Thursday, August 26, 2010

A thought revolution

I have spent years crying silently for the brothers that I lost to a car accident and my father who died within five years of them, overcome with grief. I have hated that life went on as though nothing had happened; the condolences faded and soon enough it was business as usual. For the world. My mother and I lost all the men in our family but we were not reduced to abject poverty; tens of thousands of flood victims in Pakistan have the burden of grief as well as economic ruin. Millions are homeless. But as the intensity plateaus and tries to fade, Pakistanis are practicing the infamous mantra: sub theek ho jaye ga (everything will be alright).

Capitalizing on the glaring absence of the government and its unforgivable inefficiency, political mileage is sought by all quarters. Subservience to the British and to martial law have penetrated Pakistani psyche almost to the point of being a part of the national DNA. In times of trouble, martial law seems to be the default solution. Public memory is short and the struggles and bloodshed to remove dictatorship are swept away and the deep corruption within the army becomes the food of amnesia.

Pakistani billionaire Malik Riaz Hussain has pledged 75% of his fortune to the flood victims. The King, Crown Prince and Interior Minister of Saudi Arabia have donated millions of dollars from private funds and Saudi citizens have thronged flood relief centers. In face of that philanthropy is the niggardliness of Pakistani politicians. The Sharif clan donated Rs. 10 million, Zardari Rs. 5 million as did Altaf Hussain, while Yusuf Raza Gilani, not a “believer in cash donations” sent his son down with donation in kind. Seems the Quran address this issue well in Surah Baqarah (2:268): when you get ready to donate Satan puts the fear of poverty in your heart and you hold back.

Back to the army worship issue, brought to the fore by Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan’s welcome of the army. Pakistan is rudderless and no leader in the current potpourri is its panacea. It is also highly unlikely that an Ayatollah, Stalin, Mao or Lee Kuan Yew will emerge from one of the tenements anytime soon. We have always looked up to leaders to bring about a change, perhaps we need to have a grassroots movement, in something as simple as a thought revolution.

Pakistanis should not be delusional to think that replacement of ruling parties or martial law is that answer. The problem is corruption, unfortunately a national trait; democracy should not be sacrificed at the altar of our collective fury. Placement of processes and institution building is sorely needed in Pakistan. The history of all politicians on offer is sordid and to work for dislodging the present government in the hope of a better future is grossly misplaced. Zardari, the Sharif brothers, Altaf Hussain or Imran Khan are all the different faces of the same termite that eats away at a nation that is busy covering over corruption, unleashing mafia murders and harboring extremism.

As a citizenry we must bring about accountability, transparency, mandatory payment of taxes, the rule of law, abolition of feudalism and the marginalization of corruption. Every effort must be made to prevent corruption with all aid for flood victims. Be it a peon or a president, we must start with stark personal accountability and then apply that unchanging principle in each and every sphere of our influence. This, conglomerated, will be the flood that will salvage Pakistan.

As the floods take Pakistan back at least fifty years, perhaps a steady change in the way we think and live will cause the necessary paradigm shift. Maybe corruption will become unfashionable in Pakistan. What a thought!

Prior to the floods Pakistan was in the lower rung of the developing world. With 30% of the country under water, destruction of its agricultural mainstay as well as the ripple effect that this will have on its economy and national psyche, Pakistan is threatened with joining sub-Saharan Africa; a sea of brown water, outstretched hands and rampant disease as its marks on the memory.

Pakistani scholars, from Mufti Munibur Rahman to Tahirul Qadri and many others were asked whether they felt that the floods were a trial or a punishment. In a surprise show of unanimity they said that this was a time of trial for when God wishes to punish a people He wipes them off the face of the earth. Their Quranic quotations did not address the issue fully and they seemed typically smug. They unanimously discouraged Umra and non-obligatory Hajj trips as well as iftar and Eid parties, encouraging diversion of the funds to the flood victims.

But our patriotism starts and ends with the notes of the national anthem. Pakistanis both within and expatriate have this sickening survival of the fittest skill. Iftar parties are jamming along. Eid day invitations have arrived. APPNA, the Association of Physicians of Pakistani-Descent of North America will have its Fall Meeting in the ultra-luxurious Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne Florida. Lots of money has been raised for flood victims but nowhere near what could have been. I wonder what heart Pakistanis the world over have for celebrating iftars, Eid parties and the luxuries of the Ritz? It is tradition to not celebrate two consecutive Eids when we lose a loved one. Donating a paltry amount to flood relief and then skipping off to decide your iftar invitee list and your ritzy travel plans are representative of that same national rot that we love to blame the government for all the time. The enormity of the flood devastation calls for a decade of mourning.

The situation is so dire that any and all of our incomes beyond our basic needs must go toward rebuilding Pakistan. We must question each party, each purchase and each bite of food keeping the memory of the millions always alive in our minds.

This is our last chance as a nation. The change has to come from an individual level then a family level followed by a community level to permeate and repair the character and corruption leaks of Pakistan. It is a thought revolution that is needed in Pakistan, from the bottom up, not the typical blame game and passing the buck and always expecting change from leaders that put clowns to shame.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and columnist. She can be reached at

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Comprehending the catastrophe

Regardless of one’s persuasion when faced with catastrophes and personal suffering the question ‘why’ always comes up. And with all that Pakistan has been through in variegated forms from terrorism to economic collapse and now the floods, for Pakistanis it is not a simple question but a chorus of agony.

On a mundane and scientific level it appears that global warming is to blame. About 14 million people have been affected by the floods making it more disastrous than the South East Asian tsunami and the Haitian earthquake combined. According to scientists ‘a supercharged jet-stream’ is responsible for the floods and landslides in Pakistan and China and an extreme heat wave in Russia and one that killed 60 people in Japan in July.

Meteorologists are unsure of the root cause but seem to favor that rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will drive up the number of extreme heat events. This same effect and the ‘supercharged jet stream’ are blamed for the floods in the UK in 2007 and the heat wave then in Eastern Europe.

Antiquated irrigation systems and the lack of repair of irrigation leaks have compounded the situation in Pakistan. And the deforestation mafia created the final straw causing rivers to barrel down in mammoth fury.

The count now is over 1600 dead and 20 million affected but what of entire villages that have been swallowed by the waters? As weeks go on and the floodwaters recede the actual devastation will become apparent and the fact that a struggling nation has been pulled back another fifty years from current civilization is likely to emerge. And now killer diseases like cholera can claim more lives.

After the 7.0 Richter scale earthquake in Haiti in January evangelical priest Pat Robertson claimed that the earthquake had hit Haiti as it had “made a pact with the devil” referring to voodoo rituals carried out before a slave rebellion against the French colonists in 1791. After Hurricane Katrina in 2006 John Hagee another evangelical pastor said "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that. There was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that Hurricane Katrina came”. However in 2008, Hagee backed away from his comments regarding Hurricane Katrina by saying, "But ultimately neither I nor any other person can know the mind of God concerning Hurricane Katrina. I should not have suggested otherwise”.

But we love to second guess God, don’t we? Explaining the current floods crisis the ultra-right claims God’s wrath for the Lal Masjid fiasco and the pact with the Great Satan aka America. And the mystics say they knew His fury was not far when Data Ganj Baksh’s shrine was attacked.

If only His will were that simple and events so elementary to dissect. If the Lal Masjid fiasco is to be blamed, why does its primary perpetrator Pervez Musharraf sit in luxurious dry land in England?

Hadith Qudsi 25 states: “Whosoever shows enmity to someone devoted to Me, I shall be at war with him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him, and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it”. This is widely taken to describe the auliya-Allah or the friends of God of whom Data Ganj Baksh was one. And yet the thinking mind wonders why God would decimate thousands of innocents for the disrespect of one?

While the Bible and the Quran are graphic about God’s wrath and ascribe a reason each time, it is important to grasp the concept of Divine retribution, or sin and result, but not to play God and float theories regarding our terrible state.

Several verses in the Quran speak of God’s retribution against the defiance of the people of Prophets Lut, Nuh, Shuaib, Hud and Moses. Chapter Ankabut (29:40) encapsulates the other verses well: “Each one of them(wicked people) We seized for his crime: of them, against some We sent a violent tornado (with showers of stones); some were caught by a (mighty) Blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up; and some We drowned (in the waters): It was not Allah Who injured (or oppressed) them: They injured (and oppressed) their own souls.”

Like my friend Saeed Akhtar Malik wrote “our day of reckoning has come, it seems”. Something has gone awfully wrong with all things Pakistani: corruption, moral and monetary, is part of our social fabric. Even if we wanted to it seems we could not escape it. The disconnected power-elite wallow in it, the middle class and the poor indulge to make ends meet. Killing has no worldly or moral consequence it seems. Our moral compass was teetering, seems absent now. For all our claims to religiosity, there is widespread use of black magic for quick attainment of relevant desires. Black magic is akin to the unforgivable sin of shirk or associating an entity with God. Forget taxes to the State one wonders how many in the Islamic Republic practice the fourth pillar of Zakat. If the obscenely wealthy gave 2 ½ % of their assets to charity in Pakistan we would not be dirt poor.

The stark incompetence of the government at the time of its people’s greatest need, spending its time doing damage control over its leader’s foreign trips and shoe adventures is a travesty but another chapter in many similar ones. Extremist organizations are filling the void in the hardest hit areas promising to generate greater militancy in the future.

Our focus needs to be reformation at the personal, community and then national levels. It is very Pakistani to generate fire and brimstone explanations of natural disasters and also to theorize about the future. The Internet is replete with predictions of an army takeover or an Islamic revolution.

We would be better served if we went through an exhaustive personal moral inventory and contribution of any kind to the humanitarian disaster. If ever there was a wake-up call this is it. Pakistan already is in a state of anarchy. If we don’t galvanize quickly it is threatened with extinction.

Tail-piece: As events unfold one can’t help but think that the one thing that the populace can be incriminated for is electing a government that has institutionalized corruption. And it is entirely weird that the greatest ravages are in Sind, the stronghold of the PPP. The flood victims are hungry and homeless awaiting government help-the leader of which entertained himself and his coterie with an expensive European trip-all while his government is missing in action.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Death and taxes

A common Americanism attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. In Pakistan the only certainty these days is death. Everywhere you turn: the crash in Margalla Hills, the worst floods in a generation, endless terrorism and resurgent target-killings. But taxes are an alien concept in Pakistan

In a shaming July article the New York Times states “Out of more than 170 million Pakistanis, fewer than 2 percent pay income tax, making Pakistan’s revenue from taxes among the lowest in the world, a notch below Sierra Leone’s as a ratio of tax to gross domestic product.” A December study by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency reveals that the average net worth of a Pakistani parliamentarian is $900,000 with its richest topping $37million. The article quotes Zafarul Majeed a senior official of the Federal Board of Revenue as stating that Pakistan’s income from taxes last year was the lowest in the country’s history. And this in face of the PILDAT study which revealed that Pakistani Parliamentarians’ assets doubled in the last year.

To complete our humiliation, the article states: “The country’s top opposition leader Nawaz Sharif reported that he paid no personal income tax for three years ending in 2007 in public documents he filed with Pakistan’s election commission. A spokesman for Mr. Sharif, an industrialist who is widely believed to be a millionaire, said he had been in exile and had turned over positions in his companies to relatives. A month of requests for similar documents for Pakistan’s president and prime minister went unanswered by the commission; representatives for the men said they did not have the figures”

There is a reason for taxes being equated with the certainty of death in the West; they bleed you. And yet how else would health care, education, public transport, roads and railways be financed? The industrialization of Japan, Europe, Canada and the United States testifies to the steep and certain taxes imposed on their respective populace.

And in the injustice that is now so Pakistani, sales tax is imposed and breaks the back of the desperate driver who makes $123 per month while it’s a breeze for the Parliamentarian who makes $1400 per month. God forbid that the Parliamentarian should pay income tax on his millions. Feudals are so powerful and plentiful in Parliament that no federal tax on agriculture has been established.
Would eat into that income too, now wouldn’t it?

British Prime Minister David Cameron insulted Pakistan during a visit to India saying “Britain cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that Pakistan is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror”. Around this time the Airblue jet crashed in the Margalla Hills numbing an already worn people. Plans are already set for a Presidential jaunt to France and England. Pakistan’s security officials cancel a visit to England in protest of Cameron’s statement but Presidential plans are still on. And then all dams break loose and the worst flood in a generation claims 1400 lives, affects 3.4 million and erases 70% livestock.

One’s mouth hangs open watching footage of houses swallowed by the turbulent waters as though they were made of cards. You rewind and play thinking that it must be a simulation and forget to move because it is not.

It is a terrible day at work for those images keep coming back and block other brain activity. And somehow the day ends and I struggle back only to be hit hard with more devastation and the worst insult to Pakistan’s injury: Zardari’s trip to France and England on public expense. Now I feel like I have PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, I am not kidding. PPP diehards in England wail protests joining the national chorus of condemnation. But the French chateaus beckon.

Despite the noise of the naysayers, the President proceeds. But why the entourage of an entire plane load? The entire ninth floor of the Hyatt Regency, The Churchill a swanky 5-star hotel in London is booked. Tab-£7000 a suite. Dozens of Rolls Royces and Bentleys wait to entertain the entourage, not to forget the special chef and food.

Now I just don’t have PTSD, I feel like the girl in Exorcist: my whole head is turning around and green yuk wants to spew forth.

And when the bill is paid from the taxes of those stupid Pakistanis that did not know how to evade them or the millions brought in from sales tax, who is counting and who cares?

Zardari and his entourage may have missed the point, but British-Pakistani politicians have not for they stolidly refused to meet with him. “I’m not going to meet with the president because I believe that a head of state needs to be in his country of origin when people are drowning and have nowhere to go. He is spending poor people’s money on the launch of his son’s political career at a time when his country needs him shows that he’s out of touch and his advisors are ill-informed. Quite frankly, staying in five-star hotels with his huge entourage, tens of big cars that have been hired just to give him this protocol in London, it’s quite outrageous” said Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmed. He was echoed by Labour MP Khalid Mahmood.

And then the foreign policy gaffes. Feeling the criticism, Zardari attempted to deflect it by some chest thumping: the coalition was losing the war on terror, he said in an interview to a French paper. Even if that is the case, a statement by the leader of a frontline state only serves to strengthen terrorism and cause more loss of life in Pakistan.

Maybe it is my mental handicap that I am still at a loss to understand this madness. “How do they sleep at night?” I scream at a colleague. He claims they do not have a conscience. I insist that everyone does. Well then, they have given it Valium and put it to bed! So there you have it: no conscience, no taxes. Just a flood of death-for the poor.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at

An erosion of national character

Buffeted by air-crashes, natural disasters, economic collapse and terrorism at the Islamabad Marriott and Lahore’s Data Ganj Baksh shrine among numerous others, one wonders at Pakistan’s resilience. And the shot nerves of its populace. If fury rains from the heavens above, one can do the fatalistic thing and bow to God’s will; but how does one stem the tears when people wrong you?

National character is an extrapolation of individual, family and community values. And these have taken a steady downturn since Pakistan’s creation. The word sharafat has a deeper meaning than just decency- it is one of those untranslatables. Time was that as a nation sharafat was a concept that was recognized and referenced; with a bearing on marriages as well as national appointments. Lost in the chaos, confusion and cacophony of our national post-traumatic stress disorder is our moral compass. And though it sounds blasé in face of life and death issues, in and of itself it guarantees our perpetuity.

Islam underscores the means to the end; any and all means are not acceptable. Pakistanis seem to be emphasizing the end; the means seem entirely irrelevant.

The tragedy is not the mind-boggling wealth of the super-elite but the attitude that the 10% commissions did not happen as they were never proven. Even a cursory look at the net worth of MNAs is enough to give you vertigo. There has to be something deeply wrong somewhere if an American physician traveling to Pakistan feels poor around her friends who seem to be pulling out large denomination bills as though they had a veritable mint in their purses.

And how totally Pakistani to practice all the wrong that the West struggles with. One of the latest is the proving business. Take MNA Shumaila Rana for example. She calmly steals a woman’s credit card from a locker room, tries to buy jewelry with it and on failing and pressure from her party resigns. The entire interaction in the jewelry store and the conversation with the bank is caught on closed-circuit television, and when the banker is asking for her password, is particularly amusing, as she keeps saying “yes, yes”. The other lady does not press charges and so Ms. Rana now wishes to rejoin the National Assembly and has the gall to say that since the case against her was not proven she is innocent!

This same Shumaila Rana and women of her ilk riding in their top-of-the-line Lexus would have no problem harassing the poor vegetable seller and insisting he lower the price of tomatoes by a few rupees. Or abusing the farmer that tills the hundreds of acres that the elite own.

Pakistanis only concept of patriotism is to sing the national anthem with gusto. All else and thereafter is for self rather than state. Feudalism would be abolished, first thing, if that were not so. However broken, Pakistan has a democracy, but what use is it when legislators are feudal landlords and suck the blood of an entire stratum and keep them locked in illiteracy, poverty, debt, injustice and terror. With nothing for them or their families but a lifetime of tilling the land for pennies.

Another national fiasco is the issue of fake degrees, bringing home once again the point of only proof being relevant and not the truth. And in the wonderful vein of Pakistani resourcefulness, we have a plethora of fake degrees that the fraudulent had hoped would pass muster. What is even more interesting is the attempt by guilty parliamentarians to shift blame on the media and for female parliamentarians to actually pout and then sob. Have we no shame at all?

The Supreme Court has ordered a verification of the genuineness of these degrees by the Higher Education Commission. The disqualification of a significant number of parliamentarians could create a crisis for the ruling party. The HEC head Javaid Laghari is under intense pressure and has refused to “slow down” the process and as a consequence has suffered the arrest of his brother on purported corruption charges and a raid on his farmhouse and arrest of his servants.

Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky seemed to have downed America in a pall of gloom and shame. And was probably one of the reasons that George Bush slid into the White House. The ruling elite of Pakistan are deeply corrupt, their antics displayed time and again on national and satellite television, but outrage is eerily absent. For the stage is set from above. In a frayed economy and multiple crises the population has learned to negotiate life’s tedium by the tattered moral standards of the ruling elite. Love that Americanism: “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.

Years ago as I took the professional exams in MBBS in Dow Medical College I vividly remember the invigilator order me to “help” one of my classmates. Horrified and panicked I refused. She went on to another student with whom she made a tacit pact. This student had various pockets stitched into her shalwar and she removed various pieces of paper from them, copied them with impunity and handed them over to the one that needed the help. My idealism was shattered when the invigilator’s little pet, a professor’s daughter no less, graduated in the top ten.

Farah Hameed Dogar the daughter of then Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar had her marksheet manipulated 20 points so she could be admitted to Islamic Medical College Rawalpindi.

Youth Prime Minister Hasan Javed Khan who died in the terrible Air Blue tragedy had some wonderful advice for a nation that would mourn him and all that lost their lives: good governance and accountability are only possible with supremacy of the law.

I grieve for all that died in the Margalla Hills as much as I mourn the erosion of my nation’s moral character. Festering at the top and trickling down, leaving our youth with the premise that any and all means justify money and power.

Mahjabeen Islam is a family physician, addictionist and columnist. She can be reached at