A Promised Land And a Long Conflict

What to say about a conflict going on for over seven decades that hasn’t been said already? One that is rife with religious rivalries, manifesting in extremely strong political positions.

These past two weeks violence once has again escalated between Israel and Palestine. Although a truce has finally been agreed on May 21, 2021, the Jewish state of Israel and the primarily Muslim areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that together comprise Palestine, cannot seem to get on with each other at all.

Israel is only one of the two countries actually made in the name of religion (the other is Pakistan). A Jewish state in the middle of areas primarily occupied by Muslims. Something that was not accepted by its primarily Muslim neighbouring countries in the Middle east and the local Palestinian population. And since then, this area of historic significance to three monotheistic religions has constantly been afflicted by war.

One cannot actually fault the Jewish people from wanting a place to call their own, considering the discrimination they have been subjected to, ever since their expulsion from Judah in the 6th century BCE. The pogroms instituted against them in Europe are known to everyone. Even before the holocaust, such discriminatory policies resulted in their wanting a separate homeland and in the 19th century this notion started to gain momentum. The Jewish people in the Ottoman territories of Arabia started looking to Palestine as a place where they belonged. The land promised to them when they entered into a covenant with God.

The problem was that by this time this land was occupied by mostly Arab Muslims — the Palestinians. There were hardly any Jewish people in Palestine during this period (only 3% were Jews). But since this had been promised to them, this is where they wanted to go. In the beginning, Arab, as well as European Jews bought land in Palestine from the locals. Then came WWI, and the European powers in their quest for empire changed the face of the Middle east. The British used both the Jews and the Arab Muslims in their colonial ambitions. Learning from the contemporary nationalistic ideologies in Europe, some Jewish people also started developing a nationalist Zionist agenda. The Palestinians on the other hand wanted the Jews out, with some of them embracing militant Islamic ideologies to be able to do so. Both were on the extreme opposite sides, which eventually resulted in violence.

More and more Jews started settling in what was known as Palestine, especially those escaping the holocaust in Europe. Thus, the Jewish population became large enough to fight British rule in Palestine, as well as exacerbating the conflict with the Palestinians. Eventually, in 1947, the UN passed a two state (Jewish and Arab) solution. The Jews weren’t happy with it but accepted it and the Arabs rejected it completely. Since then, the conflict has seen waves but there has never been real peace.

This recent conflict in a way reflects what is happening in the world — right wing ideologies taking over and negating what they see as the “other”. Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party on one side and militant Hamas on the other. Likud-run Israel has freedom and democracy, while Hamas run Gaza barely has a governance infrastructure. Added to this is the West Bank, ruled by secular nationalist Fatah — so even the Palestinian camp is not united in its goal. Hamas and Likud both fantasise about a single state with the total annihilation of the other.

And herein lies the problem. The little bit of history that was mentioned above is to contextualise what is happening today. To anyone who has a little bit of sense, it is clear the only solution is a two state one. This is not what Hamas wants. Its Jihadist ideology can only aim for one goal: a total destruction of the Jewish state of Israel. Hamas is not supported by anyone globally, except Iran, and as a result, the land it rules over is technically a failed state.

The corrupt, greedy, militant Hamas only cares for its own political aims, the welfare of the Muslims of the Gaza strip is not its ultimate goal. But like all other Islamists, it uses the victory of Islam over its foes as a means of getting support from a population already weighed down excessively under Israeli domination.

Israel has a somewhat liberal democracy and a highly functioning governance infrastructure. But it also has discriminatory laws instituted by the right-wing Likud, which also does not want a two-state solution. The Israeli Palestinians face extreme levels of discrimination, even being evicted from their homes to make room for Jewish people. In the West Bank, the Palestinians are subjected to worse treatment, full of humiliations and excessive brutality. They are also constantly in fear of being chucked out of their homes, as more and more Jews take over their land. Such level of discrimination is apartheid and there is only one word for a situation where one set of people removes another set of people: genocide. Furthermore, Israel has turned the Gaza strip into a prison with the construction of a giant wall around it, so the people there are subjected to the double whammy of ineffectual but strict Hamas rule, surrounded by a repressive Israel.

The Jews that fled genocide elsewhere now want a “Jewish state for Jewish people”, which means technically getting rid of the Palestinians. The Palestinians, especially those under Hamas’ rule want to ensure that there are no more Jews on their land. In the end, it is what it has always been, religion, nationalism and ethnicity causing undeniable divides amongst groups of people.

The bottom line is that however they may have got there, Israel’s Jewish population, after 70 years, has a right to live there. But supporting that right does not mean ignoring how Israel has slowly seized control over the lives of the Palestinians and is slowly ensuring their complete replacement by its Jewish population, while pretending to be a liberal democracy. It may as well have conquered the West Bank and Gaza strip — as Netanyahu recently suggested when talking about the recent events.

The only solution is a two-state one. But it is not likely that either side will ever agree to one.

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Covid19 and the Conspiracy Theorists

The late polemicist Christopher Hitchens once described conspiracy theories as the “exhaust fumes of democracy: the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people.”

The current pandemic has brought out conspiracy theorists in droves and their theories are as outlandish as ever. Our disassociation with science and fascination with celebrities means that at times like these people will risk their lives but will still not believe scientific fact. A study conducted by researchers at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, found that social media posts by politicians, celebrities and influencers were the most common means of engagement with coronavirus falsehoods.

Here is a cool info-graphic I found (the provenance of which I am not aware), that in my opinion kind of explains conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy theories resonate with us because they serve as a defense mechanism against scary and inexplicable events. In the age of social media they have become a cultural phenomenon, establishing communities within one’s platform of choice — communities that are comforting, and from which it is difficult to separate.

Education does play an important part in inoculating us against unverified information but often — due to a lack of critical and analytical thinking in teaching— limited knowledge leads people to find attractive those ideas that highlight some kind of political agenda or a dangerous “other”. It becomes about what “they” don’t want you to know. And “they” are always those sinister people outside of your own clique, or those segments of society that you neither like nor trust. Belief in conspiracy theories, therefore, becomes a matter of faith rather than evidence. People rationalize their beliefs even if reality tells them otherwise, often relying on circular reasoning, i.e evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it, are both regarded as evidence that the conspiracy is true.

This has inevitably continued during these unprecedented and stressful times. Our unusual circumstances in the face of Covid-19 have meant that in trying to understand the world in this moment, conspiracy theorists have embraced some very bizarre ideas. The world has suddenly become more confusing than it ever was before and this is one way to understand what no one can completely explain…yet. And the most appealing method of doing so is by dividing the world into us and them; them being those who have instigated this situation for their own ends — the agents of evil — whom the “brainwashed masses” are listening to. A random and unpredictable event has created a sense of powerlessness and therefore it is explained through suspicious socio-political forces instigating the event. In any case, humans are conditioned to believe repeated, easy to process information, especially when it supports our world view, so the rampant absorption of Covid-19 conspiracies is because they align with people’s pre-existing ideologies and opinions. Undoubtedly, this gives their anxiety an outlet on which to focus. Like Professor Colin Klien from the Australian National University explains: “conspiracy theories offer an emotionally satisfying narrative, even if it not a true narrative”.

I’m certainly not going to go through any of the prevalent conspiracy theories. Suffice it to say they are all beyond the realms of fact. It is however important to note that believing in a cover-up around Covid-19 is potentially dangerous to the overall health of the community, if it stops people from taking appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Additionally, it can provide a breeding ground for acts of racism, vandalism and the promotion of dangerous cures.

Now that the vaccine for Covid-19 has been rolled out, conspiracy theories around it have also started to abound. Lack of knowledge of pharmaceutical laboratory and regulatory processes means people are once again willing to pay heed to half-truths and pseudoscience, when it is so easy to look up the fact that we have been working on similar vaccines for decades. Regulatory processes, especially in developed countries like the UK, are extensive. This time too the same processes have been followed, just more quickly than before. But why look for factual information, when a story that feeds our fears is easier to accept?

The only thing rational human beings can do is to look for information from reliable and evidence based sources and try to promote those sources as much as possible. A famous singer or a YouTube influencer are not the people to rely on for accurate information during these fraught times.

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Britons and their Royals

I like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I thought they brought a breath of fresh air to archaic demonstration of pomp and ceremony that is the British monarchy. As a recent immigrant to the UK, I enjoyed the temporary excitement brought on by their wedding and subsequently, their work. I love the Queen too, as I do the pomp and ceremony. It’s fun.

I know that Britons are really invested in their Royal Family. Almost like they are possessions and like all possessions they shall be kept in their proper place. So, the huge outcry that has manifested in the media (and with it, the incessant opinions of people, who are being asked for them BY said media) should have come as no surprise to me. But it did.

And what I have seen is fascinating and scary at the same time and perversely, I can’t look away. What I have seen is this: many people in this country are still stuck in the past and still dream of empire. Most of these people are white men.

Diana Princess of Wales went through much aggravation; she was a woman who did not quite fit in with people’s ideas of what a future queen should be like. Heck, she did not fit in with what the Royals themselves thought her behaviour should be. So, she left them and then she died while being chased by the same media men, who wanted to capture one more of her“shenanigans”. Her son remembers this and is impacted by it.

Enter Meghan Markle. A multi-race, independent woman. Once again, she does not fit in with what the “idea” of the monarchy is in this country. An idea constantly perpetuated by the media. Meghan married her prince and you could already see the barely hidden racist attacks. By the time she had a son the level of criticism just went up and up. Again, mainly directed her way, by white men, who always seem shocked that racism (and misogyny) exists in this country, while providing racists and misogynists with a platform.

People are not happy that Harry and Meghan have decided to break away from the monarchy. They are upset because they should have done this to the “poor Queen”. I’m sorry, why should the lives of a young couple be sacrificed at the alter of an aged institution? And just like the criticism aimed at Meghan about this being her job, it is the Queen’s job to handle situations like these. The thing is, worry over the “poor Queen” is just an excuse to exert control; to continue the dream of empire.

There is nothing wrong with Harry and Meghan wanting to carve out a new path. There is nothing wrong with that path being partly independent and partly still working as a royal. And if this is how the country and its monarchy are going to enter the new decade, so be it. The only problem is the people and the media, who are upset because they think a woman (a black foreign woman at that) came along and corrupted their prince. As if that prince was an empty vessel ready to be filled in with whatever product she deigned to fill him up. Her fault. She hasn’t observed the decorum expected of her. Look at the Duchess of Cambridge, how perfectly she comports herself. How brilliantly she has taken to the life of a royal. Why couldn’t Meghan do this? Well, firstly because she has been constantly been pitted against Catherine and secondly she has been subjected to constant racist criticism. The reason everyone likes Catherine is because in their minds she knows her proper place as a woman who is part of the royal family. Meghan doesn’t and that’s the problem. But even if life was absolutely fantastic for both Harry and Meghan, they are still most certainly entitled to choose a path that works for them.

To me its been clear that both Harry and Meghan wanted to move on. Both took this decision together. Perhaps Meghan’s presence and support made it easier for Harry to do so but it clearly is a joint decision. People need to calm down because seriously, this is not the end of the world. After all it wasn’t that long ago that a king gave up his throne because he wanted to live the life he wanted, with a woman he wanted. Britain survived, as did the monarchy. Harry is not even in line to the throne.

And now I get to the scary bit that I mentioned above, which is the level of vitriol being expended on two people, who just want to spend their lives in peace, compared to the very understated reaction to Prince Andrew. Apparently, being best friends with a known paedophile (and perhaps being one himself) is not as bad as being a foreign woman of colour, wanting to live life at her own terms.

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Of tribes, propaganda and the search for reason

Human beings are social creatures. Our evolutionary pathway has been such that working and living in groups has been an advantage. This has enabled us to not only survive but also to thrive, and therefore we hold our tribes very close to our hearts. These group associations, whether they are national, political, religious or cultural, represent our identities and give us our sense of being. And for the most part it has worked. Our ability to cooperate is an essential property of our brain and it has enabled us to deal with extreme environments and diverse circumstances.

Tribal affiliations have also been a means to control society. If you belong to a particular group, its approval is important. The group’s ideology is your ideology, so in that way it has been a means to an ordered society. But tribal affiliations may ultimately lead to strict adherence to dogma. We see this happening all the time, whether in national, religion, political, and social ideological settings. It may seem to us that it is happening more in the 21st century but the truth is that it has always been a part of human civilizations. Tribal groups and our affiliations to them have been ubiquitous and have served to create order.

But they have also been instrumental in creating division, because excessive competition between groups inevitably leads to conflict. More intense the conflict, the more we see those outside your group as “them”; as members of the other group and not as individuals.

Because our affiliations give us our sense of identity — we define ourselves by asserting our loyalty to our groups — it is very hard to stray away from their prescribed narrative, from group-think. To us, being good members of a group is of extreme value, much more than being correct. We will choose to be in good standing with our peers at the cost of being on the side of facts and evidence.

Human being also subscribe to narratives and there is nothing more binding than group narratives. Which is why, even when presented with evidence, people tend to not venture too far away from the “party line”. Not believing in evolution and climate change are examples. Our affiliations and belief in the sanctity of group narratives make it very hard to understand or pay credence to scientific evidence. The opposite of what we believe in becomes fake news or propaganda. This may also seem to be a new phenomenon, but propaganda, whether perceived or actual, has also been a part of us for a long time and it has also been used to control group members by promoting the narrative in such a way that the “others” – the “outsiders” – are always wrong. It’s not lies, it is post-truth, when it’s from within one’s group and fake news when it is from the other.

To summarize, our tribes are important to us because they give us our sense of identity, and the tribe’s narratives are important to us because we do not want to be denied our group’s goodwill. This is why we incline towards stories that represent our tribe’s ideological viewpoint. Even in the face of strong evidence. There have been experiments that have shown that human beings tend to disregard evidence when it is against their tribe or its beliefs. Henri Tajfel called it Social Identity Theory.

There is also our penchant for short stories, for anecdotes. Take vaccination for example. We will believe the actress who thinks vaccines are bad over doctors, or take herbal medicone for cancer because “big pharma” is bad. Because in both these instances it is easier to believe the anecdote and we do not need to make the effort to look for evidence. How many times have you heard someone tell you very convincingly that they “know” something works, because it works for them? We love the idea of hearing about that woman who cured her cancer only through changing her diet, or that kid who did not get autism because he was never vaccinated. It does not matter that these are just stories. They do not represent facts or evidence. It’s just easier to believe it and to share this information immediately.

So, in a world of strong tribal bonds, proclivity to group narratives, and predilection for anecdotes, how do we make sure that our decisions are informative and that we rely on reason? There is really only one way of doing this — by understanding the scientific method. This does not mean that we all have to be scientists.

Firstly we must always remember that we tend towards our groups and their talking points and every time we are faced with information we must consider that it may not be agreeable to them. It means we have to consider opposing points of view, We need to listen to people whose ideologies differ from ours. We must ensure that we are exposed to differing opinions – to dissent. And when presented with evidence our only course of action should be to accept that evidence and if required, change our minds.

Most importantly, we need to understand the differences between anecdotes and evidence. There are many steps to get from the first to the second. Anecdotes are just stories, they may or may not be factual. Even if a few are, they are not data because for that you need a representative sample. And even if you have the representation, you need to differentiate between correlation and causation. Evidence is only found when all the data makes a particular theory true. If the data can be true for my theory but it can also be true for an opposing theory, it is not evidence.

Once you have evidence, you are armed with reason and that’s all you need to deal with propaganda, post truth or fake news.

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The jihadi bride and moral dilemma

There are an estimated 400 British nationals (there could be more), who left for Syria to join the Islamic State caliphate. Some have died, some are in refugee camps and there is no information about the rest. Here is the dilemma. What do we do when some of them want to come back to the UK?

The Islamic State are some of the most barbaric psychopaths to exist on this planet, who have committed extremely heinous crimes since they launched their “caliphate” in 2014. All those who left their countries to join this group may have had lofty ideals of a perfect Islamic caliphate in their minds; they may have been persecuted as minorities in their own countries but one thing is clear, they join ISIS knowing what they we all knew about them: that they are murderous psychopaths. The UK nationals who joined them also knew this. For me it is hard to relate to the fact that whatever persecution you may face in the UK, (and we know that there is inequality and people do face difficulties due to their race or religion), the option you choose is to join a murderous cult — unless of course you are a psychopath yourself. In which case, I don’t think that they should be allowed to come back. I am not sure that they will provide the kind of information that the intelligence agencies are seeking. Not only did they participate in the murder of people — of British nationals — but also, if they come back, they will be a burden on citizens.

Then there are the young women: the so-called jihadi brides, who left to marry members of a murderous cult. Some of these women were adults, who made conscious decisions to give up their lives and become wives of Charles Manson type individuals. From my vantage point, their lives and liberties in the UK could not have been so bad, even in the worst of situations, that being the fourth wife of Abdullah the Blade in Mosul, was a better option.

However, some of these were young girls — 15 years old — like Shamima Begum, who left with two of her friends to become a jihadi bride. Some experts are of the view that they were groomed and it is entirely possible that they were. And here is where the moral dilemma arises. Shamima is pregnant and wants to return so that she can have her baby in the UK. She is a British national and therefore her child will be too.

I am conflicted in this case. She was 15 years old when she left. A young age. But she would have been able to drive and get married (albeit with parental consent) in another year. These are adult activities. It means that society has deemed it ok for people to enter adulthood at that age. On the other hand, I can understand the kind of inner turmoil girls like her would be going through. South Asian mainly Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls, who are born in the UK, but were restricted from being as free as their counterparts are. Whose parents imposed their outdated ideologies on their kids, especially the girls, and outside the environs of their oppressive households is a completely different world. These girls can be easy targets for groomers, who can promise them actual heaven.

Should these girls be allowed back? Again, I am conflicted. Shamima does not seem to be repentant. She seems to be proud of her decision to go. She is 19 now. I am not convinced she is post-traumatic. “I saw heads in the bins, they did not faze me,” she said in her interview. Based on that, my reaction is that she should be left where she is. However, there is a child, who did not make any choices in this matter. What is our responsibility to that child? Surely, we cannot let him grow up in that situation and potentially become a jihadi too, or should we let him return to the UK and brought up by someone else? I have no sympathy for Shamima, but I do not want society to abandon that child.

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The myth of the hijabi woman’s agency

Let’s clear one thing out from the beginning. This blog is not about banning women from wearing the veil. Freedom of religion necessitates that people are able to practice their religion the way they are required to. They are free to make religious decisions, even if those decisions are stupid, so long as they are personal, do not interfere in other people’s lives and are not harmful to members of society.

Types of Islamic headgear

This blog is also not about the false equivalence between veiled women and the so-called “scantily” clad women. There is no equivalence. Yes, women should dress whichever way they want but while — for the most part — choosing to wear less clothes IS actually a personal decision, choosing to wear the veil is another matter.

Which is why I want to talk about agency. When veiled Muslim women are criticised for espousing ridiculous views about patriarchy, i.e. that there is none and that they are free and it is their choice to wear the veil, we are told that we are undermining their agency with our criticism. That they are independent, free women, who have the right to wear the veil. Again, let me reiterate, I am not arguing against their right to wear it. They absolutely have the right to wear it as far as governmental regulations should be concerned.

Coming to this mythical agency everyone keeps mentioning, which basically is the capacity or ability to make a decision and enacting that decision on society. I understand that as being able to exert power on your little corner of the world.

Muslim women do not wear a veil because it is an expression of freedom or a fashion choice. They wear it because they are required to do so as per religion. If they do not, it is a sin and anything bad that may happen to them is their fault, because they are fair game.

From the outset, we can see that much of their agency has been depleted. If they want to be good Muslim women, and go to heaven (although this is also disputable as, apparently, women are going to be a minority in heaven since most are going to hell Sahih Bukhari 7:62:124, Sahih Muslim 36:6596, Sahih Muslim 36:6601), they should cover themselves up appropriately. In this instance, religion undermines the agency.

Now why do I think the veil is the cornerstone of patriarchy? Because it is. Women of respectable families were required to cover themselves long before the advent of Islam, which continued this custom. Believing women are required to cover themselves, so as to not bring dishonour on their fathers, brothers, husbands. Only permitted men are allowed to look at their hair etc. Therefore, the honour of fathers, brothers, and husbands dictates how a woman may dress when she is with other men.

When only certain men are allowed to look at “their women”, said women are property and must be protected as such; by being wrapped up. Which is why the defense of hijab and niqab is given with protecting your lollypop and juicebox (your property) from flies (other men) analogies.

If you dig deep into the bedrock of this, it is clear. This agency is very limited. That is how patriarchy and religion have modernised themselves: by inventing the myth of the agency of women, especially veiled women. It has told them that they are making a choice, and have the freedom to exert that choice. This has been religion — and by extension — patriarchy’s greatest trick: convincing women that they have agency.

To me, their freedom is just like that of mice in a maze that I read in The Handmaid’s Tale, which are free to go anywhere, so long as they remain inside the maze. And that is the extent of agency veiled woman have.

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A new day for Pakistan? The Aasia Bibi Verdict

A strange thing has happened in the land of the pure, the bastion of Islam that is Pakistan. A woman imprisoned for almost nine years and who was on death row for blasphemy has been acquitted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

The reason I call this strange is that in Pakistan — it is. The country’s infamous blasphemy laws are used willy-nilly to settle personal scores and it is very difficult to be absolved of this ridiculous crime. Plenty of people are languishing in jail because they had supposedly “blasphemed” against Islam, its Prophet or the Qur’an.  In fact, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was murdered for trying to get Asia Bibi’s acquittal. And it is Asia who has been acquitted today.

This is no doubt a landmark ruling, not least because there was absolutely no evidence against Asia Bibi, but also because it shows that even though the case against her was entirely fabricated she still had to languish in jail for almost a decade before getting justice. Judges would continue to recuse themselves from her case and lawyers were unwilling to represent her.

This is how hard it is to get out of the blasphemy trap in Pakistan. Her acquittal at least gives a little hope that others might get justice too. Much has to be said about her current lawyer Saiful Malook, who argued her case successfully in the supreme court and who is no doubt under threat for his life as well. Her previous lawyer, Naeem Shakir, died last year.

Of course, the religious fanatics cannot just let this go without an outcry. For them it is not important that there was no evidence against her. In Pakistan, the accusation of blasphemy is always the judgement — and sometimes the execution.

Now, TLP (Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan), a party of right-wing religious nut jobs, has come out on the streets to protest against the verdict.  They have threatened the judges, the army chief, the government and, of course, Asia and her lawyers. She and her family are still in danger and it is not clear when she will be released and where she will go.

TLP, like many other religious parties, has been propped up by Pakistan’s military establishment to keep tight control over democratically-elected governments.  They have usually been brought out whenever the ruling party has to be reined in. Recently, the TLP was used to go after Nawaz Sharif’s government.

After Asia’s acquittal, the current Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation.  He supported the verdict and told the TLP and its members on the streets to cease and desist. He warned them that the state will take action if they turn violent.

Yes, this is the same Imran Khan who used the blasphemy card when it was convenient for him to do so, against Nawaz Sharif. In this case he, maintained that Pakistan is an Islamic country, all laws are as per Islam and this decision was too.

The fact that he has changed his tune makes me wonder: has the military establishment had enough of the TLP? Because the only way Imran Khan could have made a speech against a religious party is if he had the backing of the military. Previous prime ministers did not have this backing and therefore always had to tiptoe around fundamentalists.

What is clear from Khan’s bravado is that the military establishment is still very much in control. He is standing his ground because they are behind him. Have they realised that when you unleash monsters, sometimes the monsters come after you?

Are we about to see a change in Pakistan’s support to religious extremists? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is just another strategic move. For now, the army will support the Prime Minister and the TLP will be quietened down. Until the next time.

There is much to celebrate. An innocent woman has been acquitted. But here is the rub.  That very word “innocent,” because she would have been punished if she had been guilty. Asia has been released because there was no evidence against her.

This is the first baby step against the misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. This acquittal has indicated that there needs to be evidence to show that a person has blasphemed. There are many many more steps to follow. This does not mean that there is a wave of support to repeal these arcane laws.

While we should rejoice that she has been released, we must think of all those still incarcerated. And we must not forget the fact that blasphemy as a concept and blasphemy laws as part of the justice system need to be completely abolished.  Human rights demand it.

(Published in Sedaa – Our Voices)

The Case of Jamal Khashgoggi

Saudi Arabia has been a repressive country with a regime that has oppressed almost everyone living there, other than rich men. The ruling monarchy has had to do this to ensure its survival. The country has been responsible for spreading its own brand of militant Islam all over the world. It has been able to do so because of the petro-dollars it has distributed in the countries where it sends its religion and funds terrorists.

It also buys weapons from the west and is an ally against Iran, the boogieman of the Middle East for western countries. The extent of human rights abuse in Iran are no less draconian. Both countries seem to vie with each other for a reputation in barbarity. However, while Iran is often castigated for its abuses, Saudi Arabia hardly is.

The new rock star de-facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been hailed as a reformer. Why? Because he opened some cinemas and allowed women to drive. What everyone has failed to acknowledge is that he is equally oppressive and seems to behave more like a psychopath, who is doing everything to shore up his reign; reminiscent of medieval European monarchs.

He has systematically tried to neutralize any opposition, whether it is by arresting other princes and political rivals, stamping down people from other Islamic sects, imprisoning women’s rights campaigners, or by ensuring that any criticism of the country and his regime is completely silenced. This has all been done to consolidate his power rather than for any desire for reform.

The world — especially the western world — knows this and watches on, making desultory objections once in a while and bringing up Iran when things get a little more dicey.

This is exactly what has happened these last two weeks. Jamal Khashgoggi went into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey on October 2, 2018 and never came out. It is being said that he was murdered inside the embassy.

None of the influential government leaders such as those of UK, and USA, said much. It was the media that took up the issue and now finally these governments are waking up. But even now the trade in arms and the so called support against Islamist terrorists means that basically a way out is being given to the country. A man was murdered by the regime of a country that has a despicable human rights record and which has effectively destroyed Yemen, but all that has been discussed is how to give it a light rap on the knuckles (if that) and continue to keep a relationship going.

What will probably happen is that the whole thing will blow over soon. We all know that. But that does not mean that the world cannot raise its voice against such blatant disregard for human life.

The most fascinating thing that apologists bring up when something is criticized is “whataboutery”. What about Iran, what about China, what about Turkey itself? Yes, their records are horrific and they too must be brought to task.

However, at the moment Saudi Arabia has done something that no reasonable human being and government should allow to be pushed under the collective global carpet. A man was murdered by a ruling regime inside its own embassy; this must not be taken lightly. This is not a small matter. If this is what Mohammad Bin Salman can do when he is the Crown Prince and thumb his nose at the world, imagine what he can do when he is King.

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India’s British rulers first codified offences against religion in 1860, which were then expanded in 1927. When Pakistan become a separate country, it inherited these laws; and decided to keep them. In the 1980s, Zia ul Haq added more clauses to this ridiculous and frankly unnecessary law.

Over the years, this law been used to put people in jail (Aasia Bibi has now been acquitted by a Pakistani court after being in jail for over seven years, with a death sentence hanging over her head). The mere concept of blasphemy has been used to murder people (Salman Taseer, who was trying to help Aasia Bibi, was murdered by his own security guard), settle personal scores (Mashal Khan was murdered by a group of people because he was speaking against his University’s administration), and seek revenge. General vigilante justice has become the norm.  A Christian couple was burned alive in 2014 by a mob of 1200 people when they were accused of blasphemy.

In July 2018, once again blasphemy was used against Sindhi artist Qutub Rind. Qutub had rented a flat in Lahore. There was a disagreement with the landlord regarding rent and, lo and behold, blasphemy allegations were bandied about. Rind was tortured and murdered.

Since 1990, saviours of the religion have been accused of killing at least 65 people. And not a single government — military or civilian — has been able to do away with this law. Some may have tried to make tiny adjustments but had to backtrack due to the same ever-ready frenzied mobs.

Things are likely to get worse. Imran Khan, the freshly-minted prime Minister of Pakistan based his campaign on over-emphasis of creating an Islamic Welfare State, supporting blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws. Khan’s tenure has begun with the appointment of a supporter of the killer of Salman Taseer as the Information Minister of Punjab.

Pakistan continues to give succour to religious hysteria; its military is known for harbouring extremists as strategic assets and now, in their infinite wisdom, they have started mainstreaming fundamentalist organisations. The result is that these groups hold sway over large areas of the country and have tens of thousands of followers. They are able to bring these same followers out on the street at a moment’s notice and thus exert a lot of influence over the country’s political and governance spheres.

Just this past week one of the largest pro-blasphemy law parties, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), stoked religious hysteria over a forthcoming cartoon contest in the Netherlands. Mobs came out, death threats were issued and the contest has now been cancelled.

Geert Wilders, the propagator of this contest is himself a right-wing nut-job, whose sole intention was to be provocative. However, that is not the point here. The issue remains that Pakistan’s population is more and more beset with worrying about saving Islam than anything else.

In a country where almost all development indices are at the lowest levels, this incessant clarion call of Islam and blasphemy as the prime requirement of the population is distressing and does not bode well for the future.

Khan is a new to this political game; he is going to test the waters very gently. There is no expectation that he will do away with the blasphemy laws and/or make any strides towards a more liberal and free society. I predict that more freedoms will be curtailed and there will be more hysteria over Islam. And, unfortunately, there will be more Mashal Khans and Qutub Rinds.

(Published in Sedaa – Our Voices)

Legalize it


In the last few weeks or so, a fracas has unfolded in the UK media. Charlotte Caldwell, from Northern Ireland, had cannabis oil which was confiscated at Heathrow Airport, because it contains a psychoactive substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC – the psychoactive element in marijuana), high concentrations of which are illegal in the UK.

The reason she had the oil was that her son Billy suffers from severe epilepsy and a doctor in Northern Ireland had prescribed it for him in 2017 – the first time someone was prescribed this on the NHS.

However, the Home Office ordered the doctor to stop prescribing the medicine as it was a schedule 1 drug and thus illegal in the UK. However, lower concentrate versions of cannabis oil, which have less than 0.05% of THC are legal and widely available in the UK.

The Caldwells then went to Canada to get the drug and it was on their return that the six months’ worth of cannabis oil was confiscated.

Billy suffered two seizures and after a relentless campaign from his mother, the cannabis oil was returned to the family, subsequent to the intervention of Home Secretary Sajid Javed. This also led to Alfie Dingley being allowed the oil for similar seizures.

In March this year, there was another news item regarding a petition by the mother of another epileptic boy to legalise cannabis oil.

All of this has resulted in a flurry of activity to review legislation regarding the use of medicinal cannabis oil. But the misplaced war on drugs still casts a long shadow and it seems that there is still a long time to go for recreational marijuana to be legalised in the UK, although it is being done in other countries.

Map of global marijuana use
Map of global marijuana use

The UK’s prime minister and her team really need to look into this erroneous law and take steps to legalise medical marijuana and other cannabis products immediately. There is now increasing evidence to show that it has benefits for various medical conditions including epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Easily available, NHS-prescribed THC would mean that people would not have to go through unnecessary problems to obtain a drug to treat serious ailments and would not have to depend on dodgy sellers on the internet.

The UK also needs to get over its love affair with the archaic war on drugs and legalise marijuana for recreational use as well. Marijuana is a widely sold product and the war on drugs clearly has not done anything to decrease its use.

The law against it has only created problems for people with medical issues, who desperately need it, and the only people who actually benefit from this law are drug dealers who can ask for high prices and can sell defective products.

Legalising it would mean that it is regulated, just like tobacco and alcohol. This would result in revenue for the government in the form of taxes. The Adam Smith Institute has said that it could be worth £6.8bn to £1.05bn a year to the Treasury. It would also mean that the number of people incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes, who are costing tax payers approximately £50m per year, could drop.

All over the world, it is now being increasingly accepted that marijuana is less harmful than tobacco, that it has medicinal benefits and that the laws against it have served no purpose. Smart governments are taking control, legalising, and regulating it to make sure that it is kept away from underage users, to reduce related crimes and to make dealers ineffective. This is one bandwagon the UK needs to get on – and legalise it!

(Published in Sedaa – Our Voices and Triggerfish Writing)