad. Non-Muslim countries also sent their representatives. Speeches were made. At the start, Pakistan made a valiant effort to underscore the fact that apart from the humanitarian aid Afghanistan’s collapsing economy needed a way to revive its almost dead banking sector. Western nations had already made significant pledges. But there was no way to transfer that money except for the sake of basic subsistence. Never mind the collecting method what was needed was a delivery mechanism. In their infinite wisdom these 57 nations, some of them very wealthy, announced that they will open a trust fund (charity collection account) in Jeddah based Islamic Development Bank. This bank account will be made operational anytime between today (1st of January) and the end of the first quarter of 2022. Most likely exactly after winters. No news of any significant financial pledges reached this scribe. And what about the delivery mechanism? We will cross the bridge when we come to it. That is after a substantial amount has been collected. And before you cut the nose to spite the face pay attention to this disclaimer: these are my raw thoughts alone and have nothing to do with the thinking of the Pakistani state or its functionaries. What? Non-Muslim western nations look like angels already? And so it goes.
And this pesky little phrase ‘so it goes’ that has undoubtedly begun to annoy you, particularly if you have not read the aforementioned book, also needs some explaining before it drives you away. The expression comes from German “So geht’s” which when accompanied with a fatalistic shrug means ‘that’s life’. In the novel, it represents the alien Tralfamadorian philosophy. The Tralfamadorians are four-dimensional beings which means they can discern time like we can perceive the three dimensions known to us. So they can see all moments of our existence at once, from birth to death. Viewed in that context death is only one sad part of the epic adventure called life.
What captures the true essence of our times where humanity faces existential challenges daily, human ingenuity heroically offers astonishing solutions and yet mankind scoffs at these benefactors and walks into the embrace of certain death? A recent Netflix film called Don’t Look Up. This star-studded flick is a satire on the inanity of the human race and the human condition today. Two scientists detect a nine-kilometre large comet hurtling towards earth with the ninety-seven point something probability of an extinction-level event. And what is humanity’s response? Politicians act like politicians, businessmen like businessmen, media like media and we, the people, like whatever we have become. A total madhouse. You have to watch this movie to know what a delight it is.
This after all is a great time for the film and the television industry. Strange time too. When the usual mediums may stop to operate like we have known them, both television and cinemas as they have functioned so far. They may work more as a few conduits available but not as the main emblems of the underlying systems they once represented. Their whole industries supplanted by streaming mobile apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max and Disney Plus. And yet these businesses bring with them endless financing opportunities, next level cutting edge technology and no medium restrictions. A storyteller’s dream come true. But so it goes.
The above-mentioned movie does a great job of representing the problems we face today but what is the solution. I found one great book that lays bare the problem and then seeks to provide solutions. Our problem after all is that things are falling apart because people keep losing faith in established institutions. And that is because wrong people keep getting important jobs. Political scientist Brian Klaas has written a brilliant book titled Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us. This exceptionally well-resourced book tells you how people with what it calls dark triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) find their way to power and unhinge our world. The solution is simple. Sift them out and attract the right kind of people with empathy and the right motivations to these jobs. It might be too late but at least we are getting somewhere with this book. I highly recommend you read this book because it is the start of a new year and I don’t want you to get stranded with me, unstuck in time. Happy reading.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2022
A piece that appears on the 25th of December and addresses neither the birth of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Quaid-e-Azam or the great leader to us) nor Christmas seems to be a waste of space. But here is the thing. It’s been 145 years since the […]Farrukh writes
A piece that appears on the 25th of December and addresses neither the birth of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Quaid-e-Azam or the great leader to us) nor Christmas seems to be a waste of space. But here is the thing. It’s been 145 years since the Quaid’s birth, slightly over 74 since he created this homeland, and slightly over 73 since he passed. In these years voluminous books have been written on his life. Throughout my life, I have read works after works interpreting and often misinterpreting, quoting and often misquoting him. The worst form of mental lethargy is reserved for the writers who try to project their own views onto him. For the religious right, he is a staunch cleric without a beard, to liberals he is the epitome of social liberalism and progressive outlook. Sadly what it amounts to is a trial in absentia. Human lives are complicated. Our words and choices cannot be divorced from the lives we live and vice versa. Must we use his name for this moral cop-out? Any attempt to reduce the founder of the nation to a ventriloquist’s charge does not seem very becoming. The man gave you a nation. Its well-being and progress is your responsibility, not otherwise. So I fail to understand what I can contribute to the discussion, except that a father’s memory is best preserved through our accomplishments and happiness. Let’s try to do that then.
The problem is further complicated when you talk about Christmas. Christianity has been around for over two millennia. What can I possibly contribute to this discussion either except telling you that I have always loved the festivity and the merriment of the day? When it comes to celebrating religious holidays nobody does it better than our brethren in the west. Let us then wish everyone merry Christmas and happy birthday of the Quaid and move on.
There is a pressing issue at hand. That of the timeline we live in. When we take a look at our collective ordeals of recent years two elements stand out. The glum environment which brings to us one shock after another. And man’s undefeated spirit. The classic setting for a brilliant novel. Many of us made peace with the darkness of George W Bush’s eight years in office and his wars the day President Barack Obama got elected. It was proof that the world we lived in was not beyond repair. But even though we were not paying attention the lingering undercurrents did not go away. In 2015 we got a rude awakening. As he ran his campaign, Donald Trump was reopening all old wounds. Clashes between nations and faiths, anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments, weaknesses of globalisation and to our sheer panic and embarrassment the so-called race relations. Since then a debate has been quietly raging among the intellectual circles about the nature of our dystopia. Which one is it? There is near consensus among scholars that study the craft that no two authors have given us more perfect dystopias than George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. While the former speaks of a highly repressed autocracy with a stratified society and suppression of information, the latter of a world given to the deliberate infantilisation of the human race through overindulgence and honing of information as a distraction. Writing a long time ago both could not foresee the pace of technological advancement (the title of Orwell’s book is a dead giveaway), but technology as a weapon and society being manipulated by it are the common threads.
Before we allow the debate about technology to distract us, it is time for some dishonourable mentions. For years I have told you that I blame Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis, his appropriation of Toynbee’s reductive definition of civilisation and then the weaponisation of the term for the mess we are in and have been for the past two decades. The methodology was simple. Identify the depressed identities of the time with nostalgia about a pristine past, throw the bait in the shape of attention and predictions of their rise and then sit back to see them going at it making your words self-fulfilling prophecies. Classic demand and supply relationship. You demand. We supply. For the Muslims of the world clamouring for a political identity since even before the fall of the Ottoman Empire this was fait accompli. For China struggling with the ghost of the century of shame, it was a callback to a past that transcended the immediate socialist experience. His construct of Judeo-Christian civilisation proved less tenable as is evident from his own work, Who are we, where he almost manages to reduce the American identity to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But Trump’s allies mostly call themselves the defenders of the Judeo-Christian civilisation. Even notorious Proud Boys call themselves the ‘western chauvinists’. One who knows how hate cultures function could not be surprised when the word Judeo was surgically removed from the equation. India also chose that moment to start embracing the BJP’s Hindutva ideology.
I must confess I was not paying attention when I held Huntington solely responsible for this propaganda. He surely wasn’t pretending to obscure the source of it all after all. I must say my assessment of Arnold Toynbee was coloured by two books. Mukhtar Masood’s Awaz-e-dost that showers him with high praise and his own 12 volume Study of History. The latter takes you to such granular details of history that you stop paying attention to the author’s biases. It wasn’t until I read his Civilization on Trial that I realised that he was the source of the problem. As a historiographer, he believes in the inevitability of such clashes.
That brings us back to the question of the Huxley vs Orwell debate. So, which one are we living in? One or both? As long as you think there are multiple irreconcilable entities poised to clash you can have both. After all, doesn’t QAnon in the west remind you of Huxley? And does the fact that a Chinese citizen on the street cannot even recognise the picture of the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square fame not remind you of Orwell? There is only one country where both Huxley and Orwell have been deployed rather successfully. In India. Orwell for the minorities and the poor. And Huxley for the majority and the affluent.
But rather than picking one dystopia or the other, I think I can do better. Technological advances cannot be stopped, nor pandemics or other shocks to the system. But whether we live in a dystopia or not depends on whether we are capable of learning from the mistakes of the past two decades. The great power relationship will be the key. If the only superpower (America) and the three great powers (China, Russia, Europe) learn to work in tandem and identities like Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jewish people and others can find a way to coexist in peace we will never be reduced to a dystopia. Otherwise take Huxley, Orwell, add some Margaret Atwood, Ayn Rand and some. And that would be the least of our worries.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2021.
In the American cult classic TV series Arrested Development one major character is Maeby Fünke. While the complexity of the role played by Alia Shawkat goes beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say she is this very resourceful child of a dysfunctional marriage in […]Farrukh writes
In the American cult classic TV series Arrested Development one major character is Maeby Fünke. While the complexity of the role played by Alia Shawkat goes beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say she is this very resourceful child of a dysfunctional marriage in an extremely dysfunctional family who does often ridiculous and occasionally awesome things to get her parents’ attention but they are so self-involved and wrapped-up in their failing fantasy worlds that all her attempts fail abysmally. Whenever she is mentioned that is to use her as a prop to settle arguments. Now substitute names. Let us assume Maeby represents the people of Pakistan, her parents the elite of the country and let’s assume that Arrested Development is Pakistan. And let’s talk about Pakistan’s suicide problem.
Recently, you must have come across one or two reports about suicides by people tired of unemployment or poverty. There is a good chance that you did not see the actual reports but were forced to look them up because a politician or influencer brought them up in a talk or on social media. Usually, these mentions occur when someone tries to use them to make a political point about how bad things are right now or how badly the economy is being managed. Such mentions reinforce my utter and total contempt for the political tribalism in the country. Over the years my contempt for this particular tribalism has grown so intense that I often am forced to think that we might have reached a point beyond redemption. Consider this. A broken shell of a man or woman committed suicide and with zero insights into his suffering or trials, you saw this story and took to the podium to use it against your political opponents. If there is a more heartless example of political point-scoring then I am not aware of it. Well, perhaps the use of the stories about poverty forcing people to sell and kill their children. But all is grist that comes to this mill. Fünkes and Maeby, see!
But this political swashbuckling obscures a grim reality. That Pakistan has a persistent suicide problem that has continued unabated year after year and under every government. If our politicians and influencers were not so eager to use this sorry state for political ends they could perhaps make themselves useful. These bully pulpits could go a long way in averting such tragedies. But why would anyone care? As long as there are suicides and the media frames them in equally blasé fashion you will never run out of political ammunition. If these words sound too mean to you please note that they are so intended. The only other explanation is ignorance in which case these people neither deserve to be politicians nor influencers.
Let’s hold a mirror up to a society that withdraws all its support to the ones going through a crisis. I know a lot about this because of two reasons. First, many people I know and care about have taken their lives. Many others have at least tried once. And don’t even get me started on how many have seriously thought about killing themselves. Second, as someone who has struggled with manic depression his whole life and who managed to improvise creative ways to combat this problem at an early age, I can tell you that seeking help or a basic diagnosis is not a cakewalk. In my case, a shrink friend, much later, acted on an impulse and invited me over for an assessment. Half the time the person going through the ordeal is not even aware of the condition. And in this society real experts seldom bother to advertise in newspapers or television. Usually, quacks do. You have to put in a lot of effort and expose your vulnerabilities to seek legitimate help.
So back to the societal response. It is not as if people with suicidal ideation keep everything secret. Remember, suicide is the last desperate act. Before that, there are plenty of signs that a person is sinking deeper and deeper into desperation. The person in crisis calls attention to their suffering. What is the response? Abandonment, withdrawal and avoidance. If you know someone who eventually took their life, can’t you remember what you did when they brought their problems to you? You most likely found a way to escape the room and stayed clear of their company. When someone goes through hell their friends, colleagues and usual support system, all retreat to one side and wait for the worst to happen. Once the person is dead, there comes the outpouring of shock, disbelief and affection. In many cases, even that doesn’t happen.
It is difficult to obtain substantive data. In the absence of annual local reports with credible data, you have to rely on the WHO’s reports. There is a stigma attached to suicide cases. The same clerics who took fifteen years to declare suicide bombing haram and even often glorified it refuse to lead funeral prayers if they learn that the dead person died by suicide. Despite featuring some shocking numbers the Wikipedia page on the subject is woefully out of date. The closest I came to finding an authentic work on the subject is a year-old survey piece titled “Pakistan’s silent suicide problem” by Atika Rehman and Jahanzaib Haque in Dawn. If there are other well-researched works they have failed to call attention to them.
I first thought of this piece when certain influencers started tweeting out reckless comments about a man who killed himself in a mall a few weeks back. But the real trigger that necessitated it was a report that appeared in New York Times last week titled “Where the Despairing Log On, and Learn Ways to Die” and a subsequent Twitter Space hosted by tech journalism savant Kara Swisher which I chanced upon. The story reveals a network of websites that are actively assisting their audience comprising mostly very young users in committing suicide. In this age of acceleration, the cases of hopelessness and despair keep mounting and thanks to global connectivity these ideas spread across national boundaries like wildfire. Back in our youth only banned books were there for the purpose. Now, these websites soon morph into phone apps and then can reach everyone in their native language. Now consider a country where there is no critical infrastructure for mental health, no national suicide prevention helpline, precious little avenues for counselling or help and an elite that is blissfully oblivious to the threat. Welcome to our arrested development.
The country’s leaders, politicians and influencers can play an important role. In the past few years, I have seen the miracles of their clout. When the PM talks about our obsession with the English language I see pieces being written on that. When he calls Priyantha Kumara’s murder shameful, I see even most conservative folks using the exact same words. When opposition leaders use a new derogatory term for the government within minutes it is on many lips. These powerful people could easily inform their followers to value their own lives and of others and in case we are lucky to one day have a national suicide prevention helpline give out the number.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 18th, 2021.
India’s first Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat perished in a helicopter crash along with 12 others a few days ago. I have already publicly offered my condolences. His sudden departure has given birth to a host of questions, some about the future of his […]Farrukh writes
India’s first Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat perished in a helicopter crash along with 12 others a few days ago. I have already publicly offered my condolences. His sudden departure has given birth to a host of questions, some about the future of his newly minted offices, some about the overall direction of the country’s defence policy. But for now, the South Asian media is obsessed with something that it has no qualification, capacity, or knowledge to assess — about the crash.
The Russian-made MI-17 V5 might be a widely used reliable workhorse with advanced avionics on board, but it is a chopper nevertheless prone to the same vulnerabilities as any other. Just go to its Wikipedia page and read the section titled “accidents and notable incidents”. You will find a long list of crashes since 2000 and since 2008 often more than once each year. A tri-service inquiry has been ordered by the government. An overkill, in my humble view. Why? Well, let’s see how the Indian Navy’s expertise proves useful in probing Tamil Nadu’s topography. But even with such a high powered announcement, the drip drip drip of speculations, insinuations and conspiracy theories has continued. Sadly under Modi, the Indian mainstream media has become a one-trick pony and so divorced from facts that it cannot help it. That’s why I have argued for long that instead of betting on the prophets of ignorance if you invest time and energy in fair-minded professionals you may find them being fair to you as well. But then the late general liked this kind of ‘journalism’.
In fact in one such talk shows Brahma Chellaney, an otherwise sane analyst, first drew a parallel between this crash and the one that killed Taiwan’s Chief of General Staff Shen Yi Ming in January 2020 and then blurted out that he did not mean there was a link. One wonders what else he could have meant. This from an academic who is trained to deal with facts. But despite his insinuations, there is hardly any comparison between the two incidents. Gen Yi-ming was travelling on a Black Hawk, investigations revealed weather-related oversight, and senior officials were sacked as a consequence. Gen Rawat was travelling on a Mi-17 V5 and the above-mentioned open-source Wikipedia article will tell you of 50 such accidents in the past two decades.
But I agree with one sentiment. General Rawat did not need to be on this flight. Had the incumbent Indian government adhered to the established norms and merit system in the matters of military promotions he would never have become the army chief. Before his elevation, the seniority principle was a well-established tradition in such appointments. Rawat was not the senior most official. Likewise, the office that was invented to keep him in uniform (and some improvised uniform it was) would not have existed had he not become a willing pawn in Doval’s game to undermine the very institution that made him. Ergo, no need for this travel.
Please, do not take these accusations lightly. I am aware that he was a sword of honour recipient at the military academy, son of a general, and a decorated soldier. But that is precisely why his ambitions and subsequent betrayal are so bizarre and inexplicable. These days you hear a lot about his efforts for jointness and theaterisation but the fact is that he politicised these concepts too by waiting for the end of his COAS term to get elevated to this post and not letting someone else take this position. In 2019 he helped the incumbents return to power through the Balakot PR blitz. Once they carried the election he was rewarded for his complacency with the ToRs for the new office tailor-made for him. Do you think I am exaggerating? Well, in the Indian army the age of superannuation for a four-star general is 62 or the end of a three-year term. For him, the age for the CDS office was extended to 65 because he waited for the date of his retirement, and of course, the aftermath of elections, to get elevated to the new office. His new office was used to compel the three service chiefs to get with the Hindutva programme. To do this he was also made the Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister, the Secretary heading the Department of Military Affairs, and the Military Advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. The Department of Military Affairs deserves your attention. It was another office created just for him. By virtue of being the secretary he controlled the purse strings of the three services ensuring their complacency. I can understand extensions in a country like Pakistan where less than fifteen years ago there was a president in uniform. But in India where pundits never stop bragging about civilian supremacy, I do not get this.
But the real betrayal was his role in perpetuating a political order that constantly undermined the secular character of his forces. The RSS had unfettered access to military units under his command. That is not all. I cannot begin to imagine what the Muslim, Sikh, and Christian service members must have felt when they saw their relatives, a few even Indian war veterans no less, being told in Assam that they were not Indian citizens or the broad day murder of Muslims in the federal capital or protesting farmers being called Khalistani. There is no doubt in my mind that had it not been for these two gents — Rawat and Doval — Modi could not win in 2019. Take a bow.
Through his machinations in Myanmar, across LoC especially during the Balakot episode and later on the China India border he showed he would do anything to stay in the limelight. People close to him claimed he had a secret plan to eventually make peace with Pakistan. If true he was too late and took those plans to the grave.
I would have called him the first political general but that notorious title goes to another vindictive predecessor of his, one General VK Singh, who colluded with the BJP and became a junior minister just because he could not get his desired corner plot upon retirement.
While the Indian media will tell you that his replacement will soon be announced, I don’t think there is any enthusiasm in any of the three services for the job. The old dictum — if it ain’t broke don’t fix it — sounds true here. What his office was trying to accelerate was an evolutionary process spanning decades. And as it turns out not even for the right reasons. Upon reaching the end of his tenure he would either have continued as the Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs to manufacture consent or been elevated to Rajnath’s job. In any case, members of Modi’s security team do not retire, they die. Consider Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar and Sushma Swaraj. The fact is had it not for his ambitions and betrayals, Gen Rawat would have been alive today, enjoying the perks of retirement. And perhaps the service that made him would have been less overstretched or distressed.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2021.
Two menaces keep devouring Pakistan. The egotism of the elite and polarisation of the masses. Egotism because it is the epitome of classism which invariably brings you back to the precipice. In its very essence, it is the most egregiously dogmatic and exaggerated view of […]Farrukh writes
Two menaces keep devouring Pakistan. The egotism of the elite and polarisation of the masses. Egotism because it is the epitome of classism which invariably brings you back to the precipice. In its very essence, it is the most egregiously dogmatic and exaggerated view of your own or your class’s abilities. I alone know what is good for you, it shouts out. Polarisation because it now threatens individuality and free thought. You may think that people are bothered about the issues that make or break their lives. Some are but not enough to do something about it. The rest, use the wrong lens to see things. That of superstition. South Asian states abdicated the responsibility of shaping the minds of their citizens on any rational lines a long while ago. Those glorious examples of high achievers assuming powerful positions around the world are outliers and exist in spite of these policies not because of them.
Back to egotism. Let me lay out a few rather quirky anecdotes for you to sample. To show what our people think it means to be a part of the elite.
Two and a half decades ago the Quaid-e-Azam University was a much different place. Less populated, overwhelmingly green and free of the higgledy-piggledy pigeonholing that passes for buildings and structures. Its main library was truly a shrine to the goddess of knowledge. This shrine was often populated by two species of students. A carefree minority out to explore the vicissitudes of romance and a majority that wanted to pass the entry tests of the Central Superior Services (CSS), the escalator that takes you to the upper-class life.
I don’t recall his name but there was this senior who had been attempting to clear the CSS exams for years. One day we learned that he had exhausted all chances and had now appeared in the Punjab Public Commission test. He got through and became a policeman. One day a breathless junior interrupted our long-winded debate at Majid’s hut. Something funny was going on and without wasting any time we must come and see it.
When we reached the university’s periphery we noticed that the inspector saheb, as everyone would call him later, had returned in a white Alto and had decided to walk around the campus. Our gentleman was attired in a starched-to-death white shalwar kameez and them pointy handcrafted khussas. Although he was accompanied by a uniformed cop, this subordinate was walking behind him carrying the cage of his pet partridge. The occasional crackle of his handheld wireless set piercing the silence around him seemed to attest to the inspector’s belief that he had arrived. Today’s lads call it peacocking. But this unvarnished projection of the feudal spirit taught me something. To arrive in Pakistan means the ability to control even subjugate other human beings.
Ostentation in the beloved country merits a separate piece. In my school days, the Urdu curriculum used to feature a story by Chaudhary Afzal Haq titled Ek Punjabi Zamindar Ki Kahani i.e. the tale of a Punjabi landowner. It was a true cautionary tale of how ostentation and the desire to seek the approval of the extended family drives a young couple into bankruptcy, is abandoned by the same family in tough times, and rescued only by hard work and manual labour. That it is no longer taught in schools does not obscure the fact that ostentation and the tyranny of the extended family are still pertinent issues.
Back to egotism which is perhaps one of the most underreported but important factors in our politics and officialdom. You will be surprised how many ACRs (annual confidential reports — for evaluation) and subsequently, careers are ruined for absolutely insane reasons like a junior officer’s failure to greet a visiting senior, standing in respect, vacating his seat, or oh wait for this one, the crime of offering three fingers instead of entire palm for the handshake. It has also been a common occurrence in politics for ages. Ministers during various governments lost their privileges, powers, and even office just because they failed the ultimate test of fealty called sycophancy. Please don’t read it as an example of the above but it is too good an anecdote to omit. Iqbal Akhund in his book Trial and Error recalls an interesting day during Benazir Bhutto’s first term. The then PM was concerned about the alleged insubordination of her cabinet members. “Arriving at a cabinet meeting one morning, members found before each seat a paperback copy of a book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People, by one Dale Carnegie”. Go figure.
Tribalism and polarisation in a society where all egotistical leaders and why, even intellectuals demand total conformity, stymies critical thought and imagination. Each individual’s knowledge and experience wires his/her mental circuitry uniquely. You fail the test of individuality if you totally and blindly endorse another’s worldview. But with every passing day, anything less than a hundred per cent conformity is deemed not good enough. In my book, if someone agrees with more than fifty per cent of your views and does not run after you with a pitchfork and a torch qualifies as like-minded enough to be a potential ally. Time and again the expectation of total conformity creeps into the institutional culture and often enough manifests itself in the attitude of the state. Why do you think past allies, even surrogates, so quickly become personas non grata? If fairness, honesty, and agreement with the broader principles were the standard to gauge a person’s utility no one would lose allies so rapidly.
Why is it important right now? Because these twin menaces have already destroyed the fruits of the past twenty years’ worth of evolution. The system’s crash has only just begun and no one can say with certainty when it will end. But our egotism and tribalism have already ruined the gains over the past years. Without prejudice let me remind you that the constant drip drip drip of accusations against the institution of judiciary undermines its image and consequently ability to dispense justice. It hurts the efforts to vanquish terrorist organisations like the TTP which have devised their parallel quasi-justice systems. Through these means, politicians may manage to get some public relief in cases which they lost in courts, but permanently damage the platforms that guarantee their constitutional role. You may win battles but will most certainly lose the war. Similarly the parliament and the media. You set out to dismantle the system but will end up irreparably damaging the state. In five thousand years, South Asia has not produced one noteworthy revolution. And no one likes evolution either. Even if a dramatic shift comes it will be for far different reasons than you think and will only benefit the clergy, not you. Try to learn from the experiences of your three immediate neighbours.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 4th, 2021.
Muslims can preempt this by doubling down on assimilation Reminder: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on December 7, 2015: Remember the poll numbers. So, listen. Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s […]Farrukh writes
Muslims can preempt this by doubling down on assimilation
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on December 7, 2015: Remember the poll numbers. So, listen. Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. (Applause). We have no choice. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. Most recently, a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing 25 percent of those polled agreed that violence against Americans — these are people that are here, by the way, people here, 25 — not 1 percent. By the way, one percent is unacceptable, 25 percent of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as part — think of that, as part of the global Jihad. (Crowd booing). They want to change your religion. I don’t think so. Not going to happen. As part of the global Jihad, and 51 percent of those polled agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Sharia. You know what Sharia is. (Crowd booing). Fifty-one percent. Sharia authorizes and look, this is — I mean, it’s terrible. Sharia authorizes such atrocities as murder against nonbelievers who won’t convert. Beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women. I mean, you look, especially women.
Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on March 26, 2016: Center For Security Policy — Founded in 1988 by former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney, Jr, The Center for Security Policy (CSP) has gone from a respected hawkish think tank focused on foreign affairs to a conspiracy-oriented mouthpiece for the growing anti-Muslim movement in the United States. Extremist Group Info: SPLC Designated Hate Group.
BBC report titled “India Hindu group prays for Donald Trump win” dated May 12, 2016: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has gained some unlikely fans — including a right-wing Hindu group in India. Members of the Hindu Sena held a prayer in support of Mr Trump winning the US presidential election. The little-known group said they supported Mr Trump “because he is hope for humanity against Islamic terror”. Mr Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the US — drawing widespread criticism at home and abroad. He has also advocated killing the families of terrorists.
President Trump addresses the ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad on February 24, 2020, as the crowd chants “Modi Modi”: Everybody loves him, but I will tell you this: He’s very tough. (Laughs) (Applause)… Prime Minister Modi, you are not just the pride of Gujarat — you are living proof that with hard work and devotion, Indians can accomplish anything — (applause) — anything at all, anything they want. (Applause).
Deep background — Wikipedia (as archived on November 26, 2021) — Entry title — The Truth: Gujarat 2002: The Truth: Gujarat 2002 (also called Operation Kalank) was an investigative report on the 2002 Gujarat riots published by India’s Tehelka news magazine in its 7 November 2007 issue. The video footage was screened by the news channel Aaj Tak. The report, based on a six-month-long investigation and involving video sting operations, stated that the violence was made possible by the support of the state police and the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi for the perpetrators.
The Guardian headline on February 25, 2020: Delhi rocked by deadly protests during Donald Trump’s India visit.
The New Indian Express dated February 27: Hindu Sena members march in Gurugram, raise ‘goli maro‘ (shoot them) slogans (against Muslims, dissidents).
The Atlantic piece by Mira Kamdar titled “What Happened in Delhi Was a Pogrom” dated February 29, 2020: India’s ruling party will allow nothing to stand in the way of its Hindu-nationalist agenda.
Let’s turn a page.
The Guardian story titled “Anger at Netanyahu claim Palestinian grand mufti inspired Holocaust” dated October 21, 2015: In his speech, Netanyahu purported to describe a meeting between Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler in November 1941. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine]’.” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”… The comments in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem… were condemned by historians and the Israeli opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, for trivialising the Holocaust.
Haaretz‘s piece by Robert Zaretsky titled “Eric Zemmour Isn’t France’s Donald Trump. He’s Far Worse” dated October 21, 2021: Take, for example, “grand replacement”. Coined by the extreme rightwing thinker Renaud Camus, the term distills the conspiracy theory that, with the connivance of a cosmopolitan and urban elite, the nation’s original population is being replaced with non-white peoples. Obsessed by this notion, Zemmour points to the case of Seine-Saint-Denis. This Parisian borough, “long the historical heart of France, where the tombs of our kings are located”, is becoming a “Muslim enclave subject to the rule of Allah”.
Narrator: Zemmour, by the way, himself a Sephardic Jew, also believes that the Nazi puppet Vichy government in France was lenient towards the French Jewry as ‘only’ 10 percent of them were sent to their certain death. This revisionist history in Netanyahu’s case, and his, seems meant to appease the western far-right that includes the swelling ranks of neo-Nazis and make Muslims a joint target. But it seldom works that way.
Commentary: Where did it all begin? 9/11? Huntington? Somewhere, somehow Muslims (even the most pacifist ones) became the bad guys. A threat at worst, an assimilation problem at best. 9/11 led to the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. The Iraq invasion unhinged the region as we saw during the Arab Spring. This led to the emergence of ISIL. A civil war in Syria ensued displacing millions. Over 1.3 million sought refuge in Europe. As many of them reached Greece in 2015, right in the middle of its economic crisis, anti-immigrant sentiment reared its ugly head in Europe. This would lead to the far right’s rise in Europe and Trump’s triumph in the US. Only two western allies had firm far-right governments before this crisis: Modi in India and Netanyahu in Israel.
Trump was quick on the uptake and soon ended the war on ISIL with the claim of victory. The 2018 National Defense Strategy even stated, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” But after he departed from the White House the US-backed Afghan government collapsed and the Belarus-Poland border refugee crisis emerged. It is starting again. Muslims around the world will feel the heat. It all starts with the Muslims and ends with the rise in antisemitism and the attack on the US Capitol. Muslims can preempt this by doubling down on assimilation and building robust bonds with other minorities like the Jewish community and also the democratic institutions. Meanwhile, people in Muslim countries need to think of coreligionists elsewhere and be more flexible. Identity politics is overrated, survival is of paramount importance.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2021.
It is the 20th of November. If you look out the window you may notice that heavens have not fallen nor hell frozen over. Today marks Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s 37th death anniversary. While he is gone his work, name, and legacy live on. But pundits seldom have […]Farrukh writes
It is the 20th of November. If you look out the window you may notice that heavens have not fallen nor hell frozen over. Today marks Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s 37th death anniversary. While he is gone his work, name, and legacy live on. But pundits seldom have time to pay homage to legendary poets.
On the 18th of this month, Tahreek e Labbaik Pakistan’s young leader Saad Rizvi was released from the government’s custody. Many of us have previously vented about the ease with which now-not-so-proscribed TLP extracts concessions from the state every time it marches on Islamabad. But in view of fierce debates about its origin, I feel that many unanswered questions deserve to be asked.
To many of you, the Faizabad sit-in is decidedly the first introduction to the TLP and its founder Khadim Rizvi. It was the moment when many first came to recognise its street power, particularly once the police had unsuccessfully attempted to uproot the sit-in. A two-bench Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Musheer Alam took a sua sponte notice of the incident and later released a detailed verdict. Given that the verdict was lauded by the moderate and liberal factions of the civil society it is difficult to point out three critical flaws in this document. For instance, the bench does not dwell on how the TLP procession traveled from Lahore to Faizabad without facing any impediments or police resistance. It also does not question the choice of Faizabad as the venue of the sit-in through the administrative lens. And then it seeks the financial data from the ISI which should have been sought from the FBR and the State Bank of Pakistan. When the agency’s representative submitted this, the bench spent a lot of time examining the mandate of the agency instead. Did it seek the given data from the concerned departments mentioned above eventually? We are not told.
A lot of this owes itself to the perception that the ISI had a hand behind the sit-in. But the three shortcomings mentioned above are critical to understanding the phenomenon itself. The travel area covered by the protesters between Lahore and Islamabad falls under the jurisdiction of the Punjab government’s home ministry. The administrative significance of Faizabad is that it is the first interchange beyond the jurisdiction of Rawalpindi, a city part of Punjab. The sources of the TLP funding are important because at the time of the dispersal of the protesters the state of Pakistan had to offer them nominal travel expenses. This crowd left Lahore and traveled to Islamabad without being accosted by the Punjab police and staged its sit-in right outside its jurisdiction and without a significant amount of money traceable through banking transactions.
Let me remind the readers that the PML-N was in power in Punjab and formed the government at the Centre again despite being weakened by the Panama Papers’ judgment. These days we interpret all of this in the light of the alleged differences between the houses of Nawaz and Shahbaz. But this late realisation deflects attention from a myriad of nuances and a rather remarkable cast of characters. The home minister of the province at the time was Rana Sanaullah. He had returned to this office after being removed to investigate his alleged role in the Model Town shootout. He was brought back to the position after his immediate predecessor Shuja Khanzada was assassinated by terrorists.
Now, there is a persistent habit to view Rana as an inextricable part of Shahbaz Sharif’s posse. But the days following the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif showed how he is his own man. When Shahbaz Sharif was nominated to succeed Nawaz and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi after getting elected to the National Assembly, Rana stayed quiet. Sources close to him claimed that he expected to be nominated the next chief minister of Punjab. However, when it became clear that consensus had emerged in support of Hamza Sharif he issued a statement. Shahbaz should not leave Punjab so close to the election. And Shahbaz decided not to go. Just like that.
But the story of the TLP did not start or end with the Faizabad sit-in. You first notice the TLP’s founder at the mammoth funeral ceremony of Mumtaz Qadri and the protests that followed his hanging. Policeman Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for murdering Governor Salman Taseer while he was on duty to protect him. Taseer was accused of blasphemy for meeting Aasia Bibi, an incarcerated Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and supporting her acquittal. That much you remember. And what about things before that?
Taseer, a businessman, media owner, and PPP stalwart, became an immediate target of hate when he was included in General Musharraf’s caretaker cabinet as commerce minister. After being appointed he went out of the way to support Musharraf. This was the heyday of the lawyers’ movement. On May 15, 2008, Musharraf appointed him as governor of the Punjab province. Yousuf Raza Gilani, the then PM, maintains that instead of consulting him the former president only informed him of this decision during a phone call.
The PML-N’s animus against the man hit a crescendo when after Musharraf’s departure President Zardari decided to retain him as the governor and following a court decision disqualifying Sharif brothers, governor’s rule was imposed in Punjab. This led to a long march with Nawaz Sharif and Aitzaz Ahsan in the lead culminating in the reinstatement of the judges deposed under the PCO and eventually to the end of the governor’s rule and restoration of the PML-N government in Punjab. In the meantime, a segment of the mainstream media continued a campaign against Taseer. When a police officer and a student walked out on the governor during two ceremonies it was the main lead in the news bulletins. Even after the end of the governor’s rule, the animus did not go away. So much so that on the day of Taseer’s death a significant portion of ‘Qadri tujhay salam’ text messages that reached this scribe was from the PML-N supporters. Many of their leaders still call him a hero.
There are unanswered questions regarding this episode. Find their answers and you may find out how the TLP came into being. Was Qadri a part of Taseer’s regular detail? If not who decided to bring him in? Were his views on the governor well-known and if not why was he not vetted? Who recommended the Aasia Bibi meeting to Taseer? Why did late Justice (retd) Khawaja Sharif, a judge accused of being allied to the PML-N, decide to be Qadri’s defence counsel? Why do all controversies take you to Faisalabad’s Ghantaghar?
We don’t know about this because our pundits filter out crucial details. No one goes out of the way looking for answers to difficult questions. Recently, when the TLP was marching again a day before the recent deal, a high-powered media briefing took place. I can tell you with confidence that at no point was a negotiated settlement ruled out as an option. But our pundit friends only shared the whispers of an impending clampdown. ‘Jaw jaw’ was reported, ‘talk talk’ omitted. And then they mistake mitigation for collusion.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 20th, 2021.
Tribalism in Pakistani political discourse obscures a wide array of dynamics that play a disproportionately bigger role in our daily lives. And yet you will hardly ever hear political pundits comment on them. That is precisely why blind tribalism is such a stupid thing. Instead […]Farrukh writes
Tribalism in Pakistani political discourse obscures a wide array of dynamics that play a disproportionately bigger role in our daily lives. And yet you will hardly ever hear political pundits comment on them. That is precisely why blind tribalism is such a stupid thing. Instead of allowing scholarship to evolve organically, it sends you on an expedition to hunt for the facts that provide succor to your tribal worldview. An interesting case in point is of the perennial question: who rules Pakistan? If you are a Marxist-Leninist you may end up talking about the robber barons or a few dozen privileged families. If you are a supporter of that harsh mistress called civilian supremacy, you may point to the history of our troubled civil-military relations and claim that the army rules the country. And if you are the country’s most hated enemy, a ‘khooni liberal’ or a ‘laa-deen secular’ you may like to point to the state capture by a motley crowd of religious clerics. I do not dispute any of this. There is enough circumstantial evidence to substantiate all of these claims. But all these explanations merely scratch the surface. How deeper are you allowed to dig?
As any journalist who has worked his way up from the grassroots will tell you, the real power dwells in institutions that your minds instantly overlook. The real power vests in the country’s highly disciplined bureaucracy. I know your social conditioning or programming is compelling you to snort out loud in derision and stop reading but hear me out. When Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as the prime minister during the Panama Papers trial, for four days there was no chief executive or cabinet in the country. In such a situation power returns to the largely symbolic office of the head of the state. The president at that time, late Mamnoon Hussain, was a meek man. His health did not allow him to stay on his feet for more than 15 minutes. His concentration span was very short and he, at best, had a nodding acquaintance with the matters of governance. In short, he could hardly be accused of running the show. And yet functioning of the governmental machinery continued without a hitch. So, who was running it all? Army? Intelligence? Nope. Bureaucracy. To be more precise, the principal secretary to the prime minister, always a career bureaucrat. Need more evidence? In his time General Musharraf could not take a step without the assistance of his old buddy and bureaucrat Tariq Aziz. Similarly, Yousuf Raza Gilani’s dependence on Nargis Sethi is well documented. Politicians and military dictators can pretend to wield all the power, but only civil servants know how to fire up the engine of governance and shift gears.
Since the inherent tribalism programs you to ignore this important nuance, you are unlikely to notice how many attempts to restructure the civil services have failed in this country. If you want to know how perennial these issues are just read a 1974 paper titled ‘The Pakistan Bureaucracy: Two Views’ authored by Lawrence Ziring and Robert LaPorte, Jr. It is available on the JStor. Do not let the optimistic tone of the authors beguile you. The Bhutto government did institute some administrative changes. But scrutiny of the text reveals that the cultural aspects of power like ‘status distance’ precepts inherited from the colonial era and esprit de corps never went away. Iqbal Akhund’s ‘Trial and Error’ also sheds light on how this juggernaut practically took the mickey out of an ebullient and ambitious Benazir Bhutto. No wonder then that the National Reconstruction Bureau under STH Naqvi and later Daniyal Aziz, the Planning Commission under Nadeem-ul-Haq, and then Ahsan Iqbal and the institutional reform cell under Ishrat Hussain all failed. Recently, when I asked a retired senior government servant with the granular knowledge of these issues to explain to me what was driving the low-intensity insurgency put up by the country’s powerful bureaucracy he did not dillydally. I found no mention of the NAB, judicial activism, aggressive media, or pay structure. Instead, he pointed to the Imran Khan government’s unprecedented decision to appoint Arbab Shahzad, an accomplished but retired civil servant, as the adviser on the establishment. The establishment division is the human resource arm of the government of Pakistan. Usually ceremonially headed by the PM as the minister in charge it is actually run by the Establishment Secretary, a senior career civil servant, who single-handedly decides the transfer and postings of officials up to the 20th grade and seeks only ceremonial approval by the PM’s office. The decision to install a political appointee (go figure) as the adviser in charge was viewed as unnecessary interference in the bureaucracy’s domain.
Another remarkable example is of Daniyal Aziz. Lt Gen (retd) STH Naqvi was not a politician and consequently soon disappeared from the scene. Daniyal Aziz succeeded him as the chairman of the NRB when parliamentary democracy was restored in the country. As its head, he staked his career in support of the local governments meant to supplant the district management group of the civil service. In a short span of time, he was shunted out of the system. A morose Aziz sat outside the parliament for five years. When he returned to the system it was to be in the shape of his new party’s yesman and chief troll, and not the scholar with an incredible degree of domain knowledge he had become. And still, where is he now?
If you are an aspiring politician or a student of power, I highly recommend you watch every single episode of the British political comedy series “Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister”. I don’t think any cultural product has ever come this close to epitomising mimicking the Pakistani power structure. Likewise, if you pick up any biography written by a retired civil servant (regardless of his/her seniority), you will find it more substantive, illuminating and entertaining than most of the Pakistani politicians combined.
I am a practical man. I do not believe in revolutions or dramatic transformations. Reform is a multi-generational process. Whatever works today cannot just be dismantled. And let us be honest. Pakistan is blessed with countless highly gifted civil servants. But letting your tribalism and predetermined worldview cloud your understanding of real power dynamics only obstructs the natural evolution of institutions as all stakeholders stumble in the dark instead of engaging with them in a meaningful way.
From the discussions above I drew three conclusions. As the episode of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification illustrates, the office of the chief executive is a merely ceremonial one. It exists not to exercise power but to draw attention away from it. Two, never mess with the bureaucracy. Three, stop pretending that you can reform something that you have no capacity to. Reforms will come but neither on your watch nor at your instigation.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2021.
“Dialogue is useless”. Did you know Charlie Chaplin barely escaped an assassination attempt by sheer dumb luck? No, it is neither revisionist history nor any form of alleged Mandela effect. It is called the May 15 incident. Look it up. For the readers in a […]Farrukh writes
“Dialogue is useless”. Did you know Charlie Chaplin barely escaped an assassination attempt by sheer dumb luck? No, it is neither revisionist history nor any form of alleged Mandela effect. It is called the May 15 incident. Look it up.
For the readers in a hurry here is the gist of it. Chaplin was on a three-week tour in Japan at the invitation of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. The promotion of his 1931 film City Lights was an added benefit. Since the film was silent it had quickly transcended the cultural boundaries. On the 15th he was to attend a reception by the Prime Minister, but the PM’s son offered to take him to watch a sumo wrestling match before the main event. Chaplin went along. And while they sat watching the match, the Prime Minister’s residence was attacked by young naval officers and he was shot by eleven men. These men wanted to kill Chaplin to start a war with the United States. The dying premier’s words were, “If I could speak you would understand”. To this one of these men replied, “Dialogue is useless”.
These were tumultuous days and ultranationalists were seeking to overthrow the political order. In 1933 another naval pilot plotted to bomb the Japanese parliament and the prime minister’s residence. The reason why I brought up the ‘Chaplin plot’ is to draw your attention to the motives of the plotters. To start a war with the US. The argument went that the resulting anxiety in Japan would lead to the ‘restoration’ in the name of the emperor. Strange logic right? But the plotters would get their heart’s desire in slightly over a decade when the bombing of Pearl Harbour led to a direct military conflict between the two countries.
Wars have perverted logic and lives of their own. Once started you never know when and how they would end. In Japan’s case, it ended with the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nation’s surrender. Despite so many warnings from history, there seems to be no dearth of fanatics who want more wars.
Do you want to see how the idea of war warps some minds? Here is an example. During the 2019 Pakistan India standoff, when the Indian PM was hell bent on using a conflict to shore up his muscular image to win an election, and the world looked on with bated breath fearing this could lead to a nuclear conflict, a piece in a western publication caught my attention. The author had argued that a limited nuclear conflict between the two countries could set off a chain reaction which would in the end result in…. wait for it … a reprieve from climate change. So what if it would kill 125 million. Hey, this is for the greater good, right? Last year, an article in Nature magazine told us that scientists routinely study the cons and even pros of such conflicts. I can understand the scientific need to explore and weigh all outcomes of a potential conflict. But that while the two countries are rapidly climbing the escalatory ladder publishing such a story seems like saying, “hey buddies won’t you be a good sport and kill 125 million of your own so that the rest of us can live.”
There is a reason why you are reading all of this. For a recent television debate, I wanted to see how international media was covering the Ladakh standoff between India and China. When I looked it up on YouTube I was surprised to see a never-ending stream of shows and television discussions on the matter by Indian channels. As I decided to go down this rabbit hole I was surprised to see some of the content out there was literally ‘out there’. How could pundits of any country want war(s) so badly? Have they not heard of nuclear mutual assured destruction? But then it occurred to me. This wasn’t audience-driven content. When your media wants to placate the ruling elite, its business model is inverted and demand is manufactured, content induced. LK Advani, the BJP’s co-founder, once had this to say about the Indian media (and presumably punditry): They were only asked to bend, they chose to crawl.
But India is not alone in this. Talk to your own pundits and they, very self-assuredly, tell you that the US has decided to fight China and in this conflict, India is going to be its proxy in the region. Interrogate them further and some of them even have an entire timeline worked out. In 2023 India and Pakistan will go to war. In 2024 China will invade Taiwan. And then we have a world war after that. I am sorry but did Nostradamus telephone you personally?
The problem is that nothing is set in stone. That the world we live in is out of its depth grappling with a plethora of unknown and unforeseen variables. How can anyone be so sure of the future of any organising principle among nations of the world then? Social Sciences are awfully imperfect. Why? Because they seek to generalise human and social behaviour.
Just see how nearly infinite variables counteract in social realms. Why is it that Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunis sparks the Arab Spring, but a similar suicide in Iran by 38-year-old Ruhollah Parazideh or identical suicides in Pakistan do not have any impact? Today every pundit bores you with the claims about the US being a declining superpower while forgetting to mention that the term ‘superpower’ was coined by an American, William TR Fox, in 1944 explicitly to describe the US? No other country before the US was called that while it was anywhere near that status. There is nothing inevitable about war, whether big or small, hot or cold. There are only wily exploiters and some useful idiots who inhale their propaganda, like the 11 Japanese young men we mentioned, and end up starting wars. Wars do more damage than you can perceptibly discern, and not just to the vanquished but the victors as well.
But why do people advocate wars, project world orders, and justify irrational acts and worldviews? Because all of this is a grift. Dr Ken Booth has got their number. In a 1996 speech titled “Utopian Realism”, he pointed out that while the job of an international relations expert is to speak truth to power, many due to blind ambition, choose to speak power to truth. It was clearly a reference to Samuel Huntington. In other words, intellectuals like him tailored their theories and conjectures in accordance with the needs of their political paymasters.
We breathe in the third decade of the 21st century and were very nearly vanquished by a tiny microbe. If we still cannot learn to get along now perhaps we have never understood history.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2021.
Full disclosure. The title of this piece is borrowed from one episode of the legendary sitcom series Seinfeld. In one episode this is the title of a fictional movie that Jerry, Elaine, and George plan to see together but cannot. Although Seinfeld is one of […]Farrukh writes
Full disclosure. The title of this piece is borrowed from one episode of the legendary sitcom series Seinfeld. In one episode this is the title of a fictional movie that Jerry, Elaine, and George plan to see together but cannot. Although Seinfeld is one of the three sitcoms I can never resist, the other two being Fraiser and MASH, that is where the resemblance of the fictional movie mentioned in the series and this article ends. Our discussion today is neither about lighthearted banter nor any movie that could have the temerity to feature as a plot device in a sitcom. No, it is dark and distressing.
If you want a spoiler at the very start, let me categorically state that the entire premise can be boiled down to one sentence: that the time to write the obituary of the human race is nigh. That the end is most likely to come from neither the rise of the uber or omniscient machines nor invading aliens or even the more mundane climate change. Man’s basic character flaws like myopia and sheer stupidity have led us to the brink. Each nation either pursues policies least informed by an understanding of their longstanding consequences or develops blind spots which allow some horrible fault lines to fester. And remarkable as it sounds, most of these fault lines are about to explode simultaneously. Let’s take a gander, shall we?
They say charity begins at home. So, let us begin with our dear republic. I often marvel at the foresight of the geniuses who decided to let a significant segment of a society, whose creation was preceded by the worst communal violence of the century, radicalise for the sake of the so-called Afghan Jihad. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had to be repelled but the decision to let the resistance take a religious colour, and allow religious militants from around the world to take shelter in the region is exactly the kind of mind-numbingly tragic decision whose cost is being paid in blood and tears today. Remember, in the 1953 Lahore riots the country’s ruling elite had already sown the seeds of instability. And yet it did not stop the use of religion as a political instrument. What followed after the Afghan Jihad and particularly after 9/11 is there for all to see.
But you will say those were the decisions of another generation, ours knows better. But do we? Here is another proof of the pudding for your eating. Knowing that the country had lost a significant segment of its Deobandi population to extremism, in the past decade as we urged successive governments of the country to see the groups like the TTP for the enemies they were and silently pocketed the threats we received, I practically begged on live television and in spaces like these not to let the other major religious segment, the Barelvis, get radicalised. All of this is on record. But nobody listened. First, Tahir Qadri’s agitations, then the rapid rise of the TLP were dismissed as lovers’ quarrel. Now, I fail to find a reset button.
Now take three variables and work out a regression equation. The first variable: the negotiations with the TTP which apart from countless moral conundrums will invariably mainstream a highly volatile segment with the muscle memory of extreme violence. Second variable: an equally unstable if diametrically opposed segment led by the likes of the TLP. The third variable, a state which despite losing eighty thousand citizens in its fight against the far-right extremists, is more suspicious of its battered, broken and marginalised secular class than any far-right group. The last variable is unavoidable when you see how most institutions of the state evolved in the past seventy years with an inherent bias against secularism. So enormous is our blind spot that even our census doesn’t take stock of the Deobandi-Barelvi fault line. I don’t know about you, but one of my worst memories of the 1980s and 1990s is of the sectarian violence at the time. It is one place I am keen never to revisit and that too with such significant numerical variation.
The second example is of Afghanistan where the return of the Taliban is the dead-end of the radicalisation curve. The dead-end because the world is tired of trying to fix Afghanistan and the country’s new rulers are intent on regressing rather than progressing.
The third example: India. With a 1.3 billion population India is more complicated than either Pakistan or Afghanistan. But rather than learning from their examples, it is keener on weaponising every dormant fault line. And my God, look at the fault lines. The majority-minority fault line becomes particularly challenging when the most othered and often demonised minority is 14 per cent of the population. The percentage may not look big until you take the massive size of the pie out of which this slice comes into cognizance. But this is not the only fault line. Hidden behind this much-hyped fault line are the far bigger ones. Consider the current upper-caste elite capture of the state. Brahmins are said to be five per cent of the total population. The real majority (the lower castes), usually underrepresented in the state machinery, faces the prospect of losing whatever measure of reservations (affirmative action) once accorded to it. The third fault line, the regional and lingual divide. The current elite, led by the UP-Gujarat affluent class, wants to remake a highly diverse country after its own image. What can go wrong?
Two more quick examples. One, Europe. A region that has paid a heavy price because of the rise of racist miscreants like Nazis should have been more vigilant against a relapse. While Germany has internalised that message and is keen to avoid that tragic past, countries on the other side of the divide during the second world war are less circumspect. While the Viktor Orbans of Europe are still limited to countries like Hungary, the dramatic rise of the far-right pundit and demagogue Eric Zemmour in France pales Marine Le Pen’s popularity in comparison shows that this element may get its first kill in the presidential election next year. France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, ergo a veto power, a key player in Europe, and a nuclear power.
In America, after losing Trump to the far-right due to its unrelenting criticism and opposition, the country’s liberal elite is now busy punishing the only man who could arrest the march of the xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-diversity, conspiracy theory-driven elements. The media and the elite are so angry with President Biden for his withdrawal from Afghanistan that they lost all perspective and seriously damaged his approval ratings. Where myopia, selfishness, and emotional instability dictate policy the results are invariably catastrophic. When Trumpism returns to power it will be far more lethal and violent than you except.
If you look closely the same decay is underway in every country. Even in countries where the presence of strongmen obscures such trends, beyond immediate leadership, societal polarisation is reaching the breaking point. Russia, China, Turkey, all included. Something’s gotta give. And as Shakespeare so aptly put it: these violent delights have violent ends. Mankind, face it, we are doomed because of our collective stupidity.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2021.
To be honest, I never thought that one day I would be writing an exclusive piece on a social media app. But it shows you how the world has changed. This seemingly innocuous app sitting on your computer or smartphone home screens presents layers upon […]Farrukh writes
To be honest, I never thought that one day I would be writing an exclusive piece on a social media app. But it shows you how the world has changed. This seemingly innocuous app sitting on your computer or smartphone home screens presents layers upon layers of threat to your privacy and human civilisation in general.
I did not decide to ditch it lightly. I have used the said account for over twelve years. It all began with a rather naïve suspicion. A few years ago someone told me that if you utter a random word while the Facebook app is open on your phone, the next ads you see on the app would be related to what you uttered. I conducted a test to see it for myself and vaguely remember spotting ads to that effect. But it was more a matter of fascination than of worry. I made nothing of it and moved on.
What troubled me over time, however, was the inability to block random friend requests. It is supposed to be a closed community where you can share personal memories with friends and family. But the company was not ready to give me even this much control that I could disable the friend request button. Later it wouldn’t even let its users access the personal data it stored. Other companies in contrast extend this courtesy.
But these were, in my mind, minor issues. The real shock was to come in early 2018. On 16th March that year, Facebook suspended accounts of a British firm Cambridge Analytica, which had allegedly retained data of 50 million US citizens obtained through a third-party app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’. This decision was taken to get ahead of media reports (particularly in The New York Times) revealing this damaging information. Then on 19th March, the UK’s Channel-4 started airing its 5 part series titled “Data, Democracy and Dirty Tricks” on the matter. Cambridge Analytica was involved in manipulating the minds of voters. Through the acquired data it had prepared each user’s psychographs which would be used to target the voters through custom-designed ads and fake stories to convince them in the 2016 elections that Hillary Clinton was devil’s spawn and only Trump was their saviour. This interaction of a user’s biases and algorithms is called a filter bubble. Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon was heading the organisation. Imagine if a third-party app on Facebook’s platform could garner enough data in a short span of time to develop demonstrably effective psychographs and campaigns, how much data Facebook must have collected over the years? No wonder it is the only social media company that doesn’t let you access your data. If you have been reading my column since that time you may remember I brought all this to your attention in a piece titled “Changing algorithm of democracy” on April 5, 2018.
Stripped to its bare bones Facebook offers little utility to its users. It is, after all, just another personal bulletin board. And yet its market cap defies logic. Consequently, its head Mark Zuckerberg is among the richest men in the world and the company among the most successful ones. The affluence and the power of the company are such that not only has it driven its competition like MySpace into the ground but it has acquired really valuable assets like WhatsApp and Instagram. What Instagram now does to children, especially to young girls, you must have heard in the testimony and interviews of the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Enter Artificial Intelligence. If you have been paying attention to Zuckerberg’s public interactions particularly congressional testimonies you must have seen him casually mention the use of AI in combatting fake news. That is small potatoes. Facebook’s algorithm qualifies as a powerful AI. To train any AI you need data. To understand what is going on, let me reference Kai-Fu Lee’s book “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” here. Mr Lee identifies four types of AI. Internet AI, Business AI, Perception AI, and Autonomous AI. Internet AI is the above-mentioned algorithm. American companies are big but Chinese software generate more elaborate data and have access to a huge local population. In Perception AI involving face and voice recognition tech China again had an advantage had it not been for Facebook where 2.9 billion people voluntarily and constantly upload their pictures. In Autonomous AI involving robotics, the competition is ongoing. The US and western companies had more detailed and older banking records hence their advantage in Business AI but then new Chinese apps emerged that had access to the day-to-day transactions, movements, and choices of a 1.4 billion strong local population, and consequently China pulled ahead. But now notice what Facebook has done.
This much power in one man’s hand should never be acceptable. Now let us take a look at the man himself. Zuckerberg first came up with the app in a dorm room to rate campus girls based on their ‘hotness’. Something was already awry with his moral compass. But his recent fixation with Roman Emperor Augustus (ever noticed the resembling haircut?) should give you goosebumps. Zuckerberg tells you what was great about Caesar: “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.”
Forget about 200 years of world peace. Pay attention to “a really harsh approach”. This guy now has this much power. Remember, if Trump’s 2016 campaign could become unstoppable by using data obtained from Facebook by a third-party app, what would happen if Zuckerberg or any of his ruthless acolytes like Sheryl Sandberg were to run for highest public office in America or anywhere in the world? Who would stop them and who would remove them from power at the end of the term? Business and political power do not mix well. Trump has already taught us that.
Given that Facebook is a monopoly the least the western regulators could do was to separate Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as business entities through an anti-trust action and force Zuckerberg to step aside as the CEO. But in America where expenditure on political campaigns by corporations is considered free speech because of the verdict in Citizens United vs FEC case, lawmakers have predictably been missing in real action. Until any meaningful action is taken, I refuse to be a willing guinea pig in this terrifying human experiment. That is why I deactivated my Facebook account and I strongly recommend you take a long hard look at yours.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2021.
Let’s face it. There is no comparison between the US and Afghanistan in terms of state power. America remains the most powerful country on the planet, Afghanistan one of the weakest ones. In Afghanistan’s defence, you can advance only one argument. That it still stands. […]Farrukh writes
Let’s face it. There is no comparison between the US and Afghanistan in terms of state power. America remains the most powerful country on the planet, Afghanistan one of the weakest ones. In Afghanistan’s defence, you can advance only one argument. That it still stands. That it has not lost any territory to another country during some of its weakest moments. Sovereignty often, but not territory.
But this piece is not about state power. It is about one precious commodity that is increasingly rare around the world, namely democracy. Afghanistan’s democracy, or whatever passed for it, was so weak that it is now defunct and an idea so remote for its de facto rulers that they do not even pretend the country could ever return to democracy. The world’s most powerful democracy, America, believes it is also in crisis. But if our introverted American peers could pay some heed to these parts, perhaps, they would never tire of counting their blessings.
Consider this. There are eight countries in South Asia and only one with a near uninterrupted history of procedural democracy. Not uninterrupted. Nearly uninterrupted. Because of the two years of the emergency rule. Elsewhere, in the region, it struggles for wider approval. And the one exception to the rule we just identified has morphed and regressed so demonstrably that it is difficult to tell it apart from populist autocracies of the world.
Afghanistan then is chosen here for its shock value. To show how quickly the accumulated fruits of the evolution of twenty years can disappear without a trace. And the US for the unique nature of challenges its democracy faces today. I, for one, will not deny it. How could I? When on November 14, 2020, I wrote a piece in this space titled “America needs constant vigilance” with the subtitle “The quantum of misinformation being used to discredit the election outcome”, I could foresee some sort of disruption. These challenges, as illustrated by Bill Maher in one of his unusually sobering segments, have only compounded since January 6 this year. In both these examples, there are lessons for all of us, especially struggling democracies like Pakistan. So, let us dive in.
One, stop taking everything for granted. The entire state apparatus of Afghanistan collapsed in a single day. In the US, despite deep suspicions about foreign election meddling and a whole host of oversight mechanisms neither Trump’s momentum could be checked in 2016 nor an insurrection on January 6, this year. Democracy is not a naturally occurring element. In our Darwinian, anarchical world, autocracy and authoritarianism occur naturally. For democracy to hold you need a permanently updating, robust, and boisterous ecosystem. This ecosystem does not have a mind of its own. You may think that every threat will be caught in the net, but we know one thing about the destabilising ideologies. That they can easily contaminate the safety valves and destroy the system from within.
Two, by its nature democracy has to be inclusive. Populists try to other entire segments of the society. The hatred of this cultural or political other creates divisions in the society and makes the task of nation building impossible. Like democratisation, nation-building is also a constant zero-sum exercise. When you are not progressing, you are regressing. You can see how inclusive the Afghan government was by looking at the voter turnout in 2019 (18.87 per cent) or the composition of the state apparatus. In America the turnouts are now outstanding, the society incredibly inclusive but still due to the predatory nature of some of the capitalist policies and absence of a broad-based social safety net, the sense of victimhood among depressed classes grows exponentially.
Three, address the roots of dysfunction in governance. They can lead to total and quick disaster.
Four, go out of the way to ensure exceptional civil-military relations. Ex-president Ghani’s heavy-handed and impulsive mistreatment of his general officers was a great source of demoralisation. In the end, hardly anyone was ready to stick his neck out for Ghani’s rule. Now, established democracies do not like to pay much attention to military power. But it is a fact that following the January 6 insurrection had all military leaders in the US not thrown their weight behind the transition process we still could be struggling with an unstable government and violence on the streets. I know you will be surprised when I quote Samuel Huntington here for my regular readers know I have no love lost for him. But this one is an important exception. In his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relation, he draws a useful distinction between the objective and the subjective control over the armed forces. The subjective control is in the shape of the constitutional and institutional restrictions on the autonomy of these forces. This seldom works on its own. The other, the more realistic and the optimal, the objective one is exerted when you professionalise them. This means no attempts to politicise them by inviting them into the political domain, not interfering in the internal clockwork of merit-based transfer and postings, and obviously no favouritism. It doesn’t hurt if you earn their respect by being professional yourself. But that is exactly what was on display following the insurrection.
Five, build robust institutions and always strengthen them. Consider how the US judicial system threw out flimsy election challenges by Trump’s legal team, especially a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. Because of strong institutions.
Six, free and fair media with an honest if a proportional representation of dissent is an absolute must for the health of democracy. Deny this and conspiracy theories start to fly.
Seven, always know that national survival is more important than any ideology. Never risk the survival of the nation, its political system for the sake of ideology. When things regress even the best ideologies can work as knives in the enemy’s hands.
Eight, never legitimise or normalise the enemies of the democratic ecosystem. The most notable example is of the violent extremists. In Doha talks, the Trump administration locked a representative government out of the dialogue process permanently undermining it and legitimising the militant group that now controls Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s situation might be different than Pakistan but here the state should fight the terrorists until their total defeat.
Nine, beware of the bad-faith actors, who try to pervert and undermine the system from within.
Ten, never prolong a dispute or crisis. Such disputes or crises are putty in the hands of the system’s enemies. Seek an immediate resolution and layout an elaborate dispute resolution mechanism.
Eleven, never undermine your/system’s allies for the sake of optics.
Finally, find a way to win people’s trust and respect instead of forcing them against their will. Develop a robust and honest thought process to win over people. Seek to understand the other side’s perspective before trying to be understood.
The list of lessons goes far beyond this space. But these are the most important lessons to guarantee the stability of a healthy democratic system.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2021.
Renowned Urdu writer, playwright, and broadcaster Ashfaq Ahmed used to give long talks on PTV. A collection of these talks called Zavia was later compiled and presented in a multi-volume book series. In one of these talks, he shared a Chinese story. I couldn’t independently verify if […]Farrukh writes
Renowned Urdu writer, playwright, and broadcaster Ashfaq Ahmed used to give long talks on PTV. A collection of these talks called Zavia was later compiled and presented in a multi-volume book series. In one of these talks, he shared a Chinese story. I couldn’t independently verify if it comes from a Chinese source. But it is a story with a good moral. So, here it goes.
Once upon a time, a poor old man lived in a village in China. He had a son and a beautiful horse. Everyone including the king wanted to buy this horse but despite his crushing poverty the old man refused to sell the horse claiming that it was a family member. One day it ran away. People came calling him unlucky and criticising him for not selling the horse in time. The man said it was only a phase of life, not a great tragedy. Three weeks later the horse returned accompanied by twelve similar horses. People came again congratulating the old man. He said the same thing. Only a phase of life. Then his son tried to train these horses, fell, and broke his leg. People called the old man unlucky and he repeated the same words. Then one day war broke out between the kingdom and its neighbours, all young men were drafted to fight but not his son because of his broken leg. People came again envying him for escaping the ordeal of sending his son to war that they were going through. And the old man exploded. This, he said, was only one part of the ebb and flow of life. Passing judgment on one such phase was stupid and just proof of their inherent myopia. The crux of the story? Most people cannot see the forest for the trees.
As journalists, we are conditioned to pay attention to small details. So are our career-adjacent pundits. This goes on until in your haste to cover each ball you lose sight of the broader context of the match and the entire series. Here the addiction to the adrenaline rush leads to the addiction of dopamine release. See, I am in the know, you say to the world. And your audience just laps it up. But when each step is a victory who cares where you are leading the crowd.
Two recent examples come to mind. The appointment of the DG ISI and the so-called new cold war between the US and China.
The former DG ISI had to be rotated out after completing his stint in office. Let us not kid ourselves that the position is insignificant. But it is a job after all and until this country is spared of the tribalisation of the state institutions one day every official has to be replaced with another. But as it happens on the day of the appointment, we saw many of our colleagues tripping over each other to sing hail to the new chief. Did they know the new intel chief personally? Well, I am aware of a very few media colleagues who might be well placed enough to have known him as a friend during his career. They are unlikely to brag and despite that, you can tell them apart. The rest, like me, are the dwellers of the ground floor. So, what is the point in making a joke of yourselves?
The second big example. The certainty of the international relations punditry here and abroad that the die has been cast. Alea iacta est. That the new cold war entails that any minute now China will invade Taiwan, that India and China will fight a war, and India, in its regrettable hubris, will open another front to fight Pakistan. Alright. But are you aware of who you are listening to? This is the lot that cannot agree on the fundamental definitions of this discipline. There are so many theories in the study of international relations that your mind wilts and dies while taking stock. Predictably, none of them could foresee the end of the last cold war. And they are going to tell you when the new cold war will start, between whom and how it will unfold? Sure.
I have nothing against the discipline of international affairs. In fact, I love it. But after such embarrassing lapses, its experts can do with some humility. In the dying days of the cold war, Paul Kennedy taught us how a multidimensional study of history can help us make sense of contemporary developments and make broader assumptions about the future.
Seeing through that lens you realise that nothing is set in stone. That the world order you insist is fixed is not even born yet. That the Covid crisis and the challenges of climate change remind us that there are too many variables to decide just now. That with the disappearing microchips, rising fuel prices, and global food inflation apart from the rapidly colliding future it is plain that we are in uncharted waters where polarisation and wars look unsustainable.
So, what is the deal with the QUAD security dialogue, AUKUS, and the revived pivot to Asia? Certainly not more wars, hot or cold. For the past two decades America has done everything to keep China at the table and interested. Sometimes it takes a cruder shape like the policies of Trump, at other moments you see Obama using his charm and wit to gate-crash a meeting where the US is not invited to avoid commitments on climate change. The QUAD proved a stepping stone for Australia to sign the AUKUS deal. AUKUS, apart from providing mental comfort and business benefits to two critically important allies, puts pressure on China to come back to the negotiations. In this age, trade negotiations matter more than hard power. While pundits here were sounding alarm about China-Taiwan tensions, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, went and met with China’s Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi in Zurich. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book Peril makes it abundantly clear that China and America have rigorous protocols to avoid conflicts and both countries have a joint constituency of peace among their top leaders.
Last week I promised that I will share in detail an explanation about President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on tech billionaires. Sadly, we have run out of space again. But these few pointers should do. The tech billionaires, with their rising fortunes and in some cases growing political influence, are giving headaches to the point nation-states around the world. The joke goes, in light of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica fiasco, if Facebook’s Zuckerberg so decides he can probably win the election for the highest office in any country of the world. History tells us that every nation devises its own method to deal with such a challenge. China and Russia have their own distinct styles. America, Europe, and other democracies will probably use a more procedural antitrust route to correct the course. But it looks like the time of a correction is nigh.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2021.
The world was bracing for the new cold war. AUKUS became a reality. The QUAD leaders met in DC. News outlets were already churning out stories against China’s alleged ambitions. Stories about Uyghur suffering failed to provide as effective a hook that many expected owing […]Farrukh writes
The world was bracing for the new cold war. AUKUS became a reality. The QUAD leaders met in DC. News outlets were already churning out stories against China’s alleged ambitions. Stories about Uyghur suffering failed to provide as effective a hook that many expected owing to the lack of hard evidence, so the attention gradually shifted to the Belt and Road Initiative which includes the China Pakistan Corridor as its flagship. So, an unending series of reports started appearing in the international media claiming that China was saddling inefficient and poor economies with insurmountable debt. The Hambantota bankruptcy story had proven to be a propaganda godsend. It felt for a heartbeat that the impossible sounding decoupling was almost an inevitability. But then suddenly the whole story has changed.
Two developments are enough to confuse all China watchers and pro-cold war pundits. The first is the breakthrough in the Huawei case. Almost three years ago, Meng Wanzhou, the company’s CFO and the daughter of the company’s founder, was detained on arrival in Canada. For a case of misreporting to HSBC which could have led to the bank’s inadvertent breach of Iran sanctions, she could be extradited to the United States. After years of hectic diplomatic negotiations and a court deal, last week she flew back to China. This brings to an end an added chapter of hostility between China and the US.
But if the Huawei case was such a source of friction between the two countries, wait until you hear about the other development. Actually, a series of mind-numbing developments. Huawei is a telecom giant that was once accused of conducting digital espionage for the Chinese government by the leading US intelligence agencies. With a presence in 170 countries and with almost two hundred thousand strong workforce it is China’s leading MNC. If China was ready to go to any length to get it out of trouble you would think it is ready to throw its weight behind all major private corporations of the country. Suddenly we do not know anymore. The jolts began with billionaire Jack Ma’s curious disappearance and reappearance after three months.
Late last October Jack Ma’s fintech Ant Group was ready to offer its IPO. Suddenly, the flotation was stopped and he disappeared. By the time he reappeared in January this year his companies had lost around 76 billion in value. Then in July when tech giant Didi had launched its 4.4-billion-dollar IPO in the US, the company was subjected to a security review and its apps banned from tech stores. Next in line was delivery giant Meituan. The Chinese government’s these measures and disciplinary actions against entertainment celebrities have been popular so far. But do they indicate a gradual shift to Chairman Mao’s days of the closed economy? There was no dearth of hot takes on what this all means ranging from the calumny of China-baiting critics to rationalisation and praise by Sinophiles. And then came the real estate giant Evergrande crisis, with the property developer saddled with 300 billion dollars of debt missing the second payment deadline.
There are only a few real explanations for the billionaire scrutiny. For the first, you will have to wait another week because it is too fascinating and global a prospect to be wasted in the margins of a discussion focused on something else. The second explanation, coming from some well-informed speculators is about President Xi Jinping’s political career. Next year the Communist Party’s 20th Congress decides whether to renew President Xi’s term in office for another five years. These pundits then whisper that until this happens there is no harm in aligning with the populist sentiment. But if history is any guide China’s leaders seldom change course halfway through their career. In fact, Mao doubled down in the face of pushback from his defence minister against the Great Leap Forward policies. Only former President Jiang Zemin comes to mind who would have continued sterner policies following the Tiananmen Square episode had it not been for the gentle nudge in opposite direction by Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour.
But if it is indeed a return to Mao’s model it would be a reversal of the hard labour of three men namely Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Wen Jiabao. China watchers already have a hard time reconciling this policy direction with President Xi’s personal history. He was 10 when his father, a former party bigwig, was purged and sent to work in a factory. During the cultural revolution, the unruly mob of student vigilante militants called the red guard, ambushed and attacked his home. His family had to endure unspeakable tragedies as a result. At the age of 16, he was sent to a village where he would live in a cave house for seven years. He escaped to Beijing, was caught, sent to a work camp to be disciplined and then repatriated to the village. He had to work hard to get accepted in the Communist Youth League and the Communist Party. Now, the pundits believe that after this much hardship one cannot want a return to Mao’s China. But so far, as they say, President Xi has proven to be an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
There is a third explanation too. That the Covid crisis came at the worst moment when China had already spread itself thin around the world due to its BRI commitments. This might be leading the economy towards deficits. Hence, the crackdown to compensate.
Bear in mind these speculations are just that. China’s information flow is continuously questioned by the western media. And those of us who have lived long enough to remember the last cold war can easily recall how militant journalism and the entertainment industry were against the Soviet Union. Even innocent-looking Reader’s Digest used to dish out a monthly dose of anti-Soviet content. You can choose to believe whether it is true or false but cannot be too sure of anything.
That said just wrap your head around the consequences of a possible, if not probable, Chinese withdrawal from the world economy. So far you have heard some Indian and western pundits vociferously arguing for decoupling and confrontation. But this talk is merely talk. No one can even imagine a China shaped and sized hole in the world economy. Economies like those of the US, Europe, Eurasia, China, Japan, the Arab world, India are too big to be allowed to fail or to decouple. We will have to find a way to keep them open and integrated. The proponents of a new cold war on both sides of the divide need to wake up and smell coffee. Twenty years of our lives were destroyed by terrorism, the economic crash of 2008 and now Covid. We cannot afford another decade or two of global economic meltdown.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2021.
The Future of Life Award is something I probably wouldn’t have heard of, had it not been for a lucky coincidence. On April 26, 2018, I wrote a piece in this space titled “Ready to lose your job?” It was an assessment of how quickly […]Farrukh writes
The Future of Life Award is something I probably wouldn’t have heard of, had it not been for a lucky coincidence. On April 26, 2018, I wrote a piece in this space titled “Ready to lose your job?” It was an assessment of how quickly artificial intelligence could make the human workforce redundant. The technological advances in the past had failed to replace humanity in one crucial aspect. The ability to think. But with their ever-growing computational prowess machines were now threatening to supersede the human ingenuity in this vital sector too. While AI was in infancy and its better versions cost-prohibitively expensive there was still time. But technology doesn’t take long to scale and become accessible. In this piece, I also referenced MIT Professor Max Tegmark’s remarkable book Life 3.0 which deserved far more detailed reference than this one (an error I tried to fix in a research paper that was published in a journal two years ago). Prof Tegmark is a co-founder of The Future of Life Institute, which apart from giving this award has distinguished celebrities like Alan Alda, Morgan Freeman and Elon Musk on its board. It seems the piece reached the professor and through an email I was made aware of this institute’s existence. I couldn’t be more grateful because the people awarded this year are busy making another point closer to my heart: saving the ozone layer.
First things first. If you have not read the abovementioned article or the referenced book, please look them up and read them so that you have some point of reference. The book is so gripping that it will make your day. I will return to the matters pertaining to technology momentarily but first, let me introduce the recipients of this year’s award. Stephen Andersen, Susan Solomon, and the late Joseph Farman, who helped make the most successful international environmental treaty (The Montreal Protocol of 1987) a reality, are the recipients. Their work and the award were introduced recently in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk. Again, I seldom miss any episode of this podcast but it so happens that had it not been for the above email I would have missed it.
The Montreal Protocol and these scientists had done a great deal in convincing the world that mitigation efforts meant to reduce the burden on the ozone layer did not need to compromise economic prosperity. From the research on the harmful effects of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the layer to actively convincing the stakeholders to reduce their emissions these climate change warriors have done a lot and deserve this award and countless others. But what next? Do we make peace with the idea of cutting back the emissions and be done with it? Or we, the sapiens, stop treating the ozone hole as a fait accompli, think big and take the war to the enemy? Ozone is not something that we are unable to manufacture artificially. Then why no talk of deploying resources to plan the regeneration of the layer in parts where it has depleted? There are even a few papers written on the theoretical possibility. But somehow, we have convinced ourselves that this option is either too cost-prohibitive or unreal. We are told that as a result of the mitigation efforts the layer is healing itself and will regenerate within our lifetime. Sure, but when the chink in the armour has been exposed, you live on a rock with nowhere to run and anything can go wrong shouldn’t you have the technology to fix this artificially just in case things go awry in the future?
This has been mankind’s problem. Always reactive, hardly ever proactive. Invent an elaborate framework to check the proliferation of nuclear weapons but do nothing to offer a solution to counteract the harmful effects of nuclear radiation on living tissue. If the study of scientific history has taught me anything, it is that given human ingenuity no task is impossible.
When Bill Gates decided to step aside from his Microsoft job and focus instead on combatting poverty and disease around two decades ago, I wrote a column pointing out that his software expertise could come in handy in fighting diseases like AIDS. The human genome is a code like any software. Not a binary code, I grant you, but a code nevertheless. So is HIV’s. Was it really impossible to crack this code? We never heard of a successful AIDS vaccine but the very same approach was instrumental in rapidly developing a host of successful vaccines against the novel coronavirus.
Recently, I was pleased to chance upon a conversation between two business executives at a high-profile conference in Islamabad. It was a session where they were discussing Society 5.0. While I really enjoyed the talk, I had reservations regarding a few points. A speaker had mentioned several binaries of our lives. One binary was people versus the planet. I had an issue with the framing. When I got a chance, I pointed out that people were the planet. Earth is fully capable of healing itself. But first, it wipes out the threat. We cause that threat so only we were at risk, not the earth.
But there were other concerns too. For example, how games and smartphones are driving a wedge between parents and their young children. I have heard this refrain hundreds of times. Even when I hosted and moderated an interaction with the then Chairman Higher Education Commission at an international university. We don’t realise that today’s generation is being raised by technology like many of us were raised by the television. The job of parents is that of physical and emotional maintenance officials. Play your role well and your views will be valued beyond your imagination. Mess it up and you may lose all leverage.
It is natural to have anticipatory anxiety concerning technology. One such example is AI, the topic of the article discussed above. Hollywood has left no stone unturned to frighten us beyond our wits. But here is the thing. There is no evidence in sight that Artificial General Intelligence, the likes of which we see in Matrix, Westworld or The Terminator, is around the corner. In fact, like aliens, we have this problem with sentience too. I call it Fermi Paradox 2.0. Logic dictates that when enough neurons connect sentience is born. But there is zero evidence of any self-aware entity other than humans. A whale’s brain can be 7 times bigger than a human, an elephant’s 3-4 times, but they are not self-aware. So, we have no convincing proof that singularity is even possible. Yes, machines can easily take your jobs. But that is a business decision, not a scientific inevitability. When I wrote that piece I had seen no evidence that the business community would choose human labour over machines. But then Covid happened and we have seen how eager the business community was to have the old workforce back. Perhaps that was also the reason behind Elon Musk’s irrational outbursts against the lockdowns. As long as humanity is interested in saving its future there is little reason to worry. However, a bit more proactivity will harm no one.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2021.
There is a short-lived but hilarious Jack Black and Tim Robbins starrer series called “The Brink”. Be warned. It is not for the faint of heart. Or for those who were tragically born without a sense of humour. While the plot involves a nuclear crisis […]Farrukh writes
There is a short-lived but hilarious Jack Black and Tim Robbins starrer series called “The Brink”. Be warned. It is not for the faint of heart. Or for those who were tragically born without a sense of humour. While the plot involves a nuclear crisis in Pakistan, the writers of the series time and again prove equal opportunity offenders. Americans are shown to be of loose moral character and faulty judgment, Pakistanis mostly mad, the British and Israelis weird and Indians extremely insecure and quick to take offence. You must have seen mind benders before but probably never realised that your mind could bend in so many politically incorrect ways. I have no intention of divulging more plot points. The Indian bit, however, is intriguing because it tragically resonates with my personal experience of Indian diplomacy under Modi. When a satire so meticulously designed to be as far from reality as possible accidentally rhymes with reality, the fate of such works is sealed.
This February when the DGMOs of Pakistan and India agreed in principle to uphold the 2003 ceasefire agreement, I sent out a few tweets. Call me old fashioned but I have seen many good peace initiatives being jinxed and sabotaged for the crime of building too much expectation prematurely. So, my message was simple. Be cautiously optimistic. And given that Pakistan’s Foreign Office had repeatedly presented evidence that India was attacking Kashmiris on our side of the LoC with cluster bombs and the world refused to see, it was probably advisable to sensitise the Indian diaspora about the Kashmiri ordeal. I tweeted and moved on. But a few days later, an Indian friend half teasingly sent me a link to an article. The author of the article claimed to have unearthed a Pakistani conspiracy to undermine India’s interests. The only evidence she could find to support her case was the above-mentioned set of tweets. I did not know whether to be flattered or offended. On one side I was characterised as the devil’s spawn, on the other author had attributed too much power to this scribe. If you know anything about the twenty-five years of my work you will instantly realise that I have perfected the art of shouting in the void. If someone wants to listen, they are welcome to it but I do not go out of the way to advise any policymaker. In fact, until invited to an interaction in the public eye I seldom volunteer for any sidebars. But here we were, with this writer assuming I was in on a conspiracy and channelling Pakistan’s high and mighty. Initially, I thought that it might be a rookie clutching at straws to get published but then was dismayed to learn that the writer was a noted academic. Ever such a fan of delayed gratification, I have decided to lay out my case today.
I brought up this episode and am presenting my case to India’s diaspora because there is ample evidence that something has gone horribly wrong in their country since Modi came to power. And that it directly affects their safety abroad. Bear with me as I show you how.
The trigger for this piece is a dossier on the Indian war crimes in Kashmir under its occupation that the Pakistani Foreign Office recently released. It is not an ordinary document. It painstakingly documents the human rights abuses that have reached terrifying proportions under Modi’s installed junta in Jammu and Kashmir. Some of the pictures and clips included are unbearable to watch. You do not need to take my word for it and can check it out by visiting the link https://mofa.gov.pk/iiojk. But even if you do not, I am sure you have come across some of the excruciating pictures that the Indian media was quick to normalise. A man strapped to a military jeep’s hood ostensibly as a human shield. A toddler sitting nervously on the chest of his grandfather’s corpse after a fake encounter. And on.
The Kashmir dispute, since the inception of the two countries, has worked as an endless reservoir of victimhood and national outrage that the extremists of the two sides have banked on. Pakistan has been to hell and back but the great Indian tragedy has only begun unfolding. For decades, India’s far-right treated Kashmiris as subhuman terrorists. If your body came in the way of my bullet, you are a terrorist deserving no due process. As it went on, India’s secular elite and some in the diaspora looked the other way. But now it is reaching their homes. The Indian ruling party today openly treats the country’s minorities and lower castes as subhumans. Just look up Dr Subramanian Swamy’s interview given to Vice. He is a member of the Indian upper house of the parliament, a PhD who taught among other places at Harvard and yet seems emboldened enough to state on record that the Indian Muslims cannot be treated as equal citizens. And the problem keeps growing.
The natural allies of the BJP-RSS collective in the west are the hate groups with white nationalist inclinations. No wonder then that the Indian flag was the only foreign flag among many that were carried by the January 6 insurrectionists. They may find common cause against the liberals and Muslims but in the end, the white nationalists always see non-whites as subhumans. So, this growing monster can come back to haunt everyone.
When the dossier was released, it failed to find any serious coverage by the international press. India’s clout abroad routinely has a chilling effect on the coverage of the right-wing extremism in the country. Ask the makers of Quantico, an ABC TV series with an Indian lead, that had to be cancelled because of this clout.
It is in the interest of the Indian diaspora that the permanent changes Modi seeks to bring in the Indian society are offset, that the ties between India’s far-right and the western far-right are broken and that a major source of radicalisation, the Kashmir dispute, is amicably brought to closure as soon as possible. It is a temporary intervention and an important avenue for us to cooperate. No one is asking you to turn on the country of your origin. In fact, it may help you to salvage it. Once normalcy is restored, we go our separate ways. Or better still, we manage to convince Islamabad and New Delhi to be allies and partners. Stranger things have happened. Meanwhile, the content of this dossier deserves everyone’s precious time and attention.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2021.
What do you know of the touch test, witch cakes and spectral evidence? An answer would take us to 1692 colonial America. The New England settlement was still young, obstinately religious and growing. In January 1692 Salem village (now Danvers)’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel […]Farrukh writes
What do you know of the touch test, witch cakes and spectral evidence? An answer would take us to 1692 colonial America. The New England settlement was still young, obstinately religious and growing. In January 1692 Salem village (now Danvers)’s first ordained minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, a man reviled by the local populace for his rigidity and greed, complained that his 9-year-old daughter Betty Parris and his 11-year-old niece Abigail Williams were exhibiting strange behaviour. This strange behaviour included throwing things, making odd noises and contortions. The two kids would also complain about the sensation of pinpricks. This was attributed to witchcraft. To find the perpetrators two tests were devised. When the suffering child was going through the height of pain people were asked to touch her one by one. If your hand was on the girl when the pain stopped you were a witch. Ergo the touch test.
A witch cake was another incredible device. Rye meal baked in the possessed child’s urine was fed to a dog. If at the very moment you were unlucky enough to feel pain in your body you were a witch. Predictably three culprits emerged. The Caribbean slave of the Parris family named Tituba known for her prolific storytelling skills about witchcraft and sorcery; Sarah Good, a poor homeless woman; and Sarah Osborne, an old destitute woman. Both Good and Osborne professed innocence but Tituba cracked and confessed to selling her soul to a black man who ostensibly was a crossroads demon. Good’s four-year-old daughter Dorothy was also interviewed and her naive replies were interpreted as confessions.
This kicked up the storm of mass hysteria. More people complained of being possessed. Around 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Summary trials were arranged. Given the supernatural nature of accusations dreams, feelings and irritations were also allowed as evidence. This is called spectral evidence. In the end, 20 people, mostly women, were put to death.
What caused this mass panic? One clue just passed above. It was a rye consuming settlement. Rye is susceptible to ergot fungus growth. Ergot gives LSD and ergot poisoning can cause hallucinations and pain. If the kids were not just pretending, could they be suffering from ergot poisoning? That’s one explanation. A simpler explanation is staring you in the face. Look at the accused. A slave woman with storytelling skills. A homeless beggar with a bad reputation. An ageing woman who did not go that often to the church. As the accusations spread most of the women that came under the suspicion were those who did not conform to the patriarchal society’s stereotypes or at times even fashion sense. In short, a woman who could think, choose for herself and refuse to be bullied by society was a witch. So, these trials powered by spectral evidence were a paranoid society’s way of sorting them out. Three centuries and almost a score later many of these victims have still not found true justice.
Fast forward to today. After this much time, things must have improved significantly. We often hear about women emancipation, don’t we? They say the proof of a pudding is in its eating. Shall we?
For a brief period, it looked like women may finally get their rights. Women world leaders were emerging every day. A woman’s right to her body was being accepted. She was being seen as an equal citizen and not as a vessel of family honour or an instrument of population growth and domestic comfort. But then something went awry and the worst instincts and insecurities of men woke up. Now what we witness is a systematic erosion of gains made over decades and this collapse is nearly universal.
Do not for a second believe that I will cop out and not talk about the local context. I will and that is precisely what is driving this conversation. But I want to focus first on the globalisation of misogyny. And this discussion starts with one mass shooting in the English town of Plymouth last month where Jake Davidson, a 22-year-old man, first killed his mother, his father, a 3-year-old girl and went on a killing spree ending in a suicide. Initially, the authorities refused to classify it as an act of terrorism. But then video clips started emerging in which he can be heard spouting misogynistic hate and sympathising with Incels.
Incels or involuntary celibates is a burgeoning internet community of male cry babies who blame women for own refusal to grow up and find a date. They believe women are shallow, always driven by greed and uncontrollable animal instincts. In their worldview warped by self-pity and inferiority complex, there are three kinds of men. Chads (the muscular, athletic type lookers), Betas (ordinary men often with deep pockets) and they (the untouchable Incels). Women marry Betas for financial stability and then cheat with Chads. Because the Incels can’t find love or companionship the state should force women to mate with them. This putrid worldview often leads them to violence and therefore there has been a steady increase in terror attacks by them.
Corollary to this infestation is the growth of racist groups around the world. Ever wondered why white nationalists speak of alleged falling white birth rates and conspiracy theories like the great replacement? It is all about women. They want white women to themselves. Women without agency. Women part of their online fantasies called cottagecore.
But that is a bunch of weirdos. Surely, we are better. Right? Religions claim to emancipate women. Democracies claim to guard against the attacks on their freedoms. Then why is it that all conservative movements from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Republicans in Texas want to control female bodies? One Republican leader even called women the host bodies. In India, the BJP supporters have a problem with women wearing ripped jeans with their knees visible.
In Pakistan, three tragic incidents show you what has gone wrong. The motorway incident, the Noor Mukadam murder and the Minar-i-Pakistan incident all began with the victim-blaming. So, women should not go anywhere because men cannot control themselves? Will it be some kind of society then? Shouldn’t the state and the society treat every citizen as equal and safeguard their lives? Is it not what a social contract is about?
I will not pretend to know what women go through. Only their voice is relevant here. But as a father of two girls, I think I am within my rights to share my distress that the promise I made to myself and the core of my social contract that they will grow up as equal and free citizens is facing a grave danger. We need to prove that we deserve daughters and stop playing with their lives. This globalisation of the Salem witch trials needs to end now.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2021.