Thursday, September 16, 2010

Transmission of the culture of corruption in Pakistan

Repeatedly shocked at the height and extent of corruption among Pakistanis I have wondered whether it had become genetic in some way. With the concept of memes (pronounced like dreams) my ruminations may well be founded in emerging sociological theory.

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene British scientist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme as a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures or other imitable phenomena. The origin of the word meme is from the Greek word mimema which means something imitated. Supporters of the concept of memes regard them as the cultural analogues of genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.

Dawkins coined the word meme as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Simply stated he considered a meme as a unit of cultural transmission. Examples of memes in the book are melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (especially religious beliefs) and fashion. Detractors do not believe that culture can be understood in such discrete units.

Gene replication causes information transmission vertically from parent to child. Virus replication does this horizontally. But memes are able to transmit information horizontally and vertically; perhaps this is why the corruption meme of Pakistanis is now so entrenched.

Tales of corruption by Pakistanis both within the country and expatriate are numerous, long and sordid. A recent one that takes the cake is of course the corrupt betrayal of the Pakistan cricket team and the incredible videos of the money-filled brief-cases.

Nepotism knows no bounds in the case of the appointment of Adnan Khwaja as the new OGDC chief. Inexperience, lack of education and jail-time were not able to outweigh the most important qualifier: crony of the Prime Minister.

Another deeply embarrassing tale is that of the antics of the officers of the New York Consulate General when the New York Stock Exchange, touched by the enormity of the floods in Pakistan donated the Times Square screen for one hour for an appeal for the flood victims. $5-10 million could have been raised with ease if an appeal for flood aid had been made. But Consul General Babar Hashmi and commercial counselor Muhammad Amer portrayed “welcome to New York” and photos of themselves and the Pakistan flag instead. Watching a video of this travesty makes it even more incomprehensible. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi has promised an investigation but the prognosis for stemming corruption in Pakistan remains guarded at best.

And why would it not be? It has permeated Pakistani society like a termite that need hide no more. Time was that it was devious and under the table. It is now a badge of honor, a kind of recognition, a rite of passage. Time was that people whispered about and avoided the corrupt and sneered at their ways. I remember my father, God bless his soul, alternately laugh and complain about corruption within the civil service with stories of “donoan haathoan sey khaya hai” (they have eaten with both hands). But now it is a given.

In the expatriate Pakistani world more than money, it is power and its hunger that corrupt absolutely.

And that is where the meme theory applies to Pakistanis: in the corruption meme. Some of it is the imitation aspect of the meme theory and some of it is survival-if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, like the Americans say. Some of it is the role models our society offers. In the highly visible tripartite branches of government, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary corruption rules.

As much as a fan of the democratic process that I am I was benumbed that the nation chose a man with a deeply suspect past as its president. By the very process of election to such an office we are essentially condoning unfathomable corruption and the theft of wealth that if returned to Pakistan, where it rightfully belongs, could yank it out of its misery in an a hurry. Feudal politicians that hold Pakistan in the vice of abuse and essential slavery outdo each other in their nauseating antics of corruption.

In 2009 Transparency International reported the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which measures the perceived level of public corruption in 180 countries. The scale is 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 10 (perceived to have low levels of corruption). New Zealand was least corrupt with a CPI of 9.4. The most corrupt was Somalia at 1.1. Pakistan hit spot number 139 with a CPI of 2.4.

“Stemming corruption requires strong oversight by parliaments, a well performing judiciary, independent and properly resourced audit and anti-corruption agencies, vigorous law enforcement, transparency in public budgets, revenue and aid flows, as well as space for independent media and a vibrant civil society,” said Huguette Labelle, Chair Transparency International. This in current day Pakistan seems like wanting the stars and the moon.

So is all hope lost and are we all helplessly addicted to corruption? If one considers the meme theory again it appears that meme evolution follows the laws of natural selection. Dawkins notes that as various ideas pass from generation to generation, they either enhance or reduce the survival of the host or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. So it seems that all of us have not been hit by the meme of Pakistani corruption. Will it take a few good people to buoy a drowning nation?

We are a fickle nation and tire of rulers quickly. Although it seems to be a meme to be disciplined by the army, when it rules we fatigue with dictatorship. Civilian rule is subverted by corruption labels, forgetting that the army is no Sufi bunch. For really, the corruption meme appears to be an equal opportunity employer in Pakistan.

Like there is no force in religion (Quran 2: 256) there can be no force in eliminating the evil of corruption. We need to change the Pakistani corruption meme and make absolute, invincible honesty its fashionable replacement.

My addiction patients are only successful in recovery when they have hit rock bottom and the desire for sobriety comes from within. Pakistanis have to feel that we have hit rock bottom; we have to want to erase corruption at the personal level so it extrapolates to the national level.

Allama Iqbal paraphrased the Quranic verse (13:11) beautifully: khuda ney aaj tak us qaum ki halat nahin badli na ho jis ko shuoor khud apni halat key badalney ka. (God does not change the condition of a nation which has no desire to change itself)

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Abolish feudalism

Despite how trite it sounds the floods may well be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps they are meant to wrest Pakistan from the abyss that it was hurtling toward and set its compass right.

As idealistic as my three-point action plan, abolish feudalism, prosecute corruption and ensure speedy justice to quick-fix Pakistan may seem, it can be given actual practicality. All that is needed is a national will. The unequalled Shakespeare: “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads onto fortune”.

One of the bitter remnants of British Raj, feudalism was used to honor and ingratiate nawabs, taluqdars, jagirdars etc. Originally the intent was to bless the favored with large tracts of land and when the blessed expired the land returned to the Raj. During the tenure of the blessings by His Majesty, the grantee enjoyed material, political and social favors. The land was tilled by peasants that had no ownership with lives bordering on slavery.

Land reforms occurred in post-partition India in 1953 but Pakistan chose to be buried under the yoke of feudalism with its attendant economic, social, educational, human rights and political evils. With Pakistan being largely agrarian feudalism has permeated and saturated the national psyche and one notices its recurring stamp in what is now an entrenched feudal mindset. And with globalization and the technological revolution, do not imagine your feudal lord dressed in shalwar kameez and pagri with a perpetually curled waxed mustache; your modern day man is vrooming in a convertible BMW and is dressed in pants, casual cotton shirts and loafers.

A few thousand families currently hold Pakistan in a vice-like grip. They own thousands of acres of land that is tilled by haris, landless peasants, who are held in varying degrees of subjugation by cruel feudals. Bondage is widespread in rural Pakistan and landlords and tribal leaders have even created private prisons. There is also the concept of debt bondage that the peasant has to work off, rather than pay off with money or goods, and this debt bondage extends through generations. The violation of basic human rights that this creates is another one of many stains on our nation.

Strongly politically connected or the only political game in the village, feudals do not pay taxes.

Themselves minimally educated if at all, feudals perpetuate the horrific literacy statistics of Pakistan. Married invariably to four and keeper of numerous, the feudal lord maintains all in deep ignorance, knowing that education would sever the bondage.

The family and social environment of the feudal community is impervious to rules of religion and of course to modern day justice. Some landlords are alleged pirs or spiritual leaders with propaganda of their lineage to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and hordes of people do bayt or swear allegiance to them. Besides the gold that the land brings in, the mureeds or followers rid themselves of a variety of ills by giving nazar or a monetary gift to the pir.

The deep and disgusting rot that is part and parcel of feudal families is well documented in many graphic novels that cause insomnia. That rape, incest and child sexual abuse is brushed under the rug of hallowed spiritualism makes it all even more despicable.

Sad also is the political hold that the feudal families have on Pakistan. Be it the PML (N) or the PPP, a majority of the National Assembly members belong to these infamous feudal families.

Slowly but surely their duplicity is being unmasked. Since the passage of the minimal qualification for election being a bachelor’s degree, many landlords are noted to have fake degrees and their grip on political power is loosened. A bit.

Pakistanis have an interesting fixation with land. Right after partition, people allegedly walked into vacant homes and called them their own. Pakistan has been ruled by alternating military and civilian dispensations; in the military regime promotions were given in the form of pieces of land. And in the heavy cross that the nation bears, all civilian governments have been headed by disgustingly wealthy landlord politicians from the infamous feudal families.

And now the floods and the accusation by peasants that the politically powerful diverted the water by breaking the levees so that their lands could be saved and the land of the poor was inundated.

The economic, social and political inequity perpetuated by feudalism must end if Pakistan is not to drown in the literal and figurative sense of the word. The floods provide a strangely painful opportunity to do this. Anger at the feudal lord has been steadily growing and as the media becomes more powerful stories of the murders, jirga justice, vani or child marriages, marriages to the Quran to retain property are all coming to light.

Altaf Hussain makes all the right noises but suffers from a glaring lack of credibility. Hordes of female fans listening to his crackling dramatic voice on a bad speaker notwithstanding. When bhatta or an imposed bribe/tax is part and parcel of the workings of a party and when he is unable to land in Pakistan for fear of a reprisal murder, no calls for a French revolution type movement or ending feudalism make a dent.

Changing from the PPP to the PML (N) is like a collective jump from the frying pan into the fire. The leaders of Pakistan’s major parties are embedded in the Pakistani staple of self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, unfathomable corruption and a terrible betrayal to the poor whose backs they have ridden on all their lives.

The silver lining in Pakistan’s dense clouds is the definite mindset change that the default solution is the Supreme Court and not the military. The media has also played an indomitable role in unmasking Pakistan’s evils that were perpetually either brushed into oblivion or propagandized a la Goebbels.

Perhaps Pakistanis are still in the denial stage as far as the magnitude of the flood devastation and how it puts Pakistan in peril of actual survival.

Land ownership should maximize at 100 acres and with such a large percentage of land inundated, the time is ripe to rid Pakistan of feudalism, both physical and the mindset. And correct the huge gap between rich and poor.

The deeply dishonest politicians of Pakistan, with all their vested interests, will not institute land reforms. The people must: using the force of the media and the writ of the Supreme Court. To call for revolutions and indulge in the impracticable would be another betrayal and an opportunity to save Pakistan lost.

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Perish or rise

In collusion with Pakistan’s imbecile political leadership plans for the balkanization of Pakistan were going along as scripted until an unlikely interruption: floods of biblical proportions. Forces one to recall an almost wry verse in the Quran: wa yamkuruna wa yamkurullah wallaho khairul makireen- they plot and plan and Allah too plans; and the best of planners is Allah (Anfal 8:30, Al-Imran 3:54)
Michel Chossudovsky, Director of the Montreal based Center for Research on Globalization and author of America’s War on Terrorism in his article “The Destabilization of Pakistan” says: “Washington’s foreign policy course is to actively promote the political fragmentation and balkanization of Pakistan as a nation”. Chossudovsky points out that “the US strategy, supported by covert intelligence operations, consists in triggering ethnic and religious strife, abetting and financing secessionist movements while also weakening the institutions of the central government.” Chossudovsky’s analysis, Selig Harrison’s 2007 article “Drawn and Quartered” and Pentagon scholar Ralph Peters article “Blood Borders” are all based on a 2005 report by the US National Intelligence Council and the CIA. This report forecasts a "Yugoslav-like fate" for Pakistan "in a decade with the country riven by civil war, bloodshed and inter-provincial rivalries, as seen recently in Balochistan."
The purported interest for all this is control over Pakistan’s nuclear assets, the 25 trillion cft. of gas and 6 trillion barrels of oil sitting in Balochistan and angst over Chinese interest in the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline traversing Balochistan.
With the submersion of thousands of acres it seems that this is the point that we can springboard to a fresh start. Abolish feudalism and every last remnant of it. Ownership is suspect and documents non-existent. It is time that we as Pakistanis begin to look to the Supreme Court and our judicial system as the sole working institution in the country, not the army as the default one. In a crisis that mirrors Partition, legislation must come from the Supreme Court that erases the iniquity of feudalism and the incalculable damage that it has caused Pakistan and its people. Our deeply corrupt feudal politicians that form a majority in the National Assembly have always worked for self, never for state, so expecting them to pass legislation is to expect the Indus to rewind.
Corruption and Pakistan have become synonymous and we hang our heads in collective national ignominy at the blatant monetary sellout by certain members of the Pakistan cricket team and their enabling by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Why do all roads lead to the same old place? PCB bigwigs are related to our President and that is exactly the point. The Pakistani nation is inured, immune, desensitized to any and all amounts of mind-blowing immorality. The hoopla about Zardari’s French chateau died down and now the news of his successful bid out of a bullet proof Mercedes of a £146 million flat in Hyde Park nauseates.
In my floods-induced depression I have an idea which might seem entirely insane to the President, but someone must convey it to him. He can become Quaid-e-Azam II from the gentle Pharoah that he is now. Mr. President bring all your assets back to Pakistan, each and every dollar/pound and rebuild Pakistan from scratch. Live in a 1000 sq. yard home. Wash your party and Pakistan of corruption and make it a prosecutable offence. You are now known as Mr 10%; you would be worshipped in life and hallowed in death with street corners bearing witness to your amazing vision, generosity and ability to make Pakistan forget mindless corruption. Washed eternally of all its pain rising anew as a beacon of hope and happiness.
Alright so I am being delusional. Pain and anger does that to people. The pain of the woman whose baby was delivered in the filthy graveyard that the village folk had taken refuge in. Starved herself she is unable to nurse the baby so it is dying slowly. The pain of children being swept away by the angry waters. The pain of gushing waters and inundated towns, gaunt, weathered faces and desperate eyes.
And anger is a mild word, fury is better. Fury at how the law of the jungle prevails in Pakistan. Parliamentarians have this sixth sense it seems that they may not be on public payroll too darn long, so why part with any donation? The brutality of the killing of the brothers in Sialkot, the many dead in the Yaum-e-Ali processions in Lahore and Karachi and mainly fury at the pervasive Pakistani mindset of minimizing everything and going on with business as usual.
Pakistan a largely agrarian economy has had its agricultural base destroyed and this will generate a chain reaction affecting all aspects of life in Pakistan. Estimates vary but the agricultural loss is Rs. 6billion. Inflation is 25%, over 10% are unemployed and a whopping 40% of the nation now lives below the poverty line. After the water recedes the support structure that will be needed for rehabilitation will require at least a year’s worth of food and a detailed, exhaustive plan to recreate from zero.
Not only has there been a loss of life and property, the education of the nation’s school and college going students in the flood affected areas has been compromised for at least a year.
Developed nations have trouble withstanding floods. Pakistan was teetering before they came. As a nation though we cannot feel that band-aiding the situation will do it. In calmer moments one is forced to think that perhaps there is a reason the floods happened: a maslihat maybe. Perhaps Pakistan was on its way to destruction, what with plans to carve it into four, bomb it every day and pillage it all the time.
If Pakistan becomes worse than sub-Saharan Africa, if cholera takes several more lives and famine descends upon it while its rulers luxuriate in Rs. 10 lakh-a-day maintenance of presidential and prime ministerial residences, then balkanizing Pakistan will be ever so easy.
But if our self-respect awakens and the blood of the millions who lost their lives to create Pakistan is valued we will realize that there are only three things we need to do as a nation, however simplistic they sound: abolish feudalism, prosecute corruption and establish speedy justice. We have a choice as a nation: perish or rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at