Mosharraf Zaidi: ‘The Unthinking Pakistani’

Mosharraf Zaidi

The following piece by Mosharraf Zaidi was published in today’s The News. It is re-posted here to further what is a discussion vital to the national cause. 

Why is Hafiz Sayeed, the head of a UN-sanctioned organisation, being provided an audience with some of Pakistan’s most prestigious talk show hosts? Why is the US ambassador to Pakistan being detained at Islamabad airport, if even for a few minutes? What explains the appearances of fiction script writers and comics wearing red topis on serious news television talk shows?

We don’t need an inquiry commission to explore these questions. We just need a healthy respect for Pakistan. A country of almost 200 million people is not a disposable bag of Halloween tricks. It is serious business. How serious? A brazen raid of a city that hosts Pakistan’s most important military academy should raise structural questions. The presence of the world’s most wanted terrorist in that city should raise existential questions. The unchallenged destruction of key military hardware, purchased with hard earned foreign assistance should raise capacity questions. The torture and murder of an intrepid investigative journalist should raise moral and legal questions.

That’s exactly what happened. The US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions. Bin Laden’s presence there raised questions. The P3C Orion attack at PNS Mehran raised questions. Most gruesomely, Saleem Shehzad’s torture and murder raised questions.

Unfortunately, the universe’s response to these questions leaves much to be desired. Whatever Pakistan’s elected leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats and generals may be saying to the rest of the world, the basic message being conveyed on television, through press releases and by proxy is very simple: “Osama bin who? Pakistan is a fortress of Islam. Got questions? You’re a traitor.”

This may represent an adequate defence for a 10-year-old facing down schoolyard bullies. But Pakistan is not ten. It is 64. International relations demand something slightly more sophisticated. Parading clownish conspiracy theorists and internationally-despised terrorists on prime time television is so bush league, it beggars belief. If the best response Pakistan can conjure to India’s incredible capacity for propaganda is a bumbling faux historian that wears a red topi, Pakistan is in serious trouble. It is as if Pakistan wants to insist on bringing a knife to a gun fight. A blunt, boring butter knife. Made of plastic. In Gujranwala. If the best response that Pakistan can conjure to American hubris and myopia in the region is to harass the US ambassador, Pakistan is in really, really serious trouble. It is as if Pakistan insists on wearing Bermuda shorts, and a tank top with nihari stains on it to board meetings in which everyone else is dressed in Armani suits.

What motivation could there possibly be for Hafiz Sayeed to magically appear on television other than to scare the people who are watching Pakistan closely? Last time we checked, the JuD (or its spin off Falah-e-Insaaniat Foundation) had yet to achieve a greater name in welfare work than the Edhi Foundation. Nor had 80 odd JuD madrassahs begun to dispense education that could hold a candle to the stellar learning experience under-privileged Pakistani kids enjoy at The Citizens Foundation’s 660 schools. What exactly is going on?

The impulse in Pakistan, as always, is to conjure up a conspiracy of genius. In a dark and smoke-filled room in Aabpara somewhere, the cunning machinations of the ISI are hard at work. The truth is probably a lot scarier. Public service has not been a first, second or third choice for Pakistan’s best and brightest young people for over two generations now. This raises a simple, but damning problem. The people analysing the state of the world and helping the Pakistani state make decisions are not going to win any Nobel prizes for physics or chemistry anytime soon.

Yet for decades, the most important decisions Pakistan has made, both in state and across society, have in fact been made by the owners of less than stellar intellects. The results are there for all to see. The dubious distinction of having as many as 40 million children out of school in Pakistan is not an empty slogan. It is a real problem. This is reflected in a profound and growing inability across Pakistani state and society to think. Forget critical thinking. Pakistan’s systemic underinvestment in education and knowledge-generation, and its sustained overinvestment in sentimentality, zealous pride and empty slogans have real consequences.

One of them is the stoppage of the US ambassador at Islamabad airport. Another is the mysterious popping up of Hafiz Sayeed on big time talk shows. Yet another is the nonsense and tripe spewed by clownish conspiracy theorists. These events may be entirely independent and coincidental. Or they may be painstakingly well coordinated and timed. In either case, they represent the sum total of creativity and tactics employed by a state and society that simply doesn’t have any answers. Pakistan keeps doing less than optimal, and more than surreal things because that’s the best it can do.

At home, body bags pile sky high in Karachi and across Khyber. The fighting sons of Landhi, Orakzai, Lyari, Wazistan, Orangi, Bajaur, Surjani Town and Mohmand. Taking shrapnel and bullets. Taking hammers and tongs. Taking ball bearings and fire. Bearing the brunt of citizenship in a country that provides only 35,000 policemen to a city of 18 million – but somehow manages to afford an airline with one of the world’s highest employee to aircraft ratios. Adding insult to injury are constant ads from military affiliated foundations, recruiting policemen. Not to shut down the violence in Karachi or Khyber – but to shut down dissent in Bahrain.

Away from home, Pakistan constantly seeks financial aid from other countries. Pakistanis then want to turn around and call those countries names. The military is the primary recipient of foreign assistance, while political governments and NGOs have received a mere pittance. Yet somehow this results in the military being lauded for its “nationalism”, and the political class and civil society being dragged through the mud for their “treasonous” habit of dissent. This too is a product of a profound and growing inability to think.

It doesn’t stop there. Much of the obsession of both so-called liberals and so-called conservatives in Pakistan with religion is a dislocated zeal for arguing about God and the role of faith in public life. That’s a great topic for a Christopher Hitchens debate with any reasonable person, but it is not primary to Pakistan today. The most problematic manifestations of faith in Pakistan are not shampoo ads for women that observe hijaab. The most problematic manifestations of faith in Pakistan are terrorism, public sympathy for contract killers, a twisted national legal framework that incentivises the exploitation of minorities and ridiculous “piety” laws being implemented by a dysfunctional legal and judicial system. In short, exactly the kind of problems we would expect to see in a society that is increasingly bereft of the capacity of discerning thought.

The manner in which manifest religiosity has been mixed in with manifest nationalism, and a dangerously superficial ability to quote Allama Iqbal is germane to the unthinking Pakistani society. Harassing representatives of foreign governments, parading alleged terrorist masterminds, and deploying nutty conspiracy theorists has no basis in either South Asian tradition, or orthodox Islam, or even notions of Pakistaniat. But the unthinking Pakistani society isn’t thinking. Ahistoric and anachronistic, there is no way out for society. It has to begin thinking. The effective Pakistani state will remain an elusive and impossible dream until it does.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a political analyst who advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. This column was originally published by The News on 27 August.

Latest Abbottabad lie – How stupid do they think we are?

I have to admit that I’ve been a bit skeptical of the Abbottabad commission from the very beginning. It took the Americans a few hours to carry out the operation, and it has taken months for the commission to even get started. It was clear from the start that certain people didn’t want any inquiry at all. But after all this, now I’m supposed to believe that we won’t learn anything because of…America?!?

According to the front page of yesterday’s Express Tribune, the US is trying to put a big foreign hand over the mouth of the Abbottabad commission.

“The US was in fact strongly against the very idea of any commission to investigate the Abbottabad incident,” said a security official, who chose to stay anonymous.

Of course, the American Embassy immediately rubbished such claims and Express Tribune had to publish a statement contradicting their anonymous report. But reading the original article it becomes apparent what the real problem is.

Intelligence agencies have been collecting evidence and all the relevant details that could provide leads on how the world’s most recognised face managed to live undetected in a garrison town for so long, said another official.

“The arrest of several local people who were working for the CIA is also helpful in finding the unanswered questions,” the official revealed.

The first paragraph says that the agencies are investigation how Osama managed to live in Pakistan. The second paragraph says they are arresting local people who helped the CIA catch him. How is arresting locals who may or may not have tipped CIA in 2011 going to help us learn how Osama got here in 2005?

The real issue is not how the US found him. The real issue is how Osama bin Laden got into Pakistan in the first place, and it’s the one issue nobody wants to talk about. Shireen Mazari screeches on TV about visas, but never asks who gave Osama bin Laden’s passport stamp. Ghairat Brigadiers (R, of course) give lengthy speeches about defending the national sovereignty, but they are silent about thousands of foreign jihadis are coming to our country and carrying out attacks against our own people.

Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan confesses that TTP was behind the attack on PNS Mehran, and what do I read in the newspaper? Politicians scoring cheap political points by blaming the US.

When Abbottabad operation happened, what was the story from the anonymous “security officials” and Ghairat Brigadiers (R)? For weeks it was nothing because they were caught with their pants down. Then the usual parade of clowns began filling my inbox with confused and contradictory conspiracy theories. It was a joint operation and the Americans are refusing to give us our due! No, it was an invasion! They snuck in when our radars were having a rest! No, the radars were on but the hills got in the way! Osama was already dead! No, he wasn’t dead, but he did not do 9/11 attacks! No he was killed and he put up a brave fight against the imperialist bastards! No he was killed and he didn’t put up a fight because he was an innocent old man!

No matter what, the problem is arrogant Amreeka! As a perfect example, Gen sahib actually managed to make all of these ridiculous statements together in less than two minutes.

And now this pathetic song and dance has been followed with this latest number claiming that if we don’t learn anything from the commission, it’s not our fault, once again it’s the American’s fault!

The only question for me is…how stupid do they think we are? The answer, I’m afraid, is very.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Islamabad vigil for Saleem Shahzad

Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guards?

These sayings have been used to debate the question of where power should ultimately reside. In the world’s democracies, the power rests with the people’s ability to make informed decisions. Key reason democracies protect the freedoms of speech and press is because media has the duty to relay information and keep people up to date on current events. Journalists are tasked with the crucial role of reporting, honestly and accurately, what is happening in society.

And so what do we do when the watchmen, the guards, become the enemy? How does a nation respond when the security agencies now pose a serious threat to the safety of its people? What happens when the intelligence agencies order the murders of journalists?

Today, the New York Times has an article detailing what many in Pakistan already suspect: the ISI ordered the abduction and murder of a Pakistani civilian who was seen as a threat to their secret operations. The torture and killing of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan, and further raised speculation about the integrity of the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The outpouring of public anger, from Mr. Shahzad’s fellow journalists to political pundits, demanded justice. In response, the Supreme Court has authorized a commission to investigate the killing.

We have to face the truth. We cannot ignore the fact the ISI figures largely into this case: to do so would come at the expense of our collective safety. Mr. Shahzad’s last article discussed the reach of extremists within Pakistan’s navy, and detailed their role in the attack on PNS Mehran naval station. This proved to be too much for an already humiliated ISI following the American raid killing OBL in Abbottabad, and the orders to kill him were given. Kidnappings and beatings of Pakistani journalists are not unheard of. Mr. Umar Cheema, a reporter for “The News” recounted his kidnapping and severe beatings. “I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI,” he said, referring to the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. He said that earlier this year, an ISI officer summoned him to a coffee shop in Islamabad and warned him to fall into line.

Enough is enough. Pakistan was not created so the ISI could win a popularity contest. The ISI was created to protect its citizens, not kill them. Pakistanis suffer daily at the hands of extremists, and the idea the ISI is in cahoots with them is sickening. As Mr. Cheema writes, Pakistan’s journalists are dying to tell the story. They die, informing us of the darker realities within our country, because ultimately, power rests with the people.

The people must not remain silent.

Politics of ‘No’

Politics of No

I was encouraged by Nawaz Sharif’s demand for an independent panel to investigate the Abbottabad operation. The N-league chief was a call for reason to take the place of emotion by creating a serious investigation of the many failures that led to both a foreign terrorist leader living in Pakistan’s borders and the foreign military raid that killed him. While emotion dominated much of the discussion after this incident, Nawaz Sharif was calling for a cooler response aimed at cleaning up the mess rather than hiding the dirt under a rug.

Besides being the voice of reason on Abbottabad, though, Mian Nawaz’s party has followed the opposite path – the old model of politics which is to just say ‘NO’ and avoid the responsibility of offering constructive recommendations and feedback to help guide important decisions in government.

This strategy of ‘no’ came actually before Abbottabad. We saw it when N-league lawmakers resorted to shouts and a walkout in April when opposition walked out during the president’s address in March. What I wrote at that time was this:

When politicians devise strategies, the goal should be to move the country forward, not to move their own careers forward. Chaudhry Nisar and PML-N have some good ideas and they can contribute to making the country safer, more secure, and more prosperous for everybody. But they can only do this if they are participating in the process, not throwing wrenches in the works and spoiling the cream for everyone else.

Unfortunately, these words are worth repeating again as once again the PML-N has resorted to walkouts this time in response to the budget and causing a ruckus in parliament.

The PML-N parliamentarians gathered in front of the prime minister, finance minister and other cabinet members and shouted pre-planned slogans through the budget speech, forcing MNAs on the treasury benches and their allies to use headphones.

The “pre-planned slogans” were also the lowest form of playing to a populist gallery rather than addressing any issues of the budget or the nation’s struggling financial situation.

The opposition’s slogans included: “US lobby; corrupt government; drone attacks; IMF budget; dacoits’ rule not accepted; stop telling lies; respect judiciary and parliament; and let Geo live.” In their slogans, the PML-N members kept calling the rulers ‘dacoits.’

What is the point of this except to play to the media gallery in hopes of a spot light on the talk shows? None of these pre-planned slogans no matter how loudly they are shouted will fix the tax to GDP ratio. None of these pre-planned slogans will fix the load shedding problem. None of these pre-planned slogans will put food in the mouths of the miserable and poor.

This is the old style of politics that has obstructed the natural growth of the nation for decades. Friendly opposition does not mean subservient to the majority, but neither does it mean acting as a roadblock to progress. It’s time to relegate the politics of ‘NO’ to the dustbin of history and embrace a new model of compromise and consensus. Every party will find itself in the opposition at some point. The best way to move from opposition to majority is to prove to the people that they can help bring the country forward, not hold it back.

Part the dark clouds, let the sun shine in

Light Shining Through CloudsPM has convened an independent commission to investigate the Abbottabad incident and ascertain the full facts regarding the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. This is a commendable decision and one that should be fully backed by those whose primary concern is truth and justice. It is time that we part the dark clouds hanging over the nation and let the sun shine in.

The 2/5 operation may have come at the first of the month, but the past few weeks have been a string of incidents. After Abbottabad we saw the terrorist attack on PNS Mehran. We saw suicide bombings almost daily. Yesterday the sad news was announced that the body of another journalist was found tortured to death. Surrounding each of these incidents has been an aura of suspicion, doubt, and conspiracy. This is not unusual and may even be considered as ‘status quo’. When tragedy strikes, it is hard to part the dark clouds to see clearly.

But these tragic events are not the only events that have caused confusion. There continue to be questions about visas issued to American nationals, even after the Embassy in Washington has made multiple press statements including providing access to the data on these visas to show that there has been nothing out of the ordinary.

Najam Sethi got the memo and corrected the record on Aapas Ki Baat recently, but obviously this information is not being made widely available since Javed Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari continued to perpetuate the conspiracy on Kal Tak that 7,000 Americans were issued visas without proper security checks.

Drones is another issue that is surrounded by dark clouds of confusion and misinformation. Listening to Imran Khan and others talk about drone attacks, it is easy to come away with the belief that 30,000 innocent Pakistanis have been killed by drones and not one single terrorist. But actually none other than the terrorist leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed by drones. Actually, according to data confirmed by independent news reports, maximum number of drone deaths are militants. This fact was also confirmed by GHQ when General Officer Commanding 7-Division Maj-Gen Ghayur Mehmood said in a briefing earlier this year:

“Myths and rumours about US predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.

“Yes there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements.”

Never the less, incorrect statements and conspiracies continue about both visa policy and drone strikes. Now we have talking heads on TV telling that Osama bin Laden was not killed at Abbottabad, PNS Mehran attack was a CIA-RAW-al Qaeda conspiracy, and now there are even those saying Saleem Shahzad’s murder was a conspiracy to harm the image of the farishtas in our agencies.

We all know that good Muslisms cannot lie, therefore the people who are perpetuating these statements must be like so many people mistaken due to not having the facts. The only solution to this problem is to have an independent commission verify the facts so that the confusion can be resolved and we can move forward to solve the grave issues facing the nation. Abbottabad is a good place to start since it was the first incident in the past weeks (though surely not the first incident in history).

But we should also convene independent commissions to investigate the other issues also – PNS Mehran, Saleem Shahzad murder, visas, drones etc – and take the nation into confidence so that myths, conspiracies, and confusion can be buried for good. In order to ensure that there is no doubt about the results of these findings, the independent commissions should be open and transparent for all citizens to inspect.

We have been living for too long under the weight of dark clouds. It is time to let the light shine upon the truth. Only then will we fund real justice.