Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Nergis Mavalvala and Umar Khalid

February 23, 2016

I admire Dr. Nergis Mavalvala as much as the next person. Anyone with a similar track record and set of accomplishments deserves to be admired. What I find incongruous is the Pakistani media taking ownership of those accomplishments simply because she was born and educated up to high school in Pakistan.

There are so many ironies here that it is painful to even point them out. To start with, Dr. Mavalvala has given up Pakistan – by her own admission she has not visited Pakistan much in the last thirty years since she left after high school. No blame is to be attached to her on that account – if she wanted to be and progress as an astrophysicist, she could not have done so in Pakistan.

But beyond that, there was really no reason for her to visit Pakistan since most of her immediate and extended family had settled abroad. Nergis Mavalvala left Pakistan since it could not provide an education in astrophysics – that is typical of poor countries. But Pakistan closed the door to her involvement with the country by divesting itself of her entire immediate and extended family, indeed an entire community, as well – a community that had a tremendous contribution to the civic, aesthetic, and corporate culture of Pakistan. That eventuality had very little to with poverty and everything to do with intolerance. It is indeed odd to drive an entire community away and then lay claim to its accomplishments.

Consider next how fortunate Nergis Mavalvala was to have attended high school in the best institution in Karachi. Would she have achieved as much if the luck of the draw had consigned her to Government Girls High School No. 2 in Abbottabad? Or, if out of financial necessity or misplaced love for Pakistan, she had continued on at DJ Science College instead of going on to Wellesley? Could one stretch the logic to claim that she would have been even more fortunate if she had been born and attended high school in the US in the first place?

What exactly are we celebrating when the truth of the matter is that Pakistani schools and colleges are holding back if not entirely suffocating hundreds of potential Nergis Mavalvalas every year? Nergis Mavalvala was among the lucky few who escaped the destiny of the majority of students in the country. Isn’t that the real question that needs to be asked when reflecting on the achievement of Dr. Mavalvala?

Consider how Nergis Mavalvala became interested in her subject in the first place:

I was pretty young when I started to learn about the night sky. I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.

Imagine a promising student of science at a college in Pakistan stating that he or she did not subscribe to any religious explanation for the creation of the universe. The very attitude that Nergis Mavalvala identifies as the cause of her later achievements would have led to a fate worse than death for the Pakistani student. Once again, what exactly is being celebrated when the curiosity that is essential to scientific endeavor is simultaneously condemned as tantamount to blasphemy?

This kind of schizophrenic blindness and unexamined duality is rife in Pakistan. Take, for example, the boastful claim that Indian classical music owes its greatness almost entirely to the contribution of Muslims while at the same time insisting that music is un-Islamic? Amir Khusro is Hazrat Amir Khusro when accomplishments are to be appropriated while he is at the same time the inventor of the accursed sitar and table that contributed to destruction of Muslim rule in India.

Shamsheer-o-sana awwal/Taoos-o-rubab aakhir
(First the sword and the spear/At the end the zither and the lute)

Just a little bit of study into the history of music and of the Mughal Empire in India would show how bogus and misplaced such claims are. Not surprisingly, we have eliminated the study of history from the curriculum, there are no worthwhile doctoral programs with qualified faculty to supervise research, and no students who would want to risk their lives with unsafe subjects that would brand them as anti-national and anti-religious at the outset of their careers. At the same time, people hold on to very strong opinions without wanting to subject them to any kind of open inquiry. Even asking a simple question might help initiate a promising discussion if thinking were encouraged as a safe habit: Why was the Mughal Empire in India replaced by the rule of those whose religion allowed not only music but dance and wine much more and openly so compared to that of the Mughals? One might uncover some new and surprising aspects of our history just as Dr. Mavalvala uncovered some new aspects of gravitational waves.

We will never do so because the very act of thinking has become synonymous with being anti-national in Pakistan. There is no protection for the questioner from the guardians of the faith and no safe space for questioning like Government College, Lahore used to be in the 1940s. That India is in the danger of following suit was a point articulated very eloquently by Umar Khalid during the on-going controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It was quite fitting for him to conclude his address with the call “Anti-nationals of the world unite.”

Thinking of Umar Khalid, imagine a student making a speech like his on a campus in Pakistan. Imagine him or her saying what Umar Khalid said including the statement that he did not think of himself as a Muslim. What would his or her fate be?

Let us celebrate the achievements of Dr. Nergis Mavalvala by all means, keeping in perspective that such achievements are the norm in institutes of higher education in countries where students and researchers are allowed to think and question all orthodoxies. But more than that, let us use the occasion to reflect on why everyone who wants to think independently has to leave Pakistan or fear for their lives to do so. Let us reflect on the need for a protected space like that of Jawaharlal Nehru University and heed the words of Umar Khalid at the same time.

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The Media and Other Problems

January 27, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

At the recent recording in Karachi of a TV talk show – ‘Pakistan-US Relations: What’s the Problem with America?’ – during the warm-up before filming began, a member of the audience asked why the problem was deemed to be with America and not Pakistan, or, at the very least, both.

The anchor had a ready answer, suggesting he had heard the kind of question before. He argued he had a huge audience including sophisticated viewers in the auditorium and in drawing-rooms but many more ordinary people in the shanties of Lyari, FATA, Khuzdar, Mirpur Sakro, etc. Framing the issue in a neutral manner would trigger channel-switching by the latter and a loss of viewers – to get something across, it had to be provocative without challenging the biases of the audience.

This interaction started me thinking about the media. We accept that in many countries state-controlled media ends up being used for propaganda, the negative impacts of which are unambiguous. We also recognize that private media in a market economy, like the channel whose show we were seeing, is owned by big capital and driven by profit. There is less agreement, though, over the influence of the latter on its audience, especially in a country like Pakistan, where television is such a dominant source of information.

In the best of all possible worlds, a free and competitive media would expose the audience to information from a range of perspectives, a function essential to the working of a democracy. This range of viewpoints, theoretically, helps people form opinions based on multiple sources of information, their opinions translating ultimately into votes.

But in a market economy, information providers are driven primarily by the imperative to make a profit. Education is at best a secondary goal. Thus the bulk of media offerings is comprised of entertainment, sports, and merchandising, above all. The marketing of ideas is part of the same calculus: it has to translate into eyeballs, and shape purchases, not votes. Hence, the framing of the talk show with its focus on the ‘problem’ with America, a supposedly easy sell at this time and to this audience.

The control of media by big capital also means that the ideas aired reflect particular, usually powerful interests, and it is rare to see consistent presentation of alternative perspectives that challenge the dominant interests. Add to this the reality of the residual control of the state in Pakistan and it is not surprising that the ideas presented seldom drift too far away from accepted narratives. The role of the organs of the Pakistani state in shaping relations with other countries, near and far, is an obvious example. Can we ever have serious and open discussion about this aspect of our reality?

The fallout is that while the old state-controlled media inculcated the mindset that all of Pakistan’s problems were due to external agents, the privately-owned free media is playing to those very same prejudices and deepening them. In the calculus of profit, any unfamiliar frame of reference would not sell as well – or, at least, so goes the prejudice of the sophisticated: “ordinary people,” we are told, are averse to open and balanced discussions.

Add to that a limitation the anchor had also proffered to the gathered students – that a talk show was not long enough to explore any issue in depth, even if one wanted to in the first place. The purpose of a talk show in Pakistan it seems is to transfer the most readily acceptable sound bites in the most entertaining format to the largest possible audience.

What then constitutes the freedom of the unregulated free media in Pakistan? It is free to determine who can be more successful in the ratings game by playing to pre-existing prejudices. There is fierce competition to see who can most jazz up a limited slice of half-truth. What can be a better analogy than skin-whitening cream – every producer hyping up its brand while the bottom line remains that none of them work. Ideas in the privately-run free-market economy are reduced to the equivalent of Fair and Lovely – attractive but without foundation. Freedom to propagate without challenge is no guarantee of the dissemination of truth.

The show was being recorded in the very impressive auditorium of the brand-new Habib University in Karachi and the institutional motto – stressing respect, grace, excellence and self-reflection – was proudly emblazoned on the backdrop. As it crossed my eyes, I had the feeling that the problem was perhaps bigger than one simple talk show or even the perennially fraught topic of US-Pakistan relations.

It goes without saying that understanding calls for reflection and self-reflection most of all. Not only was there little thoughtfulness and no self-reflection in the exercise underway, there was an implication we seemed to have overlooked. My own self-reflection suggested the university might have made a mistake by ceding control and initiative to the talk show. In the eagerness to showcase itself, it might have helped reproduce the same mindset it was established to challenge. By the end of the show I was not certain who had been the bigger loser.

As the panelists shook off the barrage of aggressive and leading questions and the bewildered audience filtered out, it occurred to me that educational institutions could do better. Universities and colleges have the mandate to educate and are meant to encourage thoughtful self-reflection. Recording a much more nuanced show itself and disseminating it under its own control would yield a product more in consonance with its vision. The challenge for Habib University is to learn from the experience and to lead the way in reshaping the future – something that underlines its stated commitment to Pakistan.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in The News on January 20, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Policy: Prescription, Analysis and Hot Air

April 24, 2013

There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste.

I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education.

So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah.

There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country. (more…)

Explaining Pakistan’s Drift to the Right

July 8, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I wish to explain Pakistan’s long drift to the religious right while going beyond the argument that Islamism is at the root of all the country’s problems, a formulation that begs many questions: Why was Pakistan amenable to Islamism? Why this particular form of Islamism? Why with seemingly so little resistance?

My focus will be on the structural factors that opened the political space first for Islam and then for Islamism while remaining cognizant of the fact that an explanation is not intended to be an excuse. Nor is it an attempt to shift blame, distinctions many are too impatient to make. The blame rests squarely on Pakistanis but that does not obviate the need for an alternative but coherent explanation of the events of the past sixty years. (more…)

Pakistan’s Problems: Letter from Berlin

July 3, 2011

By Bettina Robotka

Dear Anjum,

First, a word about that unspeakable article of Hitchens. He obviously has never lived in Pakistan and doesn’t know anything about its people in reality. Part of his argument is emotional – an emotion that is negative, an emotion of ridiculing and contempt. Whosoever has lived in Pakistan knows that the people on the ground in their majority are neither humorless nor eager to take offense, but warm, hardworking, hospitable and very much tolerant. Actually I always thought that they are too tolerant, they should take offense much earlier. I think they are not very brave in the sense that they go and risk in order to fight injustice, but that is also related to the fact that they are not individuals who think and care only about themselves and that their right and welfare was most important but they are family people who feel responsible for those depending on them and would not want to endanger the welfare of the family for some abstract or concrete injustice. They have accepted me without much asking; have taken me into their custody though I was nobody to them. One should never analyze a society without knowing the sounds and smells of it. (more…)

Pakistan’s Problems: More Hypotheses

July 1, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Christopher Hitchens had offered a hypothesis in Vanity Fair that Pakistan’s problems stemmed from deep-rooted sexual repression. The evidence for this was the occurrence of honor killings, and the consequence other morbid symptoms that transformed the country into one that was “completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.”

Even if one were to accept the broad characterization as correct, it is difficult to take the hypothesis itself seriously. In my response, I had assumed that just a cursory consideration of the fact that honor killings occurred in India as well would have been enough to discredit the hypothesis because none of the morbid consequences are to be observed in India. (more…)

Testing the Hypothesis of Sexual Repression in Pakistan

June 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

My response to Christopher Hitchens’ article in Vanity Fair was not well written because it got hijacked into areas that I did not intend to stress. In this post I will try and refocus the discussion on what I consider germane to the objectives of this blog, i.e., to examine a hypothesis critically in order to establish its validity.

The task therefore is to describe the hypotheses proffered by Hitchens and suggest how they may be fairly tested. As part of this exercise, I am not concerned with disputing or establishing the truth of facts; the emphasis is solely on the exercise of reasoning through the arguments assuming the facts to be true.

The central concern for Hitchens is the situation in Pakistan. This concern is well placed and thoroughly justified. The challenge that Hitchens assumes is to identify the most fundamental cause that explains this situation. (more…)

Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

June 26, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.”

Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat: (more…)

Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan – A Review

April 30, 2011

In Himal Southasian Magazine, May 2011

By Anjum Altaf

It is an irony that the most significant enemy of history books is history itself, books being frozen at a moment in time while history continues its relentless march – eventually mocking, more often than not, the certainties of an earlier age. Historical accounts that rely on cultural or psychological constructs for explanations are particularly exposed to this danger, as any number of outdated verdicts can illustrate – the opium-eating Chinese, the Hindu rate of growth, the fatalistic Arabs, to name just a few.

The senior journalist M J Akbar thus takes on a large challenge when he sets up his chase to identify the villain of the piece in this new book, billed as ‘historical whodunit to trace the journey of an idea … that divided India.’ (more…)

Analysis: The Idea of Pakistan?

December 2, 2010

We argued in the preceding post (Analysis: Vision and Management) that a country cannot prosper without a national vision and concluded with the following questions: What is the national vision in Pakistan? And, are our problems getting worse precisely because of the absence of a national vision?

It is a coincidence to find an entry that enables us to continue this discussion – a column by Shahid Javed Burki who is among the leading commentators on economic issues in Pakistan. I will quote the introduction to the column before picking up on the issues of interest to us: (more…)