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
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
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
(October 13, 2018) What is this dystopia and how did we end up here? It is like a murder mystery. Too many suspects. As many clues. But still we are nowhere near an answer. And you can feel it. The hardening of societies around the […]General
(October 13, 2018)
What is this dystopia and how did we end up here? It is like a murder mystery. Too many suspects. As many clues. But still we are nowhere near an answer. And you can feel it. The hardening of societies around the world. Bad behaviour’s triumph. Decay of social and political order. Meltdown of common sense. Collapse of decency. And above everything else the slow and painful shutting down of hope.
Important to note. This is not an angry rant of a manically depressed individual. On the contrary. In your gut you can feel it too. One by one the symbols of hope that stood in the world are going out. Perhaps the wake-up call came with Donald Trump’s victory. But the process had begun much earlier. Before Modi became India’s premier.
Before ethnocentrism abducted Europa again. Before the Arab Spring sprang up on us and tore the social fabric and countless lives in those long-repressed societies down. It began somewhere between the collapse of Twin Towers and the invasion of Iraq. If 9/11 was an end of innocence for an average everyday American, . But let us keep moving back in time in search of clues before we return to the present dystopia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the pain it caused to its citizens. The world had not prepared for the great fall. Those of us who were alive and grown up enough remember the footages of long queues for one loaf of bread, one pint of brandy. At least the end of the World War II witnessed a Marshall Plan meant to rebuild life ruined by the war. The end of Cold War witnessed no such mercy for the vanquished. Pain is pain. It hurts your enemies just as much as it hurts you. But their pain was ignored and forgotten. Democracy had failed then too.
Keep going back. Meet the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square. A brave man stood before the tanks blocking their path. Right or wrong, it was a unique display of valour. Who was he? What became of him? We do not know to this day. In the grainy footage secretly taped and smuggled out of the country all we see is a man blocking the path of three tanks. The tanks stop, attempt to manoeuver past him but to no avail. He climbs one up and tries to open its lid. Climbs down and eventually escorted away by other civilians. Democracy did not seriously try to find him. His anger, anguish, frustration, all forgotten. When democracy abandons it doesn’t look back.
Let us take a detour. A massive contemporary sideshow. The Afghan Jihad. With huge investment of time and resources the Soviet occupation is overturned. Now the liberated await the behind-the-scenes liberators. To rebuild lives, to build democracy. But our protagonist is no show. Only warlords, Pakistan and a few other actors left behind to sort the mess out. Another people abandoned by democracy.
Fast forward. Iraq invasion. Almost universally opposed but George W Bush, yeah, the man you now miss, cobbled together a so-called coalition of the willing and went inside. State structure demolished. Society pulverised. Lives destroyed. And then with the advent of Obama era Iraq too abandoned, albeit with good intentions. Only militiamen, a sketchy government structure, Iran and other regional players left behind. Democracy did not see what was to come even then.
Then came the Arab Spring. Demolished old structures. Didn’t introduce new ones. In Egypt one Generalissimo was eventually replaced by another. Saudi Arabia was so shaken that it had to redo the entire internal political order, intervene in Yemen and look for strange bedfellows. From Libya to Syria, other nations still struggle to survive. Had it not been for Benghazi and the emergence of the IS, democracy would have long forgotten this region too. But even today its attention doesn’t do these countries any service. They are caught in time warp and the blood keeps spilling. And don’t get me started on countries like Pakistan. Or places like Kashmir where terror never ends.
The purpose of recounting these failings of the democratic world should not lead you to conclude that it is by any means implied that the world deserves what is happening today. Far from it. The only purpose is to mentally prepare you for what comes next. That it has been done before. Don’t let the sheer scale of darkness intimidate you for man once knew how to live in the dark. It is not that difficult to bid adieu to democracy or hope. It has been done before.
So what is happening now? And what is to come? What we have witnessed so far can be summarised in two terms: hardening of states and rise of reactionary politics. Social media connected all troubled spots of the world and mainstreamed their pain, anger and paranoia. This connection, while debilitating on its own, was enough to scare the states of a possible decline. They hardened their positions and became only too rigid. Among reactionary politicians they have found willing allies. As a result, you may soon see purges of Rohingya proportion all over the world.Pakistan stresses on broad-based ties with US
And that was the story so far. If you find a way to gauge today there is almost metaphysical, unspoken, unrecognised sense of approaching doom. Three factors contribute immensely to this sense. 1) Exploding population, which gives rise to the fear of being run over by a horde of immigrants. 2) Of decaying climate, which despite best denials of some politicians will become too self-evident. 3) Fear of rising technology resulting in the shrinking share of the working class in the pie. And if you thought mankind can overcome these challenges take a look at the obvious popular choice. Not socialism. National Socialism (Nazism). Get rid of immigrants and then try building a socialist society. And don’t forget socialism isn’t a solution either. It is only better than Nazism.
This was happening on its own. With the active patronage of far-right reactionaries by the Netanyahus, the Cambridge Analyticas, the Mercers and the Bannons of the world, the situation will only worsen. Markets will crash. Economies will tank. Intolerance will increase. Dissent will be crushed. And the world will become far less governable.
You cannot rule out miracles of course. I have been taught to wait for one throughout my life. It did not come. But who knows one day it might. But until that’s all folks.
(September 29, 2018) We might be witnessing an inflection point in the history of politics around the world. After initial fear, misgivings and paranoia about Donald Trump, it seems many are now fascinated by what he represents. Books upon books are being written on the […]General
(September 29, 2018)
We might be witnessing an inflection point in the history of politics around the world. After initial fear, misgivings and paranoia about Donald Trump, it seems many are now fascinated by what he represents. Books upon books are being written on the subject. Bob Woodward’s recent bestseller, Fear, is one such work. But while this book and many other works bring to us what is wrong with the Trumpian politics, there is one recent tome that does full justice to the objective study of the phenomenon. Major Garrett’s book Mr Trump’s Wild Ride is littered with CBS News reporter’s insights as he went about covering first the campaign of candidate Trump and then his presidency. References to his ‘lingual inflation’, his perception of media’s ‘reflexive bias’ towards the administration and the author’s characterisation of the administration as ‘Cirque du soleil on acid’ (LSD) makes it an enjoyable read.
But there comes a time when we get deeper appreciation of what is different and perhaps most successful in Trump’s political model. “Trump is the first President never to have held a public office or to have led armies to victory in battle… He is a hero and an antihero at the same time. His long history of self-promotion and fascination with tabloid culture fits more seamlessly than we might want to admit into our current selfie and social media mind-set and mania—a place where relentless self-branding can be a path to notoriety, infamy, riches and at times all three.” Relentless self-branding and lack of experience go hand in hand. This is where Twitter, WhatsApp and social media became all so important.
But the mention of Trump administration will be incomplete without reference to the worldview of Steve Bannon, the White House’s former chief strategist. Nor will it help us in drawing lessons or conclusions for our own country. In his first public appearance since Trump’s victory, Bannon presented Trump governance model as three verticals “national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, the Defense Department, Homeland Security”, “economic nationalism” and “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The last when juxtaposed with the first quantity we mentioned, relentless self-branding makes a lot of sense. Is it not what is happening around the world? A movement around a charismatic leader, with constant self-branding and the promise of cleaning the Augean stables of governance, governance that has largely failed to deliver for the common man in the street. A small man’s revenge.
Now the question is whether this is only a momentary cycle or permanent state of affairs. Remember America is a First World country. Even if you are disaffected there you still probably are better off than those struggling in parts of the Third or developing world. Again, when America won freedom from its colonial masters it got plenty of time and room to develop its own administrative architecture. Other post-colonial nations were not as lucky. If Americans are wary of their administrative state it can safely be assumed that the dwellers of the developing nations are too. Remember, in Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson highlight the difference between extractive and inclusive institutions. Inclusivity brings prosperity for all and the nation in question. In the former colonies, state formation has been difficult. Means the state institutions have largely remained extractive. That in turn implies that in the midst of resulting poverty there remains a desire, a demand for aggressive reforms, and a change that brings down the old structures and builds new inclusive ones.
But the current political trend seems to be bigger than this omnipresent demand for reform and the short supply of actual deliverables. There is a bigger issue at hand. Social media has made societies flat and boundary less. You can pick up your cellphone or any device through which you operate your social media account and immediately reach anyone around the world or across the class spectrum of society. Does that mean we are moving in the direction of a classless, boundaryless society? Certainly not. It only means that with the passage of time in struggling to achieve homogeneity the scope of public discourse becomes too large to handle. It becomes a blind man’s elephant. And in this new emerging system you expect immediate access to authorities and immediate action. Your charismatic leader, motivated by the self-branding exercise, then has to be accessible on social media all along. Interactions change, governance and government priorities change and politics changes. With all this change, the news cycle shrinks. Ergo, first the newspapers and TV sets were replaced by webpages, now they are supplanted by apps and social media handles. You do not have patience to sit through an hour-long news bulletin to access the information you need, nor the time. So you reach given channel’s website, app or social media account and watch the required minute-long clip and are done. Death of television and newspapers as we know it. Unless you are an incorrigible optimist and want to call it an evolution of these mediums. But the truth of the matter is the smartphone you carry in your pocket has replaced your televisions and newspapers.
So in view of this supply and expected demand for reforms and changing pace of life how do politicians cope? Trump ran on the promise of draining the swamp. Means the promise of removing the corrupting influence of the middleman. But in more vulnerable societies it might be taken to imply the removal of middle management. A bureaucracy devoid of hierarchy. Flat and perhaps accessible.
We took a while in reaching this conclusion but it seems that Trump and the wave of new leaders emerging around are not the exceptions or flashes in the pan but the rule. So yes, the answer is that with the shifting sands of politics something fundamental is shifting in politics around the world. And the change might be more palpable in the developing world.
When you look through this prism the new Pakistani government’s emphasis on reform, austerity and restructuring bureaucracy starts making a lot of sense. Whether it will deliver in the end, still remains to be seen. But there are a few caveats. Unlike the developed world, developing societies can dismantle existing structures with relative ease, but rebuilding is usually so time consuming that it is abandoned half way through. Then there is the need to understand that we and the entire world are in the territory Rumsfeld called the ‘unknown unknown’. For a long time we thought the Indian economy had arrived. But now experts like Raghuram Rajan are disputing the economic model since inception. We need to be cautious.
(September 15, 2018) “They went down, way down, where the two tectonic plates join, and exploded a host of powerful nukes there. That is why we had such a devastating earthquake here.” The year was 2005. The young man sitting before me in the restaurant […]General
(September 15, 2018)
“They went down, way down, where the two tectonic plates join, and exploded a host of powerful nukes there. That is why we had such a devastating earthquake here.” The year was 2005. The young man sitting before me in the restaurant of one of Karachi’s five-star hotels was an up and coming star of the news media world. We were together for a media training workshop. As he uttered these words I looked at his face for obvious signs of irony. There were none. I wondered if he realised how outlandish he sounded. Foreign qualified and young but carrying such onerous and cynical worldview around. But he obviously did not appear self-aware enough.
Upon return to Islamabad and with the passage of time I was to discover a large number of young educated folks given to such views. Young, bright and clustering around the country’s powerful policy circles, their minds obviously were being contaminated by the conspiracy theory networks on the internet. This industry was relatively young, but the websites could not be traced back to any given country. The advent of social media and streaming videos were to further weaponise such content and make them easy to access.
The years 2007-09 were an interesting period. In Pakistan we were witnessing the forced transfer of power from a military government to a civilian set-up. There was anger on both sides of the divide. And in the United States the Bush administration was grappling with its parting gift, the economic crisis of 2008. The conspiracy theories were getting whackier by the day. First it was about the oft-rebutted story about 4,000 Jews missing from the World Trade Center on the day of 9/11. One budding journalist who is now living abroad after his alleged tiff with the establishment mocked me when I tried to suggest that we should be open to the idea that Osama might be behind the 9/11 attacks. When Obama won the elections, I heard the wife of the Red Mosque cleric on television say that the new president had proposed bombing Islamic holiest sites. This was about the man who would continuously be blamed for being a closet Arab and Muslim throughout his administration. Then there was the talk of the so-called High Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme (HAARP). Paranoia everywhere. The source of it all unknown. And the common refrain in Islamabad’s drawing rooms was that Pakistan should ditch its American alliance and explore other options. Given that we were already very close with China, the proposed best ally was always one nation: Russia.
The 2016 US elections have proven to be a veritable eye- opener. It was during this time that Russia’s premier English news channel RT (formerly Russia Today) came in sharp focus. It was in the run-up to the elections that I started paying attention to the content being reported on the channel. These were the same conspiracy theories that we had been listening to for a decade. Was it a coincidence? Had our conspiracy theories-infected world contaminated the Russian mind or was Russia behind all these theories all along? May I remind you that the homegrown theories in our country are far cruder in nature? If you recall a set of clerics went on a famous televangelist-turned-politician’s show and claimed that a marginalised minority of Pakistan was behind suicide bombings in the country and not the terrorist non-state actors. No, a smarter, more organised and obviously more informed mind was behind the stories about the role of Blackwater and other such groups in the region and the country.
The debate about the alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election and Brexit poll has covered a number of interesting patterns. It is clear that Russia is not the only country that has invested heavily in such methods. There are others. For instance, North Korean hackers managed to steal and release a pre-released copy of The Interview in 2014, a comedy movie making fun of Kim Jong Un. But the patterns revealed in the discussions surrounding the Russian meddling are instructive especially for Pakistan. Sadly, our friends here do not see the patterns.
One important aspect of the Russian influence in America is that it is not restricted to the elections or political parties. There is a solid pattern of the Russian patronage of neo-Nazi and alt right groups in America. Simultaneously we see an effort to harness the post- 9/11 Muslim sense of alienation. Hence it can be said that while our Russian peers were sympathising with the Muslims around the world, they were also investing in American paranoia against the very same Muslims. Trigger? Terrorism. Does it ring any bells? During the Afghan Jihad era these terror groups were known by another group. The Mujahideen. And they were very close to the US too and were used against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. You see what is happening here? It seems Russia doesn’t forgive easily.
The plot thickens for us because while we were being used against the USSR, India, our arch-rival, was very close to Moscow. Is it too difficult an idea to process that a proud and old nation like Russia would not forget old rivals and allies that easily? While we should never stop working to improve our relations with Russia and its beautiful people, a healthy amount of caution always comes handy. It also pays never to underestimate our Indian colleagues. While they are still quite effective in Russia they are also very successful in the West and its media. For instance, the Western media is never too kind to Donald Trump, who despite his unpredictable character, has never been accused of killing a soul. Narendra Modi, a man often accused of enabling the murder of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat, is seldom portrayed negatively. That is India’s influence now. I am sure they must be working on the Chinese mind too.
This discussion takes a disturbing turn when you see the speculation around the Belt and Road Initiative, especially its pilot project, CPEC. The American mind has been convinced that China is the next nemesis. Steve Bannon, who played a crucial part in convincing Trump of this animosity, is a big fan of India too. There is a new international media campaign against China especially highlighting the plight of Muslims. Like rest of the world is a bed of roses for them. Similarly, about the Chinese lease of the port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Overheard someone claiming China will take over Pakistan in 50 years had to remind the said gentleman that the lease of the port is for 99 years.
You have a right to be gullible and paranoid. But please be paranoid about everybody then. And it will be helpful if meanwhile we could work on getting rid of internal polarisation because that is where the enemies strike.
( September 8, 2018) What is the nature of our world order? Is our world uni-polar, bipolar or multi-polar in essence? Is there any real order in this world or we are trapped in what Richard Haass calls A World in Disarray? Are we in a […]General
( September 8, 2018)
What is the nature of our world order? Is our world uni-polar, bipolar or multi-polar in essence? Is there any real order in this world or we are trapped in what Richard Haass calls A World in Disarray? Are we in a long but tense period of calm between two great wars? Can we be sure of anything anymore? What is the place of the United States, China and Russia in all of this? What is India’s role and where does Pakistan fit in? Above everything else, is the future of humanity doomed or is there still some hope left around us? While we will attempt to answer the rest of the questions in the coming passages, the answer to the last question is relatively easier. You are aboard SS World on a steady course to hit an iceberg and through countless coups the loonies have taken over. Good luck with that!
This talk of a world order takes me two decades back when as a young writer and a student I wanted to know where we are at. I wrote a piece on the very subject which was carried in the local press. The argument was simple. Borrowing from Hegel’s dialectics, I argued that socialism was capitalism’s natural antithesis and since the West had exhibited an uncanny haste in bringing its nemesis down, the demons of our collective past, known then as fascism and now as ethno-nationalism, were coming back to haunt us. Since then the trigger of that discussion Jorg Haider, the head of Austrian FPO, has died. But the challenge of ethno-nationalism has arrived like clockwork. And yet since then I have not just abandoned that position but moved light years away. Histories, philosophies, terms of political science and historiography exist to make lives easier for us, not to imprison us for good. We continue to reward our captors and keep misreading history at a lethal cost. And that precisely is the reason behind my new-found pessimism. We never learn.
At every momentous turn in history we have seen emergence of testimonials that shape the future of the political order. The post-WWII reality was shaped by the likes of George Kennan’s The Long Telegram and Paul Nitze’s NSC 68. The shabby, stinky reality that is drawing to a close walked straight out of Samuel Huntington’s mind. Primarily basing his first argument on Arnold Toynbee’s flawed and reductive definition of a civilisation the saviour of the predominant order told the world that Muslims and China were the next enemies. Muslims around the world allowed this hideous construct to define them owing to the identity crisis stemming from their post-colonial experience. With a skilled poker player like China the true scope of damage done is hard to tell. But from South China Sea and Africa to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and strengthening yuan it is difficult to ignore the possibility of some strand of Huntington’s wisdom contaminating the thought process. As I try to prove later in this piece, all of this is lethal in nature because it deflects us from the real threats that will devour us quietly.
And where does Russia fit into all this? At the time of creation of Shanghai 5, which later morphed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), China and Russia agreed that the world ought to be multi-polar. With the steady rise of China and Russia’s momentary comeback pundits and wonks claim we are entering into the world of multi-polarity. Don’t let them deceive you. Many of them, with real power to shape things, are convinced that we are facing the onslaught of a bipolar world. That China and America are soon to lock their horns and this tussle will consume our near future. That Russia at best is a flash in the pan, with huge financial liabilities and little or no resources except its massive geography that has done little to sustain it so far. At best Russia is a complicating factor like North Korea, the Arab world and other complicated parts of the world. It is China that allegedly strikes at the heart of Western dominance, its economics. This worldview is a product of an unfinished discussion that was cut short by the surprise victory of Donald Trump. The wonks then aligning with Hillary Clinton who still influence our view of the world were to be convinced that a better world with less confrontation was possible once she won the election. Sadly, that was not to be.
Enter India, one of the worst complicating factors of them all. No two countries can disappoint an optimistic mind more than India and Israel. Both these nations have endured centuries of oppression, marginalisation and exploitation. Now that they have their moment under the sun they could have acted as the world’s conscience. Instead paranoia and ambition have won there, and both the states view the world with a jaundiced outlook. India is adamant that Huntington was right, and that China and Muslims pose the real challenge to the world and India should work as West’s wingman to punish them. On Muslims, Israel agrees. Sadly, many Muslims do too. On China however their doublespeak becomes quite pronounced. Everyone does business with China and even the dominant propaganda about the country ignores the fact that the country has never invaded another in the 5,000 years of its history.
Pakistan remains confused. Not truly cognisant of its true potential the country signs up to be part of wars in which its own victory affects it most adversely. And once it has signed up, the West makes sure it fulfills its assigned function before abandoning it. Consider the Cold War and the War on Terror as the two examples. Even today it tries to convince itself that Russia is a serious bet against the West, while trying to ignore the truth that a cold war between two of its most important allies, China and the United States, will damage it the most.
The paranoia and identity based world order that is emerging right now is also a gift of Huntington. Read his Who Are We? to understand the rise of ethno-nationalism in the West. Trump is its mascot.
But three real threats to humanity are independent of all these problems. The threats we face are rising overpopulation, the rise of artificial intelligence in a polarised setting and climate decay. Consider a multiplying population robbed of jobs and resources by machines living on a melting down planet. Unite and colonise space or die. Until then welcome to the worst dystopia ever.
(June 7, 2018) “North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the ‘nuclear button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger […]General
(June 7, 2018)
“North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un just stated that the ‘nuclear button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!” Thus tweeted Donald Trump on January 2nd, 2018. Many policy wonks dubbed it a dangerous brinkmanship. But as if that was not enough more was soon to come.
On January 13th the residents of Hawaii received a chilling emergency alert notification on the cell phones. “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” it read. It took the authorities in the US state 38 minutes to inform the residents that there was no missile inbounds. Donald Trump was playing golf at the time. And the world was unaware of how close it had come to a nuclear conflict.
On June 12th Donald J Trump and Kim Jong-un are slated to meet at Capella Hotel on Singapore’s Sentosa Island. This meeting between America’s impulsive and unpredictable president and young and the equally volatile leader of North Korea is expected to take place at around 6am Pakistan Standard Time. While the administration in Washington, DC, tries to manage expectations, some big development is expected from the summit. In a remarkable gesture North Korea has already dismantled its nuclear test site in a pompous ceremony. This is the same country that until a few months ago was test-firing missiles left right and centre.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. The leaders of the two Koreas have met more than once. Kim has met the Chinese president twice. Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director and now the US secretary of state, is said to have put a lot of effort in making the meeting between Trump and Kim possible. Now that we know the meeting will indeed take place can we be confident that something as big as the denuclearisation of the peninsula may finally materialise? Judging by the astonishing turn of events that seems a distinct possibility. North Korea has remained pariah of the international order for a long time. The Seth Rogen starrer The Interview was correct on one count at least: This isolation has caused immense poverty in the country and the North Korea of today may want it to end.
If that is the expectation, no matter how far-fetched, from the summit, what is the expectation of Trump supporters in the United States? They made it clear in a recent rally held at Michigan sports complex. Speaking on the occasion when Trump broached the subject of peace between the two Koreas his audience erupted into chants of ‘Nobel, Nobel’. Wait, what? Nobel Peace Prize for Trump?
If you have been viewing Trump’s policies through the prism of American media this must make even less sense. Trump has often been accused of being a racist, a bigot, anti-Muslim, anti-Semite among many other things. On occasions he has acted in a fashion that lends credence to such rumours. On other he has not. If you truly want to know who Trump is, you need to piece together the bits of insights and clues about his personality from various sources. Such insights are scattered all over the place in the shape of his shows, references in books written before he decided to run for public office and his interviews given during those times. When you look at the profile that emerges you realise he is nothing more or less than a crafty businessman. Of course, your choices and the company you keep matters when you are in power and cannot be divorced from the reality. But for a businessman-turned-politician that also reflects on his perception of his audience, his client. Trump thinks he was elected to shake things up; to bring just enough mad touch to the system that things start lining up. And that is what he has been doing.
I often recommend Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish’s Trump Revealed, to my friends and audience. It is an authoritative work. And while there are weak moments in the story where you feel all your fears about the man are about to be confirmed, there are others where you see a vulnerable and often well-intentioned person trying to do the right thing for the people who matter to him. His own ghost-written book Trump: The Art of the Deal is quite illuminating. So is the content of The Apprentice, the show he hosted for a long time.
But there is one passage in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury that probably defines him the best: “Trump was not a politician who could parse factions of support and opprobrium; he was a salesman who needed to make a sale. “I won. I am the winner. I am not the loser,” he repeated, incredulously, like a mantra. Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door. This was the nature of Trump’s particular salesmanship. His strategic belief was that there was no reason not to heap excessive puffery on a prospect. But if the prospect was ruled out as a buyer, there was no reason not to heap scorn and lawsuits on him or her. After all, if they don’t respond to sucking up, they might respond to piling on.”
When seen in the light of this passage the North Korean summit gamble becomes so simple. Kim is the potential buyer. Denuclearisation and stabilisation of the Korean Peninsula is the sale. And the Nobel Prize, by way of the acknowledgment the ultimate prize. If Kim plays nicely, he may also be able to get some piece of that action. Of course, failure is also an option. But somehow Trump seems eerily close to both his goals.
Is there a lesson somewhere in here? I think there is. Trump thrives on the old system of reward and punishment. When he does something wrong, censure him. When he does something right, reward him. He is the blunt instrument of diplomacy that seems to be working. If he wins now, there is a chance that the desire to make new records may lead him to the resolution of Kashmir and Palestinian disputes as well. Imagine the scope of such possibilities. We are already talking about the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula which is no mean feat. Here’s to fresh starts, impossible feats of diplomacy and prizes.
(May 24, 2018) An inexplicable fear has gripped the interlocutors of democratic project around the world. The fear of the collapse of democracy. It seems that the world is still reeling from the black swan victory of Donald Trump and what it entails for the […]General
(May 24, 2018)
An inexplicable fear has gripped the interlocutors of democratic project around the world. The fear of the collapse of democracy. It seems that the world is still reeling from the black swan victory of Donald Trump and what it entails for the civilisation. As every cherished democratic norm melts down in front of our very eyes and the wild, even surreal, cacophony of violent protests on your television or smartphone screens obliterate the chances of a serious group rethink, the world inadvertently braces for the worst.
And the Western publishing houses are churning out book after book on the subject. Some like Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning and Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels turn to past for explanation, lessons and means to divine the future. Others like David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump look elsewhere for understanding.
The subject or at least the prime motivator of all these books is the stunning 2016 win of Trump and what it means for America, the West, democracy and the world. Former director CIA Michael Hayden’s The Assault on Intelligence goes a bit further and like many other works shines the light on how it negatively affects America’s national security and interest. However, these remarkable works often fail to answer one crucial question: Whether Trump’s victory is a cause or merely an effect of the situation we find ourselves in. While his peculiar personality and the reaction to it complicate matters further, his meteoric rise owes itself to the circumstances and double standards that were not of his making.
But before that let me underscore the fact that in nascent democracies where freethinkers are barely learning to walk, this came as a paralysing blow to their spines. And in its aftermath they find it difficult to sell the idea that the product (democracy) in itself is not flawed. That is why you witness a quiet movement towards re-authoritarianism disguised under the wafer-thin apparel of nominal democracy in many places. When the teacher has a problem, students usually get away with anything.
Now back to what is happening in the West and what caused the friction and old fault lines to explode there. This friction existed before Trump even decided to run for the public office. He simply saw an opportunity and seized it.
So what caused it. I know we can partially if not completely blame the Fox News and radio talk phenomena for it. These tools were honed to defend the Bush administration. And when Obama came they became the vanguard of resistance against him using every dirty trick in the book. They used race card, religion, paranoia and deceit to their advantage. But that is only the domain of perceptions. Perceptions cannot do too much damage in absence of genuine pain. The celebrated movie Big Short does justice to the question of how corruption during Bush administration’s time led to economic slowdown. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land tells us about the effects of Obama administration. But even that is not enough.
There is more. Democracy’s strength lies in its principles. Democracy challenges monopolies of thought. Absolutism is its kryptonite. It also fights concentration of power. It is loath to censorship and spin. And yet we see all of these maladies afflicting the teacher.
As GL Williams in the essay ‘The Life of JS Mill and Perspectives on his thoughts’ (John Stuart Mill: Critical Assessments, Volume 1 edited by John Cunningham Wood), writes: “We do not decide problems in a vacuum of principles as we do not decide them in a vacuum of experience.” But behold the vacuums of principles infesting the Western nations, especially America.
How many school shootings have you seen recently? One of them killed our own Sabika Sheikh and left a faith shaped hole in the hearts of fathers like me who wanted their daughters to one day study there. But what is the reaction? Partial outrage. Some marches and more promises. Meanwhile, the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) manages to dub those who advocate gun regulation traitors and enemies of the second amendment. While the sensitivity of gun owners and 2nd amendment folk is understandable in many cases, how does society let NRA behave as if it is above the law? No financial disclosures, no accountability.
Another example. The recent Israeli massacre of 60 Palestinians in Gaza in broad daylight, in front of live television camera and with mind numbing impunity. Given its history, one can understand the US position on Israel’s right to defend itself in case of terrorism. But this wasn’t terrorism. You cannot call the right to assembly an act of terrorism. The ensuing split screen bloodbath was a tutorial to many autocrats elsewhere. Yet the US response was remarkable. Nikki Haley, the US ‘sheriff in town’ at the UN, stormed out in protest as soon the Palestinian envoy started speaking. You think your people can reconcile with these glaring double standards. Only a few days ago following the murder of a Palestinian journalist and a 15-year-old, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman had proclaimed that there were no one innocent in Gaza. Apparently not even newborns. You realise this is not a counterterrorism approach. It is called racism 101.
And to think that it all happened because the US decided to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even if it is accepted as a bilateral issue, despite the presence of countless UN resolutions, you have to look at the motives. The lineup of speakers at the ceremony to mark the occasion revealed it wasn’t done in love of the Jewish people. So, the purpose was to help out an embattled prime minister facing corruption charges and to placate a domestic evangelical community that thinks such a move is critical for the world to end. What an admirable and noble motive to make such a huge policy decision.
Trump gets one thing right though. America’s allies have also mercilessly taken advantage of the country. Another blind spot is India whose prime minister was banned from entering the country until he rose to post. Amazingly the very media that constantly attacks Trump does not utter a word about what Modi’s party is doing in Occupied Kashmir or to minorities in India.
These blind spots, vacuums of principles and double standards are killing democracy. If you want to save democracy you have to do away with them. Hold other countries to high ethical standards. But hold yourself and your allies to even higher moral standards. These bad precedents that we create today will one day come back to haunt us especially as we enter the age of extreme inequality, eugenics and artificial intelligence.
May 17th, 2018 An African-American man sits on the stage, with braided hair wearing oversized shades indoors, holding a phone to his face and singing a song. In a beautiful voice, he describes the beauty of the world. Someone nearby whispers in my ear with […]General
May 17th, 2018
An African-American man sits on the stage, with braided hair wearing oversized shades indoors, holding a phone to his face and singing a song. In a beautiful voice, he describes the beauty of the world. Someone nearby whispers in my ear with an awed voice that the man is blind. This was my first introduction to Stevie Wonder’s song I just called to say I love you and the world of music in general. I cannot describe how overwhelmed I was. Loss of sight was the only true fear my young mind had at the time. When the world goes dark, for good. And here was a man, a celebrity no less, playing on the irony, battling on, with a wonderful voice and imagination far superior to any of us blessed with eyesight. There must be something miraculous about music. This link between blindness and music was to grow as I came across the music of Ray Charles and others. I was to learn much later that the brain’s visual cortex can be redeployed to enhance musical abilities in the absence of visual input.
Music touches all our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. It is there to embrace us when we feel down. It connects us with disparate groups of people with hardly anything else relatable. And yet we seldom stop and care to take a look under the hood. In the age of streaming music we select or reject someone’s labour of months, even years, in a matter of seconds. Who has the time to stop and wonder what instruments were used in a particular song? And what was on the mind of its creator when the work was being composed? In our fast-paced lives people hardly have a second to spare for the finer things in music like, say, Western classical compositions that we often dismiss as boring.
But there are reasons to take music seriously. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, the neuro-psychologist and author of Awakenings that was later made into that beloved Academy Award-nominated film, lists the benefits of music. It is used for speech therapy and to provide relief from the effects of Parkinson’s and Tourette’s diseases. And lest you forget the lesson from Awakenings, it can help in regaining mobility, though not always as dramatically as Robert De Niro’s movement in the film. But there is more. If you can enjoy music you should because not everyone can. There is tone deafness that affects a substantial part of the population. Then there is such a thing as rhythm deafness. Che Guevara suffered from this disorder and couldn’t understand which dance steps go with which rhythm. Then there is the condition where music has no discernable effect on you. Famous examples include Charles Darwin and Freud. In patients of epilepsy music can in some cases trigger seizures. So if you can enjoy music, my friends, you should be grateful and put it to good use.
As Daniel Levitin, psychologist and Stevie Wonder’s music consultant, highlights in his book, “This is your brain on music, the parts of brain that process music also process memories. So that is an important reason why you feel nostalgia so strongly when you listen to old numbers. But that is not all. The same parts are also partly responsible for your emotions which are linked to your motor capabilities.” That is why music is so helpful in workouts.
Recently, we have witnessed some attempts to popularise classical Western music. If you have seen the television series Mozart in the jungle you’d know that it is at least partly working. But if it is not considered the great company you’ll enjoy if you develop taste for it. I am sure you are familiar with Edward Said’s Orientalism or other works on identity. But not many people know that he also wrote a book called Musical Elaborations. Not only that. He was also music critic for the Nation. Reading his writings on music brings home one crucial fact: there is too much information packed in the meticulously arranged notes of classical symphonies. While writing these lines I am painfully aware that there is an air of Frasier-like snobbery about them. But so what? You don’t stop eating good, healthier food if people judge you for snobbery. Why should it stop you from learning about and listening to great music? If you do you might be surprised not just by touch of the divine but occasionally even by the vulgarly mundane. For example, did you know the fourth movement of Beethoven’s symphony number 2 was about disorders of his own digestive tract. Look it up on the internet and listen. Within a few minutes you’ll know how he is describing stomach problems, his nausea, hiccups and other issues here. Surprised? A maestro can have some sense of humour, too.
But it is not just about Western classical music. Our own classical music is quite rich. In music it makes little difference if your education method is solfege (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do) or Sa Re Ga Ma. It is there to help you enjoy and be a better, happier person. And it is not as if modern music doesn’t count. It does. Any music is better than no music.
And what happens if you live in a Muslim society where some conservative sections consider music a sin. If I am stuck in such a situation my first attempt is to draw attention to the last letter in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s book Ghubar-e-Khatir where he confides how on moonlit nights he would go to Taj Mahal, sit on the bank of Yamuna and play the sitar. If a religious scholar of such stature could do that why should I be judged? But if that line of argument didn’t work here is more.
Levitin explains music or symphony’s building blocks which are pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness and reverberation. These elements are found not just in what few clerics dub music but also in anthems, naats and hamds. In fact, when Junaid Jamshed was learning to be a preacher I had a brief truck with him and he told me which naatkhwan and which qari used this, that or the other raag during recital. So whatever works for you is good. I find it quite a useful and rewarding escape from the rigours of reality.
(April 26, 2018) You are about to lose your job. No matter what you do, no matter which industry you work in or the position you hold, it is highly likely to disappear in the next 10 years. It is not a joke. Nor an […]General
(April 26, 2018)
You are about to lose your job. No matter what you do, no matter which industry you work in or the position you hold, it is highly likely to disappear in the next 10 years. It is not a joke. Nor an alarmist propaganda. The skillset that distinguishes you from your peers will become totally redundant within a decade. And that is a very generous estimate. Machines are not likely to wait that long.
The Economist this week published a rather uncharacteristically blasé piece titled ‘The Kamprad test’. For a heartbeat it felt that one of the finest publications on the planet which had been a personal source of guidance for me for decades was mocking the artificial intelligence (AI). A group of AI researchers managed to teach a group of industrial robots how to put together an Ikea chair. The job that humans can accomplish within no time, took the robots 20 minutes to finish. And the publication’s science editors danced with joy. Moravec’s paradox holds true then. It states that while high reasoning requires significantly less computational resources, low level chores requiring sensorimotor dexterity need a lot of them. So finally, it has conclusively been proven that the machines will pose no threat to the human civilisation because they are far too naïve to replace human skills. Right? Dead wrong. The Economist really disappointed us in reaching that hasty and premature conclusion.
It is true that human dexterity at question here has evolved over billions of years and AI hasn’t been around for that long. Except under that hood time doesn’t flow in that simple a fashion. The newer versions of computers are capable of running trillions of subroutines per second. This makes the job of committing mistakes, learning from them and evolving a child’s play for machines. Want to test the hypothesis? Sure.
An exabyte is a million terabytes. But I am getting ahead of myself. This piece you are reading is a little longer than a kilobyte (1,000 bytes). 1,000 kilobytes make a megabyte. 1,000 megabytes a gigabyte. 1,000 gigabytes a terabyte (1TB). That 1TB drive that you’ve got can store your entire life in high definition video. A thousand TBs equal one petabyte. A thousand petabyte make one exabyte. Clear?
According to IDC’s Digital Universe Study sponsored by EMC dated December 2012, humanity produced 130 exabytes of data since dawn of time till 2005. This data included everything like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Beethoven’s symphonies. The figure had reached 1,200 exabytes by 2010. Further acceleration brought it to a 7,900 exabytes by 2015. And by 2020 it will reach a whopping 40,900 exabytes. Now some of this data is undoubtedly white noise generated say by your air conditioner’s interaction with the internet or simply put waste. But even so, just take a step back and appreciate where we are at in our evolution. Where humanity’s evolution generated 130 exabytes in only 15 years it grew to 40,900 exabytes. What brought this difference? Smart machines.
And they are getting smarter every single minute. And now to dexterity. If you want to see how robots are improving their sensorimotor skills all you need to do is open the YouTube app and input two words: Boston Dynamics. Their prototype Atlas gave Elon Musk goosebumps when video of it doing backflips went viral. Since then we have seen robots enjoying classical music and gently dancing with it. And every day new videos keep coming.
Please do not confuse this rise of the machines with the Terminator or Matrix like Armageddon. Far from it. There are strong reasons to believe that even when AI realises its true potential it will remain benign to its creators. It will serve you all right. But in serving you it will take all your jobs. All of them. And since in a capitalist society you have to pay for the services you want to enjoy, you have to ask yourselves how would you plan to pay for them, especially when you are out of job. If you are rich, no problem. You will get richer. But if you belong to the working class you are doomed.
Calum Chace in his book The Economic Singularity makes a convincing case that in striking contrast to the Industrial Revolution which created more jobs by shifting mankind’s focus from manual labour to the service industry, the information revolution led by automation we are witnessing today will deprive you of your jobs by taking over the service industry. If you think your job will be spared because you possess unique skills, well, think again. AI’s forays into my own profession began in 2010 when Associated Press began use of Quill, a software that writes sports and business stories for it. How about that? In warfare, a software named Alpha keeps beating human drone pilots in repeated simulations. Daimler’s 18-wheeler driverless trucks are already being tested in Nevada. Dexterity much?
When futurists talk about the rise of AI they usually have a distant date in mind. Somewhere around 2040. Why this contention then that this rise will be possible within the next 10 years? Two laws come to mind. The first is called Moore’s Law. Named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, it states that the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit doubles every year. So, machines double their intelligence every year. Wait. There is more. The second law is actually more of an adage than a law. Murphy’s law maintains “that which can go wrong, will go wrong.” So far we have talked about binary computing. Enter quantum computing. And as if that was not enough, as Ray Kurzweil pointed out in the book The Singularity is Near, humanity now has the access to much faster DNA computing which can adjust far more transistors per square inch than silicon-based flat chip. So, the acceleration that ensures untimely arrival of self-aware, super-intelligent AI is a foregone. All of this is based on what we already know about technology. There is no assurance that a faster mechanism will not enter the race soon.
As Max Tegmark has demonstrated in his book Life 3.0, unlike previous versions of intelligence on earth, AI has the capacity to redesign its software as well as hardware. And here is the kicker. Unlike the cost of human labour, information technology gets cheaper every day. The technological marvel called smartphone that fits the palm of your hand and must have been bought for a few hundred dollars would have been worth millions of dollars if not more only a decade ago if it existed back then.
So within a decade if this technology reaches its critical mass, jobs will disappear, the middle class will rapidly shrink and we will have social problems of all sorts. People like me however can find solace in the fact that annoying little articles mocking technology will stop because AI most likely will supplant The Economist’s science and technology editor as well.
(April 12, 2018) Last November, Britain’s pro-Brexit Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel was forced to resign after being accused of violating the ministerial code of conduct. As far as media reports go, the British politician of Indian descent had met Israeli officials, […]General
(April 12, 2018)
Last November, Britain’s pro-Brexit Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel was forced to resign after being accused of violating the ministerial code of conduct. As far as media reports go, the British politician of Indian descent had met Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several times (13 in total) in the presence of lobbyist Lord Polak without disclosing them to the British authorities. Following those meetings she had recommended that the Department of International Development give international aid to Israeli Army-run hospitals in Golan Heights. This ostensibly was a conflict of interest and a breach of the aforementioned ministerial code. Patel was also critical of Britain’s aid to the Palestinian authorities. Doesn’t it remind you of any American politician?
On March 27, 2017, thirty-one-year-old Pakistani Mustufa Haidar Syed-Naqfi was sentenced to four years and three months in prison “for working for a foreign intelligence service” by Berlin’s superior court. This foreign intelligence was reported to be the Quds Force of Iran, the foreign operations wing of the elite Revolutionary Guards and had nothing to do with Pakistan. Syed-Naqfi compiled dossiers on a former president of German-Israel society and a French Israeli professor at a university in Paris. These two individuals were potential targets for Iranian attacks.
Do these examples confuse you? Immigrant communities usually have hybrid identities. But their loyalties are usually limited to the countries of their residence and of origin. Here you see a British politician of Indian origin landing in hot soup for a third country. Similarly, a Pakistani spying in Germany for a third nation. Amazingly, these two countries are known for their confrontation. But that is not all. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, also of Indian origin, recently threatened 128 members of the UN General Assembly (which included India) and the UN itself for passing a resolution condemning the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. In a separate talk at AIPAC, Haley told the audience that her high heels were meant to kick Israel bashers, how she had successfully opposed the nomination of a Palestinian to a high position at the UN and how she forced the UN chief to pull the Falk Report that compared Israel to an apartheid state. At least in consistent reports we find Pakistan in a dire condition. On a number of occasions, reports have surfaced stating that in the Syrian civil war people of Pakistani origin might be fighting on both/all sides of the divide.
Why do these people take pride in supporting a country which is neither of their origin nor their residence? Is it only about their desire to attach themselves to the visible movers and shakers in the world and if so why not the countries of their origin which are not insignificant by any means? Is it by anyway linked to the perception or misperception that the countries they are aligning with are closest allies of their countries of origin? Or it is simply because India and Pakistan do not have significant appeal for them as these countries do? Finally, does this have anything to do with the toxic environment of communal hostility in South Asia? Well, the answers to all these questions are pretty complicated.
Does this have to do with India-Pakistan hostility? I can understand why a person of Indian origin would want to align with Israel but why would a Pakistani spy for Iran, a state often found closer to India than Pakistan, or join fanatic groups fighting in Syria? Perhaps it has something to do with how the religious identities in South Asia have emerged. Muslims of South Asia were keen to associate themselves with the Arab invaders. As Ayesha Jalal points out in her book The Struggle for Pakistan so powerful was this pull that one of the nation’s earliest cabinet ministers suggested that Arabic be adopted as the national language of the nascent country and that the language would become prevalent within 50 years. Such an attempt could not obscure the fact that Pakistanis are not Arabs and that the language is not germane to the local culture. Similarly, the rapid Sanskritisation of Hindi, a language originally virtually identical to Urdu except in script, manifests the Indian desire to distance itself from its Muslim heritage. But in her article titled Identity Crisis: Rethinking the Politics of Communtiy and Region in South Asia published in the Harvard International Review on May 6, 2006, Jalal also warns us of the troubles with the labels. “The image of essentialised religious communities locked in grim battle gives a very distorted perspective on the subcontinent’s conflicting politics of identity and discourses of contested sovereignty,” she observed.
Amin Maalouf, the French-Lebanese novelist, has written a beautiful book titled In the Name of Identity in which he stresses the importance of understanding that people can live with multiple identities in peace and that no religion by nature is violent. Yet the BJP in India strongly objected to neologism ‘saffron terrorism’ when it was used during the previous government’s tenure. Apparently, Hindus were not capable of terrorism which was specific to one religion alone. Mind you, India is among a few countries which were very vocal against terrorism much before 9/11. Maalouf also shows how any man can be radicalised irrespective of his faith or geography.
In South Asia’s case it seems that the multiple identities got weaponised. Muslims who viewed themselves as out of power rulers of India felt marginalised and doubled down on their identity. Indian Hindus who constantly felt subjugated by foreign rulers for centuries worked to harden their identity. When did this happen? We can only guess. In Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India Akshaya Mukul has given a detailed account of how saffron India was born and evolved into the current shape. If Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is any guide the seeds of discord were sown by the British Raj. But things can’t be as simple. This toxic environment must have taken a millennium to grow. But as things stand today India vs Pakistan, Hindu vs Muslims or Muslims vs the rest are demarcators that have defined religious identities in South Asia at loggerheads with each other. So, is it unthinkable that a Pakistani abroad would want to align with the visible influencers of political Islam like, say, Iran or the Arab world? Or that an Indian there may want to be associated with the country that is visibly at odds with the Muslim world? I think not.
As we progress in the 21st century this clash/crisis of identities doesn’t do justice to the history or cultural richness of South Asia. It ensures further radicalisation. And since South Asians are people of incredible talent it adds to the global political warming. South Asians both at home and abroad will have to relent some day and reflect on the futility of this escalation. Until then, both the region and the world are not safe.
(April 05, 2018) Is democracy around the world perishing before our eyes? Is it the point where the narrator’s voice in dulcet tones marks the end of freedom as a reality? Is it that time when free choice becomes all but an illusion for our […]General
(April 05, 2018)
Is democracy around the world perishing before our eyes? Is it the point where the narrator’s voice in dulcet tones marks the end of freedom as a reality? Is it that time when free choice becomes all but an illusion for our kind? These questions are of critical import in the age of growing infestation of strongmen and borderline authoritarian demagogues. Two shocking developments in recent weeks are already hinting heavily in favour of such a possibility. If you failed to notice them, you need to pay more attention to these lines for whether you appreciate or not they have a lot to do with your lives, your country and your future.
These questions are also important because they pertain to the changing nature of our societies owing to technological breakthroughs. And while in the following lines I will try to limit myself to a cursory glance at the technological advancements, make no mistakes, we are firmly on the turf of those I call prophets of science and you know them as science fiction writers like Asimov, Philip K Dick and why, even Orwell.
When Karl Popper wrote Open Society and Its Enemies he certainly wasn’t thinking of Cambridge Analytica or Sinclair Broadcast Group. Popper died in 1992, in the infant years of the public internet. Likewise, when Nobel laureate Milton Friedman penned his acclaimed book Free to Choose he had no means to foresee how personal data generated on Facebook or other social media apps would compromise the very personal freedoms they professed to represent. He died in 2006 when Facebook was learning to crawl.
On 16th March, Facebook announced it was suspending the accounts of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a London-based firm meant to “to deliver data-driven behavioral change”. The move was intended to preempt the damage done by a New York Times report claiming that despite its pledge otherwise CA had retained private data of some 50 million US citizens obtained through a 3rd party app ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ developed by Cambridge Professor Aleksandr Kogan. CA is accused of generating psychographs predicting the choice patterns of each individual and then generating targeted Facebook ads for the Trump campaign which exploited his/her personal fears, likes and dislikes and ensured Trump victory in 2016. But this is not the end of it all.
In a 5-part series of exposes aptly titled ‘Data, democracy and dirty tricks’ British Channel-4 revealed the true extent of CA’s nefarious activities. The undercover reporting is available online (https://www.channel4.com/news/data-democracy-and-dirty-tricks-cambridge-analytica-uncovered-investigation-expose) and I absolutely insist you watch the small video clips made available. Using a free range of dirty tricks (data harvesting being a small part of them) the company’s various office-bearers claim to have influenced various elections around the world from Africa to India.
The second shock came when a video cleverly edited by sports news site Deadspin (https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/how-americas-largest-local-tv-owner-turned-its-news-anc-1824233490) revealed how dozens of TV anchors belonging to America’s largest network of local stations Sinclair Broadcast Group were made to read the same scripted editorial verbatim as their own opinion. The ostensible purpose of this piece-to-camera was to discredit Trump’s critics in media as ‘fake news’. It is Sinclair which is credited to help Trump win the 2016 election by passing his campaign generated content as news. The overall impact of the Deadspin video is quite chilling. Here is the largest network of US local stations which currently owns 192 outlets and may soon increase that number to 233 using its on-air talent to brainwash its conservative audience. Such attempts to curb and undermine free flow of ideas and information were quite visible elsewhere in the world simultaneously. Malaysia recently passed a law to punish ‘fake news’.
The Indian government very nearly passed a similar order seeking to punish journalists found guilty of spreading ‘fake news’, which was hurriedly withdrawn after a media backlash. Who gets to decide which news report is fake and which is not in these countries would reveal the true purpose of such misguided efforts. We are seeing the partisan political elite of these countries leading the efforts to curb dissent.
The story of Cambridge Analytica, the company acquired by Robert Mercer, a billionaire backer of both Trump campaign and alt-right news website Breitbart News, when viewed together with that of Sinclair reveals the perils to democracy right now. Add to it the controversies surrounding online platforms like Facebook (which incidentally also owns Instagram & WhatsApp), Google (also owns YouTube & operating system of most of your smartphones), Amazon and Apple and you start believing that there is no hope left for democracy. These companies have become a critical part of your lives and the information you gift them for free can be used to influence your choices. And with traditional media outlets like Sinclair joining the fray, can you be sure that your own country’s networks are not silently being bought by the same interests?
In his celebrated book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama introduces a term called repatrimonialisation, representing the ascendency of lobbyists, special interest groups and big business that leads to political decay or deinstitutionalisation. Now such groups have new tools to exploit. In his work Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman highlights the significance of year 2007 when iPhone was launched, Twitter grew, Airbnb was born. Using Moore’s Law, which states processing capacity of microchips will double every two years he shows how this revolution will affect our lives. An incorrigible optimist, Friedman sees great hope in these technologies and the future of human civilisation.
The truth is we still have to see if it all will lead to a crash of democracy and the civilisation. If an enduring pushback against the above-mentioned totalitarian tendencies emerges democracy may prove to be what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls antifragile or the things that gain from disorder. But for now there is a clear and present danger to democracy. If you want to know how things can unfold you need to read first chapter of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark.
For a nascent democracy like Pakistan the challenges are only piling. The trouble is that democracy has left the realm of political science and has become an inextricable part of the world of algorithms. But since we lack in basic understanding of technology, our elite refuses to partake in what Stephen Covey once called sharpening the saw future of democracy here looks bleak. The elite here somehow believes that acquiring a degree from a prestigious institution ends their quest for knowledge. This ludic fallacy can lead to great disruption. Malcolm Turnbull of CA after all claimed that elections are won on emotions not on logic. Companies like CA are pretty adept at exploiting emotions and our polity has known only emotions in the past decade.
(First published on Mar 13, 2020) On January 31, at 11 PM GMT Great Britain formally said goodbye to the European Union (EU). This brought an end to a forty-seven years’ long uneasy marriage. The story, however, is far from over. Britain still must conclude […]General
(First published on Mar 13, 2020)
On January 31, at 11 PM GMT Great Britain formally said goodbye to the European Union (EU). This brought an end to a forty-seven years’ long uneasy marriage. The story, however, is far from over. Britain still must conclude most of its unfinished business before December of this very year. During this transition period, Britain will have no say in the making of the European laws but would still have to follow all its rules. Within these eleven months, London will have to work out details of its future relationship with Brussels. Some of the key issues that need work include trade, security and law enforcement, fishing access, aviation, medicine, and gas and power. This is easier said than done.
In the next few years (most likely by 2022), the United Kingdom will have to pay an exorbitant ‘divorce bill’ to the tune of 30 billion pounds to the European exchequer. Similarly, the alternative to the Irish backstop will see Britain essentially establishing a custom wall between itself and Northern Ireland. Since, majorities of both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted against leaving the EU in 2016, the Brexit deal also poses a threat to the territorial integrity of the UK. Britain’s great ordeal which has already cost it two prime ministers and two elections still continue to cause problem for the Kingdom.
The question that is being asked quite often is if the Kingdom will survive Brexit. Northern Ireland continues to have a difficult relationship with London. And the future of the bond looks dismal when a state has to establish a customs firewall between one of its territories and the rest. Consequently, calls for Irish unification have grown. Similarly, the government of Scotland, whose majority voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum, has already proposed a second referendum to break away from the United Kingdom. If the proposal is accepted, another vote may take place to decide its future by the start of the next year. Fifty-five percent of Scots rejected the notion in 2014. However, the Scottish government believes the outcome is no longer relevant as the voters had not taken the post-Brexit realities to account. While this has caused considerable distress in the British power structure, the truth is that such a separation will not come cheap for neither the Northern Ireland nor Scotland. The reward for breaking away from their historic roots will be a lifelong exposure to the bureaucratic red tapes and parochial statism that the EU has come to stand for most Britons. Regardless of their disagreements staying united still seems the best bet for the territories now part of the UK. Likewise, a disintegrating Kingdom at the behest of the EU is unlikely to strengthen the European brand and may deter the future enrolment. The EU’s best hope lies in a Britain which stays united and after working on its issues eventually decides to return on its own accord. Is that likely to happen? Only time will tell. For now the British leadership seems adamant on never returning to the Union.
While these might be some of the internal challenges that Britain currently faces, one thing is certain. When it joined the European alliance the prime motivation was economic and not political. As generations of independent minded Britons witnessed their autonomy gradually chipping away since 1940s the membership of this elite bloc has been a key destabilizing factor within the country. Three divisive and populist parties namely the Referendum Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party and the Brexit Party were all born because of it. As the country’s sovereignty returns post-Brexit, Boris Johnson currently presides over his country’s strongest government in decades. He has vowed to invest the British wealth to improve the lives of the British people and spend it on better healthcare, services and overall better governance for his people. Granted there are many challenges but this factor alone is enough to restore some of the lost splendour of the nation when contemporary historians were ready to write it off as a mere appendage to the European super state. More control over its resources and its market means that Britain can invigorate its industrial base, improve innovation and kickstart a new age of economic growth without worrying about Brussel’s notorious red tapes. In a worst case scenario, it can also lead the UK down the path of reactionary populism, controlled democracy, protectionism and parochialism. But the progressive or regressive direction may primarily be decided by the nature of the trade agreement the UK has with the EU.
The key challenge with leaving the European single market is that the UK needs to work out a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. If it does not, the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s rules may apply on its trade with the rest of Europe. Under the WTO rules, a country has the right to decide what duties to impose on any item’s entry into its territory. However, without an FTA in place, if Britain allows a tariff relief to the EU on any given product it may have to offer the same concession to the rest of the WTO member states. This, instead of making trade more autonomous for Britain, may further compromise its free will. And the fact that because of the promise to keep the border between the Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, it needs to put in place a mechanism for the imposition of duties on the items at risk of entering the European territory on the check points between the rest of its territories and the Northern Ireland, the absence of an FTA with Europe will spell disaster for the country’s internal cohesion. It must also be pointed out that concluding a trade agreement with the EU may prove harder than it sounds because the European leadership also doesn’t seem in a very charitable mood right now.
Where does the UK go from here in terms of trade and commerce? The pro-Brexit leadership has constantly pointed to the country’s long and strategic partnership with the United States. That would essentially mean that the trade partnership between the U.S. and the UK would grow. But as the post-Brexit Britain finds out the world is a different place now. The emergence of China as a major economic player and re-emergence of Russia as a political force seem to complicate the situation. Only recently a controversy surfaced between London and Washington when the latter opposed allowing Huawei access to British 5G industry contending that the Chinese companies should not be allowed to control the future of the internet. America has imposed a ban on Huawei among other companies of Chinese origin. However, the British government decided to go ahead and allow Huawei a role in the infrastructure development.
Then there is the matter of America’s transactional approach to trade policy under President Trump. Recently, the British government decided to impose a digital services tax on big technology giants, a majority of whom is American. Mr. Trump indicated that he may reciprocate by imposing duties on British car exports to the U.S. If this trend persists, to the British it may seem like a deal that swaps one big brother for another, hardly the kind of relationship that it was looking for when it decided for the withdrawal from the EU. It doesn’t mean that things cannot improve. The Trump administration is actively working to conclude a trade deal with Britain. If such a deal can remove the kinks from the system, it may work to allay the British concerns. But for now, the situation does not seem free of troubles.
It has been widely speculated for some time that the UK may find a willing partner in China. For a little while there was also a talk of Britain joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or any other part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Britain’s stand on Huawei has already lent some credence to such speculation. However, the British desire to have maximum control on its economic destiny may come in the way of forging such a partnership as it significantly deviates from the BRI business model.
For Pakistan, the Brexit realities pose many serious challenges. The EU is among the country’s largest trade partners. It was with the British help that Pakistan managed to get the preferential GSP Plus status. However, if the UK does not get full market access to the European market, Pakistan’s exports may seriously suffer. This matter has constantly surfaced in the list of items flagged by the country’s foreign office. However, for long it has remained absent from the country’s political discourse and the media debates. A dilution of the preferential trade partner status may immediately require two separate agreements with the UK and the EU. There is, however, some good news for the expatriate community in the UK. As the immigration of Eastern European workers is reduced to a trickle, the relatives of the Britons of South Asian origin may find more room to work in the UK.
(First published on Nov 14, 2018) Change in the world known to us is accelerating at a breakneck speed. If you are a fan of science fiction and informed enough about the technical advancement, you must realize the two will soon become indistinguishable.As per IDC’s […]General
(First published on Nov 14, 2018)
Change in the world known to us is accelerating at a breakneck speed. If you are a fan of science fiction and informed enough about the technical advancement, you must realize the two will soon become indistinguishable.
As per IDC’s Digital Universe Study sponsored by EMC dated December 2012 which is accessible online, since its inception till 2005 the human civilization had created total 130 exabytes (1 exabyte = one million terabytes, TB) worth of data. This includes every written word, every music note, every movie and whatever else your mind can think of. In a short span of only 5 years the total data had reached to 1,200 exabytes level. By 2015 it was around 7,900 exabytes. In 2020 it is expected to reach 49,000 exabytes. What does it mean? In a span of 15 years mankind has created over 375 times more data than it ever did, despite the help of the Mozarts, Spinozas, Shakespeares and Kubricks. Notice how busy we have been? While some of this data might be noise, it is plain that mankind is quickly taking the civilization to unimagined historical heights.
This acceleration in data creation is characterized by the evolution of smarter machines, more agile robots, software invention at a terrifying pace and exploding human population. The confused state of political affairs you see around the world is merely on the surface. Underneath the surface of disturbing and petty politics among nations lies the preparation, or lack thereof, of the greatest transformation ever; of the kind that can easily bring in an early doom and yet which can equally comfortably take us to the conquest of the stars.
A question arises here: What has Pakistan done so far to fit in? When the mankind takes the next giant leap into the future will there be enough Pakistani contribution to deserve an honorable mention? The sad answer so far is a big no. Owing to a unique set of challenges, decline in the quality of academic standards, population acceleration and lack of infrastructural arrangement to handle all these matters leads one to believe that things are far from being satisfactory.
Consider this: In the Global Innovation Index 2016 – co-published by Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a specialised agency of the UN – Pakistan occupied the 119th position. In 2015, the Toronto Martin Prosperity Institute introduced following three criteria to measure a nation’s creativity: technology (the research and development investment and patents per capita), talent (the share of adults with higher education and the workforce in the creative class) and tolerance (the treatment of immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities and the scope for civil liberties). As per these conditions Pakistan stood at the 111th position out of a total of 139. This must offer us some food for thought. But a wide institutional awareness is late and is still awaited.
In my humble view Pakistan needs to do many things at once. But before that let us consider the cutting-edge fields that need our immediate attention.
Max Tegmark in his Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence identifies three categories of intelligence. Life 1.0; of paramecium and amoeba, which can neither reprogram their software or hardware, Life 2.0; of us humans who can reprogram our software through learning and thought, and Life 3.0; of the smart machines which at some point will be smart enough to reproduce their hardware as well as software. There already are software routines out there which not only run other machines but also design and program them. At this moment it is widely believed that Life 3.0 or the Artificial Intelligence, has not achieved technological singularity (the ability to surpass the human levels of intelligence) but that may soon change. Now consider nations endowed with this technology to reshape their research and progress. The country that remains behind faces extinction. It is important to note that while on its own the rise of the AI poses numerous challenges to the society, its benefits outweigh the threats. One of these benefits is that its industrial use can revolutionize how industries function in any country, including ours.
We mortals live on a giant rock hurtling around a star. This rock has its limits. Not only are the resources it can provide severely limited and under remarkable stress, it is also politically divided making an optimum use of available resources a far cry. With an exploding population, degrading environment and shrinking resources, mankind is looking in the vast depths of the sky where space and resources appear endless. So far space exploration has had little to do with anything but national prestige. That, however, is changing. With Donald Trump’s decision to create a U.S. space force, it is clear that space exploration is soon to transform into space exploitation and colonization.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has so far carried out 97 spacecraft missions and 68 launch missions including Mangalyaan, its low-cost unmanned orbiter mission to Mars. The agency also plans to launch its own spacecraft soon. With other countries quickly joining the fray, it is clear that space competition is soon to acquire mythic proportion. In comparison, however, Pakistan’s program remains rudimentary at best. It needs huge investment as a shot in the arm to reach a competitive level.
As man seeks to renegotiate his environment as well as own intellectual capacity, it is a given that he would also try to renegotiate his own form and other organic life around him. Huge strides have been made in the field in this regard. Gone are the days of Dolly the sheep. Now the humanity’s work is reaching new, unbelievable limits. Disease is now being viewed as just another software coding problem. If you can rewrite computer code to kill computer viruses, why should a slightly more complicated genetic code be treated differently? Genetic engineering is also having a significant impact on the agricultural produce like crop yields and quality.
In Pakistan, however, tokenism rules this field as well. You do not find too many quality research institutes or new discoveries or for that matter any commercial patents. This has to change if the country wants to be significant part of the future’s many revolutions.
Nanotechnology deals with the things that are very small. At the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers; a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. It handles the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. From drug delivery in health, curing the incurable, terraforming the environment to warfare and espionage, the uses are endless. However, Pakistan’s educational institutions don’t seem to be paying much heed to the field. While capital intensive in nature, the research in the field can allow industries and nations unimaginable sway over all materials known to man. There is a need for the creation of a war chest to sponsor research in the field with the matching intellectual resources.
If you think that flying drones pose serious threat to national security, you simply need to check out the YouTube channel of Boston Dynamics. The adventures of Atlas, Buddy and other robots will give you a headache. Notice their agility and imagine these robots flying in the air fully weaponized in the place of drones. Apart from firing rockets from the sky they could land and take out the mark individually. That is how radically and soon the warfare is about to change. And that is only one aspect of it. As technology mainstreams and owing to imitation or copycat the industry gets cheaper by the minute, you can see the utilities of these robots in every walk of life.
In Pakistan you have already seen token uses of robotics in the shape of a robot waiter which is hardly more than a contraption to carry trays around. At a rudimentary level work has already began in the country’s startup industries, but the field needs immediate attention, or the country will be left far, far behind.
As the name suggests, three-dimensional printing is a lot like manufacturing but at one unit at a time scale. But it is more than that. To manufacture anything or to 3D print any item you don’t need to go visit various industries. Get all the raw material needed in the printing and a blueprint of the product and you are good to go. Pakistan needs to invest heavily here because in a matter of decades this technology will completely revolutionize industrial production.
As the world braces for a dramatic shift from the unknown to the unknown and unfixed, Pakistan seems ill prepared for the future. It is imperative that the country finds substantial investment in the field so that the future does not ambush us with total surprise. Sadly, the subject is neither being taught nor being supported anywhere in the country. But how can a nation ignore issues that may impact everything from future of jobs to economics, sociology and national security? It is important that at least one institute be established with the best human and material support that the country can offer.
What Can be Done
The list above is neither exhaustive nor final. The shape of technology and with it the trajectory of our journey to infinite possibilities keep changing with every passing minute. It is imperative for academic circles and the industrial base in the country to push for advanced research in these and other fields.
The first thing to do is to establish a research and technology endowment fund at every reputed university along with the creation of state-of-the-art labs. Initially the country will have to borrow human resource from other countries. But with the passage of time these academic and research facilities will be able to train enough professionals to help both in education and research.
The second important step is to harness this potential research with the industrial sector. Through a public-private partnership venture the two can be linked. With every passing day economic incentive and innovations in technology can work together to take the country out of the current mess.
The third step is to create research and technology related special committees in the parliament and provincial assemblies.
Fourth step includes optimum use of television and radio resources available in the country to impart knowledge and pique interest. Initially this doesn’t have to start with documentaries or audio-video lectures. Hardly any part of Pakistani pop culture is dedicated to this wonder. Neither are sci-fi books, comics or magazines being published; nor are sci-fi movies or TV shows being made. This has to change. Simultaneously, it is important to encourage institutions like Virtual University and Allama Iqbal Open University to up their game in the production of audio-video resources that can build better knowledge base. Instead of solely relying on the television broadcasts they need to use well designed apps to distribute visually enriched content.
Another crucial step is to encourage computer use in the country. During General Pervez Musharraf’s rule the government had allowed the import of second-hand or refurbished machines at a cheaper cost. Since then the next governments have replaced that policy with the introduction of laptop schemes. However, given the heavy sums that costs the exchequer it will be prudent to go back to the original idea. Cheaper but more efficient machines can easily be bought by the students and put to good use. This of course will be a preliminary step. Once the country starts producing its own units the cost can be brought even further down.
Last but not the least, there is a need to encourage science and technology journalism. Without more public focus on these fields, the country will not be able to move further into the future. And this genre of specialized journalism will go a long way in laying foundation of scientific thought in the country.
(First published on June 1, 2016) People like Ajit Doval do not even hesitate to publicly admit they plan to interfere in the internal matters of their neighbours and have no qualms about exporting state sponsored terrorism in countries like Pakistan. Elsewhere where no safety […]General
(First published on June 1, 2016)
People like Ajit Doval do not even hesitate to publicly admit they plan to interfere in the internal matters of their neighbours and have no qualms about exporting state sponsored terrorism in countries like Pakistan. Elsewhere where no safety net exists it continues its bullying habits. A recent example is Nepal which was almost choked to death because Indian government did not agree with the country’s constitutional choices. And India still enjoys incredible amount of international goodwill because of its growing market, demographic dividend, entrepreneurship and the efforts of Modi’s predecessors. But that is where the fairy tale ends.
Pakistan lives in a rough neighbourhood. And it is mainly due to constant Indian belligerence that the ride has so far been so rough for the young country. From the very inception Indian state has used every element of power to undermine Pakistan and to force its hand. From the dire predictions about Pakistan’s future to the fall of its eastern wing, India did whatever it could to make things difficult for the new country. Unbridled hate is a sickness that when not cured in time can change the state and the society beyond recognition. And while India has used its considerable soft power and charm to project its neighbours, especially Pakistan negatively, it has done little to cure itself of this sickness.
With the election of Narendra Modi as Indian Prime Minister, a feat that looked impossible only a few years ago, things have taken a turn for worse. Narendra Modi is both a product and a symbol of what is wrong with India today. Even though the spadework of an economic revival and growth was done by people like Dr. Manmohan Singh, like Gustav Stresemann in post-WWI Germany, such options were too timid and monotonous for the people of India. Like Nazi prejudices, the extremist tendencies that existed in the Indian society since the very outset and were consolidated in the shape of Hindutva ideology during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule, broke surface in 2014 national elections and made their way to the very top.
While Modi’s restless efforts to make India a bit more intolerant bore fruit by bringing to him the ultimate prize – the premiership of India, for other hawks in his party it was merely a beginning of a journey of inspiration. Like Modi’s true Gujarat model where violence against Muslims claimed countless precious lives and thrust Modi to national stage, hawks within the BJP and its allied Sangh Pariwar find it the easiest route to success. So as a consequence Indian state and society are irreversibly morphing into most lethal and unstable versions of themselves.
Along with Modi came his advisors and ministers like Ajit Doval, Arun Jaitley, V.K. Singh and Manohar Parrikar, two-bit snake oil salesmen hell bent on retaining their posts through every means possible. In their presence Indian national discourse, already so muddied by the country’s hawkish media, got further radicalized. So today’s India has acquired an imperial hubris without actually earning the status or capacity of a great power. Hence the country’s self-image is drastically different from the objective reality or what it is to become in due course. From now on you can expect it to be more belligerent, even openly hostile, thinking it has already arrived on the world stage. And it has too; only not in the shape it was expecting to.
Narendra Modi’s face is a constant reminder to the world that a man accused at the very least of looking the other way when extremists burned citizens from a minority community to death under his rule can become the Prime Minister of world’s largest democracy. Hardly the correct marketing mascot you would expect to have. But Indian electorate chose him over other far more palatable options because India today wants to be ‘great’ without actually going through the necessary motions and evolutionary processes. A quick fix if you please. It needed a strongman, tough on its neighbours and aggressive in pursuit of perceived Indian national interest. But while India is not there yet, its choice threatens to be irreversible given how quickly the Sangh Pariwar is changing the social fabric and risks losing the soft power it had acquired by selling the image of a pluralistic democracy for decades. But more of that a bit later.
Today India is well placed in Afghanistan to create more trouble for us. It has sponsored terrorism in Pakistan. In the intervening period it has also enhanced its lobbying capacity in the western capitals to such an extent that Islamabad finds it difficult to make its case there. It has used its media muscles and whispering campaigns to heighten wartime paranoia within our country ensuring that we keep fighting among ourselves and never unite to face the common threats. To the extent that India has even monopolized cricket to make it virtually impossible for us to bring international sporting events back to our country.
Today if you express these concerns on any of open forums like social media, Indian cyber trolls take a minute in reaching you to disabuse you of any notions of parity between the two countries. We are told that India has moved on, it has become something and Pakistan cannot even match. But beneath all this hubris and arrogance lies the age old petty mindedness mired in the cold war mentality where every Pakistani failure is considered India’s gain. From Indian triumph over Pakistan in international cricket tournaments to capturing space left behind by struggling Pakistani foreign policy in America, Europe and the Arab world, India celebrates every small victory as if it is the ultimate purpose of being. And yet this unhealthy obsession with Pakistan is India’s undoing as it keeps it firmly anchored in mediocrities of her initial life.
There is no doubt that Indian bureaucrats and diplomats have played the field well. But that has been made possible because of Indian soft power and legacy of previous governments which is now under constant pressure. The country is rapidly weaponizing and building partisan alliances. It basks in the reflected glory of China, at once trying to project itself as the socialist polity’s partner and the counterweight. It uses fancy ideas like its Cold Start Doctrine to threaten its immediate neighbours. People like Ajit Doval do not even hesitate to publicly admit they plan to interfere in the internal matters of their neighbours and have no qualms about exporting state sponsored terrorism in countries like Pakistan. Elsewhere where no safety net exists it continues its bullying habits. A recent example is Nepal which was almost choked to death because Indian government did not agree with the country’s constitutional choices. And India still enjoys incredible amount of international goodwill because of its growing market, demographic dividend, entrepreneurship and the efforts of Modi’s predecessors. But that is where the fairy tale ends.
Indian society under Modi government is at risk of going flat and losing pluralistic nuances created by the so called Nehruvian consensus. Two core Indian values of democracy and secularism are at loggerheads today. And this state of affairs is not lost on the world. Reports about cow vigilantes, forced and bribed conversions, rapes and hate crimes have all eroded the country’s moral leadership. And such incidents are only a few initial signs of RSS sponsored growing Indian intolerance. Despite best efforts of well-placed Indian diaspora these devastating trends have not been hidden from the world. The New York Times alone has written a number of editorials on the matter. Recently eight U.S. senators and 26 members of the House of Representatives, many of them consistently pro-India, have written an indicting letter to Indian government on the very subject.
One of the election promises of Modi campaign was that his government would bring Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the country. Owing to the above mentioned negative trends and state of the world economy that promise is still far from being fulfilled. Despite India’s best efforts it is nowhere near becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Its attempts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group has met stiff resistance. In desperation Narendra Modi has done what he does best. Converting each international interaction for his personal domestic projection as an international statesman. As we were reminded during Modi’s U.S. and UK visits nothing could be farther from truth. There are people who only work with him because he is India’s elected leader. Meanwhile domestically his supporters and allies are making free and open discourse, once hallmark of Indian polity, impossible. It seems more and more unlikely that electorate will vote Modi out in next general elections. As the free space and dissent in India shrinks the world will gradually but increasingly notice the change.
For Pakistan the biggest risk was that a power drunk Modi government would inhale its own propaganda about its infinite power and start a nuclear war. Fortunately, we have Pakistan’s own defence capabilities and deterrence safeguards to stop India from initiating a full scale war. What it has chosen to do in the face of such limitations is to wage a cold war against Pakistan. As the arrest of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav within Pakistani territory reminds us that it would leave no stone unturned to destabilize us. But as our nation has already shown true grit in fighting terror for over a decade, our job today is relatively easy.
Pakistan today is on the mend. The country’s biggest problem since independence is its economic sovereignty. With China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other similar trading opportunities knocking at our door, the dream of financial independence seems achievable at last. India naturally has sought to sabotage such projects through covert operations. But that too is as much an opportunity as a challenge. What we need is a meticulous cataloguing of such excesses. The time for advocacy will come a bit later when Pakistan has developed enough economic muscle to merit serious global attention.
Meanwhile apart from the economic aspirations, Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and its democratizing polity have equipped it with effective tools that will eventually overtake Indian propaganda campaigns. As India slowly goes in the wrong direction Pakistan can stick to the correct path by building a truly pluralistic, informed and enterprising society. Basing these, a true democracy will be Pakistan’s soft power. That is why India often finds ways to cast aspersions on our government’s civil-military harmony and quality of democracy. As India’s desperation to be great unleashes the Frankenstein’s monster within, we can take solace in the fact that our country’s defence is in able hands and we are on the right track. Once institutions are strengthened in Pakistan, the great irreversible Indian meltdown would become more evident to the world in contrast. We need national harmony and unity like never before.
(The piece was originally published on October 1, 2018) Saint Louis (Missouri) and Atlantic City (New Jersey) both bear testimony to the far reaching and often debilitating consequences. St. Louis, the Midwestern city that once boasted of being the fourth largest American city with a […]General
(The piece was originally published on October 1, 2018)
Saint Louis (Missouri) and Atlantic City (New Jersey) both bear testimony to the far reaching and often debilitating consequences. St. Louis, the Midwestern city that once boasted of being the fourth largest American city with a population nearing a million, has now shrunk to one third of the population and been relegated to 60th position in the country. Reason? Industrial restructuring and loss of jobs. Now when you drive around the city you come across a number of closed factories. As a result, violence, crime and tensions along the racial fault lines have exploded earning it the reputation of one of the worst cities in America. Recent riots in Ferguson in adjacent area brought further bad name to the city.
Atlantic City on which the American version of monopoly and the recent television series Boardwalk Empire are based was once a magnet for tourism. With its sprawling hotels and casinos, it was a darling of investors. Donald Trump built his first three hotels and casinos here. That was then. However, with the gradual warming up of other states to the peculiar kind of tourism this city attracted and after the 2008 property crash it has been losing business and population rapidly. Businesses now are shutting down and houses being foreclosed. Donald Trump is no more involved in the said casinos. Meanwhile Revel, a $2.4 billion resort, hotel and casino has been sold and resold for much meager sum. Its last auction brought $82 million. The city is silently dying.
These two case studies are important because they highlight and explain two very important phenomena. The flight of capital and the rise of Donald Trump. American Midwest, once known for its industrial belt has now witnessed its transformation into the rust belt. The blue collared jobs in this region have been shipped out of the country to the cheaper labour markets in Asia. And these areas are now supposed to vote for Trump because the unemployed population here is enthralled by his message, albeit flawed in essence, of bringing back jobs. Jobs are important. Jobs make and break lives and economies.
One interesting aspect of the exodus of these jobs to Asian market is that while they have landed into other countries, Pakistan has more or less missed the opportunity. One reason has to be of the relative unrest and insecurity witnessed in past decade when these business opportunities were materializing. Another cause again is of the relative lack of political instability. Between 2007 and 2013 the country witnessed really shaky form of governments. But the most crucial of them all is the lack of foresight and planning. Before the new economic trends set in, back in 1990s when we were worrying mostly about Afghanistan, the then Indian finance minister Dr. Manmohan Singh opened up the hitherto socialist modelled economy to investment and reform. By the time the investors realized the true potential of the region – the basic infrastructure – was already in place. Attempts were still being made to reform the country’s bureaucracy which is still not fixed yet. But from IT hubs to manufacturing friendly zones, from human capital to technology incubators all were in place. Indian economy then grew phenomenally.
But Indian economy still essentially lacks two things. One, good governance. Two, discipline. Move away from big cities and Indian government vanishes without trace along with basic infrastructure and amenities. But discipline is a far more important issue. Owing to a weak and archaic post-colonial state structure and the penchant to be recognized as a democracy and part socialist part capitalist economy the country could not hone its labor class into a well-disciplined working force. Strikes, lack of efficiency, corruption, rising intolerance and absence of working ethics are exhausting the economy’s true potential. Overpopulation and so-called family values also complicate the situation further.
Compare it with China. The country has more or less similar population with poor infrastructure. However, owing to the communist takeover and gradual reform the workforce is really disciplined. First came discipline and then Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Jiang Zemin’s concept of three represents opening doors to capitalism and eventually One Belt, One Road policy that has brought promise of riches to our doorstep. While in India the bureaucracy and the elite failed Dr. Manmohan Singh’s ambitious agenda, China has been kind to its leaders’ vision of reform. In China it is quite visible that the things have been thought through.
In Pakistan it is never too late for the right kind of atmosphere to develop. The trouble is like India – our priorities primarily remain political than economic. China however understood the principle that in order to be politically strong a country essentially has to be economically boisterous. Right now due to the heavy Chinese investment in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor the important priority has to be to bring about this crucial shift in the worldview. As we progress further we will also discuss the lessons we can learn from the Chinese worldview and the American experiments. Yet it is important to comprehend that in the coming days we are about to witness another huge transformation which will deprive these booming regional economies of their newly found riches if they do not transform by the speed of light.
The Great Transformation Ahead
Right at a time when we are learning the virtues of creating business environment and new jobs, it is heartrending to note that these opportunities will not stay with us for long. Quest for cheaper labor brought investors to these markets. An added bonus was the consumer market. However, the latter is essentially based on the purchasing power of the consumers which brings us back to the same issue: Jobs. As these economies enjoy relative affluence, consumerism is bound to increase putting a pressure on labor costs. So the appeal of cheap labor is bound to erode with the passage of time.
And while this realization has not fully dawned on the planners in these markets, another challenge is silently arising. That of the rise of machines. We all work with machines. They make life easier for us. But what happens when the machines can think for themselves and can work on a pre-programmed trajectory with more efficiency and precision than any of us. I know it feels like a page out of Isaac Asimov’s book. But it is not.
While we were sleeping or sleepwalking, the man has revolutionized science. He has split atoms, learnt to read and rewrite codes hidden in the DNA. One such conversation he had was with the machines. The supercomputers of yesteryears have shrunken into the palms of your hands in the shape of your smart phones. With the rise of the internet and satellite based communication the conversation has moved forward. Experiments in robotics and artificial intelligence both are about to revolutionize our societies. These extensions of our own knowledge and experience are conspiring to take our jobs away from us. Not convinced? Consider this.
Transportation industry is a huge employer all over the world. According to an estimate of American Trucking Association there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. alone. When you factor in other position in the industry that do not involve driving the number reaches 8.7 million. One out of every 15 workers in America are associated with this field. And for a second picture it is all gone. Daimler’s eighteen wheeler Freightliner Inspiration driverless trucks are already in testing stage in Nevada. According to an estimate these self-driving vehicles will be available for broader commercial use in five to ten years. Such prototypes are first developed at exorbitant prices but once mass production starts and appetite increases the prices come crashing down. Now imagine truck drivers all over the world losing jobs at once. An average everyday driver after all is a high maintenance liability compared to a self-driven machine which doesn’t need food, sleep or weekly offs. Now apply the same principle in every industry that employs a large number of people.
In defense industry too we have witnessed the rise in the use of drones. Behind these drones sits the pilot back in his own country controlling the technology remotely. While most of this action takes place in real time, communication over long distance has its disadvantages. So consider one leap of imagination where smart chipsets are fixed on these drones with elaborate programming and instructions. What will be the future of fighter pilots then? And please do not live with any delusions. That technology is already here. An artificial intelligence program called Alpha has already been developed to fly drones and according to the results published in the Journal of Defense Management it has already managed to beat human pilots in simulations. Now take this principle and apply it on every machine used in warfare. In the age of cloud computing and ever shrinking chips there is no dearth of possibilities.
Social Consequences of Technological Shift
If this transformation comes to pass as seems inevitable, the most frightening prospect is of human societies without jobs. If loss of jobs in America can bring about such a devastating change in people’s mood that the racial fault lines in one of the world’s most advanced societies start exploding and voters do not mind opting for political choices as mindboggling as Trump, just think of its impact on societies like ours.
It is clear that with each passing day the dissatisfaction and the rage in the third world countries with huge populations may increase astronomically and result in total collapse in social cohesion. Poverty hurts when affluence is unknown but once you taste the fruits of wealth, losing it can have totally debilitating consequences. It is imperative then that a country like ours plans ahead and avoids hitting a brick wall unwittingly. The secret is to know that jobs do not disappear altogether but shift to the higher planes of knowledge and learning. Behind each machine and each artificial intelligence there always will be human influence and human presence. The trick then is to realize which kind of workforce to produce. And that can only happen when our priorities are well defined and basically correct.
Getting Priorities Straight
The first priority that we have to get straight is the emphasis on economics. Politics is an essential part of who we are. A country that exists in such rough neighborhood, is encircled by such mammoths of countries and has been at the crossroads of history forever is bound to think politically. And yet China’s experience has shown us when focus is on economics, the political priorities sort themselves out. Without economic prosperity every political gain proves momentary and ephemeral.
The second issue is that of numbers. Planning ahead essentially needs data. And in our country not only do we have dearth of institutions that generate credible data needed for effective planning, we even have not been able to conduct census in past two decades. And even the one we had back in 1998 was lacking in authenticity as the crucial process of post census survey was delayed for considerable time compromising original results. So basically we are making do with the projections since 1981. 35 years of projections, hunches and speculations. If our arithmetic slipped even a bit as must have happened given the quality of scholarship in the country a huge chunk of population would remain disenfranchised. No wonder then that this country had to endure instability and disquiet for decades. In a country where elections have repeatedly been held we keep deferring this crucial exercise. This has to change as was rightly pointed out by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Then there is the matter of education. We have already pointed out that without quality education we will have to say goodbye to jobs of the future. But there we are victims of double whammy. Illiteracy is already rampant. But the education we impart is also lacking in quality and is not designed to offer a fighting chance in changing economy. Let me give you one simple example in our higher education. I have asked successive Higher Education Commission chairmen as to why our universities are still teaching English literature meant to critique poets and writers of bygone days when they could easily be taught creative writing where they get a chance to write and sell their work in the global market. I will let you know as soon as I get a convincing answer. We need to reinvent our curriculum, throw out ideationally marred old syllabi and start afresh with some investment in research and development.
The fourth issue is of population growth. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that it is of little importance. After the 18th Amendment and devolution of the subject to provinces it has become almost a lost cause. Population does not increase, it multiplies. In a country with such a large population living below the line of basic subsistence this is, and has to be, unacceptable.
Fifth is the importance of private enterprises. Somehow job creation in Pakistan is confused with employment in government sector. For any state such a course of action is suicidal in nature. All over the world it is the private sector that is supposed to create jobs. The state needs to make it a priority that the ease of doing business has to be ensured and private investments protected.
And here two more aspects are noteworthy. One of transparency and the other of infrastructure development. I haven’t seen any other country where every other person talks and complains so frequently about corruption and yet wants to stop it at the micro/local level. Charity essentially has to begin at home. The problem is compounded when we obsess about the accountability for the past decades. That may well be important but this is often done only to shift responsibility. It is important that immediate focus should be on today not yesterday. That a set of procedures be laid out that ensure no more corruption is possible in current and future transactions. That is the only way investor will feel comfortable in bringing money to the country. And somehow we have developed the habit of jeering at the projects of infrastructure development. This has to go. Without infrastructure no investor will ever come here.
One trade route is already promising to change our destiny. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, when developed, will bring a lot of business to the country. And yet owing to the above mentioned lack of priorities we still do not have capacity to absorb the wealth thus generated. What is more, the new opportunities may bring about a demographic shift in the country. Given our ethnic and cultural sensitivities we need in-depth studies to examine the true impact. Sadly, we do not even have the appropriate think tanks, research organizations to cater to these needs.
And would you say that CPEC is the optimum use of our true trading potential? Evidently not. Consider how many economic powerhouses exist in our neighborhood or extended neighborhood. Iran, Central Asia, Gulf countries, Russia etc., we can build linkages, benefit enormously and can still manage to protect our individuality.
We have dreamed to act as a route between Central Asia and hot waters for quite some time. The biggest stumbling block is Afghanistan. Trouble is it looks more and more implausible because of a belligerent Afghanistan that demands access to India in return. And given that India is currently ruled by a bunch of zealots that seek cheap thrills by confronting Pakistan this seems impossible. Does it not? Here China’s example should come to our rescue. Politics is supposed to serve economic interest and not otherwise. China trades with every country that can fulfil its needs no matter how belligerent. What is needed is an intelligent strategy to ensure Indian trucks passing through Pakistan are not used to undermine Pakistan’s national interest or culture. If we devise such safeguards Pakistan can start benefiting from access to Central Asia on a quid pro quo basis once Modi regime is gone. Afghanistan perhaps will never be too friendly with Pakistan. But that is no reason for us to stay away from our Central Asian friends. And Central Asia also badly needs this trade to start owing to deteriorating economic conditions there.
Do We Have Time?
How much time do we have before the technological advances change our world? It will take ten years for the technology to truly mature and further five to ten years in reaching our part of the world. Fifteen to twenty years are enough to raise an entire generation. So we do have time. Provided we really start today and plan meticulously for the future. For that we will need internal stability and national consensus. If that is achieved the preparation will essentially come in two phases. First, bringing in investors and creating traditional jobs that are already in vogue. That way a solid bedrock of wealth and affluence is created for the next generation. The second step entails bringing about the qualitative changes that have been discussed above.
Conclusion: Innovate, Innovate, Innovate
One hallmark of American economy is its neat division of labor. We have discussed the industrial belt at the start already. Similarly take a look at Silicon Valley. And with every such grid exists at least one university to provide the intellectual capital needed for growth. If we want to grow, we will have to structure our economy in this fashion. And along with that we will have to lay the foundation of an intellectual and economic environment where innovation becomes the norm. From startups to high quality research and educational institutions the state will have to ensure it is forthcoming helping the private sector comes up with the best initiatives needed. The time to act is now.
The piece first appeared here
(Note: This piece first appeared on May 1, 2017) Five years old Omran Daqneesh sits clueless in an ambulance. He has just been pulled out of rubble along with his family. Omran looks into camera, self-consciously he tries to fix his hair matted with blood […]General
(Note: This piece first appeared on May 1, 2017)
Five years old Omran Daqneesh sits clueless in an ambulance. He has just been pulled out of rubble along with his family. Omran looks into camera, self-consciously he tries to fix his hair matted with blood sticking to his forehead. His own blood. But that’s all he does. No cry. No talk. This little video clip reduced a CNN anchor to tears on live television. But that wasn’t for the first-time that human suffering in Syria had shaken us all.
Almost a year ago the body of three years old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The family of the young boy was trying to reach the Greek island of Kos only 4 kilometers away. 16 people in an inflatable boat meant for eight. Within five minutes the boat capsized in the Mediterranean and Aylan’s lifeless body was soon found face down on a shore near Bodrum, Turkey. A Turkish photojournalist took the picture of the boy in that state. This heart-rending photograph also spread around the world in no time. Shock was on display everywhere. But nothing was done. Nothing probably could be done.
When a civil war destroys a country, it brings civilization crashing down into a heap of rubble, and human loss can seldom be quantified. Since the start of the war five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed and over 7.6 million have been displaced. Many fleeing their homeland have not just brought the heartbreak, the nightmares and the memories of broken dreams to foreign lands but also a destabilizing effect. Since the exodus began and Turkey initially accepted refugees, its economy has slowed down. In Europe their arrival has caused a backlash and given xenophobic far-right an opportunity to whip up support.
Terror groups like the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also gained international attention not in Iraq but primarily in Syria. And given that there is no way to know for sure that no ISIS member smuggles himself disguised as a refugee, incidents of violence have been blamed on asylum seekers from Syria. It is a human catastrophe that doesn’t seem to stop.
And recently after Donald Trump decided to carry out punitive missile strikes in Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian government, the world has held its breath fearing the possibility of armed conflict between Russia and the United States. There is nothing ordinary about the Syrian conflict and nothing normal. It has the potential to single handedly transform our world into a dystopia. Let us study its origin, current dynamics and the best possible solution.
How It All Began
“Ejak el door, ya doctor” or “It’s your turn, Doctor”. The Syrian civil war began with this simple sentence spray painted on the external wall of a school by a group of teenage boys. It was meant to be a prank. But it went awry. Within no time, Bashar al-Assad’s secret police was upon them. They were arrested and tortured. The Arab spring in neighboring countries had already started shaking the moorings of authoritarian rule. The panic of Syrian dictator was palpable. But incarceration and torture of its kids, a bunch of 7th graders, for random pranks was too much for the people of Daraa, a city on the border of Jordan. And when the parents contacted the authorities they were told to forget their children. Around a month after the arrests, fearing for the children’s lives thousands poured out on the streets demanding their release. When police failed to quell the protest, special forces were flown in from Damascus. They opened fire on the protestors, killing two and injuring many. Next day the forces opened fire on the funeral procession killing a child. Protests only increased. When the authorities saw the unmanageable size of the pushback they released the arrested boys. But instead of calming the crowds, the battered condition of the released kids only added fuel to fire and the protests continued. When the army employed brute force the protests spread to other cities including Latakia, capital Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. Thus, began the violent uprising.
As the violent protests and the crackdown continued some members of the armed forces defected and joined the protestors. Even before the uprising, every Syrian citizen was bound by law to go through an obligatory military duty. That too came handy during the start of the resistance. And as the clashes continued, the law and order vacuum was exploited by the external forces and many countries got involved.
Historical and Geographical Context
Syria is located in a very tumultuous region. It shares borders with Lebanon, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, and Jordan to the south. According to a rough estimate its population is around 23 million. Around 90 percent of its population is Arab. Kurds, Armenians and others make the rest of the population. Unlike neighboring Iraq, its population is predominantly Sunni. Of its 87 percent Muslim population, 74 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alawites, Ismailis and Twelver Shias. Rest of the population includes 10 percent Christians and 3 percent Druze, an ethno-religious esoteric group. Administratively Syria is divided into 14 governorates and 60 districts.
After its freedom from France in 1946, Syria remained a hotbed of political intrigue, coups, frail attempts to democratize, unstable governments and bloodshed. It was in 1963 that the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party finally managed to form a relatively stable government. Palace intrigues were to continue until 1970 but the party’s grip on power was not to waver.
Ba’ath Party which emerged as a pan nationalist Arab movement was only successful in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, an Alawite Shia Defence Minister Hafez al Assad finally managed to depose the sitting ruler and formed a government in November 1970 that was to continue until his death. After the 1963 coup the government had imposed a state of emergency in the country that would continue for almost 40 years curbing free speech, the peaceful right of assembly of more than five people and other rights that were taken for granted.
Under Hafez-al-Assad’s leadership Syria formed a military alliance with former Soviet Union. The USSR established the first and the only naval facility in the Mediterranean Sea at Tartus, Syria because of the strengthening relationship. This arrangement continued even after the demise of the communist bloc and modern day Russia inherited the base. In recent years the two states have agreed to convert it in to a permanent Russian base for its nuclear armed warships. Russia has waved off $9.8 billion Soviet era loan to the country. In addition to the above mentioned naval base, Russia now operates an air force base in Palmyra apart from two or more secret spy bases elsewhere.
Another key relationship worth mentioning here is that between Syria and Iraq. While Syria and Iraq shared common political platform, Saddam Hussein after assuming power in 1979 accused Syrian government of plotting against him. This almost immediately ensured continued hostility between the two countries. A noteworthy fact is that while Iraqi population is predominantly Shia, Saddam was a Sunni and it was other way round in Syria where majority is Sunni but its longest serving ruler Assad senior belonged to minority Alawite Shia population.
After the Iranian revolution’s success in 1979 the relations between Iran and Syria grew rapidly. With Assad senior, Iran got a crucial ally in a region dominated by an ocean of Sunni regimes. The relationship was also beneficial to Tehran because it gained a space to arm and train the Shia Hezbollah militia against Israel. In the Iran-Iraq war, Syria supported Iran. Despite such close relations between the two countries Hafez al Assad never visited Iran during Ayatollah Khomeini’s life for the simple reason that the late Ayatollah didn’t consider him a Muslim.
The senior Assad died in 2000 and his reluctant second son Dr. Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist by profession, inherited the throne. After the demise of the Soviet Union his father and later he himself had tried to open and liberalize the economy which led to the rise of a rich urban class like an island in the sea of poverty. Between 2006 and 2011 the country endured a devastating drought in which 75 percent of the country’s farms and 85 percent of its livestock perished forcing around 1.5 million citizens to migrate to urban centers like Damascus and Homs.
The economic disparity increased dramatically under the son and so did the sense of deprivation. It was after the spread of unrest that Dr. Assad decided to lift the state of emergency and tried to replace it with self-serving counter terrorism laws. But it was too late by then and the disaffected masses continued the revolt.
The Current Field of Play
A detailed list of the groups fighting in Syria will most likely crowd out all discussion on these pages. To an estimate by the end of 2013 there were around one thousand-armed opposition groups in Syria and that was before the stunning emergence of the ISIS. But today the warring forces can be divided into four broader groups. 1) ISIS, 2) Syrian government and pro-Assad militias, 3) opposition groups, and 4) soldiers of Rojava, or the Kurdish dominated regions.
By 2014 ISIS controlled one third of the Syrian territory. Its fortunes have dwindled since then but it remains a potent force in the country. This offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq seeks to erase the border between Iraq and Syria and form a new state. It has been mostly successful in undermining the border and creating an environment where its presence in Syria boosts its positions in Iraq. There is a broad consensus among most domestic and foreign forces in the country that it poses the biggest threat to the region and the entire world. However, the hatred towards Assad’s regime among the major opposition forces ensures that the front against ISIS remains divided and fragmented. Russian forces in Syria have claimed to go after ISIS. However, they have often been accused of targeting anti Assad forces in Syria in the garb of fighting ISIS.
Assad’s forces have seen a sharp decline since the start of the civil war. Before the outbreak of war they boasted of having around 220,000 soldiers. However, since then they have declined to around 25 thousand mainly due to deaths and defections. In 2013, the western allies learned that Assad regime had used chemical weapons against his own citizens. That was the time when the United States came the closest to sending its troops to Syria. Yet, primarily because of Russia’s aggressive advocacy and posturing and the diminishing appetite for war among Americans, President Obama stopped short of formally joining the Syrian conflict. Russia also worked out a deal with the Syrian government which resulted in the regime voluntarily surrendering its chemical stockpile to the international agency. At that time, the United States was satisfied with the arrangement and believed that all facilities had been dismantled. However, recent developments have contradicted that assertion and the West now believes that Assad still retains chemical weapons capacity.
Apart from Assad’s own forces, pro-government militias include Hezbollah which initially sent military advisors and later brought in its elite military units. The Lebanese Shia militia initially proved very useful to the Assad regime. However, since then it has endured numerous military reverses and attracted Israeli airstrikes. Other militias include foreign Shia groups.
Among foreign forces supporting Assad, Iran has been of critical importance. It has sustained Syrian government’s economy despite facing sanctions at home and has provided the regime with the needed military hardware. Apart from that it initially sent roughly 2000 members of its elite al Quds force. But till today the true extent of its military involvement is unknown and often underreported.
Russia’s support has been vital to the regime’s survival because it provided the crucial air cover. Even as the U.S. missile attack destroyed a substantial portion of the regime’s airpower, Russia has vowed to rebuild it.
The Syrian opposition groups mainly include secular Sunni forces and nationalist Jihadis. The most significant among them is the Free Syrian Army. It is a willy-nilly coalition of military defectors, small militias and ragtag groups. Despite its ambitious name it doesn’t have a centralized command. It has suffered recently at the hands of Assad’s army.
Another important group is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or The Nusra Front). It originated as the local wing of Al Qaeda. The group is known for its brutal tactics mirroring methods used by the ISIS. Qatar and other Arab countries have made hectic efforts to convince its leadership to sever ties with Al Qaeda so that they can aid and arm it. Last year the efforts paid off and the group announced its separation from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself.
When a civil war destroys a country, it brings civilization crashing down into a heap of rubble, and human loss can seldom be quantified. Since the start of the war five hundred thousand Syrians have been killed and over 7.6 million have been displaced. Many fleeing their homeland have not just brought the heartbreak, the nightmares and the memories of broken dreams to foreign lands but also a destabilizing effect.
Various other nationalist religious militias have also been chipping in to challenge the country’s leadership. But all above mentioned opposition groups have been on the retreat since the fall of Aleppo late last year. Assad’s forces now have control over five major cities and they have consolidated power there.
The fourth major player in the Syrian mix is Rojava or the Kurdish majority districts bordering Turkey. The YPG or the People’s Protection Units are its militia arm. The Kurdish groups have mainly been fighting ISIS and since the withdrawal of Assad forces from the Kurdish dominated north have been more tolerant of the central government. Occasionally they have come in direct conflict with pro-Assad militias. However, their vociferous pushback against ISIS onslaught has earned them support from the United States as well whose military advisors are embedded with some of the units. But the U.S. support has irked neighboring Turkey and ensured its involvement in the conflict. Since the Kurdish want to use their fellow Kurds in neighboring countries this has not gone down well with the other Arab countries either which have Kurdish populations to worry about.
In short, Syrian stalemate resulting from the foreign and local royal rumble threatens to destabilize the entire region and can even lead to a great power conflict affecting the entire world. It is incumbent upon all stakeholders to find a lasting solution.
The Way Forward
All sides accept that the biggest threat in Syria facing the world is the presence of ISIS. However, don’t confuse it with a consensus that could lead to a joint effort. The foreign forces will not unite until something is done about Assad’s rule. Given that the high ranks of the Syrian army are dominated by the minority Alawites even Assad’s success would mean continued instability in the country. There are reports that though they do not acknowledge it publicly Assad’s two main boosters, Iran and Russia are also growing wary of his shenanigans. Assad himself seems to be cracking under pressure and is said to have developed a tick in the left eye due to anxiety. But his removal from power will not be possible if moderates lose power in Iran or the U.S. does not actively convince Russia that his departure from power will not result in a change in Russia’s sphere of influence. However, all must join hands to end hostilities and massacre of civilian population. It is a great human tragedy and must be stopped without any further power politics.
(The piece first appeared here)
(This piece originally appeared on November 16, 2015) An election was won and lost in the Indian state of Bihar. Contrary to Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah’s claims no crackers went off in Pakistan. Media here and abroad is portraying it as Indian PM […]General
(This piece originally appeared on November 16, 2015)
An election was won and lost in the Indian state of Bihar. Contrary to Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah’s claims no crackers went off in Pakistan. Media here and abroad is portraying it as Indian PM Modi’s defeat. This assumption is almost as misguided as this growing impression that the mandate was a clear rejection of the all-pervasive intolerant agenda of the Sangh Parivar. Modi remains firmly ensconced at the center where his term in office does not expire for almost four years. In a house of 545 Modi’s party, BJP has 10 seats more than a simple majority – 282 where 272 was needed – so there is little chance of an in-house change. Remember if Modi card did not work in Bihar or Delhi it did in many other places. So a snub cannot be confused with a defeat.
Likewise, it is true that recent months brought rapid decay in the social fabric in sharp focus. But that is not the true of measure of saffronization (read radicalization) in India. Sangh Parivar, the extended family of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) offshoots, has consistently been raising the threshold of acceptability of Hindutva, its ideological lifeblood. Modi’s own rise can be attributed to this trend. Ten years ago it was unthinkable to see Modi, a man banned from entering the US and UK and boycotted by the EU, as a potential PM of world’s largest democracy. Something has constantly been shifting in India that led to his phenomenal rise.
But before we examine the Bihar verdict in detail, discuss the ongoing cultural transformation and radicalization in India, as a Pakistani I want to make a few things clear. We, Pakistanis are in position to lecture India on virtues of secularism, inclusive democracy and moderation. Our history is replete with the poor choices we made, paid and continue to pay a heavy price. What we can tell India is not to repeat our mistakes. And it is about time it starts paying heed.
Cast versus religion:
The Bihar verdict is being dubbed as a referendum on the Narendra Modi’s performance and his party’s growing sponsorship of bigotry. There is no gainsaying that from Pakistan bashing, cow slaughter, economic packages and Modi’s extensive campaigns BJP threw in everything it had got. But there is a limit to how much the result be viewed as a reflection on national issues, communal or otherwise. For one, at the state level focus of politics is local. For two, a close look at the state’s demographics reveals its chief concern is not communal but caste preservation.
Bihar and UP together form what is called the Cow Belt, a reference not only to their fertile plains but also to the predominance of Hindu population. Out of a population of over 100 million Hindu population is 82.7 percent and population of Muslims and people belonging to other faiths is 17.3 percent. Given the majoritarian nature of the electoral system it is difficult to see communal concerns playing as a big a role.
Caste based divide however reveals where the balance lies. As per the 2011 census scheduled castes including Dalits and Mahadalits are 16 percent of the population. Other backward classes and extreme backward classes (OBCs/EBCs) are 51 percent. Whereas the BJP’s core constituency, the upper or the forward classes (Brahmin, Rajputs, Bhumihar) are 15 percent of the population. It is common knowledge that the OBCs, EBCs and Dalits in India are often bullied by the forward classes. The cherry on the top, most recently came in the shape of shameful comment from junior union minister and former army chief VK Singh, in which he likened the murder of two Dalit children, no matter how unwittingly, to the death of stray dogs. The comment evidently did not go down well with the majority of Bihar state.
BJP versus RSS:
RSS is the ideological fountainhead of BJP and while during Vajpayee’s time the Prime Minister of India did not appear as helpless before the sarsanghchalak of the unelected body, this government has taken complacency to the new level. Recently a group presentation by the union cabinet before the RSS chief showed how empowered he is. (http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/after-presentations-by-top-bjp-ministers-pm-modi-likely-to-attend-rss-meet-1214187). But something still doesn’t add up. In her remarkably accurate analysis in a column/blog titled “Why RSS May Want Amit Shah to Lose Bihar” (http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/why-rss-may-want-amit-shah-to-lose-bihar-1235845) dated October 24, investigative journalist and political writer Rana Ayyub highlighted how RSS chief Mohit Bhagwat is weary of the close knit between Narendra Modi, BJP chief and Modi confidante Amit Shah and man with the plan finance minister Arun Jaitley. She also pointed out how the timing of Bhagwat’s comment to revise the reservation or the quota system was meant to rattle the backward communities in Bihar. That indeed happened. BJP has a history of meddling with the reservation policy as in 2001 party’s the then UP CM Rajnath Singh tried to change its contours. Modi has been humiliated without losing much power, Amit Shah’s neck is on the line and Arun Jaitley is trying to assure the media that the reform package can still be implemented. So does it weaken the radical voices in India? Far from it. It plays right into the hands of the RSS chief, the main source of Hindu radicalism in India.
Cult of personalities and a struggling Congress:
Indian politics still remains thralled to personality politics. In 2014 elections among other factors contributing to the drubbing that Congress received was lack of clear prime ministerial choice. Manmohan Singh had already made it clear that he would not be running for the office and Rahul Gandhi didn’t seem ready to fill his shoes. He is still not. On the other side Modi was a clear choice, his profile being built by a strong media campaign sponsored by big businesses. In Delhi and in Bihar there were clear alternative choices available for the voters to choose from. In fact in both cases BJP’s desire to project Modi more than their local candidates meant that the local leadership could not be as empowered. That might have proven to be the undoing of the party in the two states.
Nitish Kumar, in general too, has been an excellent answer to the Modi problem. Both are ex-chief ministers and both pride themselves on their governance models and reform agendas. Kumar seems to harbor ambition to run for India’s premiership in 2019. In 2013 as a BJP ally he took a principled stand against the elevation of Modi to the national level and weathered the resulting storm. Together with Lalu Prasad Yadav he managed to defeat BJP in Bihar. It seems alliances can easily weaken the BJP where individual parties cannot right now. That is a useful lesson but does not affect Indian politics at the center as the elections still are four years away. This might have revived the dreams of a third front against Congress and BJP. But that too is too early to tell.
Congress claims to have performed better this time but compared to Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Kumar’s Janata Dal United it is far behind. It will continue to perform poorly until it clearly identifies its new leader and premiership candidate. If Rahul Gandhi is still not ready then the party will have to find a strong substitute.
Heart of darkness – The RSS:
Meanwhile RSS seems to be thriving. It has over 51 thousand shakhas (branches). It boasts of high enrollment as five hundred thousand new members joined its ranks in 2013 and six hundred thousand in 2014. And that was during the days when it was mostly out of power. Now that it has quite skillfully drawn attention to itself the number of recruits must be going through the roof. Its offshoots like Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and BJP boast of commanding considerable support. VHP has 6.8 million members and BJP whopping 100 million. And I could find 55 names of the off shoots, some big, some small. And then there are hyper-radical breakaway factions like Abhinav Bharat that often have points of convergence with the Sangh Parivar.
In light of this proliferation it is important to ask what the Sangh’s key ideas are. Perhaps this often quoted excerpt from the book “We, or Our Nationhood Defined” by MS Golwalkar (http://www.golwalkarguruji.org), the founder of the VHP, second Sarsanghchalak (Supreme Leader) of the RSS and an enduring influence on the Sangh Parivar ideology. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/95053816/We-or-Our-Nationhood-Defined-Shri-M-S-Golwalkar-Guruji-1#scribd)
On page 87, he writes, ““To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.”
And then on page 104, “There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only sound view on the minorities’ problem.
“From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.”
Let us now also see how relevant his thoughts are today. Narendra Modi wrote a book Jyotipunj (Beams of Light) in 2008. It is a book of reverential sketches of 16 people who inspired him. The longest profile is that of Golwalkar. Aakar Patel has done a remarkable job of translating this sketch (http://scroll.in/article/669178/modi-biography-of-golwalkar-suggests-rss-leader-was-second-most-important-influence).
Unaware of how Modi’s mind works I have found this profile quite incoherent, where minor details are presented as earthshattering truths. But just to give you a taste here a nugget of incoherence: “Dr Hedgewar did not stay up all night to tell Guruji what the nation’s condition was, how many bad things had entered Hindu culture after 1000 years of slavery. He did not speak of this. He taught him no songs of patriotism. He said simply: ‘Madhavrao, you handle this work.’”
I copied this quote here to highlight that in Modi mind the bad things that entered Hindu culture after 1000 years of slavery are still of significance.
No wonder then that his cultural minister so openly talks of cultural cleansing. Dr Mahesh Sharma, the minister recently said, “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernized and where Indian culture and civilization need to be restored — be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years.”
So that dear readers is the scope of the problem. Thinking that a state election can undo or reverse this creeping radicalization is nothing but fooling yourself. In Pakistan when actual radicalization was taking place many of our moderates thought that it was easily reversible. It was not. Only when the state woke up to the challenge and started fighting the terrorists did we realize how enormous the problem was. We have fought for 14 years and lost over sixty thousand souls but the war is still far from over.
In India state can play a significant role. But how can it do that when it is under control of a party that is the offshoot of the most radicalizing influence, when men like Modi rule the country?
Right now secularism in India and democracy have started looking like competing values. There are only two democratic options to control some damage. One if BJP has a change of heart and distances from RSS and replaces Modi with some moderate individual. Two, Supreme Court of India intervenes. Then there is an undemocratic method too. But something tells me none of these things is possible. So this radicalizing trend will continue. And to believe that Bihar verdict somehow can put a stop to it is to live in denial.
(A mildly censored version of this article first appeared here. This piece retains the edited out bits)
(Note: This piece first appeared on April 07, 2015. Since then a lot has changed. But the core argument remains unchanged. So it is being reproduced here for your perusal.) The pictures of three British Muslim schoolgirls who left home to join the IS tell a harrowing […]General
(Note: This piece first appeared on April 07, 2015. Since then a lot has changed. But the core argument remains unchanged. So it is being reproduced here for your perusal.)
The pictures of three British Muslim schoolgirls who left home to join the IS tell a harrowing tale of estrangement, heartbreak, lost control, indoctrination and abandonment.
Shamima Begum, Amira Abase (both 15) and Kadiza Sultana (16) led their families to believe that they had some local engagement, stole their jewellery to cover the travel cost and flew to Turkey to cross the Syrian border in order to be Jihadi brides for the Islamic state.
As CCTV footage of their travel later emerged, it was plain that timely action could have stopped them before they disappeared inside Syria. Imagine the agony of the parents who helplessly watched their daughters going through a well-documented path to self-destruction.
But the bigger question is, how did they end up here?
To an estimate, there are well over 20,000 foreign volunteers fighting alongside the IS in Syria and Iraq. A lion’s share of this number comes from Europe. Interestingly enough, the relative number of volunteers from the United States is not much.
Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries put a lot of emphasis on family values and the family as a unit. Hence it is not that easy for a young member to leave everything behind; the message that lures them out of their cozy environment must be potent enough to desert everything and go.
|Amira (centre, circled), Kadiza Sultana (left), and Shamima Begum (right) pictured at Gatwick.—Photo courtesy: The Daily Mail|
It is now believed that the IS recruiters employ a mix of the assumed victimhood of minorities: fear of the cultural other, peer pressure, greed and the ‘end-ism’ propaganda to attract new recruits.
The three missing girls are said to have been in contact with Aqsa Maqsood, their academy fellow who left for Syria last year. But had it not been for the vulnerabilities of the Muslim communities in these countries, such recruitment would never been so easy.
Amira, Shamima, Kadiza and Aqsa are all wearing the hijab or headscarf in the pictures. Is it possible that the Muslim communities’ newfound emphasis on piety in western countries has something to do with the failure of assimilation?
European societies are known today to be multicultural and pluralistic, but they were not always like that. Only until a century ago, Europe was home to some of world’s most predominant colonial powers. Rudyard Kipling in his poem White Man’s Burden in 1899 called the people of colonies, “your new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child”.
So when some of these people migrated to Europe, they were not immediately accepted or absorbed. Human zoos could still be found in Europe till the late 1950s. In a separate part of Europe, Hitler showed the world what could be done to minorities.
Discrimination at that time too was alive, many Muslims who migrated to Europe tried to transform their identity to fit in. Salman became Solomon, Zakaria chose to be called Zak. But that too was to no avail.
Europe at that time was simply not ready to assimilate the immigrants; rejection led to reactions worldwide. One generation’s failure led the next to emphasise their roots, identity and culture of origin. Then came the Jihadist propaganda and the Muslim communities in Europe kept mutating to form a global cultural ‘other’, giving strength to the misplaced notion of the clash of civilisations.
The end of the Cold War sparked speculations about the future of the human civilisation. Unipolarity led many to dream of a future free of conflict. Was it possible to conclude that Western values had finally and irreversibly triumphed?
It was at this time that one of the best political minds of our time, Francis Fukuyama, borrowed Hegel’s dialectics to conclude that the western ideal had won and this marked the end of man’s intellectual history.
His paper The end of history (later expanded into a book) remains a beautiful assessment of western universalism; it did not get the friendly reception that it deserved. A skeptical audience given to the mental Cold War straitjacket did not take kindly to the ambitious pronouncement. At the end of this piece we will see if Dr Fukuyama’s pronouncement was actually as premature as was declared at the time, but let us first focus on the unintended consequences.
In the September 1990 edition of the monthly Atlantic, Bernard Lewis, the renowned British-American historian and Orientalist, used the phrase ‘clash of civilisations’ in an essay titled Roots of Muslim Rage.
But, while he had used the phrase in passing, it was Samuel Huntington – the well-known conservative scholar who is known more for political machinations than scholarly work – who put it to naked utilitarian use.
Sadly, while the works of Dr Fukuyama manifest great virtues of intellect, Dr Huntington’s work displays all the characteristics of premeditated spinning to give a specific direction to the historic causation.
Before we look into his ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, let us take a closer look at the man.
In her book Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto describes him as a ‘frail old man’ who ‘wore a woolly navy sweater in April and drank Coca-Cola from a Starbucks espresso cup’.
She also recollects how her father, as an undergraduate associate at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, came across Huntington’s reputation of being the ‘butcher of Vietnam’. Apparently, the man had ‘advocated the herding of villagers into clusters’, which instead of saving them, actually turned them into easy targets and collateral damage.
That was a bit of South Asian perspective, but there is more: The man could not get into the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, owing to the bitter opposition of one Dr Serge Lang, a Yale mathematician who accused Huntington of using ‘a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance’.
Lang accused him of employing pseudo-mathematical arguments in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies to reach the conclusion that in that decade, apartheid-afflicted South Africa was a ‘satisfied society’. Dr Lang dedicated 222 pages of his 816 page book, titled Challenges (published in 1998) to this controversy.
Whatever the validity of his challenge, it was strong enough to twice reject Huntington’s bid for member of the academy, despite his incredibly powerful knack for public relations.
I have narrated this episode to highlight that many believed that the author of The Clash Of Civilisation did not mind manipulating – even cooking up – facts to reach his favoured conclusions.
To prove that a clash between various cultures is inevitable, Huntington in his original article published in Foreign Affairs in 1993, based his definition of civilisation on the Arnold Toynbee interpretation of the term, which inextricably linked it to religious and cosmological outlook.
This was easy: Pick two of the most populous religious and cultural identities and project them as the new challenges after the communist threat. That way, you make the fear of the enemy so vast that you can give whatever policy advice in the resulting environment of paranoia.
Ideas can be powerful and offer tremendous power to their proponents. Hence, this flawed thesis.
Before the age of Toynbees, Spenglers and Durkheims, civilisation was only interpreted in the qualitative sense. There was assumed to be just one civilisation instead of many – civilisation versus benighted primitiveness. While that too can be considered a useful colonial tool, its interpretation of civilisation as an ideal was closer to the objective reality.
Why, then, go for a broken, reductionist definition of civilisation? Because that was dead useful.
Minds like Huntington’s are creatures of conflicts and it is in a polarised environment that they prosper. No doubt then, that compared to his other works, his clash thesis became a one-hit wonder.
|Huntington (left) and Fukuyama.|
If you are still not convinced that there was deliberate engineering involved here, the following quote from Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon, might do the job. Huntington reproduces this quote in the beginning of his 1996 book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order:
“There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.”
So, not only are there multiple civilisations and their clash imminent, but if you deny all this (and don’t fight) you will not be forgiven.
Which civilisations might clash with the West, then? The Islamic and Confucius civilisations. Post-colonial Muslim countries which had constantly faced identity crises were bound to inhale this propaganda in a heartbeat. So they did.
Likewise, a rapidly growing China was also looking for an identity more relevant in the changing times. Today, the organisation for the cultural promotion of socialist China abroad is not called the Mao Institute but the Confucius Institute.
But if you want to know what Huntington really believed in, you will have to read his parting shot Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he professes the American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) identity is under threat from the Latino immigrants.
Is it not ironic that the man who identifies himself with something as broad as the western civilisation ends up with such a narrow identity?
It was as if taking a cue from Huntington’s work, that fringe extremist groups in Muslim societies and connected minorities abroad started their propaganda about signs of the end of times. The clever plot in it is that Muslim eschatology predicts a series of wars in which if you choose to join the enemy’s ranks, you will never be forgiven (rings a bell?).
Henceforth, it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that given the political status quo in the Muslim countries, non-state actors will flourish with their brand of deadly terrorism. Therefore, the talk of a clash started gaining substance almost immediately after 9/11.
But Muslims were not the only community prone to these tendencies. While 9/11 and related terror incidents might have obscured the pre-existing undercurrents of end-ism in the rest of the world, they as good as almost set the stage for terrorism to come.
Shoko Asahara’s doomsday cult in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, killing 13 and affecting thousands. Today, from al Qaeda to the Islamic State, most terror outfits in the Muslim world are hardly more than doomsday cults. But such groups, too, are running short of arguments.
While their machinations may continue for a few more years, their appeal can easily be done away through smart policy interventions.
There is no gainsaying that the world order will essentially stay unstable for now. It is a given. Like dwellers in the same house, people of the world are prone to quibbling.
However, such fights will not be along ‘civilisational’ lines but more realistic regional conflicts.
Crimea is one example. Yemen is another. Perhaps there is a better way to look at it than Huntington’s. In his 2000 book Post Modern State and the World Order, British diplomat Sir Robert Cooper divides the world into three categories: Pre-modern, modern and post-modern.
‘Pre-modern’ countries are where state institutions are not functioning and the state loses monopoly on violence. A ‘modern’ state represents your average everyday countries, where state institutions are functioning properly but only just. A ‘post-modern’ state has only one state, namely the European state, where nation states give up limited autonomy to be united under one umbrella.
This explanation shows how the world is in different stages of development – divisions evidently, but not something you cannot avoid.
Otherwise Huntington’s prophesied clash ignores the fact that the Muslim world is not unified enough, and the Confucius world Confucian enough to pose a systematic challenge to Western thought.
The incredible convenience of confrontation aside in the current fog of war, hate and anger; the real merits of Fukuyama’s basic thesis get obscured. However, they are there.
Recently, when Lee Kuan Yew died, with him got buried the talk of the so-called Asian values. Authoritarianism, oppression and illiberal ways have lost their appeal. Here and there, you find feeble attempts to justify them but they are losing impact.
While economists everyday try to improve the quality of capitalism with added checks and balances, the world has failed to represent coherent alternatives since the fall of Soviet Union. Liberal democracy is now considered the best institutional practice, when not publicly, privately.
The notion of the religions of the world competing with the West as an alternative is also misplaced, given that Western values are essentially mundane in nature and religions after spiritual illumination. No matter how much it tries to convince you, the clergy, cannot deny that the two do not occupy the same space.
And that’s why the triumph of the West doesn’t mean religion will lose its influence.
Far from that, as the world painstakingly marches to the postmodern finish line, pluralism will find space for all faiths. But if the world has not been able to come up with a cogent alternative to liberal democracy as an ideal, why should we not conclude that it has triumphed at least in theory?
In my humble view, there is no rational alternative to it all.
Those who have known Fukuyama’s works through secondary references should do themselves a service and go through the original source.
(This piece originally appeared here)