OPINION | THE AFGHANISTAN CONUNDRUM

US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and now a Taliban Government

It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.

Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man like Zia Ul Haq, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.

Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.

And now in a not entirely shocking but surprising turn of events, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. I’m not even sure anymore as to how appropriate the term “fallen” is in this case. After all, for 40 years, the country was propped up by mostly US military might and the puppet government that it supported. The powers that be, were quite completely ignorant of the real dynamics of the region: the centuries old tribalism, the multicultural factionalism. They were attempting to colour Afghanistan with the same brush that they have done in almost all of their other failed military endeavours of the 20th and 21st centuries. They were trying to homogenise the country; bring it to heel via a myopic vision that they thought was applicable to all the tribes, all the different kinds of people that made up the rich social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. They failed, utterly and completely.

The below are a few key reasons for this most recent watershed moment in the country:

⁃ The average Afghan, (mean age: 20 years) having lived in a state of mostly active war, has developed an innate distrust of its sham government and its “enablers” (the West). They see the country as having been taken over, “invaded” by the US; and that has never been a sustainable state of affairs for the proud, sovereign Afghan people. And so, after 40 years of occupation, many in the beleaguered country preferred to opt for the dystopic, ultra orthodox approach of the Taliban since it also brought with it freedom from the invading forces. There was thus, a perfect storm created at the centre of which was the formidable desire for self determination.

⁃ The last 20 years have purportedly seen billions of dollars siphoned towards the Afghan cause. But when you have a country with no economy to speak of, no development and no nation building, the aid tends to find its way into the local pockets of the crooked and the powerful. And so it has been with Afghanistan with very little of the aid finding its way to the communities at large. Investing in building trade and industry would have been the optimal way to make real, effective inroads into the lives of the people. But that requires sitting down with the people, understanding them and working with them at grass root levels. That was never the agenda of the US. They wanted things done their way backed by the full force of their military might. Which brings me to the third point.

⁃ The average Afghan also saw that there was massive corruption in the government, among the very people who were supposed to lead them out of their war-driven poverty. Over the past 40 years, a complete and utter trust deficit had grown between the people and their “infidel-supported” puppet government – there was no fifth, sixth or twentieth chance left to give to their leaders; no opportunities for do-overs by their government. And so, the exit of the allied troops also served as the inflection point for their exploitative, demoralised leadership to be overturned. That the Taliban were doing the overturning was inconsequential. At the end of the day, they in all their perverse, radical glory, were still their fellow citizens, their brothers in arms.

And so it was, that on a balmy August day in 2021, Afghanistan was once again a free country. Bizarre as it sounds given who freed the proud Afghan people, that for them, is the inalienable truth.

The million dollar question now is how the brand new Afghan sovereignty will be managed by the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that they as a faction, are also older, wiser and more cognisant of global norms, ethics and diplomacy. They are aware also that they are no longer a rag tag militia group hiding in caves and living on the edge with no clear and sustainable vision or mission. They have been catapulted against all odds (or indeed because of them!) into the role of the leaders of their homeland. They know they’ve outgrown the plundering, riotous band of robbers and murderers that they were. They know they now have the formidable task of the leadership and governance of almost 40 million people. The Taliban are aware that almost overnight they have morphed into statesmen.

The million dollar question beckons again: how are the Taliban going to go about being national leaders who will also be welcome on International platforms? A state that other countries will engage with on trade, diplomacy, military/defense, intelligence and foreign aid? They know they cannot exist as a dystopian island unto themselves; even if they have the inclination, they don’t have the means.

The early glimmerings in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover indicate that it can go either way: their spokesperson is articulate and willing to share their points of view and to be questioned by mainstream international media. So far, the sound bites have been almost liberal by historical Taliban standards.

While I, as a woman, would not want to be a citizen of the newly independent state, I would still pause before summarily dismissing the new regime. We are living in strange times where no nation can lay claim anymore to being more righteous than the rest and presume to lead the natives out of their ignorance (everyone now has public skeletons in their History closets). These are also times where global ethics and policies are constantly being reshaped by the voices of the people of the world as they look for the truth; as they learn to separate the chaff from the grain on the information super highway.

While everything right now points to the country being pulled back into the dark ages, while our knee jerks are all about reclaiming the land back from the Taliban, we need to pause. We need to wait and watch. Like I said, we are living in strange times and while we continue to champion human rights, to raise our voices for the basic freedoms of every citizen everywhere, we still need to be aware that the one size of the western democratic ideal doesn’t fit all.

Closer to home, countries like Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran have a direct stake in this new equation since any militant activity will tend to spillover into these countries either in the form of terrorism or refugees or both as has been the unfortunate case in Pakistan. Now is the critical juncture where all the allies (and the adversaries!) in the region need to come together to make this transition in the Afghan government as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the small steps made towards modernization and individual emancipation in the country over the last few years, are not completely decimated by the new orthodox Islamist regime.

OPINION | FAITH

Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.

As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.

What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.

What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.

Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.

It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.

* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.

OPINION| WORLD ON A WIRE*

Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy

Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.

We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.

The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our own value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.

Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.

In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.

This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.

* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name. 

OPINION| OUR BLOOD-LETTING BLASPHEMY LAWS

We are such a plagued nation, full of dichotomies and hypocrisies. Respectability, patience and civility have forsaken our national psyche a long, long time ago.

And so we blunder and bluster and we barge ahead with nothing to show for our high-handedness but a spiritually depleted image of the crescent moon and star … It is heartbreaking to think this is the best we can be.

The very essence of our religion continues to be hijacked by those that want to keep pulling us into the dark ages. In the midst of all the inane interpretation and bizarre commentaries around the tenets of our religion, we have gone from one abysmal depth to the next. Each “moral incidence” so much more ludicrous than the last, that we have as a nation quite absolutely forgotten real empathy, intelligence and our sense of community. We have forgotten what it means to be a part of a religion that is innately compassionate, tolerant and peaceful. Case in point: our freakish position and regulation around Blasphemy. A colonial construct, it never existed in its current form and fury in the predominantly Muslim ruled subcontinent before the nineteenth century. And then, it was signed into law to ensure that the differences between the 2 major religions were highlighted rather than the similarities which had bound them into a relatively homogenous society before then. That served to keep the two communities divided and separate which suited our occupiers in their machiavellian Game of Thrones.

Since then and more than in any other Muslim country, the Blasphemy Law has become a chip on our collective Pakistani shoulders that we love to invoke when we want to remind ourselves of who’s the boss. What we fail to take into account is that in a country that is 97% Muslim, we are overhwlemingly The Boss. Our religion is not under threat; we are not a minority trying to keep our vulnerable communities safe. We are the ones in control and therefore the ones obligated to show compassion and forebearance. Instead, we have as a society and a State created a monster in the name of religion.

The truth of the matter is that Islam has not laid down any set definition or punishment for Blasphemy. (Remember… Islam started out as a compassionate, progressive and tolerant religion). As such there are as many interpretations of the word and the laws governing it as there are scholars and Muslim countries. And yet, we in Pakistan have ensured that we make the ultimate brutal joke of the concept, punishing only those who are the least capable of defending themselves – the poor and the minorities. Our short history is rife with shamefully copious examples.

There is much to be done on the socio-religious fronts in our besieged country to render our communities more humane and inclusive. There is also ample opportunity to mend our policies where they are the most cruel and unusual; and our Blasphemy Laws are as good a place as any to start.

Teach not through words and angered passion, but by your own peaceful example

OPINION| ANOTHER TIK IN THE WALL

Of TikTok, Murderous cans of soup and Global culture

So it was on another fun afternoon when CNN was more than just a news network; when it was my go-to for happy bouts of comic relief and when truth and reality really were unceasingly stranger than fiction. Those were the entertaining Trump years. On one such occasion, when I was already giggling inside at the orator that Donald Trump was NOT, there was another little gem of drollery that CNN displayed on the screen. The very witty, very funny attempt by some teens to give satirical life to one of the POTUS’ many gaffes: a little video of Donald Trump (DT) waxing (in)eloquently about forests not being swept often enough and water running up trees leading to the devastating California forest fires; and tins of soup being used as deadly ammunition in street riots. That video so tickled my fancy that I downloaded the application they call TikTok and proceeded to watch the clip another 3 times over. It was hilarious.

And that’s how and when I discovered the ADHD*-propelled world of miniature videos and the nuanced beginnings of a global culture if you will. I was swept into this world of ready made verbal/ musical/ physical/ atmospheric plot twists and outlines that were being fleshed at lightning speed by adolescents around the world. Each video a tiny but permanent testament to a specific geography, mindset, anatomy and talent; all brought together in brand new visions and perspectives. I was fascinated.

We, the Generation X or Baby Busters, came of age when the home computer was just starting to become a must-have in households; to not own one was perfectly normal too right into the late 90s. And so our entertainment spectrum of the pixelated variety was limited to Polaroid cameras, Nintendo games and clunky, weighty video cameras. We as adosclecents existed in our own little geo-cultural cocoons, only ever experiencing a different social reality when we physically visited a new place. It was tedious in terms of globalising trends, preferences, news and views. But like every one says, those were “the good old days”. Or so we like to believe; ignorance is bliss and we were all unsuspectingly sitting around in our own little worlds created as they were by whoever at that time, held the proverbial Hammer of Thor. The instant global reach of social media has changed all of that. Mostly for the better, some for the worse.

But coming back to TikTok, ever the analyst, I began to notice underlying nuances, messages if you will. Emotional, spiritual, passive- aggressive, outright aggressive, titillating, righteous, prying, flaunting, caring, daring video communiques from youngsters around the world. I realized that the platform is used predominantly as a psychological sounding board. A listening, seeing, understanding online therapist and friend that is always present. And while she’ll let you know what her overwhelming opinion is (the eminent right/centre/ left trend of the moment on any issue) she will also embrace your view of the world and add it lovingly into her electronic cache, memorializing it forever.

Our current world, beset as it is with microbial creatures and subversive political intrigue, has found many ways to engage and come together despite the plethora of man made boundaries. And it is our children that have broken through those factions, castes and creeds to seed a new online Statelessness if you will; a fuzziness of borders and a blurring of traditional ideals. When you filter out the chaff, these 10 second videos are a potent view into the minds and hearts of the next generation. They are a triumphant, liberated, unsadulterard psychoanalysis of the key drivers of our youth. The more evolved state administrators could learn a thing or 10 on how to better cater to our rapidly changing, information-teeming, truth-seeking world.

The detractors of these youth driven social media platforms may have some valid reasons but those should be used to understand the psychology of our children and to teach and guide them, rather than as tools to punish, demean and ban access altogether. The bull headed approach goes against everything that will help to nurture them as upright, productive, informed adults who will, in the not so distant future, be leading the nation-building charge in an ever challenging global backdrop. Also, when all’s said and done, it is as futile to censor something of this magnitude and reach as it is to stop the waves of the ocean from cresting and falling. Case in point: Pakistan banned YouTube for over 4 years from 2008 to 2012 because of a few “unislamic objectionable videos”. (Our dubiously qualified Information Minister wasn’t aware of the fact that the specific offensive videos/ channels could be banned so he went all out). But that didn’t stop illicit VPNs* from mushrooming to circumvent the ban. The tide of information flows on, one way or another, regardless.

And so, I am now a TikTok user of the spectator variety. I watch, glean, laugh, reflect, pause and triumph in the lives that have been put grandly, intrepidly, cathartically on display. And I salute the movers and shakers of these tiny glimpses into the heart and soul of our future; and for putting a little more quintessence into John Lennon’s eternal words:

IMAGINE there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace,

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
The killer instinct of soup!
Watch the Forest Fires video via the attached link: 
https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSJhk5J1h/

*Title inspiration from Pink Floyd’s song “Another Brick in the Wall”

*ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active.

*VPN: A Virtual Private Network gives online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable.

OPINION | We, the Women of Pakistan

And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.

Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.

If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.

But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.

The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.

I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. … We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
Malala Yousafzai

OPINION| THE STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION

It seems like the great American nation has been roundly cursed with the evil eye; like the hexes and insidious incantations of overtly and covertly jealous nations are finally beginning to take effect. Indeed, the star spangled banner is looking increasingly tattered as it waves in the buffeting, tearing winds of change.

Or it could be that Uncle Sam is finally reaping as he has sowed for much of the last 200 years. Demon seeds of racism, inequality and toxic individualism are now putting out chokehold tendrils as the country grapples with not only the pandemic but also a social fabric that appears to be coming apart at the seams.

The road rage episode and the mass shootings, 3 tragic incidences in rapid succession, appear to be the tip of a now grumbling, grousing iceberg. At least two of the three acts of terrorism were perpetrated by young men barely out of adolescence. It isn’t difficult to form a reasonable hypothesis about what has happened. Here’s my informed conjecture:

The 4 year Trump presidency unleashed an era of brute honesty that was heretofore unprecedented. Contrary to the popular sentiment rife amongst his detractors, he was not the cause of the social mayhem that is playing out in America; he was in fact that pariah magician that reveals the deepest, darkest secrets of his trade to the masses. And so, with grandiose fanfare (aided in no small measure by the force of his absurdly narcissistic personality) he exposed the festering underbelly of the great American nation.

The American dream was shown up for what it really was – a utopian ideology pandering exclusively to the whitest and the most dogmatic denominator of the citizenry. With the raw truth finally seeing the light of day, social chaos was bound to follow. The pandemic of course hasn’t made it easier, innervated by the stunningly ridiculous outrage of the average American at having to take precautions for the greater good of the community. What the whole world is seeing is an America that is no more than a loose amalgamation of individuals who are living together as long as they are not expected to sacrifice their space, their time or their right to go maskless wherever they please. It appears that the concept of community in its true sense has dissolved into defiant, impenitent individualism quite some time ago.

The ones hit the hardest by this disruption of everyday civility and tolerance are the infirm elderly and the hormonal young adults. The former have little in terms of strength or capacity to fight off the virus, biological and social. The latter however, on the threshold of newfound independence and the unlimited freedom America promises, are flexing their muscles with the brute abandon of untrained warriors. With no outlet for their bursting world of expectations, these hapless young men didn’t entertain second or third thoughts about their actions. Call it frustration, guns for the taking, or an explosive coming of age, the fact is that they felt empowered, indeed emboldened enough to kill. They went down the path affording them the greatest adrenaline rush to appease their heightened agitation with the suddenly stifling world around them. Can you blame them for their actions? Not if this was an ethical society that had accepted its failings as a protector and nurturer of its people. But like so many other morally failed and failing nations, America too will blame the messenger (the hapless killer) for the insidious last note he delivered. A note crafted and etched into the social fabric by a successive line of self serving politicians masquerading as statesmen (Ladies: thy counteracting wisdom is still in short order). And so, the Machiavellian state passes on its treacherous buck to its citizens, making them pay for its moral bankruptcy.

While psychologists and sociologists may have a plethora of whys, wherefores and what-to-dos on the current American condition, there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb. A simple soreness that if healed, can stop the gangrenous decay from befouling the rest of the body politic. Basic compassion and a sense of community. If there’s one thing that we in the global backwaters with our emotionally replete cultures know, it’s a deep sense of community: a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together**. These are simple overtures of our humanity that have got lost in the grand American pursuit of individual freedom.

Now more than ever, the Union will benefit from reaching out and offering psychological support to the young and the old, the marginalised and those living on the peripheries of society. I’m not speaking of divisive, half baked gun control laws or grand multi trillion dollar conciliatory, tranquilizing, short-lived plans of rehabilitation and reparation. I’m referring to something as simple as the mushrooming of wayside safe havens/ Conversation Kiosks where people can come in and just talk through the turmoil in their hearts and their minds. The vestigial need to connect, to be acknowledged, to see oneself as part of a bigger, better, vibrant whole, are essential in identifying and addressing agitation, loneliness and hopelessness – all three, treacherous inciters of discontent and violence. Getting the nation to open up at grassroot levels, having them exorcise the demons of alienation and social marginlization, giving them a sense of communal purpose appears to be the likely and unsurprisingly elemental panacea to the great American unrest.

And so, my prayer for the socially and psychologically battered people of the United States is for them to find the strength to finally accept one another for who they are; to unlearn the hate for those who don’t look like them and see the beauty in diversity. For everyone to finally feel like part of a bigger community, not the black, not the brown not the white denominators, but the American community. It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect; it just has to be real and it has to be taught to be aspirational. And with that, there will be ever greater hope for true peace and prosperity for all.

One good conversation can shift the direction of change forever – Linda Lam

**Quote from McMillan and Chavis (1986) “Sense of Community”

OPINION|Love in the Time of the Mullah**

Recently there was a simple, endearing display of affection between a couple that had just decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The proposal was made on the University of Lahore campus amidst their friends and was followed by an affectionate hug between the couple. That embrace was so demonised by the vocal right, that it now hangs like the sword of democles over the heads of the hapless couple*. A hug! Their fault was that they behaved normally in a sweet moment of joy, rather than in the unnatural constipated manner that is de rigeur and “decent” for all happy occasions involving a man and a woman. Most of the social media comments about the incident have left me not only stunned but also depressed. They well and truly show up the ugly patriarchal underbelly of our besieged society.

From celebrating birthdays to personal successes to proposals, the way of the pious right around their other halves in public is to behave with no more feeling than a vacuum cleaner. (Or a toaster if your tech knee jerk brings visions of food to mind rather than a sparkling floor!)

When did we become so hypocritical, intolerant and judgmental? It could have been during the focused militant Islamization of the country in the wake of the American proxy war with Soviet Russia. Or, it could have been the critical tipping points where socio religious decisions that could have laid the blueprints for a more equitable, inclusive and psychologically healthy society, were made instead to appease the extremist fringe which has always had the loudest megaphones. And so now in 2021, while the rest of the world is debating AI* ethics, we still consider half our human population as circumstantial, where laws and rights blur into oblivion: if you happen to inherit the Y chromosome, every opportunity opens up to you; but if you land up with the double (h)ex, you’re left to the mercy of male egos, testosterone-fuelled whims and religious fillibusters. Indeed, it is this gross distortion in how the State views each gender that has led to this stunning breakdown of social normalcy.

This dismal failing on the part of our legislative bodies and our religious leadership has also led to what can only be described as a collective national psychosis. Women and men alike are exhibiting bizarre mental derangement, with one imagining the world revolves around him and the other, that the world does indeed revolve around him. Oh, and she helps to spin it.

So detrimental to our social structures and mental and emotional wellness is this state of affairs that as with any imbalance in nature be it physical or emotional, there are ultimately equalizing and opposing forces to repair the equilibrium (bless Newton!). And so, in the case of our Islamic republic, despite being the alleged custodians of orthodoxy and conservatism, we also have the dubious recognition of being one of the top porn searching/ watching countries in the world. (There are some Western and African countries that surpass our national porn viewership but they don’t profess to be Islamic, Christian or Jewish Republics. They are secular states and largely follow the philosophy of “live and let live” that we combatively decry). Does Islam consider this kind of sexual titillation a cardinal sin? Yes absolutely. Is that a deterrent? Never, in spite of all the impassioned denials. Can we sit back and morally judge this fall from grace? No; since it is, in big part, the attempt of our human psyche to compensate for the abnormal lack of everyday warmth and emotional fulfilment in even normal, legally contracted relationships.

Relegating all kinds of affection behind closed doors also paints the most innocent gestures of love and care with the brush of indecency and impropriety. Children in our society never see their parents sharing a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek in public; and because they don’t see that affection, they never learn to associate it with the simple fact of being human, being a family and being connected. And so we’re assiduously spawning generations that are increasingly intolerant, embarrassed and offended by any overt show of warmth, affection and joy.

I recall a couple of episodes from my own corporate life where I was also a member of the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The committee, expected to dispense disciplinary action, was shown CCTV footage of young boys and girls, fresh entrants into the corporate fold, caught in compromising situations in little-used ATM kiosks. These hijab-wearing young women and bearded young men were probably from stiflingly conservative households. Having had no outlet for even normal social interactions with the opposite sex while growing up, and later, outside of work, led them to commit unthinking acts of pent up frustration. These were not “bad” men and women. They were the unfortunate products of our small minded, aberrant approach to inter-gender community, accessibility and interaction.

Until we stop claiming the moral high ground with nothing dazzling to show for it; until we stop judging and look beyond ourselves at some of the progressive ways of the rest of humankind that is almost 8 billion strong; until we stop associating rigidity and patriarchy with the essence of Islam, we will continue to erode the very humanity from our societies. We will continue to devolve until there is nothing left but the detritus of hate, bigotry and dogmatism.

The violent invective and demeaning actions we reserve for any kind of openness have to stop. The egos have to be reined in. We as a nation and as an Islamic community need to unlearn the intolerance and hypocrisy around love, and relearn how to feel comfortable with expressions of basic warmth and affection. There has to be more to us than unkempt beards, holy wars and houri* birthrights.

It’s time we found and focused on other, more positive legacies of our rich Islamic heritage.

** Title inspiration and adaptation from the 1985 Gabriel G. Marquez novel titled “Love in the time of Cholera”
* Read the original News story here: https://ara.tv/g558y
* AI: Artifical Intelligence

*Houri: a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.

OPINION| THE PRODIGAL SONS

Earlier this year, after decades, the island of Sri Lanka welcomed the Pakistani cricketing legend of yore. Thankfully, the political mantle is still too new to disenchant the international fan base. Not that I think he is a corrupt bag of officious bones in the manner peculiar to many of his South Asian compatriots and indeed, his very own predecessors. No, he’s just a little soft in the head; a natural affliction, I have come to believe, when one decides to not go down the oft trodden path of political corruption and depravity. The cerebral mush of course, leads to an entirely different set of bureaucratic disasters. The long and short of it is that Imran Khan’s heart is in the right place but his brain is an addled brew of eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog*... And so, even with the best of intentions, the empire double doubles, toils and troubles!* But i digress… and can you blame me! Like everyone else in our beleaguered country, I too am a devoted armchair warrior and am wont to vent.

So why did our PM Imran Khan visit Sri Lanka?

What an interesting question, full of intrigue and the promise of riveting conspiracy theories (rubbing my hands gleefully and wanting to quote more eccentric old world verse!)

So here’s my take on it. The global power structure is gradually changing, and the South Asian bloc wants to be ready to play its part. Colonially-seeded geographical antagonism is seeming more and more irrelevant and incongruous as our unipolar world dithers on its North American weighted axis. As the US struggles with its burgeoning domestic issues, its inconvenient truths, it seems less and less likely to hold the moral mantle of global leadership. And when that dignity, skin deep though it may be, is shaken, the fall of the rest of the edifice is not far behind. No one wants to be told what to do by someone who can’t keep peace in their own backyard. And so, when some little but worthy nation somewhere tells Uncle Sam to mind his own business, we need to be ready to play our parts in catalysing the new equilibrium. Who those game-changing tRICksters* will be, is anyone’s guess. What is pertinent is that success will depend on there being some semblance of peace and harmony between the mighty neighbours of the Eastern hemisphere. And that peace has to begin ground up; with the smaller warring nations politely brought to heel first, so to speak. And so it was that on a swarthy February day, in the golden arms of the south Asian tear drop island, Pakistan was brought into the loop of the Global Reset. Because having two bickering nuclear armed neighbours in the region is generally not favourable to the efficacy of grand plans. And so, a meeting of the two estranged sisters, India and Pakistan, was arranged.

It is also interesting to note that hot on the heels of the Pak PM’s visit, the citizenry was treated to rather strategic Indo-SL combined military aerobatics, showcasing the battling might of mostly the Indian airforce. A polite but stratospherically overt reiteration that while there is some appetite for absurd but fit-to-current-form alliances, it’s best not to forget who the Saber Holders are and who the Saber Rattlers are.

All this of course is a funny-feeling-in-the-gut conjecture; the waxing eloquent of conspiracy theories. But these days, when truth has so often been stranger than fiction, the civic mingling of sworn enemies is not such a far fetched ideal. The proof of the gesture will of course be in how the two neighbours deal with each other going forward. (Watch out for startlingly long periods of peace along usually tempestuous/ skirmish-ridden borders).

Wade Davis’ words are a reverberating mantra for our times when he said, “No empire long endures, even if few anticipate their demise. Every kingdom is born to die. The 15th century belonged to the Portuguese, the 16th to Spain, 17th to the Dutch. France dominated the 18th and Britain the 19th. [By the 20th century], the torch had long passed into the hands of America”.

Let’s hope America continues to scratch the surface of its domestic/ social inequities, leaving little power vacuums across the globe. Let’s also hope that the Prodigal Sons of the East (daughters are in scarce order!) rise to the occasion. When the time comes, it will take a concerted effort of going against the grain of everything we know to be our patriotic truths, to seed a new epoch.

*eye of newt.... verse quoted from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
*tRICksters: the RIC in the word stands for the 3 global powerhouses of Russia, India and China.

OPINION|CHILDREN OF MEN*

Our Earth, now home to almost 8 billion humans. Also home to 153 million orphan children. Also the nursery to 140 million new births every year. Empirical population statistics when you look at each one individually. But when you connect them via the human equation, one can see the bizarre manifestation of our humanity gone awry.

The need to procreate has been so essential to our culture, beliefs and even our biology, that to build a family unit without passing on our exclusive DNA to our progeny is unthinkable; even unchristian, unislamic. And so, we continue to go from generation to generation, bequeathing with unrelenting tenacity, not so much our values, ethics and a spirit of industry, but the genetic codes that cellularly define us. We proudly bring another nestling into the world, the amalgam of our essential genomic structures, while another child somewhere not far off, adds to the global orphan count. The latter faithfully, effortlessly remains a de-sensitised statistic.

Even organized religion has given in to its baser instincts; and via insidious cloak and dagger plots of familial temptation and intrigue, has summarily discouraged adoption. For how can an adoptive father not be carnally tempted by the fact of the unshared DNA; or an adoptive mother blame herself for her lack of love and care for the child who is in fact, not her child. These are the ugly predispositions that guide our belief systems. And so it has come to pass that some of the most devout nations on earth continue to have the highest birth rates in the world.

I don’t profess to being maternal. The sum total of my maternal instincts extends to my niece and my nephew (they’re as close to my own children as I’ll have), my team in my corporate past life, the support staff in and around my regular surroundings, and the animal world. (It would appear, there are vestiges of the instinct after all; just not in the customary manner of speaking!) However, I have seen many, many… too many snot-nosed little kids that have become a part of the crazy, conveniently distant tumult on our busy urban streets. And I have heard countless … heartbreakingly countless horror stories of the forgotten children that are manipulated and mauled in the same orphanages and sanctums of faith that avow to protect them. Somehow, somewhere down the line, we have forgotten that we, the human collective, are the nurtures and providers of all the children that we bring into this world.

I am also not a detractor of the traditional family unit. It is, in fact, still one of our conventional social constructs that constantly reminds us that we are innately compassionate, loving and tolerant. However, I am a detractor of every dogma, ideal and manifesto that equates those same human qualities with the sharing of DNA. I am a detractor of all the myths and parables that typecast the concept of adoption in anything but the most judiciously humane light. In our current existences where economic inequality is shamelessly rife, the right of every orphan to be loved and cared for, unassailably surpasses our own need to perpetuate our heredity. The traditional family unit has to evolve into a more conscionable, accepting and diverse whole. The patriarchal ego has to take a back seat as we gradually but steadfastly make the word “Orphan” obsolete.

We no longer have the luxury of compartmentalising the children of our planet into a hierarchy of care, based on genetics. It is high time in fact, that we rallied together like the proverbial village to raise all the children of our world.

*Title inspiration from a 2006 dystopian science fiction movie thriller of the same name.

OPINION | Ghosts in the Shell*

A gender-optimal philosophy for more effective, ethical and harmonious global leadership

I’ve been thinking. Not quite in the usual staring into space for a moment or four, while wispy little disconnected thoughts do a bit of a foxtrot around the noggin. But more akin to the aftermath of a persistent intuition, a nagging logic that marches around the brain until one’s forced to contend with it. And so this opinion piece has come stridently into the light of day, hoping to give some pause for thought, or at the very least, to become part of the endless, reverberating ether of information.

World Leadership. That cunning, convoluted beast that has taken on a form that neither the gods of war (NATO) nor the cormorants of peace (the UN) nor any semblance of a half way evolved human ethic would have ever envisioned for it. From hiding in its dank, dark cave because some post facto stab of conscience made it scurry back, it now proudly, fearlessly, openly dons the mantle of bigotry and apathy. It struts about our borders, spies into our lives and tosses a western grenade when neighbours become too peaceful. That beast has to be fed and war is its nutriment of choice.

I don’t want to go on a prolonged impassioned whinge about the state of our lives and indeed our very species as the Cognocentibus – the original Intelligent Beings that have somehow gone awry. That understanding and knowledge now is like organized religion: after thousands of years of wrangling with querulous belief systems, everyone knows what there is to know, yet there is power in creating ever new vacuums of faith and filling them with ever more profitable doctrines of fire and brimstone. And so it is with the way we behave with one another across our planet. We know the ultimate panacea is some semblance of peace and equality for all; but that’s no fun when you’re riding the Cock Horse to Banbury Cross* and can partake of over USD 90 trillion dollars* of global riches on the way.

So what am i really getting at?

A changed world order. I won’t say new; that would be naive and ideological and by those very facts, impossible to achieve. But i will say, modernised, reconditioned, improved. Here’s what I believe will at the very least, begin to bring about some viability, some sanity and some heart into our lives.

No MAN over the age of 65 should run for the office of President or Prime Minister. More and more we see how the patriarchal septuagenarians and their seniors have doggedly held on to mores and codes which are not only outright dogmatic and sexist, but increasingly at odds with mainstream thought and ethics. The barely veiled misogyny and racism in the hearts of the fagged and ageing US congressmen are a sputtering but compelling beacon for other similarly inclined world leaders. And it was difficult to miss Japan’s 83 year old ex PM, Mori’s absurdly sexist comment made recently in his capacity as the 2020 Olympics Head https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/12/tokyo-2020-chief-yoshiro-mori-resigns-over-sexist-comments . It is time for these seniors to sit back, dated ideals and all, and let the global human equation finally begin to re-evolve.

At least 40% of all senior political appointees to be women. We have some absolutely scintillating examples of wise and wonderful female leadership: Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia to name a few. However, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 21 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader. As of October 2019, the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments was less than 25%, with only 14 countries having achieved 50 per cent or more women in cabinets (unwomen.org). More than two-thirds of these countries have applied gender quotas – either legislated candidate quotas or reserved seats – opening space for women’s political participation in national parliaments. With some concerted effort, these indices can be made more representative of global male/female population ratios. Indeed, it is high time for women to resolutely take the other half of the global leadership reins.

Female Leaders around the globe, 2020.
Still a dismal, despairing, desperate, sad rarity!

Head of State tenures to be capped at 5 years at one time, with the opportunity to run again after at least 5 years, for no more than another half a decade. This will serve to discourage self serving oligarchs and quell dynastic politics. The shortness of the tenure and with it, the duly limited opportunity for power-mongering will mean that only the serious nation builders will apply for the job of running a country. This will, in time, spearhead the creation of a new brand of Statesmen and women who will safeguard the interests of all their people while leading their nations to peace and prosperity.

Every Executive Government position holder and parliamentarian to undergo Executive courses on World History covering the last 500 years, with special emphasis on how their particular region has impacted or was impacted by the events therein. This would entail essential courses on colonialism, slavery, the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries and their respective aftermaths. A specially designated, international body of scholars will keep the content of these courses true and relevant to the times. This simple yet critical geo-political prescript will help to bring about global baseline knowledge and sensitivity around some essential truths that are still dogging the socio-cultural fabrics of so many nations. Reparation and healing will then begin top down, via an informed, “woke” and upstanding world leadership.

There is much to be said for the sadly dismal distribution of global wealth and the vulgarity of the Billionaire concept in our current times. But that will require more than just a shift of quotas and governance standards as these are the very themes considered as stalwart markers of success and happiness. It will take a few generations of unlearning to erase the greed that is now inherently a part of our DNA. And for that reason, I am not putting it down as a current critical imperative; the prescribed hopeful/ logical/ nuanced global administrative change will gradually take care of it.

In the aftermath of the last 4 years and indeed post the apocalyptic past year of the Pandemic, I’m hoping, like so many others, that our humanity, the simple homogeneity of our species and Better Sense prevails. I’m hoping that by embracing the best parts of our human collective, we can finally create a better world for ourselves and for our children; that we can finally be more than just ghosts in our dated, jaded, cracking shells.

*Ghost(s) in the Shell: title inspiration from the American adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga/ Japanese anime of the same name.
*”Ride a cock horse...”: part of an old English nursery rhyme
*USD 90 trillion: the approximate USD value of global GDP as of 2020

FILM PICKINS| STAR TREK – DEEP SPACE 9 (1993 – 1999)

It was slow I admit, the glimmerings of a connection with the ST-DS9* characters and their Deep Space shenanigans. But by season 2, I had developed a mild fondness for the Captain and his Federation crew. And by season 4, the affection I felt for the space Station denizens was deep-rooted and personal. By season 5, I was already forlornly anticipating the end of the series and feeling at odds with the rest of the Netflix science fiction repertoire.

That is not to say that i was blinded to the obvious shortcomings of the production; they just became tenderly blurred as the characters became increasingly larger than life. I still remember cringing slightly during season 1 and wondering for the 347th time why i felt such a compelling commitment to see every series through, dubious and otherwise, that I’ve embarked on. Here’s what I remember even as I dredge up the memories from the practical, unemotional series-bingeing depths of my mind:

The characters were more than a tad over-dramatic – Captain Sisko often comes across as a stand up comic endearingly poking fun at would-be space bigwigs; while the good Doctor Bashir appears so entranced by his own look, feel and sound that one would be forgiven for mistaking him for the English, Space version of a Doogie Howser impersonator. Major Kira (Colonel now!) is relentless in her adolescent knee jerk outbursts of anger, vengeance and the insatiable need to be the biggest bully in the Alpha quadrant…. nah… all Space. Then there are the dated special effects: the barely camouflaged fluorescent primary coloured lights blinking on 24th century tricorders and control panels; the landing/ disembarkation pads which look like ponderous railway tunnels; the defiant, brave little ships in space, dithering ever so slightly against their starry backdrop – trembling reminders of their actual minuscule size and mass; the phasers and other laser weapons put to shame by the contents of aisle 15 in Toys ‘r’ Us. But…. like i said, i had to laboriously dig up these first and not so lasting impressions.

What I do remember effortlessly is the superb characterisation of Quark the quintessential Ferengi who’d grown a heart and a bit of a conscience over the course of the 7 seasons; Garak who was as devious and resourceful as he was genteel and intrepid; Dukat the bipolar Cardsassian who fought a war of conscience for most of the 7 seasons, finally relenting with a Bajoran bow and a twisted flourish to his dark side; Weyoun, the Gamma quadrant clone who was as duplicitous as he was “god-fearing”; and of course Vic Fontaine, a holographic throwback to the 1960s Las Vegas rat pack style entertainment who was as good a singer as he was a psychothera-pal for the DS9 crew. All in all, the alien characters of DS9 delivered a far superior performance to that of their human counterparts.

The piece de resistance of the series however, is definitely its ability to take its viewers on a compelling, emotional journey into the lives of its main characters. The cloak and dagger plots set a million light years away from earth still took place in what was essentially a little town with its very own set of the good, the bad and the alien. And that was ultimately what made the series so memorable.

Other Deep Space Distillations:

-The mainstream ethics/ moral compass portrayed by the Federation of planets, while being lofty and aspirational by our boorish 21st century standards, was still shown to be insidiously riddled with intrigue and deception; its Section 31 dutifully and covertly performing all its ungallant business. I suppose some things are so hard-wired into our psyche, a basic distrust of anyone different from ourselves being at the top of that list, that no amount of evolution and sophistication can wring it out of our DNA.

-America, as is customary across the Hollywood universe, bravely endeavoured to save the day or lead from the front. And so unremarkably, Uncle Sam continued to fill in most of the shoes of the DS9 and the Federation nawabs*.

-I discovered a new-found love for Frank Sinatra’s soulful crooning. I’ve had his vocal jazz and swing numbers on quick recall on my phone for the last fortnight. Vic’s repository of the legendary tunes pulls at all the heart strings!

-The MC at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony sounded eerily like Worf, the Klingon!

I watched the last show of the last season last night. A net total of 176 episodes viewed, imbibed and psychoanalysed nostalgically during the last 4 weeks. Almost made me forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic as I traversed through space and time with the crew and the citizens of Deep space 9/ Terek Nor.

I leave you with a nostalgic old Sinatra refrain sung by DS9’s own Vic Fontaine, just because it’s such a lovely old song and even half a millennium on, it resonated richly, poignantly, on a space station somewhere in our cosmos.

*ST-DS9: Star Trek – Deep Space 9

*Nawab: a male title which literally means Viceroy; the female equivalent is “Begum” or “Nawab Begum”. The primary duty of a Nawab was to uphold the sovereignty of the Mughal emperor along with the administration of a certain province. In modern times, it is often used to denote men of power.

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