Sunday, June 26, 2011

Survival of the predators

The rapidly degenerating situation in Pakistan forces the mind to re-explore the reasons for its creation. While a tome could be written on opposing arguments there, Pakistan proves the Malthusian and Darwinian theories quite simply.

In the 1800s Rev. Thomas Malthus postulated that population growth eventually gets checked by famine and disease. Well before Pakistan eagerly joined the war on terror its health care was pathetic and it had no viable population control programs in place. Time was that Bangladesh’s population growth was the highest in the subcontinent but Pakistan holds that dubious distinction now. With that massive growth in population, the already poor infrastructure gave way further and what may have been enough to go around previously is grossly insufficient now. Interminable hours of load shedding and the shutting down of businesses lead to further economic hardship and skyrocketing infectious diseases in a land that was a-fester to start with.

It would not be cavalier to extrapolate that the multitude of cases of gastroenteritis and dehydration that may have survived in the past with broken resources will die with the absence of electricity, transportation and money.

Also in the 1800s Philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the term “survival of the fittest” from the phrase “natural selection” used by Charles Darwin when he wrote “On the Origin Of Species”. He gave it an economic connotation, different from the biologic one that Darwin wrote about.

Genetic mutations through the ages and mechanisms to survive are concepts that apply at a jungle and thereafter very basic human level. But to see that current day Pakistan embodies the concept of survival of the predators is heartbreaking.

Somewhere almost as though a large brush just painted over Pakistan, the ambience changed. It is not just each man for himself; it is now a seething, violent mindset that does not just want to ensure its own security, it knows only to do so by preying on others.

With general economic hardship and severe personal insecurity a generation of Pakistanis is growing up under the national diagnosis of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Families don’t know if loved ones will return from work or school, every family has one or more graphic tales of kidnapping and armed robbery to tell all while the sun is merciless and the night suffocates, as load shedding seems the only constant.

Perhaps the cause is severe financial hardship, maybe it is radicalization, it’s possible that it is Pakistani corruption at its worst, but there is now an element of callous violence in one incident after another. Unarmed Chechens in Kharotabad were pumped with bullets by the Pakistan Rangers and Frontier Constabulary in mind-boggling savagery. I cried at the video footage of the young man riddled with Rangers bullets and then left to bleed to death in Karachi.

From the urban to the rural the story is the same. In the remote village of Neelor Bala of the Haripur district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa middle aged Shahnaz bibi was stripped and paraded in the village for her son’s alleged affair with a neighbor’s wife. All by a jirga’s ruling. For days thereafter she lived, shamed, in the jungle, and though she is back she knows she shall forever be ostracized.

And in a veiled but worse murder of the millions by Pakistan’s super-elite is the padding of Swiss bank accounts, zero taxes to Pakistan, pandering for power and controlling the destiny of 185 million whose futures they have plundered. Is it me or has the political jockeying between Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif taken on a decidedly savage tone?

Saleem Shahzad and scores of other journalists paid with their lives for exposing the terrifying truth that perhaps our own in the armed forces have turned on Pakistan. The savagery that reigns in Pakistan today, despite the struggle for the supremacy of the law in the return of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, cannot be expected to deal with the origin of the issue and the placement of processes. Like a wildly charging lion it is devouring all that come in its way.

The treatment of a disease or the solution of an issue is only possible if there is first acceptance that it exists. Recounting our national savagery is not being a prophet of doom; it is the first step toward working toward a solution in a situation that has gone awfully wrong. Not understanding and accepting our issues is much like:
falsafi ko behes key andar khuda milta nahin
doar ko suljha raha par sira milta nahin’
(the philosopher does not find God in debate, fruitlessly he tries to untangle a knotted string but can’t find its end).
Mahjabeen Islam is an addictionist, family physician and columnist. She can be reached at

Friday, June 3, 2011

Killing criticism

For the last few years the media has been the only effective opposition in Pakistan. The individuals that sit on the opposition benches in Parliament are corrupted and carry convoluted agendas raising their voices to wrest power rather than advance the democratic process.

The torture and death of the Asia Times Bureau Chief Syed Saleem Shahzad has cast what may be a mortal blow to the cachexia that is now Pakistan. Mainly for the murmurings that the ISI may be involved and an expose of the navy’s radicalisation. An unprecedented press release has been issued by the ISI which even threatens legal action against the media circus implicating it, but there is much that is troubling here and too much that stubbornly sticks.

Shahzad was an intrepid journalist and had written a searing first-part to a tell-all article and a book “Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; beyond bin Laden and 9/11”. In October 2010 he wrote in Asia Times Online that Pakistan had freed an Afghan Taliban commander. According to an email sent to Human Rights Watch, Shahzad was summoned to an ISI office and told to retract the story or release his sources. When he refused a veiled threat emerged: the ISI had arrested a terrorist who carried a hit-list; the ISI would let him know whether or not his name was on it.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are certainly a bunch of gun-toting wild-eyed fanatics and zero ethics are expected from them. And if everything pointed perfectly in their direction it would rest controversy and the broken Pakistani system could somehow hobble along. But circumstantial evidence implicates the state, whose love for us is romanticized to be that of a mother. In his May 27th article “Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan airstrike” Shahzad writes about the PNS Mehran attack. Many parts of the article reveal his incredible courage for he seems to court the killers: “Asia Times Online contacts confirm that the attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda. Three attacks on navy buses in which at least nine people were killed last month were warning shots for navy officials to accept al-Qaeda's demands over the detained suspects.”

The article goes on to more whiplash: “The May 2 killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden spurred al-Qaeda groups into developing a consensus for the attack in Karachi, in part as revenge for the death of their leader and also to deal a blow to Pakistan's surveillance capacity against the Indian navy. The deeper underlying motive, though, was a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy. Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country's largest city and key port.”

More explosively a senior navy official spoke to Shahzad on condition of anonymity: “It was clear the militants were receiving good inside information as they always knew where the suspects were being detained, indicating sizeable al-Qaeda infiltration within the navy's ranks….Everybody present agreed, and it was decided to open a line of communication with al-Qaeda…..The detainees were allowed to speak to their families and were well treated, but officials were desperate to interrogate them fully to get an idea of the strength of al-Qaeda's penetration. The militants were told that once interrogation was completed, the men would be discharged from the service and freed. Al-Qaeda rejected these terms and expressed its displeasure with the attacks on the navy buses in April.

These incidents pointed to more than the one al-Qaeda cell intelligence had tracked in the navy……insiders at PNS Mehran provided maps, pictures of different exit and entry routes taken in daylight and at night, the location of hangers and details of likely reaction from external security forces. As a result, the militants were able to enter the heavily guarded facility where one group targeted the aircraft, a second group took on the first strike force and a third finally escaped with the others providing covering fire. Those who stayed behind were killed.”

Shahzad paid with his life for the drastic revelation that we don’t just have Taliban sympathizers in the armed forces, our navy appears to be laced with Al-Qaeda itself.

Pakistan ranks 151 out of 178 countries in the press freedom index and 15 journalists have been killed since early 2010.

In the most dangerous place in the world the first reflex is to hibernate in face of all the threats that journalists, bloggers and writers get. Regardless of city/state of residence the Internet is able to remotely generate chills down many spines. And the treasure trove of threats and vulgarity that come via the cyber-monster can recreate those goose-bumps for a bit.

It takes a vile minority to infiltrate and destroy Pakistan. But we need a resounding chorus of protest that does not just condemn this barbarity but outs the extremists from every walk of life. Many have been martyred for the motherland, dying fearlessly in the way of the truth: Governor Salman Taseer, Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, journalist Wali Khan Babar’s names come to mind and almost invariably the murderers have not been brought to justice.

Saleem Shahzad’s criticism got him killed. Yet could his murderers kill millions of Pakistanis that protest extremism? The stakes just keep getting higher. There must be protest and action from every street corner in Pakistan against extremism. For the next victim is not a young and healthy Saleem Shahzad. It’s another young though frail and almost comatose Pakistan.

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