How Many Worlds’ Have you Seen Today?

“Why did Queen Elizabeth meet Mallala?” Asked my mother during one of those post dinner mother and son walks.

“Because she is a brave little girl who stands up for girl’s education.” I said.

“But why her alone? All of my friends were asking. Why are these westerners talking her up as much? Something is afoot, all the people are saying.” My mother insisted.

“Well she is a good looking, articulate young girl, who had the courage of her convictions to take a bullet to her head. And all she is saying is that girls should be able to go to school if they want. That sounds like a good reason for me to talk her up enough, if not more.” I retorted, as I got a little animated at the line of reasoning.

My mother, still uncertain, was not quite convinced and went on, “With all that’s happening in this country, to so many people, why her alone?”

“Ammi, why not her?” I retorted, “Should it be us instead? Or do you have somebody else in mind for global adulation?”

“No it should certainly not be us.” She said in a resigned tone, “we haven’t done anything remarkable–good or bad”. And we just left it at that.

Taliban have not claimed responsibility for three of the explosions in KPK, insists Imran Khan, the darling of the drawing room crowd in Pakistan. Therefore, to blame Taliban for the situation in KPK is a mistake. The real issue is drone attacks, which are the real cause of suicide bombings in Pakistan. Mr. Khan insists that we must negotiate with the Taliban to convince them that wonton killing of Pakistanis in retaliation for American drone attacks is a bad idea. In return, Mr. Khan will offer the Taliban a true Islamic state in KPK as a concession, or perhaps a year’s supply of cricket memorabilia personally signed by him.

I am not going to comment on the logical consistency let alone the moral underpinnings of the above two conversations. If you have to ask, then perhaps there is no point in me going on? Or perhaps there is.

I have a visceral reaction of thinking of any right wing person, as either an idiot or a villain. I do intellectually recognize that many people who are a much more intelligent than I am, and are better people in everyday conduct than I am–not that my intellect or conduct are of a remarkably high standard–subscribe to rightist thought and intellectual frameworks. So as angry and frustrated I feel at the structures of thinking of which, my mothers’ friends and Imran Khan are representative, I have to grudgingly concede that a lot more is going on in theirs and their ilk’s heads than just mischief or villainy, or both.

I find the social theorist Bruno Latour helpful in grappling with this problematique where seemingly decent people are not just apathetic but even supportive of–well–evil.

We perhaps never differ about opinions, but rather always about things—about what world we inhabit. And very probably, it never happens that adversaries come to agree on opinions: they begin, rather, to inhabit a different world. A common world is not something we come to recognize, as though it had always been here (and we had not until now noticed it) (Latour 1997: 456).

One of the key moments in the ushering of the modern world was the demystification of nature and human cosmos, and its utter destruction and replacement with a singular empirically observable and knowable world. From there on, there weren’t multiple worlds known through multiple cosmologies but just one physical world out there. The human project in our modern times is now limited to know that singular world and tell stories of this ‘real’ world to all. Or is it?

The ‘real’ world bequeathed to us by modernity is a very limited one. The singular ‘shared reality’ that we must buy into is supposed to be the concrete unmediated reality that we get to through science and objective observation. The only problem is that knowing this reality requires us to suspend our emotions, memories, attachments, and animosities–in short our humanity.

Perhaps we do live in different worlds, always have and always will. Latour helpfully reminds us of the ‘Valadolid controversy’, the famous disputato that the Spanish held in the New World to decide if the Native Americans had souls susceptible to salvation. While the Spaniards were deploying the medieval social scientific method to determine the spirituality of the native Americans, the Native Americans were undertaking a no less scientific albeit natural experiment to determine the corporeality of the (Spanish) Conquistadors. That the Spaniards had souls seemed clear to them–in their cosmology everything had a soul, the crow, the jaguar, the forest, everything. The question was whether these Spanish new comers had bodies or were they purely spiritual entities. They drowned the conquistador prisoners to see if they died, and if their flesh rotted after death. If they died and their flesh rotted then they definitely had bodies.

The point of the above story is to illustrate the disconnect between worlds–not world views–which assumes that there is some absolute unmediated Newtonian world out there that we have to agree on. As Latour argues, belief in an unmediated singular reality is the fundamental attribute of–well fundamentalism. The claim of a singular unmediated world will invariably invite the ownership of the truth about that world. And I don’t have to elaborate on the power equation, where one owns the truth about the world and has the right to dispense it to others.

So what do progressive agenda(s) mean across these multiple worlds? From those of Imran Khan, to the Taliban, to the Baloch to the Napoleons in Rawalpindi? Each of them actually live in different worlds with concomitant realities. Those realities have to be constantly maintained. The resilience of these worlds is inversely proportional to the intellectual courage of their denizens. Less intellectual courageous they are, more desperately they hold on to their worlds. More intellectually courageous the citizens of the worlds, more willing they are to go on a tour of different worlds–experience different personal universes in their refreshing, depressing, endearing, infuriating and ultimately surprising diversity.

The cognitive interplanetary tourism that I am suggesting as a pathway for the peaceful coexistence of different worlds, even that of the Imran Khan with somebody like me will will have to, however, be a multilateral process. If it is a unilateral exercise, then it will perhaps usher in a more enriched life for the tourist, but not do much for the society in which, the tourist lives.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Latour says. And multi-agent empathic interplanetary vagrancy is the key condition for peace. If Imran Khan and his ilk sound like they are from Uranus—they really are. If you want to understand them, you may need to go visit there. But if you are looking for peace, his ilk will also have to make the trip from that third gas ball from outer space to the third rock from the Sun. As I write these words I am hearing Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din describe his fight against the Taliban and the killing of his son. I agree with him that moving to Uranus permanently, is not a serious basis for peace. To quote Latour (1997: 455) again,

“If this be peace, I must say I prefer war. By war I mean a conflict for which there is no agreed-upon arbiter, a conflict in which what is at stake is precisely what is common in the common world to be built.”


And God Knows Best

Alama, Professor, Doctor, Maulana Tahir-ul-Qadri’s long march came to a most unremarkable end having accomplished nothing. Qadri to me symbolizes the arrogance and spiritual confusion of our educated classes in Pakistan. In our middle class’ world view, Pakistani people are illiterate masses with no sense or subjectivity to know what is in their best interest. They must be lead by our middle classes–whose answer to all social ills is right wing religiosity and extreme market capitalism. The deeni (religious) Jamaats in Pakistan are some of the main beneficiaries of our middle class and middle class diaspora’s largess. I think some contemplation of the role of these deeni Jamaat’s in Pakistan’s polity is in order and what better place to start than the the landmark event in the history of our country, the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer almost two years ago, in January 2011.

I noted with some satisfaction that Mumtaz Qadri the murderer of governor Salman Taseer was finally convicted and sentenced to death. As a death penalty opponent, I hope he is not executed, but worse, spends the rest of his biological years incarcerated, to finally find his place in hell, where he belongs. I was however, shocked and dismayed at the site of Sunni Tehrik–the supposed moderate Islamist movement’s activists, amongst the predictable contingent from assorted other deeni (religious) outfits protesting his conviction.

We Muslims do not tire of the old mantra in front of non-Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace. Yet somehow, the execution of a poor Christian woman, the murder of a distinguished public figure for defending that woman, and the acquittal of the person’s murderer, as insisted upon by the deeni Jamaats (religious parties) is supposed to further the credentials of Islam as a religion of peace?

I used to think that some in the mullah brigade, e.g., the Taliban and company are misguided, who must be resisted to save our religion from them. But now I am increasingly of the view that perhaps the whole deeni jamaat concept is flawed. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished professor of Islamic law at University of California Los Angeles, speaking of the sources of Islamic authority, helpfully reminds us that:

In formulating Islam law, it has become common in the modern age to use the authority of the Author (God) to justify the despotism of the reader. In effect, by claiming that the only relevant consideration is the Will of the Author, the reader is able to displace the Author and set himself as the sole voice of authority: the reader [in committing the ultimate shirq (blasphemy)] becomes God, as it were.The replacement of God’s authority with that of the reader is an act of despotism and a corruption of the logic of Islamic law.

Islamic law is founded on the logic of a Principal who guides through the instructions set out in the texts. . . . Searching out for the instructions is a core value in itself–regardless of the results, searching is a moral virtue. This is not because the instructions are pointless, but because the instructions must remain vibrant, dynamic, open and relevant. It is impossible for a human being to represent God’s Truth–a human being can only represent his or her efforts in search of this truth. The ultimate and unwavering value in the relationship between human beings and God is summarised in the Islamic statement, “And God knows best”

But in case of the deeni jamaats it is not God but the mullahs that know best. Claiming to know God’s will and supporting and in case of some, even crossing the ultimate moral barrier of taking a human life is a supreme act of moral certainty to which, only God and then perhaps His prophets are entitled. In Pakistan, however, seems like verbal declarations of prophethood are tantamount to apostasy, but actions proclaiming de facto prophethood and even divinity by standing in as the final interlocutor for God’s Will and hence God is a symptom of piety!

Why do some people in Pakistan, give in to such blatant despotism? Do they share the blood lust of the mullah brigade masquerading as loyalty to the Prophet (PBUH) or Islam? I believe that the religious right’s appeal in the middle classes and then disenfranchised youth in Pakistan is more a symptom of intellectual laziness and hypocrisy than any substantive allegiance to the mullah ideology. They could not be bothered to search for the meaning of God’s will themselves. Instead they have subcontracted it to the mullahs. They would engage in all sorts of perverse behavior from lying in business, to profiteering, to being unjust to their women. As long as the mullah gives them a few ritual talismans to save their souls–why not?

The silence of the wider Pakistani polity in front of the deeni jamaat’s is criminal. One must recognize that in proclaiming to be authorities on God’s will they become more shaytany (devil’s) than deeni jamaats. Their intellectual arrogance is worthy of our animosity and our contempt.

Ladies and Gentlemen–Behold the Saviour!

Imran Khan is the greatest sportsman that Pakistan  has produced. One can  also only admire his accomplishments as a philanthropist  in building  and then running the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital. There can be  little doubt about Mr Khan’s sincerity towards his country and his  desire to  see Pakistan better than it is. Like most people who are much  blessed in so  many ways, Imran Khan also has the curse of a monumental  ego. And that ego has  led him into politics. Egged on by that other of  god’s charges to Pakistan, the  F-sectory/Defence/Gulberg/Hayatabad  elite, Imran has become a spokesperson against Pakistan’s ongoing fight  against the Taliban and extremism. Imran has religiously maintained  moral and political ambivalence in the face of Taliban’s inhumanity and  has instead unhelpfully laid all the blame at the foot of—who else—but the Americans.

Maybe  a history lesson is in order for our good friend, because  while he was an international  star, yours humbly was doing research in  central Punjab. During that time,  Imran Khan’s ex-guru General Hamid  Gul was also in the neighbourhood addressing  rallies of thousands of  Lashkar-e-Tayyaba recruits in Shorkot, Multan,  Khanewal, Mian Channu  and so on. Those were also the days when every other day  a mosque  congregation was being gunned down or blown up in central Punjab. That  was also the time, when dispossessed, oppressed and exploited rural  masses in  southern Punjab were seeing their children finding a semblance of dignity  through their association with the Kashmir Jihad.  Young men, who could not  raise their eyes in front of the landlords and  Police, could walk down the  streets of Kabirwala brandishing weapons  with no fear of interference from the  civilian state machinery. Arms  caches were openly being maintained in  seminaries all over southern  Punjab. One could not go to a mosque without being  accosted by a  Lashkar, Sipah or other jihadi outfits’ recruiters.

I often say to people that I am more optimistic  about Pakistan today than I have  ever been in my adult life. This is  because my adulthood was synchronous with  the post-Zia dawn of  democracy in the country and the earnest beginnings of the  Kashmir  Jihad. Anybody with even one eye could see our intelligence agencies  piloting the country towards an abyss. Collection pots everywhere for the  jihad, bearded zealots cruising around in twin cabs brandishing  weapons, known  sectarian assassins, e.g., Masood Azhar being sprung  from police custody by men in shalwar  kameez and military  haircuts, Qiyas and Diyat bill, Islamization and so on. Well folks  twenty years of our military and civilian elites’ exertions bore fruit  in the  shape of Punjabi, Pathan and Afghan Taliban and something called  a strategic  depth for Pakistan.To  digress a little, as a geographer who knows a thing or two about geopolitics and in fact even teaches it to goras,  I am absolutely  stupefied at this notion of strategic depth. In my  classes, we spend some time  debunking these old early twentieth century  geopolitical myths as largely atlas  gazing nonsense. Our military  intellectuals, however, have apparently not  updated the curriculum at  the Command and Staff College, Quetta or the National  Defence University in decades.

But  returning to the optimism part, on the American  dictate — which was absolutely  the wrong reason for doing the right  thing — we reversed twenty years of  self-destructive Afghan and Kashmir  policy. Finally today, Pakistan is  confronting its demons of its own  creation, and by God it is painful. But then  what did we expect it to  be? Poor people in central Punjab, women in Khyber  Pakthtunkhwa and  families in Kashmir have been paying the very real price of  our jihadi  adventures for the past two decades. Now it is time for the  politco-military elites including the wily mullah diesel to pay the  price of  their misdeeds. In this moment of reckoning and painful  national exorcism Imran  Khan is telling us that we shouldn’t have  picked a fight with the Taliban at  the American’s behest. He is correct  we shouldn’t have — we should have picked  a fight with them and  destroyed them long before the Americans had ever asked  us. Even with  one less after the death of Osama bin-Laden, we cannot  morally  or practically afford Imran’s way.

From Bengal to Balochistan with Love

Late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed would relate the most interesting story of the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore, the iconic Bengali poet and intellectual, and the Indian nationalists in the 1920s and 30s. Robi Thakur—as Tagore was known among his admirers, was deeply hostile towards what he saw as a decidedly western model of nation states, and its underlying nationalist ideologies. In fact, he went on to declare that the unspeakable slaughter of World War I, was very much a symptom of a European disease–nationalism. It is then quite an irony that India and then Bangladesh chose Tagore poems as their national anthems.

Indian nationalists, including the Muslims, while aware of his hostility to their agenda, paid due homage to Tagore as a cultural giant. Tagore was against the British rule not because it was by the white man but rather because it was unjust. He flatly declared that the Indian nationalist project was based upon a politics of difference. Eqbal Ahmed quotes him as saying, ‘today you make a distinction between the white man and the brown man. Tomorrow you will make a distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim; the day after you will make a distinction between the North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference’. He was prophetic, because that is indeed what came to pass. One could add that the day after Pakistan was created, we made a distinction between Muslim and Ahmadi, the day after we drew a line between West Pakistani and Bengali, the day after we drew a wall between Sunni and Shia, and now the Baloch nationalists want to repeat the odious formula one more time.

Robi Thakur wanted to see a decentralized India with the British perhaps as part of its future on an equal footing with its other inhabitants. He wished for an India whose ethnic and linguistic diversity was reflected in the flexibility and multiplicity of its political structures and institutions, with an underlying universal principle of social justice. Robi Thakur failed as did another messenger of equality through diversity, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—but that is another story. Instead victory belonged to the centralized Nehruvian state model, of which India and Pakistan were the first specimens followed by the entire post-colonial world.

Balochistan has legitimate grievances, but its grievances are no more urgent and legitimate than the grievances of poor farmers, workers, rag pickers, women and ethnic and religious minorities in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan or Azad Kashmir. Punjabi landlord, bureaucrat or general is no more kindly disposed towards the Punjabi labour activist, tenant farmer, or dissident artist or writer than the populace of Balochistan. The whole Okara Seed Farm fiasco is a useful piece of more recent anecdotal evidence to keep in mind.

For reasons that can be the topic of multiple dissertations, the Pakistani state relatively early decided to recast its nationalist ideology in the mould of right wing unitary religious identity and culture. That recasting resonated with the middle class migrants from India and then the Punjabi middle class of government servants, businessmen and industrialists, but had no traction with any of the other groups in the country. Ethno-nationalist movements in Pakistan, including Punjabi ethnonationalism, have always been aligned with the political left. It is little wonder then that because of that political chasm, a debate on political ideology and state formation descends into a vapid separatist discourse. The Baloch nationalists are as much to blame for this state of affairs, as is the Pakistani state.

Today Baloch nationalists voice the legitimate concerns of the poor and dispossessed Balochs in the language of separatism–and that too ironically from their high walled mansions in Karachi Defence. There are perhaps more Balochs working in Sindh and Punjab than live in the entire Pakistani province of Balochistan. The economies and societies of Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan are so intertwined that to speak of severing the connections is doing the ultimate disservice to the legitimate underlying message of local autonomy over local resources—yeah right—as if anywhere else in Pakistan has achieved that blessed state.

So in a free Balochistan there will be no appropriation of people’s resources by the elites? There will be no distinction between Baloch and Brahvi? Brahvi and Pashtun? Pashtun and Hazara? Would there be a repeat of the holocaust that was the India Pakistan partition? This is insane! The disenfranchised and oppressed Baloch will find no separate peace from the disenfranchised and oppressed Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtun or Kashmiri. Whatever we are, inner, outer, material, spiritual we are in it together. We have drawn lines and found that there is no separate national nirvana—votaries of Baloch separatism would do well to remember that.