Sunday, February 26, 2012

Commuting Between 'Two Worlds'


Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted- at least ostensibly- in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. While the tendency is generally positive, its universal and indiscriminate application may in fact be reminiscent of the cold, rock-hard post- Enlightenment Rationalism that Post Modernist thought struggles to throw overboard for some of the infamous disasters attributed to it. 

It strikes me each time in my Religious Studies class I raise a point from within the Islamic tradition that requires acceptance through faithful submission. While the classes are delightfully interactive  and invigorating with questions, debate and discussion, the same may also at times afford a glimpse into a stark, gaping abyss that lurks at the heart of this kind of education that carries the baggage of post Enlightenment thought.
I happened to mention in the course of a class discussion, the fact that the wearing of gold for men is strongly discouraged in the mainstream Islamic tradition, and was showered with sceptical comments on the rationale of the ruling that bordered on impertinence. ‘But guys look so cool with all those accessories, and what about those gorgeous wedding rings? What’s just so wrong with this? I mean I don’t see the point,’ said a particularly spirited young lady. I am also very often asked to suggest quick and easy ways to help students get regular with the daily prayers. And I always find myself unable to provide short and easy solutions, because the will to express adoration, submission and reverence to God in the daily prayer is engendered by a deep humbling sentiment within_ ‘God-consciousness’ (taqwa)-  not attainable through the Logos alone. 

The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds that privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’ does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labour. Judged and perceived by the logocentric yardstick, worship rituals ‘lose the magic’, reduced to an arduous, necessary undertaking that doesn’t quite help in the business of life. Moreover, the prioritization of individual liberty as the core value makes the demands placed by religious belief on personal behaviour and conduct become confining and restricting. The ascendancy of Logos over Mythos interprets existential questions as objectively knowable, reducible to ‘facts’ and explainable by ‘empirical evidence.’ Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’- high schools, colleges, universities. Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context. 

William Egginton writes in ‘How Religions Became Fundamentalist’: “One of the functions of religions was to teach people that the transcendent nature of ultimate reality was such that no human could ever, in principle, come to know the ultimate truth. What is crucial to grasp is that this core principle simultaneously sustains the existence of mythos and logos as two separate but equal domains of knowledge; for if the ultimate, all-encompassing questions are by nature infinite, if human knowledge in principle cannot grasp everything, then practical, objectifying logos is simply not relevant to such discussions, and the holistic, metaphoric standards of mythos have their place. Likewise, to the extent that modernity has allowed mythos to be pushed aside by the practical successes of the scientific method, the axial principle of the transcendence of ultimate knowledge has been weakened. But it is this principle that more than any other works to defend humanity from the dangers of its own certainty.”       

By ignoring and excluding the ‘mythos’ and ignoring the need for religious narrative and myth, our educationists have made young minds incapable of developing an appreciation of aspects of religion inaccessible through pure Logos. Iqbal had said, ‘Reason is the lamp that shows the road, but does not mark the destination’- for the destination lies beyond the abyss that is intractable to reason, and requires the ‘leap of faith’ above and beyond that abyss. Pascal famously said, ‘above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand...’
 On the other side, there is a conspicuous absence of religious discourse in our part of the world that can respond to or even grapple with this heightened propensity for questioning and demanding rational explanations. The rising numbers of young atheists across Pakistan’s higher education colleges and universities therefore is no surprise.

And then there is that other world. At Pakistan’s traditional religious schools (madrassahs), the ‘Dars e Nizami’- a religious studies curriculum that dates from Deobandi seminaries in 18th century India- is taught. Although it is inaccurate to say that this curriculum is stuck in the medieval past it originated in, given the many new ideas and course contents added to it since, the fact remains that these new course contents deal largely with the refutation of the concepts of other religious schools of thought and sects. There are many madrassahs that also include in the course, a heavily lopsided critique and refutation of Western ideas. This threatens to develop exclusivist tendencies as well as what Sociologists would call a ‘world-rejecting’ orientation that pits the religious graduate against a monolithic and ‘otherized’ world full of false, evil and deviant ideas. According to Dr. Tariq Rahman, “Thus, while on the surface the madrassa curriculum is medieval and unchanging, in reality it changes to refute whatever seems to threaten it. This threat might be from alien religions or philosophies but the fact is that the madrassas do counter it. The madrassas, then, are not static institutions. They are not buried in the past; they are active and dynamic institutions which have seen themselves as being besieged since British days and which are still fighting against the external world.” (The Education of ‘Maulvis’: the Dars e Nizami debate)

The other half of my day is spent at a religious school that struggles in its attempt to protect values sanctified by religion in the midst of what it sees as an amoral morass in the wider society. However, lacking a comprehensive curriculum for a modern Islamic school competing with the urban private school and yet promising something unique in terms of faith, educators at the school face an uphill task. Without the necessary educational basis consisting of traditional aqeedah (the Islamic creed/belief/doctrine/theology) and tazkiyah (ethics, spirituality) science that can help students internalize the values the school aims to impart, these well-intentioned educators’ attempts to mould Muslim personalities in what is seen as an increasingly valueless society become reduced to a superficial imposition. This external emphasis without the internal grounding triggers off among students a variety of responses. Taking for example the issue of the Islamic dress code, the responses range from zealous espousal of it by a small minority, to reaction against the perceived imposition by asserting rejectionist behaviour on the contrary. There are many more that docilely accept the dress code, not understanding or appreciating its symbolism and significance, hence taking it as a matter of course. At best, many of these schools mushrooming now in urban centres, present an alternative environment for students to study much the same that they do in the regular schools, with desperate attempts to include religious jargon, uphold religious form and ritual. The advantages of the ‘Islamic environment’ promised by these schools are debateable, given its islandic and insular nature in a diverse, jostling external environment that the students of such schools eventually have to find space in the midst of. 

However, all said, these kind of modern Islamic schools cannot and should not be so easily dismissed. This kind of school is a response by sincere, educated, religiously inclined novices to the world-rejecting outlook of traditional madrassahs, the obscurantist tendencies of religious clergy and the exclusivist teaching of fiqh (juristic) schools of thought adhered to by respective madrassah administrations. The modern Islamic school is an attempt to bridge gaps, and hence tries to fulfil an important need. However, these schools are in a nascent state, often employ amateurish methods and need to evolve towards maturation.

The madrassah-educated Deobandi muqallid (exclusive follower of a school of thought) whose speech is laced with religious jargon and references to religious authority, and the English-speaking Social Sciences/Humanities student quoting Dawkins and Hitchens represent two ‘worlds’ rubbing shoulders in this society. These two cultures created by two widely differentiated education systems are all set upon a head-on collision course. It is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class. This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolize resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society. He is poised for the control over the generation of ideas and opinion-making, and constructs inroads into the media and the academia. On the other hand is the culturally deprived religious seminary graduate whose fewer career prospects and the constant fear of poverty complicates the situation for him as he perceives himself as disempowered and reduced to a social underclass. The resentment this breeds means that he may not always react to this predicament in ways that may be measured and moderated. It means the existence- far from peaceful- of two clashing cultures and ideologies pitted against each other in this society. Often the clash is intellectually played out as the discourse and rhetoric emanating from both sides hardens against each other and becomes increasingly intolerant and damning towards the other side- be it from the religious or the secular-liberal fanatic. 

I crave Middleness in a society pulled taught at the seams. The poise of ‘middleness’ can be reached through the understanding that concepts considered ‘secular’ and ‘Western’ and hence diametrically opposed to Islam may not actually be so. Reason and rational thought, democratic values, pluralism and humanism may in fact be as characteristic of Islamic tradition as they are understood to be of modern ‘Western’ secular society, though both traditions have unique ways of understanding these. In the broadest terms, the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Most of these values are shared and universal. However, given our cultural-religious context, these must be interpreted and understood as distinctly envisaged by the Islamic tradition. This is where the need and role of the ulema (Islamic scholars) comes in. 

Nor is it wise in the least to think- as the secular-liberals tend to- that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did- lock, stock and barrel. This narrow and superficial approach is the recipe for disaster that will understandably provoke a backlash from the religious sections of the society. The panacea seems to lie in a rediscovery and reassertion of the values of Islam that address contemporary issues- values that may not necessarily be averse to and against what many in the West may also have discovered and advocated: the values of social justice and human rights, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, rationalism and egalitarianism. Religious scholars must engage in the colossal task of reinstating this rather eclipsed Islamic discourse and narrative, evidence for which is voluminous in the Quran and the Sunnah (life and example of the Prophet PBUH). This must be presented in the language and method that can reach out to and address the modern mind. Central and most vital to a solution is the understanding that answers have to be sought (and are amply present) within the religious tradition of this society, and not outside of it. Trying to seek them outside of it is a self-defeating, mislaid endeavour.    

Friday, February 10, 2012

Sophisticated Beasts?

Civilization is but Skin Deep...

Maryam Sakeenah

Kath Walker laments the loss of civilization thus:

No more boomerang,
No more spear,
Now we go to bar
To have a glass of beer.
Now we got movies
Now we work for money
Now we got atom-bombs
To kill everybody

What separates the barbarian and the brute from the human? Those fancy gadgets, Iphones and Ipods, high-rising sky scrapers and sleek cars that whizz past, leaving clouds of dust and smoke behind? Is it those phony painted faces on huge commercial billboards staring down at the city? These are but the outward trappings, for civilization has to do with that which is more profound: our values, our beliefs, our worldviews, our perspectives on life, our heritage and our fidelity to it, our faith and our vision.

Will Durant says 'Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. It begins when man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.'

One of the sicknesses of the modern mind is, however, the fact that we are obsessed with outward appearances, with the mere trappings of civilization, while the core is all but hollowed out. That has made us materialistic and reduced civilization to an empty shell. Beneath the veneer of our civilization, there lie the same instincts of selfishness, greed, lust and selfish passions that defined life in the ancient jungle. In those jungles our ancestors tore each other up for space or food. Now, in the Brave New World, we have Ministries of Defence to do the job. We do it with bombs and we do it for oil.

Our material progress and technological advancement is but the facade of civilization, its mask and not its soul. Where is the soul? Lying huddled somewhere with bated breath in the cracks between the stony slabs on a peopled New York subway, perhaps?

Joyce Carol Vincent was a successful 30 year old with an active, busy social life. Her dead body was discovered three years after she quietly died all alone in her flat while watching T.V. When it was noticed she was not paying her bills, some officials checked her flat, only to find a skeleton on the couch before the T.V, which had stayed on for three years. That is the isolation, the loneliness and the distance that exists among people in our urbanized modern lifestyle.
That is the soullessness of contemporary civilization.
Amy Winehouse, one of the most successful British pop stars was found dead at 27 after she committed suicide taking an overdose of drugs and drink, dissatisfied as she was with her life- apparently, her life was a modern success story. Or was it?

In my own city a guard outside a bakery committed suicide a few days back, as according to him when he looked through the windows at the bread and cakes, he thought of his hungry weeping children at home... Our mad rat race for material wealth has made us blind and selfish so that we have forgotten those lesser people living among us who sleep on empty stomachs and wake up to another day of misery...

Global warming, nuclear warfare, smart bombs, dirty bombs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo... are the gifts of our soulless civilization, perpetrated by some of the most civilized nations among us. Civilization wears thin, showing the ugly bones below...a thin crust you can poke your finger right through into the emptiness, the heart of darkness gaping within.

For, if our civilization has not taught us to be self-disciplined, to learn to share the planet and be peacemakers, to tolerate and respect diversity and live with difference, to establish justice for all and to ensure basic rights, and to give us deep spiritual fulfilment and enlightenment of the soul, are we entitled to consider ourselves civilized? If we have not learnt the right lessons from history, have we really moved on? Are we headed towards progress or back to the jungles?

Civilization humanizes, refines and teaches to live meaningfully. It is the difference between the Best of All Creation and the Lowest of the Low. Has our civilization given us that important distinction or are we just sophisticated beasts in mortal guise?
George Orwell is not quite sure as he concludes his book 'Animal Farm' thus:
“The creatures looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Balochistan crisis and the International Dimension...

The International Dimension in the Balochistan Conflict

Maryam Sakeenah

The international dimension of the Baloch conflict is linked to the immense strategic importance of the province. It is rich in natural resources, has a long coastline providing a link to warm waters for the landlocked Central Asian countries to the north. The Gwadar port has tremendously increased the region’s importance. According to analyst Frederic Grare, there are almost 20 countries that are in need of the trade facilities the development of the Gwadar port promises. The proximity to China, Afghanistan and Iran and the increased importance of South East Asia in the context of the War on Terror has brought international attention and focus on Balochistan. The Chinese have invested in the Gwadar port as it can provide a convenient link to ‘monitor US military activities in the Persian Gulf region.’
Recently there have been efforts to materialize the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline, which will pass through Balochistan. The estimated cost of the project is $ 4 billion.[1] For India, the gas pipeline is essential for its growing energy requirements as it aspires to become the regional power. The pipeline project can generate employment in the heavily populated region along its route, and attract international investment in Pakistan. It can also act as a means to develop friendly and enduring bilateral ties among the countries involved, particularly the traditional rivals India and Pakistan. The United States is not supportive of this project owing to its hostility against Iran over its alleged pursuit of a nuclear armament programme and its ‘support to terrorism’ in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. The pipeline project will turn South Asia into an energy rich zone, bringing benefits for both Central Asia and more importantly, China_ the emerging world economic giant. This is not in the interests of Washington.   

The ongoing unrest in Balochistan and the volatile security situation has brought about a halt to the development projects, particularly the Gwadar port. The pipeline issue is in a stalemate, shelved till the security situation improves. The killing of Chinese engineers working at Gwadar on the eve of the Pakistani President’s visit to China is an indicator of the precariousness of the situation. Reportedly, a number of multinational companies find the situation in Balochistan an unwelcoming and rather hostile milieu for investment and are considering pulling out.  

The War on Terror has added complex dimensions to the issue:
“In the post 9/11 world, a struggle for their rights will pit the people of Balochistan against a trigger-happy army on the hunt for ‘terrorists.’ The religious parties, not quite without support, may oppose this and the Pashtuns of the region may be egged on to act against their provincial brethren... certain American agencies and individuals with decades-old links with the Pakistan Army may even supply intelligence and surveillance aid to their friends in such a conflict. With Afghanistan also under the American grip, this can happen quite easily.”[2]

With claims of Al Qaeda leadership operating from Balochistan, international attention and involvement in the region is still likely to increase. The kidnapping of UN official John Solecki by Baloch rebels, the cold blooded murders of politicians, civil servants and bureaucrats demonstrates the sway the miscreant rebels hold in the region, the rampant insecurity and lawlessness and the ineffectiveness of the government’s writ in the area. 

The Pakistan government has very often mentioned the interference of Afghanistan and India in the province. There have been allegations of the Baloch Liberation Army receiving financial assistance and training from Indian Intelligence Agencies, notably the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). India happens to be the only country that has officially expressed its concern over the Balochistan conflict, and called for international attention, highlighting the Pakistan Army’s ‘atrocities.’ During Afghan President Karzai’s 2005 visit to Pakistan, the Pakistani president shared with him evidence of the RAW’s involvement in militant and terrorist activities in Balochistan.’[3] The role of Iran has also raised suspicions in Islamabad. Iran suspects that the Gwadar port, so close to the Iranian territory, may be used by the US_ Pakistan’s strategic ally and partner_ as a base for monitoring Iran. Some suspect that Washington has an interest in using Balochistan to consolidate its military presence in the region in order to monitor and threaten Iran and China. There is also a competition among international contenders to control the oil and gas supply from Central Asia that will pass through the Makran Coast.[4] How much of this is speculation and suspicion, and how much is fact, however, remains to be seen. 

There are, however, a number of questions that surround the situation and seek answers. For one, the leadership of the Baloch Liberation Army reportedly has international connections, and it is not clear where it receives support, weapons supply, training and finances. Other than that, there also exists a record of the involvement of Soviet intelligence agency_ the KGB, in Balochistan during the decade of Russia’s war in Afghanistan. There is evidence of the fact that the KGB had indeed helped arm Baloch rebels and instigated insurgency to destabilize Pakistan which at that time was helping Afghan mujahideen. KGB secret offices still operate in Balochistan and have close ties with the BLA. 
Yet more stunning is an investigation report by five eminent researchers. It begins thus: “Deception and treachery. Live and let die. The ultimate zero sum game. Repetition of bloody history: Call it what you may, something is happening in Balochistan that defies comprehension on any conventional scale...”[5]
The report discloses the active involvement of Russian, America, Indian, Afghan and Iranian intelligence agencies in the province. These help arm and finance the militant groups, primarily the BLA. The story goes back to the days when Soviet intelligence officials landed in the region prior to and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These KGB officials have thorough and indepth knowledge and experience of the nature of the conflict in Balochistan. As a strategy of vengeance against Pakistan’s active support to the Afghan jihad, Russia began to use its intelligence arsenal to fund and support sabotage activities in Balochistan in order to weaken the federation. The Balochistan Liberation Army was hence the brainchild of the KGB. The BLA went underground after the signing of the Geneva Accord in 1988, but re-emerged with a new leadership following the onset of the War on Terror which focussed international attention and increased American presence in the region. The Russian KGB officials, having known the area and its people well_ perhaps better than most Pakistanis do_ assisted the Americans to ‘set up shop’ in Balochistan. The CIA and KGB have a relationship of co-operation on the issue of Balochistan, the report maintains.

Balach Marri who heads the BLA stayed for several years in Russia where he got a degree in Engineering and developed close ties with Russian officials. Training camps were set-up in 2002 and an insidious plan of indoctrination of Baloch youth began, in order to fan their already existing grievances against the state. The report summarizes the following points as the highlights of the BLA indoctrination programme:[6]
i)                    The Baloch people’s right to independence.
ii)                   The concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’
iii)                 Sabotage as a tool for political struggle
iv)                 Tyranny of Punjab and the plight of oppressed ‘nations’within Pakistan
v)                  Propaganda and media-friendly methods of mass protest
The RAW lent its assistance in training and arming the BLA, as the anonymous KGB officials interviewed in the report disclose: “When we first began the BLA, it was logical to ask RAW for assistance because they have several thousands of ground contacts in Pakistan, many of them in Balochistan. Anyone wanting to set up shop in Pakistan needs to lean on RAW. Our training camps have rapidly increased with time and now there is a big triangle of instability in Balochistan as 45-50 training camps are freely operating, each of them accommodating from 300 to 550 armed militants. A massive amount of cash is flowing into these camps. American defence contractors, Pentagon operatives, CIA foot soldiers, instigators in double-disguise, fortune-hunters, re-hired ex-soldiers and freelancers are reportedly playing a big part in shifting loads of money from Afghanistan to Balochistan. The Americans are invariably accompanied by their Afghan guides and interpreters.”[7]
The forbidding terrain of the region as well as the weak communication links with the rest of the country give these operatives a free hand, and most of the clandestine work carries on undiscovered. The border with Iran is entirely under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who use the route for movement of intelligence and espionage personnel. This route is frequently used for free-flowing ‘international traffic’ of intelligence agents, arms supplies and money. Other than that, the coastline brings in Indian ‘aid’ to keep the insurgency ‘alive and kicking.’[8]

The KGB agents interviewed by the researchers describe the scenario as ‘a pragmatic solution to a strategic problem.’ Moscow’s original interest in the region began from its search for ‘warm waters.’ Russians today want monopoly over the energy resources of Central Asia, and want to keep the CAR states dependent on Russia for oil and gas. The prospective pipeline and access to sea trade through Gwadar would not be in the interest of Russia. The US has a similar interest. An energy-rich South Asia would boost up the Chinese economy, as China already has good relations with Pakistan. Hence Washington leaves no stone unturned to keep Balochistan volatile and its prospects of development as an energy-rich region thin. America deeply resents China’s assistance and involvement in the construction of the Gwadar sea port. 

Gwadar can step up competition with Iranian ports that can be an alternative route for landlocked Central Asia. Iran is also suspicious of America using Gwadar to monitor Iranian territory given the close Pakistan-US alliance. In Afghanistan, there exist numerous elements in the government who have links with India and harbour ill-will against Pakistan. They use their long border with Balochistan to stir up trouble for Islamabad and appease their supporters and allies in Delhi. The BLA currently also receives tremendous support from the Baloch sardars.

It is obvious that the mineral wealth and strategic importance of the region has made Balochistan a theatre for the ‘Great Game’. This is tremendously dangerous for Pakistan as, if left unchecked, it could lead to the bifurcation of the state itself_ which the country has already suffered in 1971. This time, history must not be allowed to repeat itself.

Dr. Noor ul Haq opines, “To eliminate the external factor, the best alternative is to put our own house in order. Internal harmony and strength is to be achieved by a constitutional government established through a democratic process, rule of law and dispensation of justice, economic development and prosperity, abolition of feudalism and empowerment of the people, adequate military strength and proactive foreign policy. This will deter external powers from exploiting internal grievances and interfering in internal affairs.”[9]

[1] Ali, Imtiaz, “The Balochistan Problem”, Current Affairs Digest, Lahore, November 2005.
[2] Singh, Airavat, “The Baloch National Question”, Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Vol.6 (4), Jan-Feb, 2004.
[3] Reported by The News (Islamabad), February 22, 2005.
[4] Grare, Frederic, “Balochistan at the Crossroads”,, June 27, 2008.
[5] Saeedi, Tariq, Pyatakov, Sergei, Nasimzadeh, Ali, Jan, Qasim, Kasi, SM: “The Stunning Investigative Story on the Birth of the Balochistan Liberation Army”, 2006.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Haq, Noor ul, Dr., “Balochistan Disturbances: Causes and Response”, Islamabad Policy Research Institute Journal, Summer 2006, Vol.6 (2), Islamabad.