Terrorism / 12.10.2017

By Anjum Altaf Could it be argued that there are good and bad extremists just as there are good and bad Muslims? If so, the proposal to identify extremists in universities might be misplaced. Extremism has become conflated with violence and terrorism which is a partial interpretation. The dictionary defines extremism as “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable” which widens the scope for a more nuanced understanding. Put that neutral definition together with the observation of Bertrand Russell that “the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger” and that “it is mistake to think that the majority is necessarily right” and one can argue that almost all human progress has been due to extremists who have challenged the moribund ideas of majorities. Think of Galileo  or of the injunction to learn even if...

Education / 20.06.2017

By Sara Fatima This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem ('An ignoramus par excellence,' The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system. In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the...

Reflections / 31.01.2015

By Anjum Altaf in Economic and Political Weekly If grief were cumulative we would have been crushed under its weight by now. Not that one wishes it so. I would go as far as to say that grief should not become a permanent burden. Therefore I have mixed feelings when I hear the young at vigils vowing never to forget. How much can they remember and what will come of all this remembering? I feel fortunate we can regroup because only then do we have the strength to act – that is, if we wish to and know how. Grief has power because it binds us together, gives collective voice to our outrage, and infuses in us the desire to fight back. But the outrage should avoid being channeled into feelings of anger or vengeance. Grief born of violence begetting yet more violence traps us in an endless cycle....

Reflections / 12.07.2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly Individuals picked off, gone – strangers, friends of friends, friends, relatives – some for who they were, others for straying in the way. Names etched in memories – Ali Haider, Faisal Manzoor, Mehdi Ali, Rashed Rehman, Irfan Ali, Farzana Parveen, Perveen Rehman… The public, incapacitated – benumbed, indifferent, does it matter? Instead, shrill voices of love and hate troll predictably, pressing stale arguments into uncomplaining service. The telephone rings. A voice from afar: -- Time to give up now? We have gone to bed often with this question only to wake up irresolute, buying time, cursing broken promises, comforting fading hopes. Is love denial? Is hate the absence of understanding? Is there truth beyond love and hate? Can we look at ourselves, own what stares back at us, and find reasons to hope? On one side, history – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the journey...

Behavior / 19.06.2014

By Anjum Altaf Feudalism never existed outside of Europe. Scholars of South Asia use the term ‘feudalism’ to refer to something that in its classical form in late medieval and early modern Europe was something quite different. That in general is the tenor of the comments I have received in response to my assertion that women in South Asia suffer under the persistence of feudal values. This is a very old debate and I don’t really have a quarrel with the criticism. It has a place in scholarly exchanges but in popular parlance in South Asia the term feudal has acquired the status of a short-cut description for a particular set of values. This set of values is well recognized and understood by participants in a discussion. I could very easily have cast the whole argument without any reference to feudalism at all but would then have had...

Behavior / 18.06.2014

By Anjum Altaf A sentence from Dubliners leapt out at me: He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her. This is the narrator’s observation in the story ‘A Painful Case’ from an Ireland of a hundred years ago. My mind couldn’t help being drawn to the South Asia of today. A narrator’s observation could easily have been as follows: “He had dismissed his wife entirely from his gallery of pleasures yet he did not cease to suspect that everyone else would take an interest in her.” One could argue around the margins without denying a recognizable truth – a wide gulf separates the attitudes. Replace wife with any female relative and gallery of pleasures with realm of interest and one would be staring at a fair characterization of our contemporary milieu in...

Cities/Urban / 20.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. Almost every news report in the election season makes...

South Asia / 20.03.2013

By Anjum Altaf March 8 was International Women’s Day about which I have two stories to narrate. They are from the heart of affluent Pakistan by virtue of the accident that I live on a university campus situated in an upscale urban residential district of Lahore. The first story, the short one, is situated in what is generally acknowledged as the premier private university in the country. A group of students organized the ‘I Need Feminism…’ campaign in which individuals complete the sentence on a placard before uploading a photograph on social media. ‘I Need Feminism because I want to wear shorts in public’ was one of the placards that went up briefly before it was taken down because of threats to the bearer and the organizers from inside and outside the university. The second story, the longer one, involves a woman who works in the complex of...

South Asia / 10.03.2013

By Anjum Altaf Why is there so much more political and ideological violence in South Asian countries compared to, say, France? This may seem like a simplistic or irrelevant question but the typical answers that it elicits could help uncover the complexities inherent in the phenomenon. The discussion in this post is focused on the violence that is inflicted within a country by one set of individuals on another for reasons to do with differences in political ideas or ideological beliefs. We are sidestepping the type of violence that was covered in an earlier post, violence that has less to do with differences in ideas and beliefs and more with the exploitation, for personal gain or satisfaction, of an imbalance of power – violence against women, children, and workers being typical examples.
South Asia / 17.02.2013

Trying to Make Sense in Lahore of a Rape in Delhi By Anjum Altaf A very high level of social violence is endemic in South Asia, so high it is invisible at most times. We see it only when the peculiarity of specific incidents throws it into sharp relief. Much hand wringing follows treating the incident as an aberration, blaming it on this or that, missing the truth by a mile, remaining as blind as ever. The rape in Delhi is the latest such incident and we have explanations ranging from patriarchy, commoditization of the female body, decline of morals, jobs lost by unemployed men, and the like. But all these exist or have transpired elsewhere without the same kind of fallout. What we need to focus on and explain is the high level of social violence in general – there is one reported rape every 22 minutes...