Monday, October 10, 2011

On the Arabness of Steve Jobs: Why it matters (and doesn't)?

I felt that it would only be appropriate to give everyone a head up. This is my official attempt at the obligatory Steve Jobs post. In case you missed it (and I highly doubt that, but still), Steve Jobs passed away last Wednesday due to complications from pancreatic cancer. This, of course resulted in  ubiquitous cyber tributes, the ad nauseum repetition of his Stanford commencement speech, several   twitter trending topics (#RIPSteveJobs, #iSad) and an elevation of personal status from technocrat to "the Edison of our generation" and "Messiah". 

For me, the interesting discovery about Jobs at his passing was his "Arabness". Let me elaborate. Steve Jobs was adopted. His biological parents were graduate students; his mother German-Swiss-American, his father Syrian. Some call him Arab, others half Arab. There is nothing to indicate that he considered himself as such. What is more interesting is the reaction of Arabs/Muslims/Middle Easterners in general to this fact. One of the most bizarre responses to Jobs's heritage was this modest post at Yahoo Answers:

I'm not surprised at the vigour with which "we" (some Pakistanis included) have claimed Steve Jobs as our own (Steve Jobs = half Arab=Arab= Muslim-ish meme). After all, I would be hard pressed to find Arab/Muslim visionaries, scientists and technocrats that would serve as role models, especially anyone within the last 500-600 years. If a new generation of Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim youth are finding inspiration from Jobs as a role model, why not?

At the same time, we are all aware that Jobs did not become a visionary solely on the basis of his "Arabness. His achievements are at best a product of his work ethic, passion and the stochastic nature of opportunity (ala Malcolm Gladwell) and at worst his arrogance, ambition and backhanded opportunism. If these traits are truly the determinants of his success, does Steve Jobs's "Arabness" actually matter?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Do Muslim militant organizations employ a class bias?

There are two conflicting narratives that seem to resound within security, terrorism, international relation and political science discussions (both academic and non-academic) surrounding the proximate and ultimate causes of global Muslim militancy. The first emphasizes the role of social, political and economic stagnancy and instability in the Muslim majority states as the primary cause of militancy. Extremist organizations within these communities harness these grievances towards militancy against individuals, communities and states that are considered as the perpetrators of this injustice. The second narrative embraces the "clash of civilizations" suggesting that Islam as a religion is incompatible with the foundations and mores of modern Western civilization, such as secularism, constitutionalism, human rights and democracy. It suggests that Muslim militancy is a response to the supremacy of the "infidel" Western civilization. This narrative argues that even if Muslim majority states were to gain equal footing with "the West" economically, militancy would still be rampant.

Both these narratives employ stock characters. In the first narrative, the stock character is a poor, uneducated, disenfranchised in a system that favours the powerful over the weak. This person is drawn into extremist organization and ends up participating in militancy. The purveyors of the second narrative employ the "every-Muslim" character. The education level, social and economic status and political power of the person do not matter. The only important factors in determining militancy is their religious beliefs, i.e. are they Muslim or not?

The problem with these narratives and their stock characters is that they tend to partially describe a profile of individuals involved in Muslim militancy. Not all involved in Muslim militancy come from underprivileged or  backgrounds (see Osama bin Laden, Mohammad Atta and Khaled Shiekh Mohammad) However, there is a definite link between political, social and economic instability and participation in Muslim militancy. The madrassah system in Pakistan, a primary source of recruitment for extremist organizations in the country, owes its success to the failure of the state education program.

Which leads me to the title of this post. While Muslim extremist organizations recruit across social boundaries, anecdotal evidence (my own!) suggests that some sort of class bias is involved especially in terms of leadership and assignments. Militants from privileged background or with  post secondary education often populate the leadership. Marc Sageman's 2004 study on the social composition of important Al Qaeda operatives (under US  surveillance and suspected to have direct or indirect links to OBL) found that 72.5% of them belonged to upper or middle class backgrounds. Only 9.4% of these individuals had religious education and almost a third had completed some form of post secondary education. At this level of the organization, very few individuals had been involved with religious fundamentalist madrassahs such as those in Pakistan. Anecdotal evidence also suggests Al Qaeda's preference for educated upper and middle class individuals when it comes to transnational militancy. Note that 13 of the 19 hijackers  involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center (see individuals profiles) attended either post secondary institutions, or came from middle class backgrounds.

I am by no means asserting that individuals from impoverished backgrounds, with lack of formal education are being passed over by Muslim militant organizations such as Al Qaeda. However, there does seem to be a glass ceiling in place.  As Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy highlighted in her recent documentary "Children of the Taliban", these individuals, especially if they happen to be children are often used in attacks at a smaller scale i.e, local or regional. Additionally, different militant organization have different preferences. Local organizations such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) do not seem to distinguish by class or educational background in assigning leadership positions (again anecdotal, if someone has any data please send it my way).  In fact, given the roots of Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; both rose as a response to the feudal system of Jhang, Punjab which was dominated by Shiite feudal lords and Sunni serfs, I would be surprised if both of these organizations did employ some sort of class bias. I am unsure about class preferences with the Haqqani network. I suspect that given the class and educational background of Jalaluddin Haqqani,  militancy experience and tribal allegiance would seem to be a greater factor here (again unconfirmed).

There is no one narrative that can be used to explain militancy within Muslim societies. Social unrest, economic instability and political stagnancy cannot solely explain the numeracy of individuals from educated upper-middle class backgrounds at leadership positions within some Muslim militant organizations. Likewise, religious fervor cannot be considered as a principal factor in militancy given the involvement of individuals from uneducated and underprivileged backgrounds, especially in terms of violence at a local and regional scale. A closer study of Muslim militant organizations on an individual basis  focusing on goals, structure and recruitment will be helpful in parsing the proximate and ultimate causes of militancy within Muslim societies.

Friday, July 22, 2011

On mosques and misogyny

Warning: This is a rant on the blatant misogyny that is present within mosques (as in my experience, Pakistani mosques in Toronto). Comments are ALWAYS welcome, but trolls are NOT! As a grad student in my final semester I don't have a lot of time to respond right away (why I haven't blogged for a while), so please be patient. I will get to you when I can (within a day or so). 

I don't go to mosques anymore. Mostly since I've realized that it's a huge waste of time. You often don't learn anything and you spend the entire time feeling guilty for stuff that would be considered insignificant in another context. I have never felt spiritual at a mosque. I have always felt unworthy and unwanted.

It starts from the moment you enter the mosque. The literal separation of the male and female. Men go one way and women go another. Almost all of the time, women end up in a small, cramped room in either the side of the building or the basement. Men get the nicer halls. They get to see the face of the person who is speaking to them. Women get to see a TV (high tech, I know). Men interact with the speaker. Women listen. The speaker is always male. Always.

In the Shiite Islamic tradition, you have the right to contest religious authority. You have the right to ask questions and demand answers. But how can you exercise this right when you are trapped in a cramped room with only a TV version of a human being? How can you ask questions? How can you discuss and debate the ideas that are presented? How can you participate?

Perhaps, that is the point.

The self appointed leaders of the Muslim community (Imams, Maulavis, Committee chairmen (ALWAYS men)) have no problem paying lip service to the ideals of gender equity. I have heard countless speakers say that in Islam men and women are considered equal. But this means nothing when you are only physically addressing a congregation full of men.

If anyone is serious about gender equity, they would end the segregation of the sexes in our places of worship. They would address the blatant sexism in the attitudes of the leadership towards women's issues. They would stop referring to women as emotionally unstable beings, incapable of rational thinking as a way to justify male control (I'm talking about needing permission from men to make decisions). They would invite women as religious speakers for the entire community (not just female congregations).

But this is not the case.

And until there is real effort towards gender equity in our mosques and places of worship (imambargas, etc), let's stop pretending that is everything is fine.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hate Bait

I always wondered why most Pakistanis cringe (both physically and emotionally) at the suggestion that Ahmadis could have a legitimate claim to Islam as well. We accept other "deviant" groups (Shias) as well (on a token level), don't we? Why single them out?

I'm not asking anyone to convert into an Ahmadi, but let's stop treating these people as evil incarnate and start considering them as human beings and our fellow coreligionists. We have much more important things to worry about than the "Ahmadi" takeover of Islam.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Missing the point entirely

In the political fallout following the death of OBL in  Pakistan, there has been much speculation (both formal and informal) on its continuing role in the "War on Terror". At the epicenter of all this political drama, is the future of the financial aid that Pakistan receives from the US ($20.7 billion since 2002 via Foreign Policy Magazine). Given the inadequate (to say the least) performance of Pakistan's military establishment in the OBL fiasco and its double game of sponsoring militancy in Afghanistan, it would be obvious to think that military aid would be first up on the chopping block.

Apparently not.

From what the Cable has been reporting, it is in fact civilian aid (Kerry-Lugar bill, $7.5 billion in 5 years) to Pakistan that is being reviewed. According to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) chairman of the Senate armed services committee, while the United States is interested in "developing a stable democracy", it is not the most pressing issue at the moment. There are also additional concerns that the civilian aid about its appropriation and lack of spending oversight.

I'm not here to defend the civilian government in Pakistan or to point out that concerns regarding spending and oversight are exaggerated.  However, given the primary role of the military and security establishment in this fiasco, to only review civilian aid is (I'm sorry to say) idiotic.

First of all, unconditional military aid is one of the biggest mistakes that the United States has made in its dealings with Pakistan. Given that this aid has been used to fund the war machine against India, not securing the AfPak border or dealing with militant networks responsible for destabilizing Afghanistan, continuing it without question is only going to embolden the military to remain in this way.

Secondly, a stable democracy in Pakistan is vital to the long term interests of the United States. The problem of militancy in Pakistan is linked directly to the failure of the state to develop institutions and infrastructure that address the most pressing concern of its people. While the civilian government(s) (past and present) are to blame for this failure, the military establishment has also played an important role in undermining development by actively pushing for increased defense spending (which has increased by 17% this year) at the cost of other government programs. While military spending can deal with militancy itself, it cannot solve its underlying causes (social inequality, lack of access to education, religious fundamentalism and unemployment). Civilian aid will go further in dealing with these problems than military spending ever can.

Over the past 10 years, military aid to Pakistan has not yielded substantial results in the reduction of militancy in the region. With the obvious involvement of the military and security establishment in maintaining OBL in Pakistan, it's time to try something new. May I suggest seriously reviewing military aid packages as well?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A bag of mixed feelings

I was going to write this obligatory post on the "death" (killing would be more appropriate) of OBL sooner, but I decided to hold off for a variety of reasons:

1) I am in the process of performing an intensive analysis of the relationship between different metrics of thermal preference of freshwater fish and the evolutionary/phylogenetic relationship between different fish species. It's a lot of work, so I am (still) very busy. Sorry, but fish are more important than OBL

2) Once again, I couldn't decide what I could add to the debate taking place in newspapers, blogs and social media. I only write, if I feel I have something meaningful to say

3) I wasn't quite sure how I felt about his death in the first place. I needed a few days worth of REM sleep to figure this out.

Despite taking some time to think, I still haven't been able to sort myself out. On the one hand, I felt absolutely nothing when I heard about his death. Nothing. There was no joy or sorrow. I had no visceral reaction. It's as if my internal self shrugged and continued on with my workday. While the aftermath of 9/11 has shaped to some extent the reality in which I, my friends (worldwide) and my family (Pakistan) live, for me the policy decisions following 9/11 are more important that the tragedy of 9/11 itself. Part of this (lack of) reaction has to do with the fact that OBL's death will not change my reality anytime soon. It will not stop suicide bombings in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and countless other Pakistani towns and cities. It will not stop the spread of religious extremism within our society. It will not result in massive reforms in the way we are governed or improve the general condition of masses.

On the other hand, I am disturbed with the extra-judicial nature of this entire event. I can't say that I am very comfortable of the killing of OBL without a judicial decision. First of all, the circumstances surrounding his death are not very clear. With reports indicating anything from he was lunging for his AK-47 to he was captured when shot (in front of his family) to the order from the start was to kill, not capture, him  (via Glen Greenwald) there is no way to assess the legality of his death. If the US government indeed gave the orders for an extra-judicial killing, I am worried about the example that this sets for the rest of the world. If the most powerful country in the world decides without due process the innocence or guilt of a person and claims moral authority, this gives the green light for retaliation against other individuals who have been involved in mass murder and can be rightly classified as embodiments of evil as well (e.g. Slobodan Milosevich, Charles Taylor, Muammar Gadafi).

At the same time I understand the actions of the US government. If Bin Laden was captured alive and tried in court, there is very good chance that Al Qaeda would create a hostage crisis (with either civilians or military personnel) to negotiate for his release. It would be doubtful that the United States government would enter such negotiations, but depending on the scale and the nature of this crisis it could create a potentially embarassing situation for the current government (see Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis).

Then again, politics don't trump principles. At least in my book.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Politics is much more fun south of the border

As I was reading Dan Drezner's attempt at taking the front runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination Donald Trump (of the Apprentice fame) a short while ago, I was struck by the sheer absurdity of American (in case you didn't figure it out by now) politics. And as a Canadian, I was jealous! For all the non-canucks (FYI Canuck= Canadian slang for the word Canadian) out there, let me put this into context. We Canadians are preparing to cast our ballots on May 2nd to vote in a new government (hopefully not another conservative minority or even worse a conservative majority), and are therefore being bombarded daily by radio and TV ads, facebook notifications and tweets (check out #elxn41 #cdnpoli) impressing on us to vote for this party or that. Yet, despite the election fever there is nothing going on in Canadian politics right now which is vaguely as impressive as the GOP presidential nomination race. Nothing!

This is definitely a good thing. Showmanship and politics should not go together, especially given the far reaching impacts of the legislative process. Still the inner child in me keeps wanting more excitement, at least in this election campaign. This is not to say that I am disenfranchised with the Canadian political system. I do plan on participating in the democratic process on May 2nd. But sometimes I feel that the political grass is indeed greener on the other side.

On second thought, it's better if the crazies remained on the other side.

P.S. Canada explained. For all the non-Canucks out there.

If you're young (18-24), Canadian and interested in screwing with the establishment, then vote on May 2nd (personally I would go for the Marijuana party, just think of how much money our economy would make). Rick Mercer explains why:

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Some thoughts on unionizing child labour in Pakistan

One of the ideas that I have been debating with myself over the past few months (I'm not exaggerating) is morality, feasibility and (potential) success of child labour unions as a way of dealing with the mass child labour crisis in Pakistan. Before I outline the reasoning behind my support for child labour unions (albeit very reluctantly), I would like distinguish between what I consider to be three types of child labour:

1)Vocational/apprenticeship: Children employed within a small business involving merchant, skilled labour or artisanal work (e.g. mechanic, shop keeper, carpenter, truck artist etc). Within this labour environment, children obtain skills and experience that can lead to further employment.

2)Domestic: Child employed in positions within the household, often as servants.

3)Mass Production: Children employed within industries involved in mass production such a factories, workshops and brick bhattis (mass production of bricks). Most people associate these industries with child labour.

From the above list, it is clear that: a) child labour is a broad term encompassing many different labour settings, b)child labour within Pakistan is prevalent across all levels of society and c) there can be no one solution when dealing with the child labour crisis in Pakistan and that a child labour ban in of itself is inadequate in dealing with this.

I first came across the idea of unionized child labour through this FP article describing child labour unions in Bolivia. The case for child labour unions can be summed up in this quote:

Unionized child workers and their advocates argue that because child labor is a necessity born of poverty, it can't and shouldn't be eradicated. But they want the government and NGOs to differentiate between child labor -- which they see as an economic necessity -- and exploitation, which is how they characterize children working in dangerous jobs, like mining, and harvesting Brazil nuts and sugar cane. "We need to focus on eradicating abusive work," says Jorge Domic, a child psychologist and director of social education at FundaciĆ³n La Paz, a Bolivian NGO. "If we propose to end all forms of child labor, we're not going to do it. We'll just have more clandestine labor in an even worse form than it currently exists." 
Within the Pakistani labour context, much of this is true. There are two major causes of the prevalence of child labour: poverty and lack of affordable access to education. Instituting a complete ban on child labour without tackling these issues is disingenuous to those suffering from it. Additionally, it is important to recognize the difference between exploitation and labour. Vocational/apprenticeship labour should not be dealt in the same way as domestic or mass production. Unionization is very important for this purpose. First of all, it will allow child labourers to bargain for fair wages and ensure safer working environments. Unions can also administer an institutional framework for education initiatives by providing members with access to schooling and literacy classes on a part time basis. Secondly, unions have the potential to reduce and even eliminate child exploitation in mass production labour settings by providing proper documentation for abuses and giving child labourers bargaining rights.   

There is a dark side to all of this as well. If child labour unions are officially recognized, then basically we are legalizing child labour in Pakistan. I'm will not deny that I am very uncomfortable with this idea on an ethical level. However, without  massive investment in job creation initiatives or affordable education, I don't see how this crisis is going away anytime soon. At least unionization, if implemented properly (this is key) has the potential to provide child labourers with protection within their workplaces. In the long run, unionization implemented with a child labour ban in certain exploitative industries (mining, carpet factories, brick bhattis) and government investments in job creation initiatives and affordable education can (hopefully) reduce the prevalence of child labour in Pakistan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tweet of the Day

From @smokenfog

Dear Muslims, freedom of expression doesn't only revolves around burqa, it also covers right to burn any book u want & say whatever u want.

I agree! I find it very hypocritical that the many people who choose to identify themselves primarily  as "Muslims"  have no problem with using freedom of religion and expression to defend what they hold dear and opposing the very same values when it offends them. Either you are for freedom of religion and expression or you are not. Pick a side and stick to it!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Video of the Day

Via Cafe Pyala, Member of Pakistan National Assembly (equivalent to parliament) Asyia Nasir reveals some uncomfortable truths about the conditions of minorities in Pakistan.

Forgetting the Original Sin

Since I heard of the assassination of Shabaz Bhatti (Pakistan's Minister of Minorities), I have been trying to avoid writing this post, mostly due to the shock but also as I am not sure what I can add to the Pak Blogosphere. Ahsan (Five Rupees) has already covered its possible implications on our national development. Cafe Pyala has provided an excellent coverage of this event from a media oriented perspective. Not to mention that the blogosphere is dripping with analysis ranging from a CIA conspiracy to divert attention from the Raymond Davis case, to how this assassination is the beginning of the end for Pakistan.

I'm going to start off by condemning unequivocally, the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. He was a beacon of hope for the minorities in this country and his death is a loss for all of us. But as I continue to read blog after blog, and talk show after talk show, I have noticed two important trends in the conversations taking place. Most people condemn the murder without talking about the context in which it took place; the infamous blasphemy laws. They tend to denounce this event, but with qualifying statements. E.g. Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination was wrong but it was a case of extremism, a conspiracy etc... The very few willing to connect the dots constantly mention Zia ul Haq. This is not surprising. After all, Zia introduced the infamous blasphemy laws within Pakistan's penal code and institutionalized religion within the public sphere as deliberate policy. However, the role of an important historical figure in the development of these laws is often omitted.

I am talking about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Most of us belonging to Pakistan's liberal elite class view Bhutto in positive secular terms. He is the man who raised the socialist slogan of "Roti, Kapra aur Makan" (Bread, Clothing and Housing). He is the man who fought for democracy under Ayub Khan. He laid the foundations for the nuclear program (not really positive, but considered as such in uber patriotic circles). He is one of the nation's greatest martyrs, executed over fraudulent charges of murder of a political rival. What most people tend to forget (either through ignorance or deliberately) is that Bhutto laid the foundation for the criminalization of blasphemy in Pakistan. 

When Jamat-e-Islami contested the elections in 1970 and lost, it started a massive campaign against Ahmadis in Pakistan. This campaign turned Jamat-e-Islami into a popular political force agitating for regime change. In order to buy off Jamat-e-Islami, Bhutto acquiesced, implementing constitutional changes that declared Ahmadi Muslims as apostates. This action opened the door for state involvement in religious affairs, setting precedent for Zia's blasphemy laws (Pakistan Penal Code 295A-C and 298A-C)  including the notorious Ordinance XX (criminalizing Ahmadis Muslims from referring to themselves as Muslims through speech, writing and action with a three year prison sentence).

The reason for this (in my somewhat informed opinion) is based on the success of Zulfiqar Bhutto as a symbol.  By this I am referring to the larger than life image created by Benazir throughout her political campaigning against Zia's regime. We ignore the role Zulfiqar Bhutto played in the blasphemy laws, or the separation of East and West Pakistan, or his brutal suppression of uprisings in Balochistan following Bangladesh's separation, or the fact that he passed three amendments curtailing the rights of the detained, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts in providing relief to political opponents and reducing the power of the judiciary because it does not correspond with our narratives of Pakistani history.

This is not simply about shifting the blame from Zia-ul-Haq to Bhutto. It`s about recognizing that it not only the religious or conservative members of our society are responsible for the rise of intolerance in our society, but that we "liberals" have also played an equal  role in the subjugation of our religious minorities. And until we admit to this, its is unlikely that conditions for minorities will change any time soon.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Human mating systems and the cultural delineation of incest

I have always been interested in the differences in the delineation of incest among various cultures. For example, Pakistanis consider marriage between first cousins to be completely acceptable and sometimes even preferred. In North America and Western Europe, this would be considered incest. In pre-industrialized Japan uncle-niece marriages were common and accepted, another form of incest within Western society. Marriage or sexual relations between individuals of the immediate family (mother, father, sister, brother) is considered as incest within all cultural contexts.

This leads me to believe that there are at least two degrees of incest: absolute, involving members of the immediate or nuclear family and relative, involving members of the extended family. The processes that define absolute incest are biological. Immediate family members share half of their genetic material with their offspring. Offspring from the same parents are related to each other by half as well. Therefore, when parents-offspring and sibling reproduce the resultant offspring is related to the parents by more than 3/4 of their genome. This is problematic for two reasons:

1) The offspring produced has decreased genetic variation, reducing its ability to exist within a wide range of environmental conditions. Decreased genetic variation also leads to decreased immune response, making the offspring more vulnerable to diseases affecting his/her parents.

2) The offspring has a higher probability of inheriting genetic problems, since the probability of both parents having the same genetic problem is higher. This is the reason why offspring of incest can have debilitating physiological conditions or diseases.

The lack of fitness (by this I am referring to Darwinian fitness; the ability of an individual to survive and reproduce) of offspring of absolute incest as compared to others is the main reason for the vehement rejection of such incestuous relationships globally. Now, offsprings from the relative incest category also have lower genetic variation as compared to others. However, unlike the case of absolute incest, the level of relatedness to its parents is between 1/2 and 3/4 (depending on the familial relationship of the parents). Therefore, the probability of offspring from such relationships to develop debilitating conditions or diseases is much lower as compared to absolute incest, but higher when compared to offspring from unrelated individuals.

One more factor in the delineation of relative incest is the social mating system. In societies that are monogamous/historically monogamous or consider monogamy to be a virtue, incest tends to include relationships between members of the extended family. In polygamous (one male partners with more than one female) and polyandrous (one female partners with more than one male), incest is limited to relationships between members of the immediate family. In my opinion, this is because offspring of polygamous or polyandrous systems are less related to each other (share one parent) than offspring from monogamous relationships (share two parents). Therefore, it is very likely that relationships between individuals of the extended family within polygamous or polyandrous relationships produce offspring that are less genetically related to each other than those from monogamous systems. This means that the probability of offspring from such relationships in polygamous/polyandrous systems to develop diseases and such is lower than from offsprings in monogamous systems. Given the low cost of darwinian fitness from relationships between extended family members in such systems, theoretically speaking, there is a strong possibility that such relationships would be socially accepted. It would be interesting to see if cultures where acceptance of relative incest exists (i.e. cousin or uncle-niece marriages), are cultures with polygamous/polyandrous mating systems or cultures that were, until the advent of western modernity, polygamous/polyandrous.

I would like to point out that my post is based on basic genetic theory and anecdotal evidence of the delineation on incest within different cultural contexts. I would encourage all of my readers to take my opinion with a grain of salt as nothing posted above has been verified either through scientific experimentation or meta analysis. Also, my theory of human mating systems does not fit a wide variety of examples of both relative or absolute incest. It does not explain the cousin marriages in the case of European royalty or the prevalence of first cousin marriages in Europe before the 1900s or the insistence of sibling marriages among most ancient Egyptian dynasties

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blasphemy Laws: A call to action

Last week, I posted my response to Salman Taseer's assassination over his support for Aasia Bibi, arguing for delegitimizing social acceptance and support for blasphemy using a religious framework. A week later, it seems like Pakistan's blasphemy laws have claimed another victim. This time, it is 17 year old Muhammad Samiullah who has been accused of blaspheming in an examination paper during intermediate exams in North Nazimabad, Karachi (incidentally, where I grew up).

I know that last week I emphasized the importance of conducting debates within the public sphere on the legitimacy (religious and otherwise) of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. With the arrest of Muhammad Samiullah, this can't happen sooner. However, more needs to be done. At the moment, we need to put pressure on the Pakistani government for the release of Muhammad Samilullah. Over the long term, we need to push for the repeal of the blasphemy laws.

Many members of the Pakistani diaspora believe that there are few avenues available to respond to such situations. I disagree. Unlike those in Pakistan, we have the freedom to express ourselves without severe repercussions. We must use this privilege to denounce such actions on the behalf of those who cannot. We cannot feign ignorance or impotence in this matter. It is our responsibility to ensure that Salman Taseer's fate is never repeated again.

There are many options in terms of response available to those in the diaspora. The first and easiest is to send an email protesting the arrest of Muhammad Samiullah to their closest Pakistani consulate as well. A list of contact information for Pakistani consulates in Canada and the United States are posted below:



High Commission for Pakistan
10 Range Road
Ottawa, Ontario
K1N 8J3
Tel # (613) 238-788
Fax # (613) 238-7296

Consulate General of Pakistan
1120 Finch Avenue West,
North York, ON
M3J 3H7
Tel # 416-250-1255
Fax #(416) 250-1321

Consulate General of Pakistan, Montreal
3421 Peel Street,
Montreal, Quebec H3A 1W7, Canada
Tel # (514) 845-2297
Fax # (514) 845-1354

Consulate General of Pakistan
Suite 1400, 510 West Hastings
Vancouver BC, V6B 1L8
Tel# 1-604-569-1743

United States of America

Washington DC
3517 International Court NW
Washington, 20008
Phone: 1-202-243-6500

New York
12 East 65th Street New York,
NY 10065
Phone: 01-212-879-5800
Fax: 01-212-517-6987

Los Angeles
10850 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1250,
Los Angeles, CA 90024

Consulate of Pakistan-Houston
11850 Jones Road, Houston, TX 77070
Telephone: 281-890-2223
Fax: 281-890-1433

If anyone has any contact information for Pakistani Consulates in other countries, please post in the comments section below and I will continue to update this post. I am also posting a sample email below (for people who consider email or letter writing to be daunting):

Dear Honorable (Name of the Consular General)

I am concerned that a number of people facing charges of blasphemy, or convicted on such charges have been detained solely for their real or imputed religious beliefs. Most of those charged with blasphemy belong to the Ahamdiyya community but Christians have increasingly been accused of blasphemy, among them a 13-year-old boy accused of writing blasphemous words on the walls of a mosque despite being totally illiterate. The following case histories are supplied: Anwar Masih, a Christian prisoner; Arshad Javed, reportedly mentally ill, sentenced to death; Gul Masih, a Christian, sentenced to death; Tahir Iqbal, a convert to Christianity, died in jail while on trial; Sawar Masih Bhatti, a Christian prisoner; Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, Muslim social activist; Chand Barkat, a Christian acquitted of blasphemy but continuously harassed; Hafiz Farooq Sajjad, stoned to death; Salamat Masih, Manzoor Masih, and Rehmat Masih  three Christians. Recently Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assasinated for raising the possibility of a pardon for Aasia Bibi who was sentenced to death under Section 295B and 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. On Feb 1 2011, Muhammad Samiullah was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan on allegations of blaspheming on an exam paper in his Intermediate exams.

I call for the immediate release of Aasia Bibi as well as Muhammad Samiullah, unless they are charged with internationally regognizable offences and tried in proceedings and under laws that meet international human rights standards.I urge the government of Pakistan to repeal Section 295B and 295C of the Penal Code, which carries the death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy and fulfill its pledge to review and improve “laws detrimental to religious harmony”, announced by Prime Minister Gilani in August 2009.

(Your Name)

In addition to contacting your local consulate, please send these emails to President Asif Ali Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudary. Their contact information posted below:

President Zardari
Pakistan Secretariat, Islamabad, Pakistan
Fax: +92-51-9207458

Salutation: Dear President Zardari

Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry
Chief Justice of Pakistan
Supreme Court of Pakistan
Islamabad, Pakistan
Fax: +92-51-9213452
Salutation: Dear Chief Justice Chaudhry

If you live in Canada, contact information for your MP is available here. If you live in the United States, you can find contact information about your representative here. For these emails, I am also providing an altered template below:

Dear Honorable (Name of Representative or MP here)

I am concerned that a number of people facing charges of blasphemy, or convicted on such charges in Pakistan have been detained solely for their real or imputed religious beliefs. Most of those charged with blasphemy belong to the Ahamdiyya community but Christians have increasingly been accused of blasphemy, among them a 13-year-old boy accused of writing blasphemous words on the walls of a mosque despite being totally illiterate. Recently Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated for raising the possibility of a pardon for Aasia Bibi who was sentenced to death under Section 295B and 295C of Pakistan’s Penal Code, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. On Feb 1 2011, Muhammad Samiullah was arrested in Karachi Pakistan on allegations of blaspheming on an exam paper in his Intermediate exams."

I am calling on the (your country here) government to push for the immediate release of Aasia Bibi as well as Muhammad Samiullah, unless they are charged with internationally recognizable offences and tried in proceedings and under laws that meet international human rights standards. I also call on the (your country here) government to urge the government of Pakistan to repeal Section 295B and 295C of the Penal Code, which carries the death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy and fulfill its pledge to review and improve “laws detrimental to religious harmony”, as announced by Prime Minister Giliani in August 2009.

(Your Name)

Once again, phone calls are more effective than email. If you are able, please call your representative or MP directly to speak about pressuring Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws. If you are part of the Pakistani diaspora elsewhere, please post contact information for local government representative in your country in the comments section below. I will update accordingly.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A revolution in Pakistan is a bad idea...for now

As most of the people in the Pakistani blogosphere (at least on the political side of things), I have been glued to my computer screen tweeting and retweeting news, facts and opinions (often pointless and completely unnecessary) ever since protests have intensified in Egypt against Mubarak following the fall of Ben Ali government in Tunisia (protests are now also underway in Libya, Yemen and Jordan). Not that my interest in these non-violent movements/revolts/revolutions is purely political. Growing up in an oppressive society where the circumstance of your birth determines your future, where there is no opportunity for upwards mobility ( not if you're unwilling to be corrupt) and where survival is a daily struggle for most, these events are affecting me at an emotional level

When I was in my early teens, I would often ask my parents that if the government was so corrupt, dishonest, unaccountable and greedy, why didn't we simply overthrow it? Why didn't 150 million people simply march in the streets and take over? After all, only a few were in power and wasn't the majority was on our side? 

A few university level history courses later and I dropped these questions all together. Political change from a historical perspective usually involved violence (of course there is post-apartheid South Africa and the Velvet divorce). Most of the time a lot of people died. Revolutions required unification around an idea, and we were short on those. Also, I had ceased to believe that Pakistanis were actually capable of a political revolt. The success of the protest movement in Tunisia (and Egypt, god-willing), has changed my opinion on this. 

This of course raises the point of whether a revolution is a viable form of meaningful political change in Pakistan?  Given the demographic pressure, the lack of economic opportunity, the floods and the lack of proper response, the increasing gap between the elite (people like me) and the rest of the country, rising food and commodity prices, the apparent failure of state institutions such as health care and education and an ongoing Islamist insurgency, dissatisfaction with the current Pakistani government has never been higher. This does not automatically translate to revolution. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, no one person or party can be blamed for Pakistan's downward spiral. As much as I despise Zardari, he is not solely responsible for the condition that we are in. After all, Nawaz Sharif  bankrupted the country, Benazir Bhutto officially recognized and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, the military established the policy of using Islamic militants against India, Zia ul-Haq introduced the blasphemy laws, Zulfiqar Bhutto declared Ahmadis as non-muslims to save his political ass, Ayub Khan promoted corruption and nepotism as official policy and no one invested national resources into health, education or social welfare. Pakistan is also an ethnically, socially and politically diverse country, perhaps more so than either Egypt or Tunisia, making it difficult for everyone to agree with each other on any political platform.

Let's assume for one moment, that a revolution is viable now. Does this necessarily mean that it is most appropriate course of action to take for tangible political and social change in the country? I don't think so.  Religious fundamentalism in Pakistan is at an all time high. We have an armed insurgency fighting to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. We have a power hungry military waiting in the wings to topple a weakened state. If there is to be a revolution right now, it would most definitely not be the one that we liberals are waiting for. The outcome would either be a same old same old military takeover (most likely) or a more disturbing prospect of Islamic fundamentalists and militants regaining power (less likely since the military will probably not allow this). And given long simmering ethnic and religious tensions, you can be sure that any peaceful protest movement is quickly going to devolve into a violent one with many breakaway groups competing for power.

If what we desperately desire in Pakistan is real social and political change, a revolution is not the way to go about least not now. If our government(s) are inept and corrupt, then we have to shoulder the responsibility of building the social institutions that are so desperately needed. Pakistani civil society, especially the liberal elites behind computer screens and English language blogs (myself included) need to create a critical mass of people willing to disregard their ethnic, political and religious allegiances to embrace a common goal of political change using non-violent means. In this process of reform, a revolution should be considered as the last step.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A religious argument against blasphemy laws

Since the murder of Salman Taseer over his position in the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian women charged with blasphemy, there have been numerous discussions in the Pakistani blogosphere on dealing with Pakistan's blasphemy laws. Specifically, Cafe Pyala's excellent post calling for the supporters of the blasphemy laws to be treated as blasphemers themselves and Ahsan's  rebuttal (also excellent) stick out in my mind as the kind of conversations that we (liberals/leftists) should be engaging in. If there is some good to come from Taseer's death, at the very least it is our responsibility to ensure that these conversations are being carried out at an increasing volume. I am not going to wax poetic about Taseer. I disagreed with many of his political decisions and his assassination will not change my opinions on this matter. However, he fought to change the constitutional basis for blasphemy and stood up for Aasia Bibi at tremendous costs. For this, he has my eternal respect.

While Ahsan makes an excellent argument against attempting to beat the mullahs at their own game, I am going to have to disagree. Considering the prevalent religiosity in Pakistani society, it is impossible for this debate to take place on any other level. As long as people continue to believe that it is religiously sanctioned and therefore acceptable to try, convict, punish and kill people for blasphemy, there can never be any real progress on this front. For this reason it is essential that debates on this issue take place within public view to at least raise the possibility of another legitimate religious view in this matter. This debate is not for the mullahs, make no mistake about is. We will (most probably) never convince them. It is for the audience alone.

Neither can a debate of this gravity be supported by a few hadith and sunnah. If we are to delegitimize violence and the acceptance and approval of its use against blasphemers (and those perceived to be blasphemers), we need to bust out more robust arguments than the some events in the Prophet's life where he was nice to people being mean to him.

This leads me to the main point of my post. Let's consider "The chapter of the Elephant" (Surah 105:1-5), in the Quran. This surah talks about the confrontation between Abraha, the ruler of Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the tribes of Mecca. Basically the tribes of Mecca attack Yemen, then a protectorate of the Abyssinian empire, looting many population centers and specifically destroying churches in the region. This of course angers Abraha who decides to march on a war path to Mecca, with an army of elephants (hence the name) to destroy the Kaaba, an economically and religiously important place for Meccans (pagan and otherwise). At this time, the Kaaba is under the administration of the tribe of Quraish, specifically the clan of Banu Hashim lead by Abdul-Muttalib (also happens to be grandfather of the Prophet). Once Abraha reaches Mecca, he decides to goad the Quraish into war by taking  ~1000 red camels (number disputed by various sources) belonging to Abdul-Muttalib. Abdul-Muttalib seeks an audience with Abraha to demand the return of his camels. Abraha is surprised by this request. He asks Abdul-Muttalib, why he is only asking about his camels and not the Kaaba which he is the administrator of. Abdul-Muttalib replies that he is responsible for protecting his property (i.e. camels) and that Allah is responsible for protecting his (i,e, Kaaba). Abraha attacks the Kaaba and is defeated by flocks of starlings/sparrows dropping pebbles on his army at the behest of Allah.

So my argument is as follows. If you believe that Prophet Muhammad is a true prophet of Allah (and the Quran is the true message of Allah), then based on the logic behind the words of Abdul-Muttalib, Allah is completely responsible for his good name. The responsibility of defending the Prophet's honor is neither mine nor yours. This is not to say that one does not have the right to feel insulted by actions considered as blasphemy (if you so desire), but that you cannot act against it in the form of intimidation, violence or legal actions. After all, if you feel that those that commit or participate in blasphemy should be dealt through human intervention, either you have no faith in the ability of Allah to protect the good name of the Prophet/Quran or you feel that you can do a much better job. In both cases, you are doubting the ability of Allah to take care of his messenger and his message.  In both cases, it is you who is committing blasphemy.

P.S. For the record, I prefer the secular/non-religious argument against blasphemy laws over religious ones. Since most Pakistanis reject secular arguments as being a) foreign and b)not-religious (obvious!) and therefore not legitimate, it is more effective to debate these matter within a religious framework. It's sad that the packaging of an argument matters more than the argument itself, but this is the social reality within which we exist and we need to deal with it.