Monday, September 27, 2010

TBR: Last Week In Charts

So I’m trying out a new kind of post: compressing the week gone by into charts.

Why am I doing this? Maybe because it makes the three of us look smart. But mostly because it’s amusing and I admit I wanted to test out some new graphs and models before I tried them out at work.

The events I chose from the past week are as follows, listed by alphabets:

A. Ejaz Butt and his foot-in-mouth moment;
B. Petrol scarcity across Pakistan;
C. Violence in Karachi following the murder of Imran Farooq;
D. SC -warranted arrests of Brig. Imtiaz, former head of Intelligence Bureau/OGDC MD;
E. PPP reconsiders alliance with MQM;
F. Pakistan’s economic ranking falls;
G. PILDAT study of MNA assets and reaction from politicians;
H. Faculties protest, shut down universities over higher ed. cuts;
I. Introduction of private high treason bill in NA;
J. PAC denied information over ambiguous ISI spending;
K. NATO admits to pursuing militants across Pakistan border;
L. PM discusses future of Pakistan with Bilawal;
M. Alliance of PML factions suggested;
N. Musharraf reported to enjoy widespread support in Pakistan;
O. Indian FO offers talks with Pakistan over Kashmir;
P. Aafia Siddiqui sentenced to 86 years in jail;
Q. New competition bill passed;
R. Minister Jatoi sacked for remarks on Army, CJ; and
S. NRO beneficiaries reported to face axe.


First, here’s graph 1, which maps out the progression of political drama as the week went by (click image to enlarge).

How to read the graph: The high-drama events are shown by a dark-blue bar that heads upwards. The low-drama events (the ones you would want to see hyped, debated and deliberated but weren’t) are shown by lighter-blue bars headed downwards from the top of the dark-blue bars, cutting into the total drama. The letters used in the list above correspond to the relevant bars in the graph.

So, some interesting points to note: drama last week was at its lowest when university faculty rallied against cuts to higher education funding, shutting down university campuses across the country. At the same time during the week, the opposition introduced a rather controversial bill that, if passed, would allow citizens to initiate legal proceedings against individuals for high treason.

The high point, on the other hand, comes at the end of the week: with news that Pakistanis now support Musharraf overwhelmingly being followed by the Afia Siddiqui verdict, Minister Jatoi’s sacking and the news that NRO beneficiaries may be headed out of the government.

At the end of it all, we see that cumulative drama was +190, which shows that our politicians are drama queens and we are a willing audience.


Now let’s translate this graph into another (graph 2) to see how hype corresponded with actual significance (click image to enlarge).

In this graph, look at quadrant IV – here are the usual suspects: higher education, the economy and changes to legal frameworks. These are all aspects that actually count and make a difference in the way the state interacts with people.

Quadrant II has important political developments, which actually shows that about half the things causing a frenzy last week were actually important.

Then there’s quadrant I: the useless consultations with Bilawal, Ejaz Butt putting the proverbial foot in the mouth, issues of sovereignty as NATO admits to crossing over the Pakistan border (face it, it’s probably happened before) and, of course, Afia Siddiqui. These are the things that captured our imaginations but had little real significance.


The lesson: I’ll leave you free to draw your conclusions. But there’s one overarching lesson – obvious but often forgotten – to be drawn from all of this: that the developments that draw the least attention in the media and the political scene are often the ones most significant.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Standing Up for the Wrong Reasons

While surfing the news this morning I came across two stories dominating the American news scene which were focused on the ‘radical’ perspective.

First, BBC’s headline ‘Obama condemns Koran burning plan’ and in the subsequent two lines that follow the headline to draw the reader in ‘US President Barack Obama says a small church's plans to burn the Koran are a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaeda.’ Now while I applaud President Obama’s stance to condemn such an awful, disgusting act the take away point here is not the ‘recruitment bonanza’ the Al-Qaeda is going to have. The planned burning of the Quran is a slap in the face of every Muslim not only in America but everywhere around the world. It is wrong to do because it is insensitive, disrespectful and quite honestly appalling to even be thought of. It is also furthers the growing misconception in America of equating Islam and Muslims with terrorism.

Now to be fair, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda members do claim to be Muslims but as far I or any other Muslim with half a brain are concerned, they are the farthest thing from it, and we must make a concentrated effort for people to realize that. By burning the Quran to denounce terrorism, one automatically equates the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims as terrorists. That is wrong, and that is why this pastor should be stopped, by persuasion and legal methods of course. What the international media and in particular the American media seems to be focusing on is that the pastor should be stopped so as not to add further fuel to fire that is Al-Qaeda. The impression that one gets is that the main and perhaps only reason to not burn the Qurans is so that Al-Qaeda doesn’t have more incentive to carry out attacks. The fact that American lives are at risk more because of this is an unfortunate truth, and it is not just American lives, Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis suffer the most casualties as far as terrorism is concerned.

But that is not a reason to do anything, one point I do agree with this deranged Florida pastor on is that we cannot bend to the terrorists will. So don’t take their feelings into consideration. Don’t burn the Quran because it is wrong, not because it will cause Al-Qaeda and others to have more incentive carry out more attacks, but because you offend an entire population of 1.2 billion people. In fairness to President Obama, I do believe that was his main point, and he added the ‘recruitment bonanza’ point as a side note, but that is the point the press seemed to latch upon.

The second piece of news that I came across was in relation to the ongoing saga ‘Park 51’ or the ‘Ground Zero mosque’. Now enough has been said and written about this already but this latest piece in the New York times describes how again the Imam of the mosque says that changing of location could ‘spur radicals’. Refer to all arguments above for why the focus of any policy decision should not take the Al-Qaeda perspective into consideration. Park 51 should not be moved because the developers have every constitutional right to build a community center. It is further away from ground zero than a prayer center that already exists, and about the same proximity to ground zero as some fast food joints amongst other things.

But you all have heard these arguments before, the point here is that why is the Imam talking about how Al-Qaeda will react to changing the location. If we start to thinking about what the radicals want in every step of our lives, might as well move to Mecca for the rest of our lives. Just a sidenote about the imam, described as at one point radical by various American news channel, he closed his Larry King Live interview from which the New York Times article was based on by wishing all Jews a happy Rosh Hashana. Wow, real radical stuff there Imam.

The purpose of the article is not to undermine the threat that radicals pose. President Obama and Imam Rauf are probably spot on in their thinking of how the Al-Qaeda and similar organizations will react to the burning of the Quran or moving of Park 51, but we cannot let that dictate how a policy decision should be made, one way or the other.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Top 10: Myths About Pakistan's Cricket Scandal

As Pakistan's cricketers find themselves in a hole due to spot-fixing charges, a disappointed fan base has gone from being angry, to being ashamed, and finally into downright denial about the whole episode. I'm not saying the cricketers are guilty, but there is plenty of evidence, and unfortunately most of it points in one direction. Here are ten things I've heard, all of whom portray an incorrect version of what is going on. Most of it is common sense, but then not a lot of people seem to see through that lens when it comes to cricket.

10. The 'innocent until proven guilty' defense. 

How wonderfully convenient. Going by this logic, guess who else is innocent? Yeah, this guy:

Also, innocent until proven guilty?
How many of us have not taken potshots at him in the last 2.5 years? Didn't quite remember the golden ideal of law then did we? There is enough evidence against Butt & co. to guarantee an interrogation by EVERYONE - that means the media and you and me.

9. This is an elaborate conspiracy to bring down Pakistan cricket.

Unless I was sleeping all this time, Pakistan isn't the West Indian team of the 80s or the Aussies of the previous decade. In fact, this is a team that has won a grand total of 1 Test match in the last 3 years, until this summer. There does not need to be a conspiracy to bring them down. They're pretty down already.

8. This ALWAYS happens to us on tours to England.

For starters, we've been accused of ball-tampering in England, but never of match-fixing. In any case when something wrong does happen to us on tours to England, we've fought for it and come out on the winning side. At the Oval in 2006 Inzamam took the right stand, because he was innocent, and eventually Pakistan cricket came out with its head held high. Ditto Wasim and Waqar in 1992 and Imran vs Botham before. If Butt & co. were innocent, they would've done an Inzamam and come out with guns blazing protesting their innocence. Instead, the crisis is a good 7 days old and not yet have any of the accused come out and said three simple words: 'I am innocent'. That says alot.

7. News of the World is a trashy tabloid. Don't believe in it.

Contrary to popular opinion, Mazhar Majeed did not come on the media's radar via NotW. He came on it via good ol' Jang. In a report on July 27th, veteran journalist Abdul Majid Bhatti clearly pointed at Majeed and warned that he was involved in match-fixing with the team. So the buck started at home, not NoTW. In any case, Mazhar Mahmood, the reporter at NoTW, who uncovered this saga, has a pretty good resume in this craft. He has helped blow the lid of British parliamentarians and the country's immigration policy amongst other things. Most of these stories proved to be true. So I wouldn't base my opinion simply around a newspaper's reputation.

6. The video could have been dated after the no-balls were bowled.

Does it not occur to anyone that if we were smart enough to think of this point, it would also be the FIRST thing the Scotland Yard might have also looked at? Unless, you think the Yard is also part of the conspiracy, at which point you should stop reading this.

5. This is a RAW conspiracy to use Indian bookies and bring down Pakistan.

Head, meet wall.

4. Mohammed Aamer is a kid, he didn't know what he was doing.

My 12-year old sister thinks what Aamer did was wrong. If she can think of this, so can Aamer. Should he be banned for life? I don't think he will, because the ICC's laws take past record and a player's age into account, but for God's sake, stop pretending as if he's a little kid who did not know what he was doing. If anything his precocious talent and off-field interviews show that he's not a naive, shorts-wearing, lollipop-eating infant many in Pakistan are projecting him as.

3. A lack of education and a village background is responsible for corrupting cricketers.

Two words: Salman Butt. The alleged ringleader of this scam is an educated, relatively affluent Lahori boy from Beaconhouse (one of Pakistan's best schools). Greed is universal, not restricted by education or income. In any case, saying that what Asif and Aamer did was because they were raised in a village is an insult to the 60% of Pakistan's population who live in rural areas, and make a living of honest means.

Not very uneducated, or is he?
2. It's just 4 or 6 guys, the rest are OK.

If it was so easy for an 18-year old to cheat, I doubt if someone older and more experienced wouldn't dab into this once in a while. This is when you feel sorry for Butt & co. Everyone was doing it forever, it was just they who got caught.

1. Pakistan cricket is ruined.

In my 15 years as a fan I have seen Pakistan cricket 'ruined' more times than I can remember (often in the space of a few months!). Each time we grew a crop of talented players, beat an England or an Australia, won a tournament or two and all was good. Rest assured, it's gonna be this way again. As the 'who-the-hell-is-she' individual in this scenario, Asif's ex-girlfriend Veena Malik, says, there is a 'Mohamamd Asif in every street of Pakistan'. She's right ( though I feel highly disturbed at the thought of agreeing with her). Point is, we lost a couple of fast bowlers, we'll get more. If we can replace Wasim and Waqar within months of their retirement, we can replace Asif and Aamer in much, much less time. Have some faith.

In the end, just to clarify, I'm not passing a judgement on the players' fate. I just feel those defending them need to be more creative (and realistic).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Case for Pakistani Authors in Op-Ed Pages

Among the aspects of the international coverage of Pakistan's catastrophic floods appears to be an increased appetite for perspective from the country's stellar cast of fiction writers. Hence, opinion pages of the New York Times, The Guardian and the Financial Times have recently featured the likes of Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie.

This makes for interesting reading, primarily because much of the conversation in the Western press usually revolves around the country's militancy problem, and is thus dictated by journalists, political scientists and policy-makers.

The writers trained in those disciplines provide great insight and analysis, but are often hampered by an inability to capture the humanitarian angle. Some rely exclusively on cold, hard numbers (i.e. 20% of Pakistan is under water), others use a token quote from a randomly-selected subject. The focus is on establishing facts. The faces that make up those facts don't really figure.

That makes for compelling reading for someone who goes through 12 newspapers everyday and understands the difference between North and South Waziristan. But for the vast majority who don't, such analysis is informative but disengaging, and thus ultimately ineffective.

Which is why during a tragedy as vast and destructive as the floods, it is good to see fiction writers capturing the raw humanity of the crisis in thoughtful prose. It might be fluff for those who formulate policy, but for the rest of the world it is eye-opening and often underpins donor aid, based on the sheer emotion it elicits.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Cafe Pyala recently featured an argument against the exclusivity (a valid claim but one that I feel has more to do with the international reputation of the authors rather than a bias against others) and naivety of fiction writers on opinion pages. The core of this argument was:
The more insidious problem is that some of these writers end up believing their own hype and think they actually have it all figured out, going beyond humanizing stories with anecdotes and observation to presenting solutions. So we have Shamsie blaming these floods on the timber mafia, Hanif trying to make a point against the Taliban scare by claiming that there is no indigenous word for terrorism in Sindhi or Seraiki, and Mueenuddin raising the specter of the radicalization of and revolution by the displaced and hungry to explain why those people should be helped out.
In a way Pyala is correct. Those solutions are not backed by facts or meticulous analysis. They are simplistic, and often, miss the point altogether.

What they do though, is broaden the narrative about Pakistan for those in the West who don't have an interest in its complexities. Let's put it this way: say you're a casual reader who comes across an op-ed about Lithuania written by an economist. He describes in detail the bond spreads, balance of payments and industrial productivity of the country. Assuming you don't have a sound grip over economics,how much of this would you take away at the end of the article?

Hence, when Hamid says that the tax net should be broadened, an economist might nitpick at the simplicity of his statement (like I do), but I don't believe it is wrong, either. If anything, I believe the average reader might pay more attention to it if it comes on the back of his vivid observation of inequality, rather than a purely economic argument I might make.

A further example of this comes during an anecdote in Ali Sethi's journey in a flood-ravaged part of the country, published last week in the New York Times. He writes:
In one place our car ran into the flood. It was swallowing the road. There was another way out — a six-hour drive west to the city of Quetta. Unfortunately, Baluch separatists had struck: they were stopping vehicles, pulling out Punjabi passengers and shooting them. Most of the men in our crew weren’t Punjabis, and they took that route. But I am a Punjabi, as are two of the reporters, and we had to find another way.
This identifies a problem of critical importance, ethnic disconnect, contextualized in a manner that embeds it into the current conversation about the floods. As a result, it also introduces the issue into the wider discourse on Pakistan, specifically amongst the uninformed, but also amongst those who might have lost sight of it in lieu of the more pressing issue.

Perhaps such a matter could have been explained better by a historian or a political scientist. 9 out of 10 times  it probably would have been entrusted to them. But in the backdrop of a human tragedy, and with Pakistan's sympathy deficit as it is, let's just say I'd rather have Mohammed Hanif on the op-ed pages than Ayesha Siddiqa.