Religion / 10.01.2016

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say,...

Politics / 28.08.2013

By Anjum Altaf A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives. At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that...

Behavior / 20.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. Religion Imagine a role reversal in which the man who allegedly emerged naked from the bathroom of a $3,000 a night hotel room in Manhattan had been an Arab Sheikh who attempted to flee after the incident and the maid who was allegedly pounced upon, dragged around and forced to perform oral sex had been a French Jew. Would the media coverage, including the commentary on the blogosphere, have been the same? Or would religion have been a much bigger issue, with extensions to its relationship to the oppression of women, respect for law, the clash of civilizations, and latent hostility to Judaism? It is impossible to say for sure but it is difficult to imagine...

Behavior / 09.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities. The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes.I do know for certain of women who have internalized patriarchy to the extent that its weakening makes them insecure, the lessening of domination...

Behavior / 03.04.2011

By Anjum Altaf Prayer, superstition, luck, talent, effort, unity, professionalism – what was it that won the Cricket World Cup in the end? I am reasonably convinced it was some combination of the last five; all the more reason for a fascination with the first two that were so visibly on display. What exactly is the role of prayer and superstition in our lives? Why do we resort to these devices? How seriously are we to take them? Are they harmful or harmless? A whole host of questions wait to be asked and addressed. At one level, there is a simple explanation. Any endeavor where the stakes are high and the outcome depends on some element of chance gives rise to nervousness and anxiety. And these feelings need to be assuaged. While participants in the endeavor can focus on the rigors of preparation and the demands of...

Behavior / 18.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about. Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture” Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person as one who...

Behavior / 21.11.2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage. The principal conclusions are the following: Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. The changes are usually advocated by a small group of opinion leaders or role models and adopted by a small set of social rebels or dissidents. Wide adoption by people who may or may not have thought consciously about the values result in the changes being incorporated at the level of society. Variations in behavior become acceptable when social taboos erode and often a new...

Religion / 17.11.2010

Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind. INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable? FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house.
Behavior / 20.06.2010

By Anjum Altaf We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement. A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting point of...

Behavior / 24.05.2010

What are the determinants of our choices? Vijay Vikram’s post on Arundhati Roy evolved into a discussion on whether the natural resources in tribal lands ought to be mined in the existing conditions. After over a hundred comments, we are better aware of the issues involved but still left with many unanswered questions. In this post I propose a thought experiment that would explore in more detail the factors that can influence our choices in such matters. The difficulty in using real life cases (like that of mining in tribal lands) is that they are characterized by ambiguities and uncertainties that influence our thinking about them. For example, in the case under discussion we do not know the extent to which the tribals are willing partners, the extent to which they are being coerced by external agents, the extent to which the state and the mining companies can be trusted, and the extent to which the resources extracted would actually be used for the welfare of the tribals.