Why is it easy to #BlameISI?

Justice for Sabeen

After the outcry over the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, a new Twitter trend #BlameISI appeared to make the point that it is too easy to blame agencies for everything under the sun. Point taken, but I couldn’t help but also wonder why it is so easy to blame ISI? One of  the most popular defences of ISI in Sabeen Mahmud case was included in a piece by Ali Afzal Sahi published by Daily Times:

Firstly, a fundamental rule underlying criminal law is that the primary suspect is that who benefits most from the murder. Treading along this line of thought, what can be clearly ascertained is that ISI has nothing to gain and everything to lose. Any sane person would have guessed that if she is hurt, ISI will be blamed.

This is fascinating. Think about what he is saying: “Any sane person would have guessed that if she is hurt, ISI will be blamed.” Why would any sane person guess that ISI will be blamed if a liberal intellectual who hosts a discussion of Balochistan is harmed? Shouldn’t this be the question we are asking?

Reading this left my head spinning. Then, I found what I believe is the answer in an opinion piece by esteemed lawyer and analyst Feisal Naqvi.

The first point is that the problem is not just that nobody knows the answer today: the problem is that we will probably never know who killed her. Just like we will never know who killed Saleem Shehzad. Or Wali Muhammad. Or Parween Rehman. Or Benazir Bhutto. Or Omar Asghar Khan. Or Hakim Said. Or General Ziaul Haq. Or Liaquat Ali Khan.

A few days ago, rumours began to circulate that an ISI sting operation had nabbed the killers and they would be exposed soon. I was relieved. Not just because I don’t want to believe that my own security forces would be willing or able to have a defenceless woman killed over a discussion, but because it would be a sign that things had taken a turn and justice would be carried out. We are still waiting for the announcement, and actually by now I have turned cynical for exactly the reason that Faisal Naqvi makes: Historically, we never learn the answers.

Politicians and Army spokesmen are prone to speaking in riddles. When explaining who is behind such attacks, we are told that there is insurmountable proof of ‘foreign hand’ or ‘known elements’ or ‘enemy agents’. Never a name, though. Never a photograph. There are vague insinuations, but never details.

Feisal Naqvi finally put into words what I have been feeling since long. So, with apologies to him, I am going to borrow his final paragraph:

I have no reason to doubt the DG ISPR’s sincerity when he condemns the murder of Sabeen Mahmud. At a personal level, I very much doubt that our agencies had anything to do with her death. But in the absence of any independent accountability or trustworthy form of dispute resolution, all we are left with are his words. And words really don’t go that far.

The best defence of ISI is not a social media trend or a threats against media airing hate speech against national institutions. A better defence of ISI is for our intelligence agencies to find the killers and expose them by making the detailed evidence public, no matter who the killers are. The best defence is for agencies to stop these killings before they ever happen.

Suicidal Silence

silenceProtests are breaking out over killing of Muslims in Myanmar, not just on social media but on the streets. International human rights groups like Amnesty International are taking notice, and even the United Nations has sent an envoy to investigate. Meanwhile, another group of Muslims is being systematically slaughtered, and their plight is being met with silence. I am speaking, obviously, of Pakistani Muslims killed by none other than other Pakistani Muslims.

The most obvious case are the ongoing attacks against Shia. Newspapers in Pakistan carry headlines that read ‘Burmese Muslim losing hope’ and also ‘Hope fades away for Hazaras of Pakistan’. But you will find no protest marches here. Instead, you will find Lashkar-e-Jhangvi chief Malik Ishaq sitting on a stage next to Hamid Gul and Hafiz Saeed spreading messages of militancy and intolerance.

It is not just militants, though, who are preaching these messages. Our electronic media too is a teaching these lessons to the point that none other than al Arabiya is asking ‘is Pakistan’s TV evangelism sprouting a dangerous creed of intolerance’? Even the national heroes among us are erased from history if their personal religious beliefs do not conform to someone else’s standard.

Yesterday, media reported a pair of journalists were beaten for having soft drinks in their car during daytime. According to the reports, the policemen accused them of committing sin by not fasting during Ramazan.

Since when did we have religious police to enforce Sharia? Actually, we don’t. What we have are self-appointed religious police. They aren’t ghazis, they are narcissistic psychopaths whose murderous rampages are given sanction by a public that is too scared, too apathetic, or too complicit. How else does a guard turn his gun on his own ward only to find himself showered with petals by the very people who claim to be guardians of rule of law?

Supreme Court Advocate Feisal Naqvi warns that we are slipping down a dangerous slope, where atrocities are committed, and nobody cares.

We are headed for a stage where even the people who attend fashion shows and rock concerts are becoming increasingly comfortable with the fact that it is okay to kill people either for being non-Muslim or for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

Think I’m wrong? If so, think again. In the last six months alone, we have seen multiple incidents in which people have been killed, in the most brutal of ways, for belonging to the wrong religion or the wrong sect. The one act of terror I have been unable to wipe out from my memory is that of the Balochi Shia pilgrims on their way to Iran. Their bus was stopped at a deserted spot and each of the Shias was then shot at close range and their bodies heaved out of the bus like so many sacks of grain. Of course, we know all of this because one of the murdering bastards used his cellphone to record the massacre and then uploaded the video on YouTube.

And yet, where is the outrage?

Outrage is there, but it is pointed outward. We are outraged by human rights violations in other countries, but not our own. We support ‘self defense’ for occupied people, but we are unwilling to defend ourselves against the occupation of extremism. We brave the hot sun to march against ‘hidden hands’, but we don’t lift a finger against the grip of intolerance that is strangling our culture and society. In our silence, we are dying by our own hand.

Missing element from Feisal Naqvi’s “Antifragile” Democracy

Zardari signing 18th Amendment

Feisal Naqvi makes some good points in his latest piece for Express Tribune, ‘Making our democracy “antifragile”‘. As he correctly notes, concentration of power in the hands of one person is the antithesis of democracy, and creates a political environment in which authority resides in individuals and not institutions. Feisal uses several contemporary examples, but he leaves out other important elements also.

As an example of an institution that is improperly consolidating power into the hands of one individual, Feisal Naqvi points to the Supreme Court.

The desire to centralise power is not one which afflicts executive officials alone. The unanimity with which the Supreme Court now speaks is such that, according to one commentator, “not one judge in these four years [since the restoration of the CJP in 2008] has disagreed on a single point of law in a major constitutional case”. I agree entirely that this is a disturbing sign. Common law courts form a resilient, antifragile judicial system precisely because they allow for a multiplicity of views to exist before being slowly resolved over time. Views thus get thrashed out amongst different judges with different viewpoints. Good points and bad points both get slowly identified. And only the concentrated common sense of the judiciary eventually survives.

By contrast, what one sees quite often is a multiplicity of issues getting decided directly in the Supreme Court, and that, too, without dissent. This is not a healthy development. Dissent is a good thing because it is a sign of life, a sign of independent thinking, and more importantly, because today’s dissent can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. More importantly, we need to give appropriate time for these issues to be examined in detail rather than simply seeking to address all aspects in one go.

It’s not only the Justices that are falling down on their job of properly weighing all views and engaging in healthy dissent. The Government Punjab also comes into his sights when he notes that “Mian Shahbaz Sharif held 18 portfolios in his own cabinet”.

Feisal Naqvi also criticises coalition parliamentarians for deferring to the President to nominate a replacement Prime Minister rather than working to find a consensus candidate. There are several valid complaints to be made about parliament, but this one might be a little bit unfair. When parliament adopted a consensus approach to developing a new set of terms for renegotiating relations with the US, the process dragged on for weeks beyond the original deadline. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not offer the luxury of time in choosing a new Prime Minister as their Lordships in their infinite wisdom rendered the nation leaderless since the past two months!

What Feisal Naqvi’s otherwise good piece was really missing, though, was an acknowledgment of what progress has been made towards sharing responsibility “across persons and institutions in the way that the burdens of democracy are meant to be shared”. Ironically, the person who has probably done more to advance Feisal Naqvi’s vision is none other than President Zardari himself.

In 2009, President Zardari voluntarily returned control over the nation’s nuclear assets – a power usurped by a military dictator – to the Prime Minister. In 2010, President Zardari signed the 18th Amendment bill that went even further in reducing his own powers as well as devolving many responsibilities from the Federal to the Provincial governments. The extraordinary nature of this act – a sitting president voluntarily returning powers that had been usurped by dictators – was noticed throughout the world.

In his 2011 Address to the joint session of Parliament, President Zardari thanked Allah for guiding him to reduce the concentration of power in the government and to spread responsibility among institutions.

Returning power from dictators to the people was the core of our promise.

Rarely in history has a leader abdicated power by his own free will.

My head bows in gratitude before Allah, for giving me the strength, to give up powers that had been usurped by dictators.

Actually, the 18th Amendment which devolved powers and shared responsibility was passed unanimously by parliament, and that institution deserves great credit. Actually, the only person against it was Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was opposed to sharing the responsibility of selecting new Justices – he preferred to keep all that power consolidated in himself as if the Court were his personal fiefdom. Thankfully, reason – through the parliament – won the day.

Finally, though Feisal Naqvi touches on important responsibilities of government officials, he leaves out the responsibilities of citizens. I will not defend everything that parliament or President Zardari has done. Some I have agreed with and some I have disagreed with also. In a democracy it is our right to criticise our leaders when they fail us. But it is also our responsibility to recognise when they do things right. If we are unwilling to give parliament and Zardari their due, what incentive will the next group have for even trying?

Building on a foundation of stone

house on sandTwo men were offered plots on which to build their family homes. Each was given a choice – you can have a plot of sand today, or you can have a plot with a level stone and fertile grounds but for this you must wait some time. The first man said he could not wait, that he had suffered enough living under the open sky and he was tired of feeling the heat and the cold and the rain. He would take the plot of sand and build his house immediately.

The second man thought for a moment and decided that he will wait for the plot with the level stone and the fertile grounds. This man watched as the land was slowly cleared, and the stone leveled and smoothed. While the work was still being done, the man grew old and bent over. The first man came to him and laughed, “I always knew you were a fool! You are an old man now and will be dead before it is ever possible to build a house here!”

The second man smiled and looked at his son holding his grandchildren. “It’s okay, my old friend. I will be gone soon, but I will never be forgotten as my grandchildren will raise their children and they their children in a safe and secure home someday.”

Fifty years later, both the first and second man were long gone. But neither man was forgotten. The first man who built his house on sand was cursed by his family who suffered in an unstable home that was prone to constant shifting and collapse every time the wind blew the sand a different direction.

The second man was revered by his family who recalled his name in their prayers. His grandchildren and even the children of his grandchildren also grew healthy and strong in a house that was strong and secure from both within and without. It had taken many years, but when the work was complete the house provided a sturdy shelter from the elements that even the strongest winds could not blow over. The second man’s family was able to grow and prosper for generations.

If we want the a strong and secure home, we must have patience. There may be faster options, but the results will be like the first man’s house, built on sanding and shifting with every wind. Naqvi explains this perfectly when he advises us about ‘learning to live with the chai-wallah‘.

The point then is that dictators — even well-intentioned enlightened dictators — build on foundations of sand. When they go, their achievements tend to go with them. By comparison, democracies work slowly and fitfully. The achievements of a democratic regime are built on foundations of stone. What a democracy builds tends to stick around for a very long time. Or in other words, so far as political reform is concerned, democracies and dictatorships have the same relationship to each other as the fabled tortoise and the hare.

Lasting change does not come quickly. Just as one cannot take a pill and speak a new language or become a skilled musician, it takes time to build a strong foundation to support a strong nation. Therefore, which will you choose for Pakistan? How will you have your grandchildren’s children remember your name? As one who chose the foundation of sand or of stone? The choice is before you…

Politics of Privilege

Politics of Privilege

A number of things have happened lately that, when looked at all together, point to a pretty interesting phenomenon in popular politics. By popular politics, though, I don’t mean what most people support, but what is the popular perspective among those privileged enough to spend all day talking about politics.

Feisal Naqvi dismisses intellectuals as “the 50 people who talk to each other on Twitter”, but considers Mr Zohair Toru, despite all his faults, a political hero. But think about what Feisal wants us to celebrate in Zohair.

First, let us first celebrate the fact that well-meaning, English-medium burger babies have been so roused from the depths of their traditional apathy that they are actually taking to the streets.

From apathetic burger-babies to “fantastically ignorant” (Feisal’s words, not mine) street protesters. This is an improvement? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate if our privileged and educated youth put their time and energy towards analysing economic policy or water conservation? Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate these English-medium burger-babies getting off the street and taking up the less glamourous work of actually governing? Yes, they may have to start at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up, but surely spending their days taking notes and running errands is a small sacrifice for someone who has been given so much in life. After all, revolutionaries love to suffer, right?

Second, I think it is worth celebrating the fact that our burger-babies do not feel that it is appropriate for the police to push around non-violent protesters.

Talk about setting the bar low. Congratulations privileged youth! You don’t like to be pushed around by police! What an accomplishment.

It’s also a little bit of a stretch to say that these burger-babies don’t approve of police violence. Actually they don’t approve of police violence against them. If a group of “beret-wearing poli-sci types” took to the streets to demand the repeal of the blasphemy laws, would Imran Khan’s ‘Fashionista Army’ be on the streets to defend them?

We should also be a bit troubled by the blatant anti-intellectualism coming from “a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court”. But, of course, this is actually a faux anti-intellectualism, anyway. Do you really think Feisal Naqvi, Zohair Toru, and Imran Khan think their servants are fit to govern the country? I’m sure they have not bothered to read Gramsci, either.

Really, though, this defense of Zohair Toru’s silliness is just the latest in a line of self-praise for meaningless and ultimately ineffective tantrums by the privileged class. It is the latest expression of the people who look down on the great unwashed masses and look up with envy to the super-wealthy who keep them from what they believe is their rightful inheritance.

When Shah Mahmood Qureshi left the cabinet, I talked to so many people who acted as if he were Jinnah come back to save the country. Everyone said he was starting a new political party (a claim SMQ himself has publicly denied) that would sweep to power and solve every problem in the nation.

I suspect that this attitude also this accounts for the appeal of political parties like PTI to so many in the middle class. I always laugh when people tell me that Imran Khan is an alternative. Imran Khan? The ego-maniac millionaire celebrity play boy is an alternative? The man with the huge private estate and the ex-wife back in London is an alternative? The pseudo-religious know-it-all is an alternative? An alternative to what?

Let’s be honest, shall we? PTI has been around for almost 15 years now, so it’s not exactly fresh and new. PTI first contested elections in 1997. They won 1.7% of the votes. In 2002, they actually did worse, only taking 0.8%. In 2008 they didn’t even bother to show up. Imran Khan has been peddling his brand of politics for nearly a decade and a half and guess what?

Nobody is buying it.

People like Feisal Naqvi try to dismiss everyone who doesn’t agree with them as elitists, but who is more elitist than a bunch of people who can’t convince anyone to vote for them and still insist that they represent the people? In this sense, Zohair Toru is a perfect representative of PTI, or even some new party like PPP (Ghairat-e-Qureshi).

People who are used to getting whatever they want – and easily so – who simply cannot understand why, in the words of Feisal Naqvi, “politics is inherently a dirty business”. That’s also why their answer is always to ask for some “man of impeccable character” or Khalifa to save the country. They don’t want to get their own hands dirty, or stand in the sun too long, or get pushed around by police. They want a national daddy to fix everything so they can get back to “concentrating on their hairstyles”.

There is no doubt that people are frustrated – and with good reason. But we need to ask whether we’re channeling our frustration into pragmatic solutions or whether we are acting out and throwing tantrums in the hopes that daddy will buy us a new Prado with better features than our old car. We need to ask whether the “Revolution” being peddled by these spoiled middle class kids isn’t the same thing as trashing the car so that daddy will HAVE TO buy them a new one.

And it’s not just Pakistan, so don’t give me that answer either. This same phenomenon is found in other democratic countries where the privileged middle class loses all sense of perspective and forgets that governing is harder than throwing tantrums until you get your way. In the US, Ralph Nader ran for President in 2000 which was an expression of the frustration of the American educated middle class. He only won 2.7% of the vote, but it was enough that ended up resulting in eight years of George W. Bush. They wrecked the car, but the replacement wasn’t what they bargained for.

In the UK, this lesson was learned the hard way by Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats party when they won 23% of the votes in 2010. Neither of the two largest parties in the UK – Labour and Tories – had a solid majority, so Nick Clegg found himself in the position of ‘king maker’ by forming a coalition government. That meant that rather than organizing street protests of “fantastically ignorant” youth, Mr Clegg and his Lib-Dems were suddenly required to fix the problems they had been complaining about for years.

Turns out it’s easier to stand in the sun and get pushed by police for a while before going to a fashionable party.