Victims of strikes

PESHAWAR: Strikes or stoppage of work is one of the most common and possibly the only effective tactic for institutions and individuals in Pakistan to get their demands accepted. PIA’s pilots, doctors in hospitals, faculty in universities all resort to the same for resolution of their issues with the management. In such situations, however, the sufferers in a majority of the cases are those who have no direct involvement in the matter. For instance, passengers, patients and students are not a direct party to the dispute, yet they suffer the most. Therefore, the least management can do is to lessen the losses one is bound to bear with tussles between the employees and the management.

Ali Akhtar

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Community-based development

ISLAMABAD: Development is considered as government’s job. From infrastructure to resource development, governments have to face criticism for lagging behind. As privatisation is one way to deal with loss-making state-owned ventures, community-based development too can be relatively effective and quick in delivering results, provided the government ‘outsources’ the programmes to private non-governmental welfare organisations under its supervision.

Since the community-based projects operate at a micro level, they are more inclusive and concentrated in approach. Hence, it becomes easier to check on the feasibility in early stages. While international organisations like the USAID and others are actively engaged in community-driven programmes, the provincial governments too should make use of the same, particularly in education and health sectors where needs vary according to cultures and demography. The government can work towards improving the law and order situation in remote areas while these organisations engage in micro-level issues on community basis. With that, rural areas will not be urbanised but developed. Also, vocational training institutes are one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty in rural areas, as communities become mobilised and get the needful.

Asma Shaukat

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Czech Republic politician calls for ban on Islam

PRAGUE: A populist billionaire who is tipped to win, his Social Democrat rival and two leaders of anti-system parties will be in the spotlight this weekend as the Czech Republic’s general election gets underway.

Andrej Babis and his populist ANO (Yes) movement are expected to cruise to victory – but it remains to be seen by how much, and what kind of a coalition he will put together.

Like Donald Trump in the United States and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, this owner of the sprawling Agrofert chemicals, food and media conglomerate and second-wealthiest Czech has transformed himself from an entrepreneur into a politician, In his own words he is not “like the others”, “works hard” and “doesn’t talk nonsense”.

The 63-year-old Slovak-born billionaire, who served as finance minister from 2014 until May this year, has persuaded crowds with his rhetoric, despite allegations of fishy business dealings and collaboration with the Communist secret police in the 1980s, voiced by his rivals.

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A recent fraud indictment against Babis over the financing of his Stork Nest farm south of Prague using EU funds, also investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), has led voters to ask: how will he be able to work as prime minister if he is prosecuted?

Struggling to stop his leftwing party’s free fall in opinion polls, the 61-year-old pro-European foreign minister replaced unpopular Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, as the CSSD (Social Democrats) leader for the election. Having become the chief rival for Babis, Zaoralek has never ruled out a coalition with ANO, whose head once called him “an idiot” in a conversation with a journalist whose recording has been leaked.

The former TV script editor hailing from the industrial and mining eastern city of Ostrava entered politics in 1990. Having made it into parliament in 1996, he was the speaker of the lower house in 2002-2006. He became foreign minister in 2014. The dark horse of the elections, this 45-year-old Tokyo-born entrepreneur and far-right lawmaker is set to enter parliament again thanks to his anti-EU and anti-migrant rhetoric, with recent polls suggesting he may score more than 10 per cent of the vote.

Born to a Japanese father and a Czech mother, he made a living selling popcorn in Tokyo, before making a fortune in the tourism and restaurant business in the Czech Republic. Okamura was elected senator in 2012 and lawmaker in 2013 for his far-right “Dawn of Direct Democracy” which eventually splintered.

Surprisingly, his staunchly anti-Islamic rhetoric has won him popularity in a country where there are hardly any Muslims. He has also called for a ban on Islam in the Czech Republic, insisting that its Sharia law is incompatible with European law. Okamura’s new SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy) party has links to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in France.

His policies stand in stark contrast to the views of his brother Hayato, a Christian Democrat, who once told the press that “Tomio is acting in the interest of Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow, which will do anything to weaken and dismantle the EU”. The Pirates expect this 37-year-old dreadlocked IT expert with a degree from Prague’s Charles University to help them clinch their first ever seats in parliament.

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Founded in 2009, the party has gradually become an interesting alternative for the free-thinking first-time voters active on social networks, but also for pro-European intellectuals who believe in the spirit of “truth and love” once promoted by the late president Vaclav Havel, a communist-era dissident playwright.

“We are ready to act as a sharp opposition, but we are ready to back any reasonable proposals,” said Bartos, also known as a DJ, singer and accordionist of the punk-rap group “Nohama napred” (“Legs first”).

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Sanctity of vote

KARACHI: In countries across the world, the notion of sanctity of the vote has always been upheld as the maker of the fate of the people. Politicians commonly make references to power of the vote through which the masses have to change their fate. However, it is shocking to see some politicians openly violating the sanctity of the vote, blatantly ignoring that it is the vote of the otherwise powerless that earns them credibility and respect. A few days ago, the Sindh Assembly speaker made derogatory remarks about voting, reflecting his views on the importance ‘vote’ holds to him. The incident is another instance explaining how and why the vote has failed to change the fate of the millions in the country. It is an irony that the ones trampling the sanctity of vote under their feet are expected to uphold democracy.

It will be futile to expect a substantive action from the ruling party in Sindh against its own party member. The Sindh government, however, must remove the provincial assembly speaker out of respect for its slain founder who has always been hailed as the flag bearer of democracy in the country’s history.

Hammad Lashari 

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Begging rackets

Pakistani authorities have lived for some time now with the shame that some of its more unscrupulous nationals are involved in begging rackets abroad, most notably Saudi Arabia. To Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal’s credit the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been moved against Pakistani beggars who are suspected to be a part of large rings operated in several countries. The task of uncovering the beggars and stopping them from travelling abroad is a challenging one and it will require dexterous handling since it involves the cooperation of foreign governments. But the job has to be done well if Pakistan and other South Asian countries want to rebuild their tarnished image in countries where such begging rings operate. Begging is not an uncommon sight on the outskirts of certain Gulf cities and sadly many South Asians are part of it.

Not all members engaged in the racket abroad are habitual beggars. Many of them dream of landing a job in the oil-rich Gulf states and human smugglers are only too happy to promise them the same — without actually delivering. Within weeks, these job seekers find no other alternative to begging. There is also a growing link between begging rings and other criminal activities. The FIA would do well if it can draw up effective measures against elements involved in fuelling extremism and feeding criminal syndicates with mercenary-minded foot-soldiers.

It is refreshing that the interior minister has adopted a realistic stance on the issue of people smuggling. The FIA itself has to be purged of those individuals who abet criminal elements and facilitate the transfer of begging ring members abroad. The FIA needs to be rebuilt into a modern and robust institution whose work will closely serve the interests of Pakistan. For this to happen, the agency has to be equipped with the latest tools and its officials trained in better and more sophisticated technologies.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Importance of social sciences

QUETTA: It is unfortunate to know that one of the academic disciplines pivotal to better and critical understanding of contemporary issues is the most neglected one in Pakistan. The discipline of social sciences or liberal arts is usually the last option of many deciding upon courses or degree programmes for higher education. There are a whole lot of issues like gender-based violence, terrorism, ideological and theological interpretations that have been identified through social sciences, and to deal with these issues and societal development it is important that more people opt for them and engage in research in them.

Study choices, however, are mostly defined by the job market and earning prospects, as social sciences and other similar academic fields are research based, monetary incentives are comparatively lower as compared to the workload it entails. With the exception of a few renowned institutions in major cities, the rest offer degree programmes in management sciences or engineering. However, to divert students towards the disciplines major incentives would be better work and earning prospects. The issue needs prompt attention, as within a span of years the difference between research-based and other jobs will widen even more.

Uzair Hameed

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Reviving the export sector

The export sector is in the doldrums, and according to a meeting organised by the Sustainable Policy Development Institute entitled ‘Achieving export competitiveness in Pakistan’ a joint effort is needed from all government and private sector stakeholders in order to meet the challenges that are daily faced by the country’s exporters. In many ways this is a statement of the blindingly obvious and ought to have been at the heart of all government activity in respect of exports for decades, but seemingly not so.

Equally obvious are the reasons why the country lags behind and underperforms. Top of the list is the unending deficit in the energy sector with the years of power outages having taken a crippling toll, driving export industries away in the case of textiles and a lack of product and market diversification. There is too much reliance on European markets and despite having the benefits of the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) as a considerable incentive, this too has been an opportunity largely missed. The taxation system, trade tariffs and corruption were all tagged as contributory factors as well as a failure to engage with stakeholders by the federal government.

This is not the economic equivalent of rocket science. There is no shortage of potential markets and Pakistan has bilateral and regional trade agreements with China, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to name but three. Like the GSP these have not been exploited to the full and one might be led to wonder what our trade missions in these countries, as well as other countries where there is a substantial diplomatic presence, are doing to push our products and services. Once again we are drawn to the conclusion that there are endemic deficits in planning and a chronic lack of vision. There is no evidence that the nation is moving towards being a knowledge-based state as the appalling under-investment in education at primary and secondary levels continues to eat into brighter futures. The remedy for all this lies squarely in the hands and at the door of the government, federal and provincial. The clock ticks on, sadly the right people are not listening to it.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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Whittling down the Taliban

‘The Taliban’ has become a catch-all term that encompasses a broad range of groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The many iterations of the Taliban have been led by iconic figures, with Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban being the first of a long and diverse line. Many have been assassinated, and the latest to die violently is Umar Khalid Khorasani who has died of his wounds after a US drone strike in the Afghan province of Paktia that occurred on Tuesday, October 17. Already some observers have called this a ‘death blow’ for the faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban that he led, the Jammatul Ahrar (JuA). The JuA spokesman, Asad Mansoor, confirmed the death as well as confirming that eight close associates of Khorasani died in the same strike.

His career was nothing if not diverse having tried his hand at both poetry and journalism but his real notoriety lay in the ferocity and cruelty he displayed when he joined Baitullah Mehsud in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in 2007. He split with the TTP after the death of Mehsud and formed the JuA though he never claimed to be its leader. The JuA identified itself with the Islamic State in 2014, rejecting the TTP. The pendulum swung again in 2015 when the JuA swore allegiance to the TTP leadership once more.

Taliban groups have proved to be remarkably resilient, surviving the deaths of leaders on several occasions. Succession is not always seamless or bloodless, and the infighting between the various Taliban groups claims almost as many lives as those taken by the security forces according to some observers. That said there is a steady attrition of the Taliban leadership in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent months. The Taliban have never operated in numerical force anywhere but have evolved into an effective asymmetrical fighting force sustained by local support, foreign funding and a vaulting ideology that drives their narrative. Until that is effectively countered they are going to live to fight another day.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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How ‘The Greatest’ got his name

These are hard times to be a Muslim in America. President Donald Trump regularly makes non-inclusive comments such as “Islam hates us,” even though ‘a religion’ does not hate. As a consequence of right-wing attitudes ordinary people suffer: a young 14-year-old African American school boy named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested and thrown out of school when his teacher thought his homemade clock was a bomb; a 17-year-old girl called Nabra Hassanen was recently raped and murdered by Martinez Torres in Virginia; a female university professor who teaches ‘Women and Islam’ was aggressively manhandled and thrown out of a plane recently, as she happened to be a Muslim. All such happenings impact the health and wellbeing of ordinary Muslims and many others around the world who are constantly hearing about these and other cruel injustices. A recent study shows that in America today, Muslims in particular face many psychological pressures and problems due to them constantly being unjustly labelled as terrorists.

Yet, through the smoke of sensationalist media headlines, we still have those positive moments that give us hope. On the evening of October 15 I had the privilege of living one such moment, when I met Khalilah Camacho Ali (also known as Belinda), the wife of the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

A radiant African-American, Khalilah has an accent almost identical to that of Muhammad Ali, but her roots go back to South Asia, as her great-great grandfather was an imam from Karachi. In the Pakistani home of Sohail Kiani, the former vice-president of Merrill Lynch in Singapore, and his American wife Doreen, Khalilah began her introduction to a select audience who were mesmerised by her intimate stories and memories of The Greatest.

She said that when she met Muhammad Ali, he had just won his gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, at the young age of 18. She was only 10 years old. In his famous cocky style, Muhammad Ali said, “I’m going to be the heavyweight champion of the world before I hit 21 so get your autograph! So he gave me his name.” Khalilah said, “When he signed, his name, ‘Cassius Marcellus Clay’. I tore up the paper and threw it on the floor. This is a Roman name! And do you know what the Romans did to us? They enslaved us. You need to change your name!’ In fact, I was really into Islam and admired Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as my role model — he had the most gentle, simple and compassionate character — so I said to Cassius, ‘Go and get a Muslim name.’” She recounted, “He was upset. But he couldn’t wait. ‘I want to be a Muslim like her.’ So he went to Elijah Muhammad.”

Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam Movement, conceived of a new name for Ali. As Khalilah recalled, “He gave him ‘Cassius X,’ so he said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to be Cassius. I want a Muslim name.’ So he named him Ali (after Khalilah’s father) and added Muhammad, after the name of the Prophet (pbuh). Muhammad Ali came back to me and by this time I was no longer 10. I was 13,” she said smiling naughtily. The audience hooted. “He came back and said to me, ‘I changed my name to Muhammad Ali.’ I told him, ‘Now go and live that great name.’”

She told us how Muhammad Ali would spend days outside her house. He even stayed overnight outside once. “I was 16 and I said, ‘What do you want, man!’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going to be my wife.’ I said, ‘But you didn’t ask me?’ He said, ‘I found out that if I ask you, you’ll say no, so I don’t want to ask you!’” When he proposed to her and asked her parents for her hand in marriage, her dad asked, “Do you have a job?” Muhammad Ali had just been banned from boxing and his titles were taken away. “He said he had no job but he had a car!” Everyone laughed. Khalilah, talking about a legend in the making, whispered to her father, “Dad, he’s got potential. I think we’re going to be all right!” The gathering laughed again. “My Dad said to me, ‘you’re not supposed to marry someone who hasn’t got a job. But I change my mind.’ I asked, ‘Dad, why did you change your mind?’ he replied, ‘Because when you make up your mind you don’t change yours, so I changed mine!’ So we got married.”

Khalilah remembers her husband as warm and funny. “He had the ability to make everyone feel happy and he was kind to everyone.” She was married to Muhammad Ali for 10 years and has six children by him and her eldest daughter is a writer and a poet. In the gathering there were at least three people called Ali. Khalilah held them affectionately. She signed a picture of herself and Muhammad Ali as newlyweds.

She reminisces, “I asked Muhammad Ali once, ‘everyone admires you and wants to be like you, but who do you admire?’ he said, ‘I wish I could be half as strong as you.’” She added, “He always supported women’s rights. He was not a misogynist.” Khalilah too was a role model for Muslim women and for women’s rights, acknowledged Doreen.

Khalilah had been invited to Pakistan by Mahomed Akbar Khan, originally a Yusufzai Pathan, whose grandfather migrated to South Africa in the 1900s. Now settled in the US, Mahomed runs the goodwill initiative, ‘Star Power Offering Peace and Prosperity’. His noble aim is to allure stars to draw people’s attention to human suffering and needs. In this trip, he told me, he took Khalilah to see and help orphan girls in various charities looking after 4,000 Pakistani orphans.

“When the world finds out that Muhammad Ali’s wife visited Pakistan, they will know the reality that it is safe here. We don’t like the misperception of Pakistan as an incubation of terrorism. Part of the trip is to bridge the gap between this terribly mean misperception. Every nation has its fringe group. Parts of Chicago are so dangerous,” said Mahomed, to which Khalilah added, “It’s so dangerous there, people eat on the floor because you can get shot.” However, Mahomed assured, “But of course, this is not the image of America.” After a pause he added, “USAID, USIP, etc, fund good projects in Pakistan like orphanages and peace projects, which shows they care. This is the real spirit of America. I think that America and its people are very diverse and beautiful people, just as Pakistan and Pakistanis are both diverse and beautiful. No one side should stereotype the other.”

He thoughtfully added, “Pakistanis are very resilient and there are gems amongst them who really care about helping society and solving human problems. Pakistanis genuinely care about the wellbeing of others. When the wife of the world’s number one heavyweight champion comes to Pakistan where she also has roots, this is peace, as it changes misperceptions.” He informed Khalilah “was extremely pleased by people’s warmth, genuine love and admiration for Ali. She was embraced warmly and even flew a plane under the aegis of the Pakistan Air Force. From America, she flew thousands of miles all the way to help orphans, so the message is for those who live closer to reach out and help human suffering.”

At a time when the Pakistan-US relations seem to be utterly fragile, Khalilah’s visit highlighted the unity and warmth that can be possible between people of different nations. What touched me also was that Khalilah was so humble. She reached out to everyone, regardless of who they were. When young waiters of Khiva Restaurant, who were catering that evening, came up to her for a photograph she politely obliged. That evening there were no divisions between the rich and the poor, between Pakistanis and Americans — there was affection, there was trust, there was friendship.

Blessed are the peace-builders as they are the bridges that help heal our shared, but troubled, world. Muhammed Ali and Khalilah also represent the finest in Islam — they are people who embrace others with genuine warmth and affection; Muhammad Ali is revered not only in America, but across the world. Perhaps he is loved not so much for his trophies as much as for his outstanding character as he understood the human need to accept others as they are and reach out to them.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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The Sharif divide

The political and governance impasse continues to tighten its grip on Islamabad. As political uncertainty grows it seems to have got the better of PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who appears shackled and cannot act on his own initiative. The decision-making toolkit hitherto remains with the ousted PM who has centralised control to a point where he looks reluctant to trust his comrade with even the conduct of day-to-day affairs.

Despite the temporary silencing of guns between the civilian and security establishment, governance as a matter of priority remains sidelined. The sole focus of the ruling party is on its political survival and winning the next elections.

Amid the general chaos the fact which is emerging with certainty is that key members of the PML-N, including PM Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son along with certain party stalwarts like Chaudhry Nisar, Khawaja Asif and Raja Zafarul Haq are distancing themselves from the party hawks led by Nawaz Sharif and his daughter whose allegations about their ouster are growing more outlandish. Saner voices within the party are constantly warning the father-daughter duo to avoid walking the familiar path of direct confrontation with the military establishment and the judiciary. Hamza Shehbaz in a recent TV interview advised them to give up the bellicose rhetoric against the establishment and solely focus on roping in the next election through prudence and strategy. The two factions clearly do not see eye-to-eye on the matter and convergence seems to be a forgotten goal.

To analyse the productivity of the current government, let us settle on the attendance of the federal ministers and other officials, including private sector individuals in Pakistan secretariat as a metric or criterion, before and after the emergence of the Panama leaks. Gone are the days when the secretariat used to be jampacked with regular meetings at all levels mulling over matters of the state. The entire focus of the incumbent PM is nested in securing the Senate election for Nawaz Sharif due next May and subsequently the 2018 general elections.

The optics in Islamabad is despairing. An indicted finance minister is unwilling to resign and the PM is finding it impossible to directly ask for his abdication due to his relationship with the former PM. To ratchet up the pressure for his resignation, however, the minister has been stripped off important portfolios, including the privilege to chair the Economic Coordination Committee; a sure-fire sign of frustration on the part of the incumbent prime minister.

Pitifully vying for relevance at the domestic level, the interior minister recently resorted to a strongly worded condemnation of the DG ISPR over the latter’s comments on the economic situation of the country at an economic forum. To be fair, the concept of security is inseparable from political stability, economic success and social harmony; and the general was not wrong in highlighting the plight of the putrefying economic mess that the country is currently marinating in. The fact of the matter is that the government is audaciously refusing to accept the feeble economic condition and is trying to face paint it with detestable figure fudging. Rising debt and rampant corruption are not restricted to the realm of economy only but are inextricably intertwined with national security. Even if it is assumed that the military really is overstepping its mandate, it must be understood that it is the incompetence and complacency of the last two civilian governments that invited the establishment to fill the yawning vacuum of failed governance.

The coming months are perhaps filled with the ominous promise of more turbulence and political upheaval. Amongst looming trials, brewing family feuds and a threat of family’s dynastical hold changing hands within the kin, the PML-N hardly seems like the answer to our prayers. Optimists will keep hoping for better times. Hope, truly, has little to do with reason.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2017.

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