Saturday, February 25, 2017

Doing ecological research in a time of genocide

Water fleas, aka Daphnia
Image credit: ScienceCodex

I have always found other life forms to be significantly more interesting than humans (myself included). One of my most cherished childhood memories is holding newly hatched geckos (the feared chipkali) in my hand; small greenish-greyish balls, with tiny cumin seed eyes, pieces of the shell still attached. My dad had found them behind our water pump and excitedly called me out, promising me that it would be worth it. And it was.

I don't know when my love affair with non-human organisms began. Maybe it was time my father allowed me to skip school so that we could go see the carcass of a Blue Whale that had washed up on shore. Or the countless time we went to the Mangopir shrine just to see the sacred crocodiles. This fascination has been a constant in my life even as the places, cultures, languages, food and people around me have changed. When people ask me why I decided to pursue a PhD examining the impact of behaviour on zooplankton communities of all things, it's extremely embarrassing to say that it's my childhood dream.

I am increasingly wondering if this lifelong fascination with non-human organisms is a selfish decision. The "reviled religious minority" that I belong to is currently undergoing genocide. In the face of violent persecution, I am struggling to understand what is the value of my scientific research to my community at this point. Why do my scientific contributions matter in a world that is actively trying to erase my existence? How can I justify spending my efforts understanding how ecological communities operate when the weekly murders of tens and hundreds of people from my community goes without comment from Pakistan's Sunni majority and the rest of the world?  I think of community activists who are risking their lives to remind our fellow citizens that we too are human. That when we are gunned down on our way to work, blown up in market places or attacked in our houses of worship, our blood should be valued. My life choices are cowardly in comparison.

I would like to believe the little knowledge that I contribute to this world about ecological communities matters. But any contributions I make will not stop someone from murdering me in my home, workplace or house of worship. I won't pretend that my research is an act of defiance or rebellion. It is a deeply selfish act. But it is also a necessary one. Researching how zooplankton communities operate reminds me that beyond all of this violence exists another world, one where tiny animals in the water column have the ability to change the way lakes and oceans function. When I am immersed in this world, questions about my humanity cease to matter. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Data and Code for anti-Shia violence analysis

I wanted to provide the data and the R code for the anti-Shia violence data that I analyzed a while back. Details about the dataset including where to access it from is provided here and here. The R code that I used to generate this is available here.

Monday, August 22, 2016

My thoughts on the Burkini Ban

Over the past week and a half, municipal governments across France have banned the Burkini, a full body swimsuit with a head covering that allows Muslim women (and others who prefer to be less exposed) from beaches. On Wednesday, the French Prime Minister Manuel Walls, denounced the garb as part of the "enslavement of women". Many people have commented, tweeted and blogged about this. These are some of my thoughts:

1) The ban achieves nothing. It does not affect the patriarchal forces that seek to control the lives and choices of Muslim women. Neither does it prevent radicalization in Muslim communities across Europe. It's simply a way for politicians to use the anxieties of their (non-Muslim) citizens to gain political capital by seeming to prevent extremist Islamist mass violence (Why extremist? See the work of Shadi Hamid that shows violence is NOT the norm for Islamist movements, specifically in the Middle East) without actually addressing any of the core causes of this violence (because that requires work and also there is no consensus among scholars of terrorism and radicalization on what these core motivators are).

2)Burkini is different from the Burqa. The conflation between these two is a result of the ill-thought name of this type of swimsuit (Dear Aheba Zanetti, the creator of the Burkini, could you have not thought of a less polarizing name? I know you were trying to be humorous, but you really failed.) The Burkini allows (primarily Muslim) women to go to the beach and participate in outdoor activities that they may feel unable to do. It's the actual opposite of segregation that European politicians bemoan of, as it allows religious Muslim women to become more integrated in public spaces such as beaches and swimming pools.

3) There is a long misogynistic history of fetishizing Muslim women's bodies by both Muslim and non-Muslims (especially men).

I am suspicious (and very tired) of non-Muslims (especially men), who denounce the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa because of it is patriarchal and misogynist by legislatively restricting clothing options for Muslim women (and or supporting these restrictions) without dismantling the misogyny and patriarchy that promotes modesty culture; reducing the complexity and humanity of Muslim women to their dress "choices" (more on "choices" later) and marginalizing racialized Muslim communities in Western societies even further. Banning women from wearing patriarchal clothing does not result in their emancipation. Challenging the patriarchy/misogyny rooted in modesty culture without patronizing, fetishizing, speaking over and for Muslim women does. So, please let Muslim women be the prominent voices in these issues. We are burqa wearers, niqabis, hijabis, non-Hijabis, ex-Hijabis, ex-Niqabis, "modest" and "immodest" with varying levels of religious (non) beliefs. We agree and (vehemently) disagree with each other, but this debate within our communities is necessary to uproot modesty culture that negatively affects all of us. When you presume to speak for us (and often over us) or use a specific clothing as the archetype of an "authentic" (usually western Hijabis) or a "liberated" (usually a non-western non-Hijabi) Muslim woman, this enforces the oppressive modesty culture in our communities. When a Hijabi woman is held up as the archetypal Muslim woman, this intensifies social pressure on non-Hijabis in our communities/Muslim majority societies to wear the Hijab. When a non-Hijabi woman is considered as the archetypal "liberated" Muslim woman, not only does it perpetuate the notion that liberation or oppression of Muslim women is exclusively linked to their clothing, but it adds to the discrimination that Hijabi women face at work and in the public sphere (yes, Hijabi women face more discrimination, harassment and violence than non-Hijabi women in Western societies). This also results in additional social pressure on non-Hijabi women to veil because many Muslim communities will aggressively promote Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa as a counter response. It also intensifies social pressure for non-Hijabi women who want to veil but are actively prevented by their families/spouses from doing so (yes, these women also exist). Regardless of how we cover our bodies, Muslim women face gender based discrimination in access to education, healthcare and employment, in addition to FGM, honor killings, acid attacks, domestic and sexual violence. Policing our clothing "choices" does not eliminate these issues.

I am equally suspicious (and very tired) of Muslim men who promote modesty culture and police/pressure women's bodies. We should not (and will not) bear the burden of your sexual desire. Your sexual attraction is your problem. Stop categorizing us as moral and immoral based on what we wear. We refuse to be reduced to our clothing. We are tired of being the topic of conversations that we are actively prevented from participating in. Stop speaking for and over us. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves. If you really care about our rights, stop promoting, supporting and condoning FGM, honor killings, gender based discrimination, domestic and sexual violence in our communities and societies.

4) Clothing "choices" that Muslim women make are constrained primarily by the beliefs of the woman making the "choice" and the expediency that it will provide. As Bina Shah writes:

In Pakistan, where I live, there is no law — as in Saudi Arabia or Iran — about what women should wear. Dress codes are left to be defined by institutions, organizations, families. They veer on the conservative most of the time, except in certain bastions of Westernized society. Society still dictates that women should not leave the house unless properly — decently — clothed. This means a woman can be entrapped in her house, if she doesn’t choose to wear the burqa.

Therefore you see hundreds of thousands of Pakistani women choosing to wear a burqa because it is a matter of expediency. They wear the burqas to their jobs in the malls, in schools, in houses as domestic workers, to beauty salons. When they get to their destinations they take off the burqa and wear a uniform. Then they put the burqa back on before going home.

So that women can be empowered financially, or get their educations, the burqa, or the burkini, becomes the vehicle of expediency. The mistake we make is to mistake it as the actual agency of women. If it were truly so, we wouldn’t see the images of Syrian women burning their burqas as soon as their villages were liberated by ISIS. We would see thousands of women rushing to don burqas for no other reason than faith alone.

Muslim women make decisions on how to cover or not cover based on the contexts that they are situated in. For many Muslim women living in Western societies, the Hijab is an expression of their faith and they wear it as such. For others, it is an expression of their Muslim identity; a way to assert difference from the dominant social group. For others still, it is a way for them to gain financial and social independence while navigating the overwhelming patriarchy in their families and communities. Banning veils from the public sphere in Western societies will only limit Muslim women in socially coercive situations from gaining financial and social independence which will allow them to remove themselves from their oppressive contexts or challenge them in the future. In many Muslim majority societies where modesty culture and conservative values prevail, the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa become tools that Muslim women use to circumvent and challenge patriarchal control of their lives.

5)Banning the Hijab/Niqab/Chador/Burqa without confronting the patriarchy and misogyny that created modesty culture in the first place hasn't lead to the emancipation of Muslim women in Muslim majority societies. Instead, it has actually led to scaling back of women's rights. The Islamic Revolution of Iran, a reaction to the forced secularization of Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi (which included banning the Chador in public) resulted in the enforcement of modesty culture on Iranian women by law. The forced secularization of Turkey, by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and subsequently the Turkish military, paved the way for the conservative Islamist AKP party to gain power and actively promote modesty culture on Turkish women. Neither the white revolution of Reza Shah Pahlavi nor the secularization of Ataturk challenged the underlying misogyny and patriarchy of modesty culture. If modesty culture had been challenged publicly and the lies that patriarchy perpetuates about women and their role in society had been dismantled,Islamists would have been unable  to impose regressive norms for women without significant push back from these societies.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Visualizing anti-Shia violence in Pakistan Part II 1/2: anti-Shia violence vs Terrorism

As my last post examining where Shias experience the most violence in Pakistan made the rounds on twitter (thanks to @bilalfqi) a few people tweeted if anti-Shia violence differed from other acts of mass violence (especially terrorism related) in the country. So I compared data on civilian terrorism-related deaths provided by South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) with deaths from anti-Shia violence used in my earlier analyses. Because SATP has not compiled terrorism related deaths prior to 2003 and the anti-Shia violence data (from Tashaddud with sectarian attacks on Sunnis removed) I used does not exist after 2014, I only assessed terrorism related deaths and Shia deaths due to anti-Shia violence between 2003 and 2014. The number of people killed in both anti-Shia and terrorism related violence are underestimated as people injured in these attacks may die a few days, weeks or months later. Please note that "significance", refers to statistical significance (p values less than 0.05).

Here are my results:

#1) Terrorism-related violence has increased approximately 1200% from 2003 to 2014 (p < 0.0001, negative binomial GLM).

#2)More civilians (including Shias) in total are killed in terrorism-related violence than specifically anti-Shia violence.

#3)Proportionally, deaths due to anti-Shia violence are equivalent to or more  than terrorism related violence in Pakistan. Terrorism related violence has resulted in the deaths of 0.01% of Pakistanis between 2003 and 2014, while anywhere from 0.009% (assuming Shias are 10% of population) to 0.015% (assuming Shias are 15% of population) of Shias have been killed during this period.

Estimates of current Pakistani population taken from here. To estimate Shia populations, the total Pakistani population was multiplied by 10 or 15%. Proportional deaths were determined by dividing the total number of people killed by the population estimate, which was the total population estimate for terrorism related deaths and estimated Pakistani Shia population for anti-Shia violence (estimates for percent Shia population in Pakistan (10-15%) based on PEW 2009 poll).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Visualizing Anti-Shia Violence in Pakistan Part II: Where do Shias experience the most violence?

This is part of a continuing series on visualizing anti-Shia violence in Pakistan. As I mentioned in the first post, all analyses in this series have been conducted using the Tashaddud sectarian violence data set. In this post, I will be using this data set to determine where anti-Shia violence is most prevalent in Pakistan.

I analyzed differences in the number of anti-Shia attacks, Shias killed and Shias killed per attack across all provinces and cities listed in the data set using generalized linear models (GLMs). GLMs with Poisson, quasi-Poisson or negative binomial distribution were chosen based on AIC values. For province models, we examined differences between all provinces for each year. For the city models, I only included data from four cities; Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan where attacks occurred in four or more years between 2001 and 2013, examining the differences between all cities for each year. The structure of the final models was determined using log likelihood ratio tests. I also assessed the importance of Year and Province/City using conditional inference trees (party package version 1.0-25). Condition inference trees allowed me to determine differences in the number of anti-Shia attacks, Shias killed and Shias killed per attack across all provinces, cities and years. Splits for each conditional inference tree were determined using Monte Carlo multiplicity adjusted p values with 10,000 permutations. As in my earlier post, significant refers to statistical significance; p values less than 0.05. All statistical analyses were performed in R (version 3.0.3). All plots were also created using R.

Note: Anti Shia violence data from Tashaddud was only available for a nine year period from 2001 to 2013. I added data for the number of ppl killed and injured for 2014 from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2014 report on Pakistan. Before plotting any data or performing any analysis, I removed any data for violent attacks by Shias on LeJ/ASWJ/Sunni Tehreek members (108 of 723 data points). Therefore I only analysed data specific to anti-Shia violence from this dataset.
(added June 21st 2016 to address comments by @AizazAli) 

Here are my results:

#1)  Sindh had a greater number of Anti-Shia attacks as compared to other provinces (p = 0.033 for Sindh). While Balochistan had the next highest number of Anti-Shia attacks, this was not significantly different from other provinces. Anti-Shia attacks increased by 359% across all provinces after 2011 (p = 0.02)

#2) Karachi had the greatest number of Anti-Shia attacks in Pakistan (p = 0.011), followed by Quetta (p = 0.07, marginally non-significant). There was no difference in the number of Anti-Shia attacks between the other cities. After 2011, there was a 560% increase in the number of Anti-Shia attacks across these four cities (conditional inference trees, p = 0.037).

#3) Overall, there was no difference in the number of Shias killed across each province/region, with the exception of Gilgit-Baltistan where significanlty fewer Shias killed (p = 0.01). However, after 2011, the number of Shias killed increased by 195% for all provinces (p = 0.006, conditional inference trees).

#4)There was no significant difference in the number of Shias killed across all cities with the exception of Quetta, which had the greatest number of Shias killed (marginally non-significant increase for Quetta; p = 0.06), followed by Karachi (statistically non significant, p = 0.23). Additionally, there was a 283% increase in the number of Shias killed after 2011 (p = 0.019, conditional inference trees) across these four cities.

#5) Shias in the FATA region experience the most deadliest attacks across all of Pakistan (conditional inference trees, p = 0.0003), with significantly more Shias killed per attack than any other province. Anti Shia attacks in FATA are 430% deadlier than anti-Shia attacks in any other province or region. This suggests that there are more acts of large scale anti-Shia violence (e.g. bomb blasts in public spaces) than any other region in the country. An average of 26 people die in an anti-Shia attack in FATA, while an average of 3 people die in anti-Shia attacks in Sindh. 

#6) There was no significant difference in the number of Shias killed per attack in Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan suggesting that the types of attacks in each of these cities is similar.

My results seem to suggest that Karachi(Sindh) and Quetta(Balochistan) are the most dangerous places in Pakistan for Shia Muslims. This is not surprising given the near daily threats, attacks or assassinations on members of the Shia intelligentsia in Karachi or the plight of the Hazara Shia community that have been forced to physically segregate in Quetta due to constant threats of suicide attacks and assassinations.

The roots of anti-Shia militia (and organized anti-Shia violence) lie in dynamics of wealth, power and class of rural Southern Punjab, a region dominated by Shia feudal lords and Sunni peasants (1). However, anti-Shia violence has shifted from its class conflict beginnings to exploiting ethnic tensions in both cities. In Karachi, most Shias tend to be descendants of migrants from the North Indian city states, known as Muhajirs. Muhajirs (both Shia and Sunni) are in conflict with Pashtun immigrants (mostly Sunni) from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan for political dominance of the city. In Quetta, ethnic Hazaras are seen as agents of Iran and therefore implicated in oppression of Baluch nationalists/separatists by both Iran and Pakistan.

No city in Punjab has experienced violence comparable to Karachi/Quetta  despite producing the most violent and well established anti-Shia militias (LeJ/SSP/TTP). Possible explanations for this discrepancy may be the ease at which militarization is possible in both Karachi and Quetta as compared to rural Punjab, a greater opportunity for networking with other Sunni supremacist organizations in Karachi and multi-state extremist groups (e.g. Haqqani network & Taliban) in Quetta, the ease of visually identifying Hazara Shias in Quetta, a greater availability of prominent Shia targets in both cities and/or greater media/public exposure for anti-Shia violence in Karachi. Additionally, the importance of Karachi as Pakistan's trading hub, and the physical proximity of Quetta to both Iran/Afghanistan may allow anti-Shia militias to network with like-minded groups internationally, making Shias in these two cities especially vulnerable to violence.


(1)Waseem, Mohammad in association with Kamran, Tahir; Ahmed Ali, Mukhtar; Riikonen, Katja ‘Dilemmas of Pride and Pain: Sectarian Conflict and Conflict Transformation in Pakistan’, Working Paper 48- 2010, Religions and Development Research Program

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Visualizing Anti-Shia violence in Pakistan Part I: Has Anti-Shia Violence increased in Pakistan?

I have been playing around with the Tashaddud sectarian violence dataset intermittently between thesis related analyses for the past year or so. What is really special about this dataset is that by tracking Anti-Shia violence using newspaper articles from the DAWN archive, it includes city/town specific data on (mostly) Anti-Shia killings and attacks including the initial number of ppl killed (as published by the newspaper, an underestimate as many of the injured may die in the days/weeks/months following an attack), and injured (overestimate as many injured may die in the days/weeks/months following an attack). Additionally, this dataset also provides details about the religious affiliation of the attacker (Sunni or Shia) and some of the personal details about the professions of the victims. While I have been spending most of my time trying to add information about the type of attack (Assassination, Mass Shooting, Sectarian Clash, Bomb Blast, Suicide Blast, Arson). location (street, Imambargah, shop, medical facility, marketplace, education facility, home, religious procession) and the occupation of the victims (doctor, lawyer, politician..etc) from the DAWN articles references in the dataset, I had some time recently to analyse general trends in Anti-Shia violence.

Brief note: In addition to visualizing the trends in the data, I also conducted statistical analyses using generalized linear models. Model selection was based on the minimum adequate model criterion using AICc to determine which statistical distribution to use for null hypothesis significant testing (either poisson, quasi-poisson or negative binomial) and log likelihood ratio tests to determine which explanatory variables were important in explaining the variation in response. Details about the analyses and relevant code will be provided in an upcoming post. I also used conditional inference regression trees based on machine learning to determine if there were any thresholds in explanatory variables explaining Anti-Shia violence using Bonferonni adjusted p-values. The word significance in this post denotes statistical significance (p < 0.05).

Brief note #2: Anti Shia violence data from Tashaddud was only available for a nine year period from 2001 to 2013. I added data for the number of ppl killed and injured for 2014 from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2014 report on Pakistan.  Before plotting any data or performing any analysis, I removed any data for violent attacks by Shias on LeJ/ASWJ/Sunni Tehreek members (108 of 723 data points).

Trend #1: The number of Anti-Shia attacks has increased significantly from 2001 to 2014 (p<0 .0001, dispersion="1.24).

Trend #2: The number of Pakistani Shias killed has increased significantly (p<0.0001, dispersion = 0.704). However, there was no trend detected in the number of people killed per attack (p = 0.904), suggesting that there has been no change in the deadliness of Anti-Shia violence during this 14 year period.

Trend #3: The number of Anti-Shia attacks increased after 2007 (p =0.01, predicted effect size = 48.3%. Units for y axes on boxplots are number of attacks.

Trend #4: The number of Pakistani Shias killed also increased after 2007(p= 0.004, predicted effect size = 179%). Units for y axes on boxplots are number of people killed. 
Coming up: Visualizing Anti-Shia violence in Pakistan Part II: Where do Pakistani Shias experience the most Anti-Shia Violence?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Denying women agency: How socially coercive unveiling promoted religious extremism in Muslim communities

Debates about veiling and unveiling within the numerous Muslim communities across the world usually fall within the following two categories:

1) Are Hijab/Niqab/"Insert other female dress codes here"  religiously mandated? If so, which degree of head/face covering in women is required?

2) What is the effect of Hijab/Niqab and other "religiously" mandated dress on women in global Muslim communities? Are they oppressive or liberating?

The answer to #1 among majority of Muslim male clergy of all sects (except Aga Khani Ismailies) is yes for Hijab, despite no mention of female head/face coverings in the Quran (see 7:26, 24:31, 33:59). In Sunni Islam, clergy are still debating if the Niqab is mandatory, but many recommend it.

For #2, the majority of Muslim men and women today consider the Hijab/Niqab to be a visible symbol of the "respect" and "equality" that Islam affords women, a vanguard against the (harmful) objectification and hyper-sexualization of women's bodies associated with the spread of "Western" cultural values. On the other hand, many Muslim (often Non-western) and Ex-Muslims  emphasize (rightly) how the Hijab/Niqab enforce patriarchal social norms of women's sexuality, reduce women's visibility in the public sphere and are a visible symbol of Islamism (political fascist Islamic ideologies) in Muslim societies.

Debates about the Hijab/Niqab in Islamic law explicitly bar women from exercising any agency in how they dress. Since only men (traditionally) can interpret religious texts to determine Sharia law, women are also denied participation in any decision making process. This obsession with women's dress codes also limits the ability of women to interact with and experience religious spirituality beyond their physical dress. Additionally, by focusing mostly on obligatory dress codes when discussing women, these debates enforce existing misogynistic gender roles in Muslim communities (women can ONLY be mothers and homemakers), severely restricting any female self-determination.

However, in many Muslim majority countries unveiling has not always been an act of female agency.  Well known examples include Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secularization limited veiled women from participating in the public sphere "resulting in tens of thousands of female students (forced to) leave universities" (see page 47) and Reza Shah Pehlavi's white revolution, which barred veiled women from holding jobs, attending schools and access to receiving services from restaurants, hotels and theatres (see page 84). In countries where such bans were not legally instituted, women's agency over their dress was suppressed by social coercion. My grandmother, who wore the Indian burka while attending university in the 1940's, was forced to remove it after marrying my grandfather. Her veiling and unveiling was determined by the class anxieties of her father, who enforced the Burka; normative of upper class Indian Muslim families (while sending her to post-secondary education, which was not normative at the time) and her husband, who enforced unveiling to signal his membership in the emerging modern middle class. My grandmother's story is not unique. Such experiences were very common among women in North Africa and South Asia during this time period (there were also many women that chose to unveil as well, but these remained in the minority).

The resurgence of the Hijab/Niqab, in Muslim majority countries cannot be understood completely without understanding the role that social coercion played in the unveiling of women almost 70-100 years ago. Feminist discussions on the oppressive and misogynistic nature of veiling in many Muslim majority countries never achieved prominence, often because of political instability and totalitarianism. This lack of public discourse meant that veiling and unveiling were never broadly understood as acts of individual female agency, making these societies vulnerable to Islamism. Islamism promotes the Hijab/Niqab as an antidote to the sexualization of women in society, making the veil appear as an appealing alternative, one that provides women agency over their own bodies. Without any existing frameworks to dismantle these false claims of agency, the daughters and granddaughters of women who were coerced into unveiling accept the veil and often Islamism as their liberation. Once a critical mass of women use their agency to start veiling within an Islamist context (where female agency is only limited to choosing to veil), a socially coercive culture of chastity and modesty is created. This modesty culture enforces veiling, making it difficult for (and sometimes actively prevents) other women to exercise their own agency and remain unveiled.

The decision to veil and unveil should be a personal decision. Muslim and Ex-Muslims fighting religious fundamentalism in their communities should unequivocally promote women's agency in choosing their dress. An unequivocal support of women's agency to veil or unveil, does not mean blind acceptance of the misogyny that the Hijab, and to a much greater degree, the Niqab represent. However, denying women agency to choose their dress, no matter how oppressive the dress is, empowers Islamists by supporting their narratives of victimhood. Additionally, any bans that limit the participation of veiled Muslim women in the public sphere only strengthen existing misogyny, especially in conservative Muslim communities where female public presence is socially/culturally limited or non-existent. Instead, a healthy public debate about the oppressive and misogynistic natures of these garments should be promoted, so that women can make informed decisions about veiling and unveiling; decisions that cannot be easily influenced by Islamists. The power of such debates should not be ignored. It is these debates that informed my personal decision to take off the Hijab.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

On outrage, acceptable and unacceptable loss: My thoughts on the Peshawar Attack

Last week, I was shaken out of my thesis induced stupor by the attack on the army public school in Peshwar by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The horrific nature of this attack, with students and teachers executed in cold blood and the resulting deaths of 141 people, has rightly caused outrage in our society. However, this outrage is not enough.

When I first heard about this attack, I kept thinking about Malala Yousafzai. When she was attacked two years ago, there was an uproar across Pakistan. Candlelight vigils were organized. Protests and marches were held. Everyone from (now Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif to the terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai massacre, Jamat-ud-Dawa, strongly condemned the shooting. This widespread outrage led many people, including myself, to believe that this was our watershed moment. Finally, Pakistanis would wake up to the dangers of religious extremism. We would force our government to take a harder stance on violent religious extremists. We would confront apologists for religious extremism in the public sphere. Our government would finally abandon  support for religious extremist militias as a cornerstone of our foreign policy.

This did not happen. Instead, Malala was viciously maligned. Only a few days after her attack conspiracy theories took hold of the public imagination, and continue to persist today. Malala became a CIA agent. Her attack was coordinated by Americans to sway public opinion on drone strikes, to promote nudity and to defame Pakistan. She was a drama queen, who staged her shooting to get a Western visa (much in the vein of Mukhtar Mai, who apparently got gang raped to obtain a Western visa). She survived only to receive death threats and now lives in exile. Her Nobel laureate status has only emboldened these conspiracies. Her memoir has been banned from (some) schools. This year, students from all across Pakistan participated in "I am not Malala" day.

The attack on the army public school in Peshawar is our darkest hour (of yet). There have been candlelight vigils. There have been protests. Apologists for religious extremists are being shamed in opinion columns. Leaders of political parties are being taken to task from their lax record on rising religious extremism in our society. I would like to believe that this is our watershed moment. This is when we decide as a nation to stand up to the forces of religious extremism in our midst.

But I'm not so hopeful this time around. Already, former dictator prime minister Pervez Musharraf has blamed India as well as Afghanistan for masterminding this attack. A few days ago, military apologist Mubahser Luqman claimed on national television that there were confirmed reports of a possible Indian government sponsored terrorist strike by Pakistan intelligence agencies. And our awaam on twitter has followed suit.

On a darker note, the public grief and outrage to this attack has defined (for me) acceptable and unacceptable loss in our society. On December 16th, my twitter feed was full of disbelief, grief, condemnation, rage and outrage. As we lamented the death of innocents, I thought about the worshippers at All Saints Church and Garhi Shahu/Model Town mosques in Lahore, the Hazara marketgoers in Quetta and the Christian residents of Gojra (to name a few). I thought about the similar and yet different response their deaths elicited. I don't want to claim that these attacks were not condemned. They were. But not with the same urgency and vehemency, that the #PeshawarAttack has elicited. Is this because our dead are were children, explicitly targeted for being children? Or do we grieve more because of their class, non-minority status, military connection and urban location?  We did not grieve like this for Christian, Ahmadi, Hindu and Shia victims of extremist violence. We did not grieve like this for the victims of school bus attacks in Quetta or Charkha Khel.

In response to the Peshawar attack, the Pakistani Christian community decided not to celebrate Christmas this year, a gesture which has yet to be reciprocated by the Muslim majority. We have never cancelled our religious festivities out of respect for the victims of  the All Saint Church attack, Gojra or Kot Radha Kishan. The loss of our children as a result of terrorism is unacceptable (and rightly so). The loss of our Ahmadi, Hindu, Christian and Shia citizens in daily attacks however, are deemed acceptable. Their lives are not equal to ours. Their deaths don't matter. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The danger of infallible heroes: On Jefferson and Jinnah

Aside:  I have been thinking on and off about this particular blog post from the inestimable (personal opinion alert!) Ta Nehisi Coates, which examines the tension between the anti slavery/abolitionist writings of Thomas Jefferson and his status as a slave owner in 18th century post independence American society. Here is a completed version of my thoughts

In the context of the American narrative (see American exceptionalism, the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, and Empire of Liberty), the liberation of (some of) the United States from British rule in the late 18th century is the cornerstone upon which the modern American identity is constructed. Within this framework, the American founding fathers enjoy a divinity of sorts, characterized by unmatched strength, wisdom, courage and a lack of moral failings.

In his writings, Ta Nehisi Coates points out a mismatch (a rather mild term in the context of slavery) between the anti abolitionist writings of Jefferson, where he passionately argues the moral and practical problems of slavery:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. 

This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. 

And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. 

and his role as a slave owner, who "punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time".

This contradiction between Jefferson's "founding father" persona and his moral failings as an individual creates an unease within the American national narrative. Attempts to resolve this contradiction either utilize the "man of his times" trope to justify/contextualize his slave owning status (historically inaccurate since some slave owners at the time set their slaves free) or worse deliberately belittle it. Rejecting the individual moral failings of national leaders/icons rather than reworking the national narrative to embrace them is problematic.

Historical events, or rather public perception of them, play an important role in shaping national identity. This identity informs the social, political context from which politicians/policy makers arise, in turn influencing which domestic and foreign policies are instituted. This is especially relevant in the current social and political atmosphere in Pakistan. The creation narrative of Pakistan as a "Muslim" (an ever changing definition nowadays) state is the cornerstone of our national identity. It is central to current ad nauseum emphasis on Muslim religious devoutness within the public sphere and the exclusion of non-Muslim and non-believing Pakistanis from it.

I would like to argue that examining the founding fathers of Pakistan, especially Jinnah, through the lens of the national narrative rather than as historical individuals underpins the limited scope of our current domestic and foreign policy.  An example of this is the deliberate removal of Jinnah's affection for alcohol from state approved historical narratives. Akbar Ahmad suggests that notion of a Jinnah who enjoyed alcohol is seen as weakening his Islamic identity and by extension that of the state. As historian Ayesha Jalal has pointed out, examining Jinnah as a historical figure remains an exercise in hagiography rather than that of genuine scholarship. This emphasis on the Islamic identity of both Pakistan and it's creator(s) is largely responsible for the increasing religious fundamentalism in our society. Although, the forced inclusion of religion into the Pakistani public sphere is the result of General Zia ul-Haq's policies, the divine status afforded to Jinnah and his contemporaries in our national narrative provided the vertebrae upon which these policies could be clothed.

As Coates points out on Jefferson:

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.
Let me contextualize this from a Pakistani perspective.

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Jinnah and the founders of our nations were "good Muslim men" or not. In fact, Jinnah was a secular individual who enjoyed his alcohol, while creating a state based on religion. Jinnah opined that Muslims were a separate people that neither inter-dined nor inter-wed with other religious communities while he married a Parsi woman. Jinnah dismantled the oppressive power of colonial rule, while imposing the Urdu language upon non Urdu speaking peoples. Jinnah adopted the language, dress and culture of his colonial oppressors while ensuring that Indian Muslims had a seat at the table in post-colonial India.

Lastly, I would like to point out that while both Jinnah and Jefferson were fallible, complex and contradictory individuals that are afforded a divine status in their respective societies, I am by no means implying that their actions are equivalent (secularism and language oppression ≠ slavery). I  do not view Jinnah's secular leanings as moral failings, but rather a representation of the complexity of his person and a refreshing contrast to his one dimensional persona within our Islamicized national narrative. However, I would also emphasize that Jinnah should not be afforded divine status within our society. A critical assessment of his politics is necessary for constructing a new national narrative, one that acknowledges the wrongs of our history and pushes to right them.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Daily Discoveries: Real Time Wind Map of the Earth

The state of wind patterns on earth at 8:30pm (EST) today. Check out the wind patterns in your region via this "hypnotically beautiful" real time wind map (via

h/t Juan Cole and Tree Hugger

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Ten Lessons I have learned from doing field work

In case you haven't noticed, I have been AWOL from this blog for almost the entire summer now. Why? Because I have been doing field work for my PhD which involves sampling daphnia from lakes in the Muskoka region of Ontario (Canada). I still have a few weeks to go, more than thirty lakes to sample and a large number of experiments to run but I'm taking stock of my experience so far. Here are the ten most important lessons I have learned so far: 
1) There is no such thing as free time. 

2) There is no difference between weekdays and weekends.

3) Expect the unexpected...apparently Murphy's law came into existence when some dude named Murphy tried to set up an experimental mesocosm in a lake.

4) Crying doesn't solve your problems....but it does make you feel better...just don't do it when the undergrads are watching.

5) Become one with the swarm. You can't hide from mosquitoes, blackflies, deerflies or horseflies

6) Bruises are very sexy....especially when they match.

7) Rope is NOT just rope. Good rope makes field sampling enjoyable. Bad rope...the name says it all.
8) If/when PhD supervisor suggest adding more components to your field experiment, citing it will make your publication better...just say no...a potential "insert prestigious scientific journal of your choice here" publication doesn't feel as good a 8 hours of sleep. 
9) A good field assistant can make a difference between a manageable field season and an absolute disaster. A great field assistant can make field work seem enjoyable...most of the time. Thanks for all your help so far, Phil!
10) Enjoy the definitely makes up for all the hard work and the setbacks.