Saturday, December 25, 2010

Irrationality vs irrationality? The theist vs atheist debate

This blog is the summary/review of the series of conversations that I have had with myself, my friends and colleagues after the Blair-Hitchens debate in Toronto, a couple of weeks ago. 

I did not have the opportunity to attend the Blair-Hitchens; theist-atheist debate in Toronto. This is mainly because:

1) I do not like Tony Blair; not simply because he started a war (although that would be good enough), but his lack of articulation bothers me...

2)I'm getting tired of Christopher Hitchens's crude argumentation...calling others irrational without defining what exactly he means by rationality or irrationality. His arrogance also annoys me

3)I'm a grad student. I don't have a lot of money. I don't have a lot of time(Youtube version is decent and free!)

That said, the main reason I felt no need to attend is that I am officially over the theist/atheist debate. Why? Because if you really think about it, the positions of both theists and atheists are equally irrational. Before I get into my (non)argument, I would like to present my definition of rationality/irrationality.  Rationality in my opinion is the application of reason when coming to conclusions or making decisions based on given information (aka evidence). Irrationality is the opposite (sorry for the laziness).

Let's start off with the easy part: irrationality on part of the theists. If you have been following the theist/atheist debate, then you should know why theological belief is considered irrational. It all boils down to the acceptance of statements without evidence. In the Quran (7:54) and Bible (Genesis1:3-2:4), God states that he created the world/universe in a number of days (Quran: 6-8 days, Genesis: 7 days). Well, modern astrophysics show that the earth was in fact created over billions of years.  From an argumentative standpoint, given that God in western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) at least (can't comment on eastern ones, don't know enough) is not bound by the confines of space and time, why god would use time to define his creation? More so, what exactly is day? It is the rotation of the earth around its axis. If there is no earth, how can a day even exist? And so on and so forth. Not to mention the basic acceptance of a deity that is the creator and master of all things without any physical evidence. (Note: the questions "how can the something as complex as the world exist without a creator?" is an argument, it is NOT evidence) Not only is there no evidence to prove the existence of god, there can be no evidence to prove his/her/it's existence. After all, if something exists beyond the realm of space and time, how can something from space and time be used as proof?

This leads me to my next part: the irrationality of atheists. Since most atheists juxtapose scientific evidence with theological statements to automatically concede that their position is the most rational one. Therefore, I am going to base my argument within this framework. From a scientific perspective, statements can only be proved through experiments. Now the experimental framework is based around the hypothesis, which is a proposed explanation for an observed phenomenon. In most scientific experiments there are two subsets of hypotheses: null and alternate. The null hypothesis states that there is no relationship between phenomena being studied. The alternate hypothesis would be that there is a relationship between the phenomena being studied. For a relationship between the phenomena being studied to exist, the null hypothesis has to be negated (proven wrong)

Let's apply this framework to the god question: Does god exist? (Note: here I am assuming that god refers to any all power encompassing deity and is not limited to western religious conceptions of what a deity is). For this question, most people would assume that the null hypothesis is that god does not exist and that the alternate is that god does exist? Since theists cannot reject this null hypothesis using evidence, they cannot prove that god exists, at least using a scientific method. Therefore, god does not exist!

However, this is the incorrect application of the scientific framework. In actuality, the null hypothesis is that there is no relationship between "god" and the existence of the universe. The positive alternate hypothesis is that there is a positive relationship between "god" and  "the existence of the universe" i.e. there is a god and he/she/it created the universe (theist). The negative alternate hypothesis is that there is a negative relationship between "god" and "the existence of the universe" i.e. there is no god and therefore there is no creation (atheist). If god is as theists (at least western religious ones) believe exists beyond the realms of space and time, then as I stated earlier it is not possible to use something from space and time as proof of his/her/it's existence. Conversely, it is also not possible to use something from space and to disprove his/her/it's existence. In this case, since evidence cannot support neither the positive nor the negative alternate hypothesis, the null hypothesis continues to hold.

Based on this framework, the only rational statement is that there is neither proof for the existence or against the existence of god. Any statements made beyond this point on either side (theism/atheism) are equally irrational as they do not utilize an evidence, but rather arguments. Just because an argument is strong, it does not mean that it is correct. Logical inference cannot stand in for evidence (especially if both sides have different ideas about what is considered logical). In light of all of this, I have two main conclusions:

a) The theist/atheist debate is simply about beliefs. Belief based debates are never resolved. So good luck to  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins,  Sam Harris and Bill Maher. You have a long ways to go!

b)In the spectrum of ideological stances from atheism to theism, the only truly rational position is of the one who admits that there is no evidence for either stance (I'm thinking agnostics).

Here is the Hitchens vs Blair debate in full. Enjoy!
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Final Part

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ecology of a man-made disaster I: Dams and Barrages

First, an aside: I would like to apologize to all my readers for my unplanned hiatus from blogging. To put it succinctly, I was busy with thesis related work as well as figuring out what direction I want to take this blog in. As most of you know, I comment mostly on political and religious events in Pakistan, South Asia, Middle East and the world. But given my background in science, I have decided to incorporate on occasion the overlap between science and society from a Pakistani/Canadian/Middle Eastern/South Asian/global perspective. The post below belongs to a series of articles in which I will be exploring these interactions. Let me know how you feel. Do you like it? Hate it? Don't care? Any questions, comments or thoughts on this development is welcome. 

By now, all of us (Pakistanis, expats, regional/political junkies and news buffs) know the stats all too well. Approximately 2,000-3,000 deaths have been reported (official death tolls haven't begun to update information). Twenty two million people are affected directly. One fifth of the country is under water. The arterial network of roads and bridges connecting the country together have collapsed. Then, there is the political side. The incompetency of the elected elites has been revealed (again). Their disinterest in the welfare of the Pakistani people has been duly noted . The political ambition of the armed forces had become evident (no surprise). On a social scale, the deep rooted xenophobia against Ahmadis with the withholding of government aid has risen its ugly head, only months after the mass murder of more than 80 Ahmadi muslims in their mosques in Lahore. And let's not forget about the marginalization of Christian, Hindus and other religious minorities affected by the flood. I'm going to stop here. Bloggers more informed and educated  than myself have explored these issues previously in their posts. There is nothing enlightening that I can add to these debates. However, what is missing from the discourse around these floods is an understanding of the basic ecology of this disaster.

Before I proceed, I would like to clarify my stance on these floods. These floods are a man-made disaster. They are the direct consequence of the incompetence of our ruling elite (civilian or military) to recognize flood vulnerability, develop necessary infrastructure and agencies capable of dealing with disasters and reveal the lack of basic geophysical understanding of the region which they rule.

 Let's start with some basic facts about the Indus. The hydrology (rate of water flow) is influenced by three factors: seasonal snow melt, glacial and permanent snow melt from the Himalayan, Hindu Kush and Karakorum mountain ranges and monsoon rains from July to September. These three flow components vary seasonally in fairly consistent patterns which are termed 'hydrological regimes'. As we all know, greater than normal monsoon rains caused an increase in seasonal flow leading to flooding. But why did these monsoons deviate from the norm in the first place? Consider the diagram below:

(Image taken from New Scientist , Aug 2010)
According to Dr. Mike Blackburn from University of Reading UK,  there has been a shift in the normal pattern of the jet stream; a fast flowing narrow air current which separates areas of high and low pressure, moving  north and south as it rushes around the globe from west to east. Its wave-like shape is caused by Rossby waves – powerful spinning wind currents that push the jet stream north and south. Under normal conditions, the jet stream moves eastwards during the summer months carrying with it moisture and rain. However, meteorologists noticed a change in this regular pattern. Instead of moving eastwards, the jet stream is currently fixed in place, dumping all of the rain in the northern Pakistan resulting in greater than normal flows.

The floods may start here, but their impacts have been exacerbated by human mismanagement. Firstly, there is excessive sedimentation. According to the Climate Himalaya Initiative, the Indus is one of the most sediment producing rivers on the planet.  The Indus transports 250 megatons (Mt) of sediments, the equivalent of 15 million dump trucks to the Arabian sea annually. This amount has fallen to100 Mt, with construction of dams and barrages which trap the majority of the sediment. The massive sediment deposition at Tarbela Dam specifically, is the most problematic. Completed in 1976, Tarbela Dam was assumed to have a lifespan until 2030. However, given that over 6 billion tons of sediment (sand, silt and mud) have already accumulated in the first twenty-five years, forming an underwater delta slowly growing towards the dam and greatly affecting its structural stability and electricity production, it is very possible that Tarbela Dam may become ineffective over a shorter than predicted period of time.

 Close up of Tarbela Dam (Image Credit: Through the Sand Glass)

Following in this vein, I would also like to point out the engineering failure at Taunsa Barrage, which was highlighted in this article (August 20th 2010) by Mushtaaq Gaadi:
The main problem with Taunsa barrage is the rising riverbed owing to huge sediment deposition in the upstream areas(...)Taunsa barrage traps huge sediments left over from the upstream storage and diversion structures. Moreover, the pond area is additionally fed annually with large amounts of silt eroded from the highly degraded catchment areas of the Suleiman Range. These heavy silt loads are transported through western tributaries (hill-torrents) of the Indus River.
Sediment deposition due to dams and barrages becomes a problem in the light of the river's base level. Base level refers to the lowest point at which it can flow. In the context of the Indus, the base level is equal to the sea level which has been shown to profoundly impact its structure and behaviour. When a dam/barrage is erected, it behaves like a base level on a local scale causing the upstream part of the river to respond. Because the base level of the river upstream from the dam has been raised, the flows react with sediment deposition. This should not be a problem, if a constant reservoir level is maintained (a new stable state is achieved). However, if this level remains unstable, the flow will alternate between deposition and erosion. For both Tarbela Dam and Taunsa Barrage, the reservoir levels have been raised, inducing more deposition. This has lead to major modifications in the riverbed upstream, resulting in large changes in local flow. Consider this: the floods upstream of Tarbela were more deadly and destructive as compared with downstream.

(Image Credit: Critical Threats)

With every dam and barrage, the system of the Indus is modified. Every time the base level changes, the Indus changes. The system of barrages and dams across the region have resulted in a unnatural riverine system, with no checks and balances. If these structures are built, proper maintenance is crucial.  However, at this time Pakistan does not possess the technology or the expertise to maintain reservoir levels and control this massive sedimentation problem. As one Pakistani civil engineer told me, "it's not as if we are not aware of the problems surrounding sedimentation, it's just that we can't deal with it." 

All of this is not to say that the flood would not have occurred if proper measures were taken. But it would be dishonest to not point out the ways in which human modifications across the Indus river considerably heightened these impacts.

Coming Soon: Ecology of a man-made disaster II: The implementation gap

Appendix: For those of you who would like to know more about the river management system currently in place in the Indus, click here to view a map of all of Pakistan's dams and barrages (source: UN World Food Programme)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burn Baby Burn (Updated)

Let me start off by saying that the whole "Burn a Koran Day" does not hold my attention in the slightest, basically because I don't believe in giving religious extremists a podium to preach their ideology from. So when I initially heard of "Burn a Koran Day" in late July, I ignored it. After all, both Reverend Terry Jones and his Dove Outreach Centre in Gainsville Florida were condemned early on by hardcore evangelists. However, despite my most sincere wishes this story has grown to epic proportions. Case in point, the CNN video page showcases more than four different entries for this story ranging from the basic story itself to the Muslim reaction to it, to the reaction of the Pentagon and other senior US officials, to condemnations from all over the world including the Vatican.

What started out as an attention seeking activity from a rogue church leader has become an internationally significant event, even if it doesn't happen. People are going to die. Somewhere in the world on September 11th,  some nutcase is going to kill Americans or American looking individuals, or individuals and groups affiliated with Americans or individuals and groups thought to be affiliated with Americans (Pakistani Shiites and Ahmadis, I'm looking at you).  And if that wasn't bad enough, here is kicker. From the worldwide condemnations that have been issue so far, it is clear that the rest of the world expects with absolute certainity that Muslims or individuals within the fabric of the Islamic faith will participate in violence against their fellow man. Basically, the world expects us to be violent.

If this isn't screwed up, I don't know what is.

P.S. I would like to apologize for all of my regular readers for my hiatus. I just had a lot of thesis related work to do.

Update I: Burn a Koran Day has been cancelled as of 5:23pm EST. More details to follow

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We are all Harami

On August 15th 2010, two brothers Moiz Butt and Monib Butt were publicly tortured and beaten to death by a mob in a village near Sialkot. Not the Taliban or any extremist organization, but by the public. And not just murdered, but brutally tortured for two hours for "allegations" of robbery (even if the allegations were true, it is still not acceptable). As Haroon Riaz points out, there was no proof, no trial. Nothing, but public justice. According to reports, the Punjab Emergency Service 122 arrived at the scene, but were prevented from intervening by the local Police and security organizations.

To top it all off the whole incident was recorded for posterity.  Apart from being extremely violent and highly distrubing the videos also highlight the indifference, the lack of response by the public. No one, I repeat, no one looks perturbed by what is happening in front of them. They are indifferent, enjoying this brutal spectacle, this "tamasha" and at times egg the attackers on. The crowd is dotted with the grey caps of Police officers, but no one steps in to stop this mass lynching. At one point, a young child steps in and participates.

Image Credit: Cartoon Stock

So much for Pakistan's "image deficit". From where I'm standing, it seems pretty well deserved.

Remember, when the Ahmadi mosques were attacked in Lahore earlier this year and everyone; the media, the politicians and the civil society blamed the Taliban and extremists.

Image Credit: Pak Defense Forum

Well, it was all a lie. To be more specific, we were lying to ourselves.

Image Credit: Sodahead

You see by pushing the responsibility of the murder of 90 Ahamdis on the extremists, we absolved ourselves from any sins in this matter. Forget about the ostracism of Ahmadis on a national scale.

Image Credit: The Persecution

Forget about the calls for the removal of Ahamdis from public office.

Image Credit: Ahmadiyya Times

It wasn't us.

Image Credit: Martin Kronicle
But as this gruesome lynching shows, we do not need any extremist ideology to precipitate extreme acts of violence. We just need ourselves.

Image Credit: Parental Gleanings

This is not to say that the prevalence of extremist ideology is not a problem, but that this ideology is not simply something thrust upon us by evil Saudi petrodollars. The prevalence of extremism in our society is a product of our gradual descent towards intolerance.

Image Credit: Txt2Pic

As a society we do not tolerate dissent of thought and action from the accepted social norms. Anyone who engages in any behaviour deemed to be outside of these norms is ostracized and put down, often through violence. The blasphemy laws, the discrimination of special provisions  for Ahamdis in the Pakistani constitutions, the mal treatment of religious minorities, the imposition of Urdu as the national language are all a product of this social mindset. These political developments nurture an intolerant national narrative. This creates a negative feedback loop heightening social intolerance which leads to the Lal Masjid incident, the burning of more than 70 christian houses in Gojra, Punjab and the increasing attacks on Ahamdis, Shiites and Hindus, the almost daily suicide bombings in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the attack on the Data darbar shrine.

The general reaction to this public lynching has been extremely predictable at least within the blogosphere. Many of my fellow bloggers are wondering how people could have stood by and watched, even participated in the murder of two human beings. In my opinion this outrage is entirely superfluous. After all in a society where dissent is not tolerated, where difference of opinion is not respected, where a group of flood victims were denied aid and governmental assistance  because they were Ahamdis, would you expect anything else?

In several conversations, I have heard people refer to the individuals involved in this violence as harami. However, to paraphrase Thomas Moore if we are the ones who create these individuals/haramis in the first place and then we punish them, what does this say about us? Aren't we equally, if not more Harami?

Sidenote 1: Harami is a Urdu/Hindi profanity which can be interpreted as being equivalent to bastard X10.

Sidenote 2: One of the pioneers to develop the concept of Pakistanis as Haramis was my fellow blogger Karachi Khatmal, whom I hold in the highest regard.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pakistan Floods: How to donate effectively

Villagers jostle for  relief supplies at flood hit area in Basera, near Muzaffargarh.
Image Credit: Associated Free Press

With rampaging floods moving towards Southern Sindh threatening the ruins of Moenjodaro and Benazir Bhutto's mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Baksh and leaving behind a fourth of the country under water, Pakistan is facing a massive humanitarian crisis. Anywhere from 6 million to over 20 million people have been displaced by the floods, more than the number of people affected by the 2004 Tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. With reports of cholera outbreaks and other water-borne diseases on the rise, there are fears that the death toll could rise. Given that only 20% of United Nations $460 million dollar relief goal has been raised so far, there is a serious need for more relief funds. According to this BBC statistic, only $6.85 has been donated so far per flood survivor (most of this is unconfirmed pledges).

If you are like me and have decided to donate an X amount of funds to this disaster, it is very likely that you are now facing a conundrum. With the vast amount of donation options out there and your limited funding capability as an individual, how can you ensure that the donation that you make will provide flood victims with the most bang from your buck?

You have to determine two things: 1) what are the resources needed and 2) what are the resources that you are interested in funding. In the case of Pakistan's floods, there are three main immediate resource needs: adequate shelter, food supplements and medical supplies. There are several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in fulfilling these needs. (Side note: Pakistanis can also donate to a government trust, but considering the level of corruption within the bureaucracy, I'm not going to opt for that).

 Adequate Shelter and Food Supplements

1) United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has partnered with mGive in the United States to allow for mobile donations. Text SWAT to 50555 will help donate towards flood victims helping to fund tents and emergency aid to families in need (US only). Please reply YES when prompted to confirm your gift. You can also donate to the UNHCR emergency fund which will help to provide blankets, refugee survival kits (containing a mattress, cooking stove, blankets and soap) and weather proof tents to displaced persons.

2) Save the Children 
Save the Children has been working to provide food supplies, shelter materials and hygiene kits to 37,800 adults and children in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region and are currently expanding their services into the affected regions of Punjab and Sindh. They are also fund raising through mobile donations (US only); Text 20222 to donate $10 to the Pakistan emergency fund. You can also donate online as well as via telephone. About 90% of all donations go towards their designated programs. Click here to access their financial records for fiscal year 2008 and 2009.

3) United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP)
The UN World Food Programme is providing food supplies to flood victims all over Pakistan. They work in partnership with other local and international NGOs to ensure that food supplies reach where they are needed.  The WFP is currently supporting 430,000 individuals and hopes to reach 2 million people by the end of this August 20th, the largest amount ever supported in this organization's history. You can donate online here. Donations are tax deductible for residents of the Unites States, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, Australia, and Hong Kong.

4)Edhi Foundation
Edhi Foundation is leading the flood relief efforts in Pakistan and have already begun providing services to affected individuals in Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Punjab. They are the largest and the most respected private NGO in Pakistan  and  known for their notorious approach to effectively lowering administrative and service costs. In you are in Pakistan, donating to this organization is probably a good idea. Donations can be made in person or through the phone at local Edhi Centers.

Medical Care

5)Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders)
Medicins Sans Frontiers  is providing emergency medical care to flood victims in Pakistan via mobile clinics and health centers in all four provinces affected  as well as sanitation equipment, water, drugs and medical material to displaced persons. You can donate online or through the phone at local MSF offices. MSF's audited financial statements for the fiscal years 2008 and 2009 can be accessed here.

6)International Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC)
The joint International Red Cross/Red Crescent is currently seeking $16,333,000 (US) of funds to support 25,000 families for a period of nine months in terms of food, water, sanitation services and emergency medical services. It is working closely with the Pakistani branch of the IRC to deliver these services on the ground. You can donate online or at your local Red Cross and Red Crescent offices via telephone. Please select Pakistan  when asked to specify a program.

Once you have identified which resources you would like to provide, you can donate to the organization of your choice (not limited to list above).

For individuals abroad: If you and your family members are considering making individual donations, you might want to consider spreading out funds across a large number of NGOs, both Pakistani and international so that you can assist with a variety of resource needs. If you are considering pooling your funds together as a family, pick an organization of your choice and ensure that at least 85% of the funds donated are going to the designated services. If you have relatives in Pakistan, it would be more effective to send donations to them which can be used to purchase items needed by small local NGOs. A list of items urgently needed can be accessed here. Note: The list is located halfway through the document, so please scroll down.

For individuals in Pakistan: You have the option of purchasing and donating the goods and resources needed. There is currently a great need for food supplies, clothing, water purification tablets, bedding materials, medicines and drinking water. Please contact the NGO of your choice when determining which items to donate. When donating money, keep in mind that the most effective way to donate is through cash. Donations made through credit card or cheque may take up to a week to be processed and can slow down the aid process considerably.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dealing with the Floods: How can you help?

Both Kalsoom(Chup) and the good folks at All Things Pakistan have compiled a list of organizations you can donate to. If you've already donated and can give more, please do so. If you are in Pakistan and in close proximity to any of the areas that are affected, please volunteer. The victims of these floods need all the help they can get.

Just to give you an idea of how bad it is, here is the before picture (from NASA via Tazeen @ twitter) of Sindh and Punjab

and here is the after


Monday, August 2, 2010

And the beat goes on

With the widespread tragedy unfolding in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Northern Balochistan, one would think that across the country people would be mobilizing to collect and distribute aid, house refugees and rebuild. And most are. But others are  bent on contributing to the human tragedy. Just as the official death toll rises from 360 people to 900 people to 1,200 people where it currently stands, the public assassination of MQM Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Raza Haider has left ethnic tensions running high in Karachi. According to the most recent reports,within two hours of the assassination, widespread rioting began resulting in the burning of over forty vehicles, with an estimated fourteen dead and a hundred injured.  There are no signs of this violence abating and more is on its way. According to Babar Ghauri, a senior MQM figure "if the municipal, provincial and national government does not react to this appropriately then we will be unable to control our party members."

So more people are going to die because members of the MQM are prone to behave like overly emotional two year olds in contrast to mature adults that they consider themselves to be. In my opinion, both the ANP and the MQM need to realize that political tension between them has life altering consequences for the rest of us who couldn't care less about their feud. People die because they are unable to reconcile their political differences, because they are bent on vengeance. Both parties may address valid social and political concerns of their respective ethnic groups, but the level of violence precipitated by these two groups effectively delegitimizes these concerns. I'm not alone in saying that Karachi would be a far better place if these groups did not exist.

In addition to inflamed ethnic tensions, there have been some indications that the assassination of Raza Haider, a prominent Shiite politician bear the hallmarks of a Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP)/ Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) attack.  Considering that Sipah-e-Sahaba has made a comeback in Karachi especially with the targeted attack on a Shiite religious procession last year and have connected with Taliban movements across Pakistan, this is very likely. This issue has been raised by Interior Minister Rehman Malik, though it is possible that both SSP and LeJ are being used as scapegoats since the federal government might be unwilling to take sides in this contentious issue because it depends on MQM support.

To sum up, we don't know who killed MQM MPA Raza Haider, was it ANP or the super sectarian duo SSP-LeJ? Not that it makes any difference. The MQM is already behaving in a manner that suggest that it blames the ANP. Member of MQM Coordination Committee Wasey Jalil in an interview with Express Tribune stated that

the MQM is hundred per cent sure that Shahi Sayed and the ANP are behind the ongoing target killing incidents and killing of Raza Haider.

With the MQM in full vengeance mode, who need a judicial inquiry?

Friday, July 30, 2010

God is giving terrorists a tough competition (Update)

  (Image Credit: A.Majeed, Associated Free Press)

Reading Pakistani newspapers is being awash in tragedy on an almost daily basis. Everyday someone dies, in freak road accidents, suicides, plane crashes, robberies gone wrong, political violence, gang warfare, terrorist attacks, stampedes, flooding....and the list goes on. As Ahsan points out, there is scarcely enough time to for the media and the blogosphere to catch a break. We don't have the luxury to digest tragedies and make sense of them.

Over the past four years, news reports have been  inundated with reports of militant violence, first on military and police personnel and then on civilians. Rarely a day went by without  bombs going off in crowded marketplaces, mosques full of worshippers and residential areas. Overtime we figured out a way to cope with this. We cursed the organizations that participated in these mass murders, blamed the government for its inaction, remained glued to our TV sets and prayed like hell. Somehow we got on with our lives.

This week however, we are facing tragedies of a different nature. The first is the crash of Airblue Jet ED202 in the Margalla Hills of Islamabad  which killed all 152 passengers. The second is the flooding in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region and Norther Balochistan which has killed 430 people and affected more than a million. And the worst is yet to be over.

The situation surrounding these two incidents is full of unknowns. We don't know what caused the crash in the first place, was it the weather, pilot error or engine/mechanical failure? We don't know who to blame for the floods; the central government for not investing more in rural infrastructure, the corrupt politicians who use public money to line their own pockets, the majority of Pakistanis who don't pay the taxes needed to provide important services which could have prevented this disaster/saved more lives or God, who decided to make it rain so much in the first place. (I'm gonna go with God, this way I won't have to take any responsibility). We don't have any idea of the damage done or how long it will take. And the biggest of all: We just don't know how to deal with this.

P.S. The title is shamelessly plagiarised from Fahad Desmukh's tweet. All the credit goes to him

Update I: (11:56AM Eastern Standard Time), as of now more than 2.5 million people are affected by the flooding of the Swat and Kabul rivers. The death toll has risen to 1,100 with reports of cholera outbreaks. There have been a few videos released showing the rescue efforts and the extent of the flooding

Islamic Relief UK has posted a series of videos from Nowshera which has become a refuge for flooding victims

Here is a Guardian interview with an aid worker in swat who did not wished to be identified for security reasons:


There have also been reports of hoarders and profiteers charging exorbitant prices  for essential goods. There are also fears of more flooding as the levels of the Indus river at Guddu and Sukkur barrages are rising significantly.  

The Guardian is providing important minute to minute update on the situation here

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Human life is cheap (Update)

It's ironic that just after the leak of Afghan war logs showing the United States and NATO's utter disregard for the lives of Afghan civlians, 152 people were killed today when an Airblue Airbus crashed today in the Margalla Hills of Islamabad. Six members of the Youth Parliament Pakistan and two U.S. Embassy personnel have been reported to be among the dead. Dawn News has posted the full passenger list on its website including the number for Crisis Management Cell (051-9211223-4) which provides more information about the passengers on board.

According to reports, bad weather is listed as the main cause of the crash but the details remain unclear. An official investigation is curently underway to determine the exact nature of the incident. The black box has also been retrieved although as Geo news is currently reporting Pakistan lacks the capability to analyse it.
The most disgusting thing about this incident was the behaviour of the Pakistani media. As both Ahsan and XYZ have pointed out, reporters from all of Pakistan's broadcast news organization showed an extreme lack of tact and sympathy for the victims and their families. The worst in my opinion, however was an asinine blogger claiming that the plane crash was a conspiracy to divert public attention from the fake degrees scandal rocking Pakistan's political elite.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the federal cabinet have declared today  as a "national day of mourning" for the victims of this tragedy. United States President Barack Obama also offered his condolences to the friends and relatives of those killed adding that the “The American people stand with the people of Pakistan in this moment of tragedy.”

I am counting my blessings right now. No one I know has been affected by this tragedy. But there are at least 152 families that have not been so lucky. My thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Update I: Another day, another tragedy. Dawn News has just reported that an additional 150 people have died in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Northern Baluchistan due to flash floods caused by torrential rains.

Monday, July 26, 2010

WikiLeaks: The old, the new and the ugly

Yesterday, released approximately 91,000 government documents related to the War in Afghanistan through three news organisations, the New York Times (American), the Guardian (UK) and the Der Spiegel (German). The documents are mostly a collection of war logs; a series of eyewitness accounts and reports from the soldiers on the ground and contain unconfirmed and unverified information. In the words of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, the documents are "true" but the information in them might not be. Keeping this in mind, I'm going to summarize some of the more crucial information from this massive data dump.

The old

There have been more than 180 unverified firsthand accounts which point towards the involvement of the ISI in supporting the armed Taliban/Al-Qaeda insurgency in Afghanistan by providing training, supplies information, and arms although as Guardian's Declan Walsh points out, there has been no "smoking gun".  The content of these accounts ranges from chilling to downright questionable with accusations involving ISI training legions of suicide bombers, including children to smuggling surface to air missiles from Pakistan, to poisoning western beer supplies. One report noted in the New York Times, from December 18th 2006 details the process through which ISI enables suicide bombers:
First, the suicide attacker is recruited and trained in Pakistan. Then, reconnaissance and operational planning gets under way, including scouting to find a place for “hosting” the suicide bomber near the target before carrying out the attack. 
The report notes that this network receives substantial support from the Afghan Police and Ministry of Interior. A majority of the reports come from interview and interactions with the Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) which has great hostility towards the ISI and the Pakistani establishment. However, given the history of Pakistani support for the Taiban and the extreme reluctance with which both the South and North Waziristan offensives were undertaken, even after all other options were exhausted (aka direct talks, agreements and the Swat Peace deal) it is very much possible that there is kernel of truth in these accounts. The question remains as to which accounts are true and to what extent. It is important to note that there have been previous instances when ISI has been under fire from both the US government and the military, but nothing substantial has emerged yet. So while these leaked documents highlight the extent to which there exists mistrust of the Pakistani agency within US, coalition and Afghan forces, there are no new details to be had here.

The new

Two new pieces of information have come to public view with the release of the leaked documents. The first is the existence of an undisclosed (not anymore), "black" unit of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization; a military alliance of states in North America and Europe, 28 members) special forces known as Task Force 373 which is responsible for killing or detaining senior members of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan without trial. The task force operates via a "kill or capture" list known as the Jpel; the joint prioritised effects list which provides detail for over 2,000 senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban figures. According to the war logs, this force behaves in a very inconsistent manner, with some mission aimed at interment and others focusing on elimination. Additionally, the logs also reveal a disregard for civilians noting that TF 373 is involved in the death of civilian men, women, children and even Afghan forces. Specifically, a report from the night of Monday June 11th 2007 noted in the Guardian reports that an TF 373 mission to capture or kill the Taliban commander Qarl ur-Rahman near Jalalabad was terminated when TF 373 forces engaged in a firefight with aerial bombardment with Afghan police forces without confirming the target resulting in the deaths of seven police officers. Following this incident, the coalition forces released a statement to the press detailing the fire fight or air support, but failing to mention  either the TF 373 or the casualties adding that
"There was nothing during the firefight to indicate the opposing force was friendly. The individuals who fired on coalition forces were not in uniform."
There was no mention of the Afghan police deaths. In a similar incident on Sunday June 17th 2007, another TF 373 mission went awry killing seven children when TF 373 fired five rockets at a madressah in the village of Nangar Khel believed to be the hideout of Libyan fighter Abu Laith al-Libi before any indication of hostilities. Ironically, neither Libi nor his supporters were found. In this case, the accompanying press release mentioned the deaths attributing this incident to coalition troops attacking the compound because of "nefarious activity". The TF 373 were not mentioned. The lack of transparency surrounding the existence and the activities of the TF 373, understates how little we know about the conduct of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. It also begs the question whether or not these extra-judicial killings may be constituted as war crimes, under the United Nations; although even if they are it is highly unlikely that any action will be taken.

The second new development is the claim that the insurgency in Afghanistan have surface to air missile capability. In 2007, the US covered up a surface to air missile strike by the Taliban that shot down the Chinook Helicopter in the Helmand province killing seven military personnel. The aircraft was shot down on May 30th 2007 after dropping troops at the Kajaki. In the case of the Chinook, both NATO and US officials stated that the aircraft had been brought down by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG)-effectivelysaying that it was a lucky shot. However, following the loss of the Chinook two Apache helicopters came under fire from missiles twice in 30 minutes. An unidentified source in April 2007 told an American officer than seven surface to air missiles purchased by Iran from Algeria had been clandestinely shipped into Afghanistan via the Iranian city Mashhad. There are other reports which point towards the Pakistani ISI supplying weapons or missile trainers to the Taliban. Basically, the war in Afghanistan is infinitely messier than we were told and that the Al-Qaeda-Taliban insurgency is not going to go away anytime soon.

The ugly

The leaked war logs provide an important insight into the extent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. There are  144 war log entries in which detail "blue on white" events providing day by day records of assaults resulting in Afghan casualties. These incidents range from the shooting of innocent civilians to large scale air strikes with massive civilian losses. The magnitude and frequency of such incidents led Afghan president Hamid Karzai to publicly protest with the famous statement that US was treating Afghan lives as "cheap".  The logs also highlight the systematic cover up of civilian deaths. On October 2nd 2008, French troops "opened fire on a bus that came too close to convoy" near the Tangi Kalay village outside of Kabul wounding eight children with no investigations made. A more disturbing incident involves the American 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment when a bus that failed to slow down during their attempts to stop it in order to allow the patrol to cross the road causing one soldier to spray the bus with machine gun fire killing four and wounding eleven. Similarly no investigations were made. Within the 144 relevant war logs, the bulk of the violence against civilians stems from shooting uncooperative drivers and motorcyclists and almost all of these incidences are described as escalation of force against a violent threat. Essentially, the war logs reveal that US and NATO press statements are unreliable sources at best when it comes to reporting civilian casualties, and effectively puncture the dominant narrative within military circles that massive civilian casualties are merely "Taliban propaganda".

I've posted the an Q and A with Julian Assange (director of WikiLeaks) below:

Here is his interview with TED Talks founder Chris Anderson

Saturday, July 24, 2010

People in glass houses shoudn't throw stones

 (Image Credit: Who is Who in Karachi)

Dr. Farooq Sattar of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement, MQM), a political party based on Muhajir (immigrants from India and their descendents) empowerment denounced Awami National Party (People's National Party, ANP); based on Pashtun empowerment for the killing of a party worker on Friday. Addressing the media, Dr. Sattar stated that:
ANP’s armed men opened indiscriminate fire on MQM’s office. As a result, several MQM workers were injured and one of them succumbed to the injuries. The attackers belong to the Awami National Party. This statement is being made with complete evidence.They are at large in the city and targeting people is their routine practice.
 He added that:

Criminals of this party are rolling around in the city with weapons at will. They are grabbing lands and properties on gun point and blackmailing people for money.
Sound familiar? It is somewhat amusing to see Dr. Sattar refer to the ANP as criminals operating with impunity when members of his own party behave in precisely the same way. I guess he forgot about the tit for tat killings that the MQM is currently engaged in or a month ago or a year ago.What about the bodies of young men which found in sacks strewn about the city throughout the early nineties? Will you be feigning amnesia on this one Mr. Sattar?

 In his address to the media, Mr. Sattar has already indicated that the violence will not abate in the near future warning that:
Despite such a big setback, the Chief of MQM has instructed the party to tolerate such incidents. But if we are forced, our level of tolerance may also reach the threshold.
It looks like the people of Karachi will not be getting a reprieve anytime soon.

Police Brutality

Pind Dada Khan Police barred an eight year old woman from meeting Federal Law Minister Babar Awan to lodge complaints against police non cooperation. The police forcibly dragged this woman into a police vehicle and held her down onto the floor with a foot. She is currently being held in an unknown place.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Much Ado about Nothing

I have been following the debate on the Cordoba House (aka Ground Zero Mosque) for the past month and just when things seem to calm down, tensions flare up again. What started out as a local issue for the City of New York, has turned into a national one. Even Sarah Palin joined the debate five days ago with a series of tweets stating:

Ground Zero Mosque supporters, doesn't it stab you in the heart as does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims pls refudiate

Grammar mistakes aside ("refudiate" is not really a word), the level of opposition to this project is growing day by day. Two New York politicians,  Representative Peter King and Rick Lazio, candidate for governor have already expressed opposition to this project. Another candidate, Carl Paladino has placed this issue at the center of his political platform, highlighting it in a number of attack ads (see below).

In a similar vein, the National Republican Trust Political Action Committee, the fund raising wing of the Republican National Party launched a delightfully bigoted attack advertisement intent on rallying opposition to the proposed project. Fortunately, both CBS and NBC decided against its broadcast, on the grounds that some of the language used was too vague. According to NBC  advertising standards manager Jennifer Riley:

"This ad which ambiguously defines 'they' as referenced in the spot makes it unclear as to whether the reference is to terrorists or to the Islamic religious organization that is sponsoring the building of the mosque,"

And let's not forget about right-wing talk show host Michael Berry's (ATRH AM, Houston Texas) comments hoping that someone blows the NY Mosque up.

I'm not going to feign ignorance about the reason behind there is opposition to this project in the first place. After all, there is no denying that the perpetrators of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001 were Muslims. But the argument that Ground Zero is somehow sacred and building a Mosque/Community Center two block from it would be an insult is sorely lacking. For one, there are other not so sacred establishments in the vicinity of Ground Zero including a strip club which is also happens to be a mere two blocks from the sacred site. Secondly, what distance would be considered sufficient for the Mosque/Community Center? Five blocks, ten, half a mile, two miles...?

It seems to me that the problem with this project isn't the perceived defilement of the hallowed area of Ground Zero, but the fear against a project that is "Muslim" in its roots. The fear and animosity towards all things "Muslim" in this opposition is scary to say the least. The conflation of Islam and Muslim with the "other" or as being diametrically opposed to "American" is disturbing. It is unfair towards the American Muslims numbering in the millions who work and live within the confines of American culture and society. This type of dialogue deters tolerance and progress and encourages violence, hate and racism. Let's calm down and think  rationally, logically and without bias for a minute. Building a mosque two blocks from ground zero is not a celebration of the tragedy of September 11th, nor is it an affront to the victims. It is nothing more than an exercise of the constitutional rights guaranteed to every American. Let's not make it a bigger deal than it already it

Here is sample what the opposition sounds like:

Here is the full testimony of Public Hearing on the Landmark Designation Proposal Regarding 45-47 Park Place (site of proposed Mosque/Community Center)

Part 1

 Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5


Monday, July 19, 2010

Welcome to Pornistan

An edited version of this post appeared in Express Tribune Blogs on July 19th 2010

 (Image Credit: The Tap Blog)

If Fox news is anything to go by, Pakistan may be the leading nation in "sexy" online searches. According to a recent article featured on, Pakistan is ranked the first in the world in terms of pornographic Google searches. Of course, this discovery is juxtaposed with Pakistan's recent behaviour in cyberspace. Pakistan temporarily banned Facebook, Youtube and Blackberry service in reaction to the controversial Facebook group "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day", which itself was a reaction to Comedy Central's decision to censor the image of Prophet Muhammad from South Park. Of course there is the obvious question:  If Pakistan is an Islamic country, what's with all the porn?

I'm not sure if the writers at Fox News have gotten this memo yet, but covering Google Trends statistics is not really reporting. Looking up Google trends on the terms "porn", "sex" and all forms of beastiality  is something testosterone laced teenage boys do for fun, not professional reporters. In defense of Fox News though  I would like to add that this network promises news which is "fair and balanced", not "relevant and intelligent".

The reason that I am incensed about this is not that I feel the need to defend Pakistan, or that this article is an affront to my religious sensibilities. On the contrary,  I have no objection to this article on nationalist or religious grounds. I find this article offensive as a scientist. This is the epitome of bad science. Firstly, there is the obvious sampling error. Considering that at best estimates, only 10% of Pakistanis have access to Internet, the high frequency of porn searches hardly depict the Googling habits of an entire nation. Secondly, Google Trends and Google Insight report search term statistics limited to the searches made on Google. It does not account for all the other search activity on the internet. Thirdly, there is no limit on the number of searches made by the same search engine user. This means that an individual searching for "porn" and "sex" on Google, may use these search terms an infinite amount of time. Therefore, sex crazed maniacs in Pakistan will drive up relevant search statistics.

There is an obvious hilarity in this entire situation.Given the nature of the majority of comments that this piece has received it is surreal that very few seem to question the reliability of the article itself. It seems as though everyone accepts Google as a credible source for making judgments about countries that one has never visited. If it is this easy to fool Fox News readers, I wonder what else they can be talked into. So, I would like to propose a contest. Make up your own headline which you think should be published in the next Fox News article about Pakistan and post it in the comment section below. The only rule is that they just have to be funny. Here is my contribution:

Kind souls create sanctuary for donkeys victimized by sex crazed maniacs in Pakistan

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Data Darbar Part I: Understanding the Narratives on Terrorism

 Data Darbar Shrine in Punjab 
(Image Credit: Pakistan Photos)

The way in which events are understood and perceived greatly affects their outcomes. In the case of the ongoing spate of violence against civilians in Punjab, including the recent triple suicide attack in Data Darbar; the shrine of the sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh, the narratives which have dominated the national scene have been extremely important in determining our political, social and cultural response. In my estimation, there are three prevalent national narratives which have developed in response to heightened militant violence across the country. All of these narratives are defined by a sense of disorientation with the transformation that Pakistan has undergone in the last five years; the progressive increase in violence against civilians, and are actively based on understanding and assigning the blame for this "terrorism".

 CIA, RAW, Mossad and other acronyms

Considering the prevalence of conspiracy theories among Pakistan's political, historical and cultural narratives, most involving an evil nexus of CIA, Mossad and RAW (Indian) bent on Pakistan's destruction, it is not surprising that the most dominant narrative continues to follow this form. The frequent militant attacks have been continuously ascribed to foreign "anti-Islam" and "anti-Pakistan" forces by Pakistan's political elite specifically the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Branch) which holds power in Punjab, the most populous province and the hardest hit by violence. Following the July 1st attack on the Data Darbar shrine, senior members of Pakistan's most influential religious party Jamat-e-Ulama-Islam (Congregation of Islamic Clerics), denounced the act stating that "no Muslim could even think of targeting a holy place", assigning responsibility on  foreign agents aimed at destroying the Ummah; the "global Islamic collective". The power of this narrative lies in its effective use of the doctrine of victimhood to define Pakistan's national identity. We have been attacked, abandoned, targeted, discriminated against....and so on. There is no space for honest self circumspection of the less than illustrious chapters of our history, namely the military genocide of three million in East Pakistan in 1971, now Bangladesh or the constitutional discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims, the active and tacit support for religious militancy against India in Kashmir and the open recognition and support for the Taliban government in 1990s (see Ahmad Rashid's book "Taliban"). Crippling and debilitating, this narratives encourages a society devoid of self criticism and a sense of responsibility for its own deeds. Unfortunately, this is the reality of Pakistan today.

Muslim? I don't think so!

The second narrative takes its basis from the first, with few exceptions. Firstly, it accepts the possibility of Pakistanis as perpetrators of violence against other Pakistanis. Secondly, it shifts the tone of the dominant narrative from a nationalist to religious. While Pakistanis can engage in violence against other Pakistanis, especially in the case of suicide bombings and market place bomb blasts, these people cannot be Muslim, or belong within the context of an Islamic belief. The strength of this narrative is based on its fluidity which leads to its self fulfillment. Those who commit these acts are not acting in accordance to Islamic values and thus cannot be considered as Muslims. While this narrative is based on distancing this violence from the religion itself, the problem is that it again perpetuates a denial of of the fact that the Pakistani religious establishment monetarily funded and supported the very groups currently engaged in this violence. Once again, events are perceived from the emotionally deceptive stance of identity affiliation/group camaraderie rather than in the light of historical fact.

Punjab is different...and so are Punjabis

In the fall of 2008, the Pakistani government in coordination with its armed forces launched a targeted offensive in South Waziristan  with the aim of quelling Taliban and Al-Qaeda presence in the region. While the offensive was succesfull in  dispersing militants, it also destroyed  important local  infrastructure and resulted in the creation of at least 100,000 refugees. Another offensive was carried out in North Waziristan earlier this year following Faisal Shahzad's failed bombing attempt at New York's Time Square with similar results. The human costs of both offensives were justified. After all both Taliban and Al-Qaeda were utilizing these regions to carry out attacks on vulnerable civilian populations. For the last nine months, there has been increasing violence directed at Punjabi civilians from sectarian groups collaborating with other militant groups such as Al-Qaeda,  Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Party of Taliban in Pakistan) and the Haqqani network. However, despite the ongoing violence from Punjabi groups, a similar offensive has yet to be launched. This lack of inaction in part is due to the logistics of carrying out a detailed military operation in a high civilian density region. In this context, a different narrative is employed. Similar to the dominant nationalist narrative, this one employs majority-minority dynamics through the lens of ethnic identity.

The narrative is simple. "Terrorism" is considered as a ethnic problem associated with Pashtun culture rather, than a social or political one. Violence by militant groups operating within the province of Punjab is ignored or placed within the context of Pashtun culture, which is perceived as inherently violent. The long standing history of Sunni militancy in Punjab especially in the district of Jhang; home to Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (equivalent to the KKK, but with vastly superior armament and tacit support of Punjab's political leadership) is disregarded, perpetuating a notion of Punjabi exceptionalism. Simply put, Punjabis are different from Pashtuns. They are inherently incapable of violence. Foreign agents must be involved. Versions of this narrative have been heard again and again, specifically from the PML-N. By analysing ongoing violence in Punjab through the singular lens of ethnic identity, this narrative creates a hierarchy positively favouring Punjabis over other groups, inflaming long standing ethnic tensions. Its prevalence within political, social and cultural circles within the province ensure tacit support to militancy in the province, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and will continue to do so in the coming weeks, months and years.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Our perceptions of "terrorism" and militant violence in Pakistan is shaping our social, political and cultural response to it. The dominance of narratives based on nationalist, religious and ethnic allegiances in our national dialogue devoid of an understanding of history and present day reality is dangerous. Dealing a violent insurgency on this scale requires an understanding of past political decisions which have led us here in the first place.  A paradigm shift in narratives from assigning blame to accepting responsibility is essential if the ongoing violence against civilians is to be dealt with effectively.

Coming Soon
Data Darbar Part II: Forget Religion, This is a Cultural War