New Age Islam Edit Bureau
8 August 2015
Herd Mentality in Politics
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Glass Half Full
By Irfan Husain
No More Martyrs, Please
By Abbas Nasir
The Real Munni, Geeta, Still Awaits Bajrangi Bhaijaan in Karachi
By Akhtar Balouch
Herd Mentality in Politics
By Pervez Hoodbhoy
August 8th, 2015
HUMANS are smart enough to make it to Pluto. But that’s only if we use our brains well. At the instinctual level nature condemns our species to conformity and uniformity. Our brains are hardwired in a way that belief often gets precedence over reason, and conformity over individual judgement. Clever experiments in social psychology and cognitive neuroscience are now confirming this. Amazingly, neuroimaging techniques can even identify parts of the brain responsible for group behaviour.
Our herd instinct developed as lower animals transformed into humans over thousands of centuries. Without it our ancestors could not have banded together to fight off wild animals or help each other harvest crops. Our species still needs cooperation and a strong group instinct — in fact we need it more than ever before. But the downside is that in places where critical thinking is unusual, herds are readily manipulated by political leaders and demagogues.
Pakistan’s political scene reinforces this dismal truth. Just look at the nonchalance of Imran Khan and his followers after the judicial commission issued its report last month. A patient sifting of the evidence had decisively repudiated their claims of systematic mass rigging in the 2013 elections. But the heroic kaptan and his herd were unapologetic. During their dharna carnival last year, they made Islamabad grind to a halt. Perched on his container, Cricketer Khan, together with the jet-setting cleric, Tahir ul Quadri, had demanded fresh elections and promised to make milk and honey flow. They vowed to eliminate corruption but neither had a plan. Their groupies didn’t ask for one.
Why Do People Repose Blind Faith In Leaders Or Ideologies?
Ditto for the worshipful cult of Bhutto jiyalas who flatly deny any wrongdoing by father Zulfiqar, daughter Benazir or husband Zardari. As that clan sees it, no evidence is evidence if it makes the Bhuttos come out looking bad. Jiyalas won’t read the Hamoodur Rahman report on Zulfikar’s role in East Pakistan, they’ll avoid studying the evidence of corruption that led to a guilty verdict by a Swiss court for the Bonnie-Clyde duo, and refuse to see the copiously documented big-money transactions from their offshore accounts. Their ownership of the magnificent Surrey Palace and other properties doesn’t matter. Instead, airports and roads bear the lady’s name today.
As for brother Altaf, the less said the better. He is, of course, immensely entertaining and his renditions of old Hindi film songs are hilarious. For sound and fury, his rants are incomparable. Although there are good chances that he will deny tomorrow what he says today, to the faithful this makes no difference. Wall-sized pictures of their great leader adorn MQM meetings. All charges of money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, torture, or murder are vociferously denied. Please don’t bother with the evidence, they say, because we will never believe any.
Of course, the world has seen much worse: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others. But why do people repose blind faith in leaders or ideologies? How is it that otherwise sane and sensible people become moronically incapable of grasping reality? The culprit: our brain. Still evolving and still primitive, it readily sacrifices rational evidence-based conclusions in favour of primal ones. And so conformism trumps individual judgement. But now scientists are inventing ever sharper probes in the hope that one day we might transcend these limitations.
In 1951, the devastating impact of conformism upon human judgement was investigated in a simple but brilliant experiment. Social psychologist Solomon Asch organised volunteers who were asked to judge a line’s length by comparing it against three sample lines. The real answer was clear as day. Left to themselves, the volunteers got the correct answer 100 per cent of the time. But Asch had secretly planted in the group a majority of goons who had been instructed to mislead by choosing the wrong answer. The goons disoriented the volunteers. The result: 74pc conformed with the wrong answer at least once, and 32pc did so all the time. The herd triumphed over the individual.
More recently, Prof Jens Krause of Leeds University showed that humans follow classic animal grouping behaviour. His team performed a series of experiments where volunteers were told to randomly walk around a large hall without talking to each other. A select few were then given more detailed instructions on where to walk. The scientists discovered that, like sheep following the flock, people end up blindly following one or two people who appear to know where they’re going. Many were unaware that they were following someone. The published results showed that it only takes 5pc of ‘informed individuals’ to influence the direction of a crowd of around 200 people. The remaining 95pc follow without even realising it.
When people are like sheep, a democratic system cannot function well. But it doesn’t stop there. The frequently unscientific behaviour of Pakistan’s scientists owes directly to their tragic inability to think independently. Example: after the famed nuclear bomb-makers Dr A.Q. Khan and Dr Samar Mubarakmand endorsed the so-called water car, hundreds of Pakistani scientists joined in the chorus praising this fake invention. They followed their leaders, ignoring common sense. But, to their lasting embarrassment, the episode turned out to be fraudulently staged and the inventor was a failed bank robber.
It is not easy to resist group conformity anywhere in the world. Our desire to somehow fit in moulds attitudes. We value social acceptance, seek assimilation, and fear rejection of our views. In fact the smaller a minority, the more it hesitates to express a contrary opinion. In repressive societies the penalties for not conforming can be severe, even death.
Men go mad in herds but recover their sanity one by one. Weak individuals never mend but strong ones can. At some point you may choose to trust your own eyes and refuse to follow the crowd. This is precisely what makes human progress happen. If you are open to hearing facts and arguments that violate your current beliefs, and if evidence can make you change those beliefs, then you too can walk the new walk.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Glass Half Full
By Irfan Husain
August 8th, 2015
OF late, Pakistan has not featured very often in the foreign media. In our context, no news is very good news indeed.
For years now, overseas coverage about Pakistan was full of doom and gloom. Gory images of suicide bombings flooded TV screens across the world. Pundits from Washington to Warsaw made dark predictions about our imminent meltdown. Many armchair strategists foresaw our nuclear warheads falling into the hands of ‘Jihadi’ terrorists.
And then, of course, there was the constant refrain about the Pakistani economy going into free fall with foreign exchange reserves and the stock market tumbling overnight. The higher judiciary’s frequent interventions into the executive arena were cited as an example of the dysfunction plaguing the Pakistani state. Imran Khan’s efforts to destabilise the government raised the spectre of yet another military coup. To make matters worse, our cricket team kept losing.
Here, let me confess to being a fully paid-up member of the doom-and-gloom tribe. A couple of years ago, there was little cause for optimism. The ‘jihadis’ were slaughtering their victims at will with the state remaining an impotent witness. The newly elected PML-N government appeared inept. And Karachi was in the grip of seemingly endless bloodletting as criminal gangs, protected by political parties, killed and looted with the PPP government watching silently from the sidelines.
But remarkably quickly, the tide seems to have turned. The Rangers-led operation in Karachi has greatly reduced violent crime, while the military operation in the tribal areas has neutralised the militant threat to a great extent. The $46 billion Chinese investment in infrastructure could be a game-changer. Foreign exchange reserves are above $18 billion, and the stock market is humming along. Oil prices are down. And let’s not forget the wonderful performance of our cricket team in Sri Lanka.
Should the equation change, we could easily revert to the free-for-all.
Adding to all this was the death of Malik Ishaq, the head of a faction of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, together with his sons. This dreaded militant had the blood of scores on his hands. And then there was the arrest of the gang that killed dozens in a bus at Safoora Goth in Karachi. Saad Aziz and his henchmen have also confessed to the murder of political activist Sabeen Mahmud, apart from many others.
So high-fives all around? Not quite so fast. The reality is that many of the changes that have occurred are due to the rare harmony between the civilian government, the army and the judiciary. The judicial commission’s verdict on rigging charges has thwarted an unwarranted attempt to derail democracy, while the recent Supreme Court decision to reject appeals against the establishment of military courts has avoided a possible clash between the two institutions.
But as we know only too well, this new-found accord has been arrived at by the personalities who head their various organisations. Should the equation change before these gains are consolidated, we could easily revert to the free-for-all that characterised the last few years.
By far the biggest threat we have faced is that of violent extremism. And while the highly successful ongoing military operation has defanged most of the militant networks in Fata, the poisonous ideology that gave birth to them continues to circulate unchecked in our classrooms, mosques, madrasas and the media. Despite the resolve expressed in the National Action Plan, little has been done to crack down on the purveyors of a violent extremist ideology.
Other long-term reforms remain largely ignored. Our public educational and health systems have virtually collapsed. The population continues to grow at an unsustainable rate. Our shortfall in energy generation is hobbling industrial growth. The violent insurgency in Balochistan, and the state’s ruthless attempts to quell it, go on claiming innocent lives. And sadly, Sindh is still controlled and strangulated by a cynical, venal PPP leadership.
As you can see, I’m back in my doom-and-gloom mode. But if we are to indeed put Pakistan on track towards peace and prosperity, some serious decisions need to be taken, and a consensus evolved. And while the military has taken the lead in the anti-terror campaign, it obviously cannot deliver on the economic and social fronts.
One problem in reforming the madrasas system as well as our school curricula, where deemed problematic, is that such a step would lead to an immediate confrontation with our clerics and religious parties. Over time, their street power has increased, even if their representation in our assemblies has not. Musharraf, at the height of his power, backed down when it came to reforming the madrasas.
So how to evolve a consensus on this divisive issue? In a country that has been tending to move towards fundamentalism since Zia ul Haq, no politician wants to take on our clergy. With the space for rational debate shrinking rapidly, we seem stuck in our trajectory.
But whoever said a glass always had to be full to the brim? I’ll raise my half-full tumbler and toast the good news. So cheers!
No More Martyrs, Please
By Abbas Nasir
August 8th, 2015
THE Rangers’ targeting of MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s command and control infrastructure in Karachi, on top of the ongoing criminal investigations in the UK, must be putting extraordinary pressure on his frayed nerves and it is showing.
The Rangers have been active in Karachi since before the official start of Operation Zarb-i-Azb in the country and have killed or captured militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and various factions involved in the bloody fight of the criminal underworld in Lyari in large numbers.
These ‘intelligence-based’ Rangers operations have also tried to bring to justice suspected criminal elements in most of the political and religious parties in the metropolis but rarely, if at all, one has heard protest of any noticeable magnitude.
But since the raid on the MQM headquarters, Nine-Zero, where the paramilitary force claims to have netted a rich catch of party activists convicted/wanted in serious criminal cases including murder, there has been a rising cacophony of protest undoubtedly orchestrated by the leader in north London.
Whereas the initial cries were to seek an end to mohajir ‘persecution’ (it has to be said, at the first sign of real pressure the party appears to have shed the muttahida façade and reverted to its attractive yet narrow ethnic appeal), later more serious elements were added.
It is time for the MQM’s London-based leader to understand what the winds of change blowing across the country mean.
And the latest, where Altaf Hussain, addressing party members in the US, sought international intervention including chiding India for remaining indifferent to the plight of the mohajirs took the cake in terms of adopting irrational, rash positions.
It was left to the party leaders based in Pakistan to clean up the mess. And, I must say, one feels terribly sorry for them that they are left to face the brunt of the media assault here and have to dig deep to be able to defend the indefensible publicly.
Regardless of the seriousness of the charges he faces in London, he also probably understands that with a battery of well-paid lawyers he has a fair chance of defending himself in the UK, where the onus of proving his guilt is totally on the prosecution.
However, given how the party is run, what the paramilitary force is doing at home is seen as far more inimical to the long-term interest of the leader and his close band of advisers in London: the dismantling of the unit or ward-level infrastructure which allowed the leader to keep his stranglehold over the party, despite having spent over two decades abroad.
The paradox is that Altaf Hussain still rules over the hearts of multitudes of his mohajir supporters as the last by-election to a National Assembly seat in his stronghold of Azizabad demonstrated. Yes, even the harshest critic of the MQM would have to acknowledge this support, which owes itself to his charisma in the eyes of his followers.
But his insecurity or whatever drives his thinking doesn’t allow him to convert the party into a ‘normal democratic entity’ and take part in politics like all other parties do. To him, somehow, militant muscle is integral to the survival of the party and more importantly his leadership.
The irony is that most political parties, particularly those operating in Sindh, have relied upon the support of armed followers to perhaps obtain a level playing field but violence isn’t central to their philosophy as it has been to the MQM’s.
It is no less ironical that almost all ‘democratic’ parties have strong, central or apex leaders and the entire party functions at their beck and call, but again reliance on armed cadres as a matter of routine is not evidenced elsewhere.
It is time for the MQM’s London-based leader, if he can, and other leaders of the party, to understand what the winds of change blowing across the country mean, particularly when Malik Ishaq and other religious militants are being mowed down in ‘encounters’ with the law-enforcement agencies.
The MQM needs to take the cue and abandon reliance on its militant wing, because sticking to its past policy will mean more and more pain for its rank and file and their families as the military doesn’t seem interested in easing its foot off the accelerator pedal. More significantly, the MQM’s diehard support base will ensure its survival without the need to constantly deploy muscle.
For their part, the Rangers can also be a little less macho in how they are operating. There is absolutely no need to bring senior central leaders such as Amir Khan to court in chains and blindfolded. Neither was there a need to seal a restaurant, no matter who was found dining there, as it fuelled the persecution perception of the MQM-supporting mohajirs.
The latest Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) crime statistics published in The News earlier this week demonstrated that major crime from murder-targeted killing to kidnap for ransom and extortion to carjacking to street crimes all had nosedived over the past months when compared to the same period last year.
In the long run, Karachiites will be swayed by what improves the quality of their lives rather than partisan political slogans. Crime has been a major concern for those eking out a living in the bustling metropolis for several years now. A consistently improving graph will only be welcomed by the citizenry.
Wouldn’t it be better for the MQM to be on the right side in supporting an improvement in law and order which’ll bring peace and tranquillity to primarily millions of its own loyalists and create a more conducive environment for more employment opportunities?
Any other stance, as we speak, appears doomed. Equally, efforts by outside forces to impose minus this and that formulae on political parties should not be attempted. Let them choose or let the law take its course. Politics in Sindh needs fewer, not more, martyrs.
Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Dawn.
The Real Munni, Geeta, Still Awaits Bajrangi Bhaijaan in Karachi
By Akhtar Balouch
August 8th, 2015
Mithadar, the otherwise hustling and bustling district of Karachi, is submerged in tranquility on the weekends and other holidays. You can easily drive through the streets and arrive at your destination within a few minutes – something utterly unthinkable on weekdays, when even the local residents, commuting back from their workplaces, would dare not enter these overcrowding quarters before 8pm.
I am walking down the streets of Mithadar, looking for a Hindu temple that has been set up by a Muslim family in its house; not only set up but also fervently protected. Only a girl worships at this temple, all other members being Muslims.
The temple is in a room in which no one – whether a family member or outsider – can enter without removing his/her shoes. Anyone violating the rule is reproached by the lady of the house, saying, “Mister, first remove your shoes! Or my daughter will take offence.”
The lady of the house, Bilquis Edhi, is the wife of Abdul Sattar Edhi, who is known everywhere in Pakistan for his humanitarian work. If Abdul Sattar Edhi is the godfather of charity-services in the country, Bilquis is the godmother in her own right.
Both Bilquis and her husband are practicing Muslims. In the 1970s, they travelled by road to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Why would such a devoted Muslim couple setup a temple in their house?
I put the question to Bilquis Edhi. She smiles and says:
“I had this temple built for Geeta. Geeta, you know ... she came to us from the Lahore border, 11 years ago. And her age ... she was only 11 years old back then. She suffers from hearing and speech impairment.
“When she came here, it was clear from her actions that she was not a Muslim. She would touch her forehead with her hand as if she were placing a tilak (a religious mark worn by Hindus) there. Then, in the same manner, she would perform Aarti (a ritual of worship) by moving her hands in the air. That made it clear to me that she was a Hindu, not a Muslim. So I had a temple built on the third floor of the Edhi Foundation Building.
“Now, she goes to the temple daily and performs puja. She also talks to me by hand gestures. I have thought about marrying her off here in Pakistan. But whenever I suggest this to her by making the sign for the Sindoor-Dana ceremony, she waves it away. Then, she raises her hand high to gesture for a plane to India, and then she acts out the Sindoor ceremony and the pheras [The seven rounds taken by bride and groom around fire at Hindu weddings].
“We have contacted the Indians, but people at their embassy (the Indian High Commission) say that the girl will land in jail if she goes to India. I am trying to find her a suitable husband here in Pakistan, but she does not consent to it.”
I was still in conversation with Bilquis Edhi, when her youngest son Faisal Edhi interrupted me, “Akhtar, the Indian fishermen freed by Pakistan are to leave from Karachi at 2 o’clock.”
He instructed an Edhi volunteer to prepare money-envelopes for the fishermen with Rs 5,000 in each. I was bemused by his alacrity, “Yaar, its only 12:30. We are still hours away from 2pm.”
Faisal replied, “There are 163 people and everyone is to get a money envelop. Now, if we spend one minute on each of them, it takes three hours to accomplish the task.”
However, I persuaded him to stay, albeit for a short time, and give me a tour of the third floor, where Geeta’s temple is located.
Climbing up the stairs, Faisal said, “The recent Bollywood movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan is based on this same Geeta’s story.”
“How come?” I asked.
Faisal Edhi told me that he had been in contact with several governmental and non-governmental organisations of India for a long time now. He informed them about Geeta in his quest to locate her parents or relatives, but to no avail.
Somehow, he said, the story was picked from these organisations by the Indian film industry people, who turned it into the movie. The real character of the story is still in Pakistan as Geeta. According to Faisal, some ‘social-workers’ had even tried to exploit Geeta’s story for personal fame.
Meanwhile, Bilquis Edhi revealed that Geeta also performs Namaz (or Salat, the Muslim ritual of prayers), which she had learnt by imitating other girls and women living at the Edhi Foundation Building. A majority of them are Muslims and pray five times a day, and so Geeta, too, started offering Namaz besides her daily Puja in her temple. Other girls and women, Mrs Edhi told me, are respectful to her temple.
Then she added in a melancholic tone: “Now, she has grown up. I want to marry her off here. But what can I do? I am the only one who understands her language (of signs). She often suggests that her father is a very rich Indian, and so, she would go to India on an airplane. The discussion on her future with the Indian officials is still underway. But I wonder what they are going to decide: Will my child will live here, in Pakistan, or there, in India?”
With a heavy heart, I climbed down the stairs to leave the Edhi Foundation Building. Geeta’s was a heart-wrenching story; I continued to reflect on her ordeal for a long time. Then, it suddenly occurred to me that there could be scores of Geetas and real-life Munnis on both sides of the border, waiting for people like Bilquis Edhi, who would strive to unite them with their families, rather than just make movies on them.
Geeta’s situation is not something that can be taken for granted. Before my visit to the Edhi Foundation Building to interview Geeta and Mrs Edhi, I had gone there to meet Faisal Edhi and had had a brief encounter with Geeta. I had come to conclusion that it would take some time before I could write about her.
Finally, after a few days when I met her for the interview, she smiled, made a circle on her forehead with the index finger of her right hand, and then palmed her face very briefly, as her eyes met those of a Balouch girl standing nearby.
I understood that I was the subject of their voiceless conversation. I asked the Balouch girl, “What is Geeta saying about me?”
The girl laughed and said, “She is saying, ‘He’s come again!’”
Then, Geeta touched her shin and made another sign, which was translated by the same girl when I asked her. She said, “Geeta says that she has climbed up and down the stairs so many times that her feet are hurting now.”
The girl told me that ever since Geeta’s story has hit the news in recent days, TV and newspaper journalists were frequenting the Edhi Foundation Building, and Geeta was asked to come down from the third floor, every time a new troupe of reporters arrived.
On the same occasion, I met with Abdul Sattar Edhi; he looked fresh and relaxed. When I enquired about his health, he smiled and said, “I have grown into a 100-year-old man. But everything is fine.”
He then whispered something in Faisal’s ear. I asked him what it was. Faisal chuckled and said, “He's asking what has brought Anwar Maqsood here.”
—Translated by Arif Anjum from the original in Urdu
Akhtar Balouch is a senior journalist, writer and researcher. He is currently a council member of the HRCP. Sociology is his primary domain of expertise, on which he has published several books.