Sunday, September 28, 2014

What does one say to Karen Armstrong?

In her recent article in The Guardian titled The Myth of Religious Violence , Karen Armstrong uses a ‘careful’ selection from mostly European/Western history to prove her thesis that religious violence is a result of secular pushback. She begins with references to ISIS and its recent atrocities but then quickly moves on to crusades and the Christian Europe.

She speaks for the 4.3 billion people of this world who are actively engaged in practicing one religion or the other. I speak for the rest of the 2.7 billion who, for various reasons, choose to remain ‘irreligious’.

Yes ‘Irreligious’ is a real term. A very broad very secular term fit to define anyone and everyone who has an issue with ‘fundamentals’ of any and every religion. Whether you are an explicit atheist or an implicit atheist; anticlerical, anti-religion or antitheist; agnostic or ignostic; non-theist, religious skeptic or of free thought, ‘Irreligious’ encompasses you. In short it is a continuously evolving term capable of incorporating the rapidly growing thought of ‘Irreligion’.

The Narrow Perspective
It is a fact that world’s ‘Irreligious’ population is on the rise. A 2012 Pew Research demographic study on Religion & Public Life terms 16% (1.1 billion) of the world’s population as ‘religiously unaffiliated’. Add to it the 23% who call themselves ‘not religious’ and the tally comes to 39% of the 7 billion occupants of this planet. That, to me, is a number worth respecting when one decides to comment upon the relationship between religion and society.

In Ms. Armstrong’s case, one also needs to carefully investigate history before determining parameters of discussion. Her references to ‘religion’ include only the most modern, popular, organized religions which suggests a failure to understand the difference between the need of religious thought for a human mind and the creation of organized religion to exploit that need.

Simple or Irresponsible?
To assume that the progression and evolution of human civilization can be summed up by analyzing pro-religious and anti-religious thought without investigating the purpose behind their origin is rather simplistic, to say the least. Even more simplistic is the effort to draw parallels between the modern state (intrinsically subject to change and adjustment with time) and organized religion (innately resistant to modification and revision).

However, what bothers me the most is Ms. Armstrong’s missionary quest to defend organized religion through ‘reasonable interpretation’ thus sending a ‘feel good’ message to those who are religious but religiously ignorant. For example when she writes:
“…the bedrock message of the Quran is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society…” she fails to mention that all ‘messages’ in Quran are specific to the creation and strengthening of an ‘Islamic Society’ and within that society Quran dictates gender discrimination in matters of wealth & property and human rights. I am not sure if Ms. Armstrong comprehends the acutely disturbing fact that in today’s world an overwhelming majority of religious individuals is absolutely unaware of the content and message of the faith they follow. It is therefore extremely erroneous and irresponsible to select and present things out of context.

Violence within Religion
Barring Buddhism (religious status controversial) there is none among the popular religions of the world without a sizeable history of propagation through violence. Islam stays ahead by allowing use of both passive and aggressive violence to ensure implementation and practice. From wife and child beating to chopping of limbs to confinement and starvation till death, Quran’s instructions are clear and simple when permitting violence. In addition Islam’s stance on gender discrimination is one of the major reasons for aggressive confrontation.   

Ms. Armstrong’s intentions are not clear to me, but I do want to bring to her attention the brutal power of religion by reminding her that though 4th December 2013 marked 184th anniversary of Bengal Sati Regulation (banning the ritual of burning the surviving Hindu brides with their dead husbands) the last reported case of Sati in India was as recent as October 2008. I also wonder how Ms. Armstrong feels about the ‘pedophilialaw passed by the Iranian parliament in 2013.

I am not a religious scholar so I cannot tell how a religious scholar and author of two dozen books manages to ignore the obvious to the extent of calling it a myth.

The Delicate Matter of Interpretation
Interpreting religion is not a liberal art though often treated as such which results into misinformation and self-contradiction. The desire to find universal messages in scripture or to justify it through desired interpretation is not unique to Karen Armstrong. The greater majority of urban Pakistani Muslims have taken to creating their own definition of Islam, bending it every which way in order to justify their religious adherence while keeping pace with the changing times. One can choose to ignore such examples but one cannot ignore the ever growing number of Christian denominations, Islamic sects and Jewish movements.
The fact is that:
  • Interpretation has repeatedly been used as the tool to steer religion in the preferred direction of a given society.
  • Religious dogma has always prevented consensus thus causing splits and rifts in thought and community.

Unless one is prepared to offer a viable method of endorsing a fragmented global structure where each thread that frays away from its religious fabric can efficiently exist as an independent concept, I’m afraid secularism remains a necessity.

Status-quo in Religion
Growth of a religion does not mean growth of the religious thought. It is only a reference to the growing number of its followers. From the very onset conversion and adherence to organized religion was made possible through preaching and not teaching. Since submission to one blind faith or the other is essential to all such doctrines, an absolute abandoning of inquiry, research, debate and experiment was crucial to produce compliant following.  Inquisitive learning was therefore most unsuited for the survival of the religious ideals which offered predetermined goals and little or no room for change. Once out of their initial stages various religious orders settled for using procreation as a more convenient method of perpetuation making religion a part of the inherited goods.

Today people belong to a faith not because they understand and accept it but because they are born in it. Predictably, where this method added numbers to the ranks of each religion it diminished the need to know the content. 

Need for Secularism
Studies show that over 82% of the 2 billion Christians in the world will not read the bible in their lifetime. This, considering the fact that 50% of them live in highly developed countries with next to perfect literacy rates and easy access to scripture. As for Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world, more than 90% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in extremely poor third world countries with weak economics, nonexistent civil liberties and literacy rate in single digits; for them reading the Quran will not be an option.  In both the cases though, paternity will determine the religion of the newborn. Secularism is the need of that newborn.

‘Religion by birth’ has created a breed which wears its religious affiliation as a name tag only. This is a generation more in tune with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and finds it difficult to identify with Islamic polygamy, Hindu cast system and Christian condemnation of homosexuality. Secularism is the need of this generation.  

Each passing day adds 172,800 lives to this planet, each passing day brings forth new intricate, diverse and complex societies and each passing day further accelerates the pace of sociocultural evolution. Secularism is the need of this evolution.

Religions have grown; and so has the world population, poverty and global warming and none sadly, is the result of intelligent, informed and educated decisions. In fact studies project that Intelligence and religious belief have a negative relationship. Secularism, therefore, is the need of intelligence.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Someone should tell Imran Khan to Stop!

And I don’t mean the ‘dharna’.

Ignoring the facts that:
  • The ‘dharna’ has contributed more than 1 trillion rupees to the nation’s cumulative loss.
  • The public school system in Islamabad remains paralyzed
  • All hands are needed in areas with high floods threatening lives and property
  • Islamabad is hit by the worst wave of consumer goods inflation
  • And last but not least
  • The camping area smells like a public latrine…  

      Still, I’m afraid, he does have a ‘democratic right to protest’ against King Nawaz Sharif.  Every adverse outcome can therefore be listed under ‘collateral damage’.

      But someone should tell Imran Khan to stop!

·         From referring to himself as ‘kaptan’: Someone should tell him that PTI is not a sports team of 14 carefully selected cricketers who excel at the game. It cannot and does not work as cohesively and can and did show rifts and tears as soon as two weeks into the now one month old ‘dharna’. 

·         From mentioning how he created Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital: Someone should tell him that Pakistan is a country, not a cancer hospital and countries cannot be created (or recreated) through fundraising because you wish & want to honor the memory of a dear departed and people think it is a noble cause.

·         From reading out accusatory data of property prices and unpaid tax numbers against politicians who do not belong to PTI: because it’s extremely easy to find similar rats within PTI; in fact, when on top of his container, Mr. Khan is very often winged by such vermin.

And most importantly,
·         Someone should tell Imran Khan to stop bragging about 28% of KPK budget being earmarked for education for two reasons:

1.  Pakistani public schools do not ‘educate’ students; they barely make them ‘literate’.
2.  We live in a system where successes and failures are determined by ‘inheritance’ NOT ‘literacy’.

I am not convinced that Mr. Khan understands how exactly inheritance works when he is denouncing hereditary trends among politicians, within governments and within political parties.

Inheritance is not rocket science. It is a material concept and the most unjust means of transfer of wealth and power in the world integrally linked to class stratification. Let’s just explain it here using Imran Khan’s assets declaration below.

      Take for example, the two assets circled in red. Going by the price of the 6.8 kanal plot which Mr. Khan bought himself for Rs.5.05 million (50 lakh 50 thousand), it is easy to calculate the value of the ‘gifted’ property of 300 kanals to Rs.222 million (22 carore); and that is while ignoring the additional value of 10,000 square feet of, assumingly, excellent construction. This calculation alone adds almost Rs.217 million to the measly amount of Rs.6.225 million displayed above.

      This and the rest with it, is the wealth which will be transferred to Imran Khan’s children. Whether they are educated or illiterate, talented or stupid, play cricket or poker! Whether they live in Bani Gala or Turks and Caicos, marry Muslims or Buddhists, become politicians or acrobats; this wealth rightfully belongs to them or so says inheritance. Exactly the same way 2,538 acres of Bhutto estate and the 50+ properties on Asif Zardari’s assets declaration rightfully belong to Bilawal, Asifa & Bakhtawar and Ittefaq Industries, foundries, Jati Umra estate and other similar stuff rightfully belongs to Hassan, Hussain, Maryam, Asma, Hamza and all. The difference in size of these ‘lists’ of inherited & to be inherited assets does not change the fact that these people own wealth which they did not work for, did not pay for, but which hugely contributes towards making them rich in a way that offsets the economic balance within a society.

      Sometimes it takes one generation and sometimes a few more but inheritance has always proved to be the most determined and determining factor in accumulation of wealth. It is also the strongest non-market practice perpetuating capitalism.

      Imran Khan’s updated assets disclosure on PTI website lists fourteen ‘immovable assets’ out of which ten are inherited and/or gifted. This means that more than 70% of his immovable property just dropped in his lap. He is young and looking to marry so there is every chance that this list gets at least doubled by the time it drops in the laps of his children.
     The dozen ‘homes’ owned by Jehangir Tareen will probably become two dozen; Asif Zardari will probably sell the palace in Surrey to buy Versailles and Nawaz Sharif might just turn the entire banks of BRB into lawns for Jati Umra residents..... because there is no frikin way that any percentage of any budget OR any subsidy in any sector could change the course of inheritance and the accumulation of wealth thereof. Be it the oldies like Bhutto Zardari & Sharifs or newbies like Tareen (well basically Pir Pagara clan) or be it the non-politicians like Manshas and Malik Riazs, the networths will increase with each passing generation and the inheritance pinatas will will keep getting larger and larger.

      I have trouble deciding whether Mr. Khan is ‘absurd’ or ‘appalling’ when he brags about subsidizing ‘atta, chawal and ghee’ for the ‘poor’ of KPK. The fact is that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. Now either Imran Khan does not understand this simple equation; which makes him absurdly idiotic OR he understands it very well; which makes him appallingly two faced. 

      So therefore, someone should just tell Imran Khan to stop. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Growth of the 1%

The situation I want to comment upon occurred in India and I'm afraid that because of my Pakistani origin what I say here is bound to run into some kind of retaliatory justification and counter criticism. The omnipresence of the proverbial elephant in India-Pakistan relationship is unfortunate and has been the cause of valuable input being bypassed and ignored while the two nations constantly struggle to upstage each other. But you gotta do what you gotta do, so here goes nothing.
I have not posted anything here since January. I did make a status update on Saying it in Urdu & English's Facebook page on May 27th, 2014 about a most tragic and repulsive incident that made headlines in all Pakistani newspapers, "Woman Stoned to Death Outside Lahore High Court" . As abhorrent as the news was it didn't push me hard enough to opine in depth. Frankly, Pakistan is at a place where nothing coming out of there shocks me anymore. It does leave me somewhat 'out of breath' & 'exhausted' but then I recover; and in any case, Pakistan doesn't belong in the same category as India.

India is:

  • The world's largest democracy.
  • Holds 1/5 of the entire world population.
  • Is projected to continue to hold 4th place in GDP growth through 2018.
India is also the lead recipient of all outsourced IT jobs in the world, has the largest film producing industry in the world, has the world's most expensive private residence and as the link below states, "... has made impressive strides in recent decades..." but the India of 2014 has failed to provide and/or convince half of its population to use toilets.

Thirteen years ago I irked Beerud Sheth of Gup Shup (running elance at that time) by suggesting that there is a difference between availability and accessibility, the later being greatly dependent upon the economic status of a person. It was 2001 and the term 1% had not yet been coined, and since I am not a financial expert it was hard for me to effectively explain my socialistic thought of 'distribution of wealth' to a young, aggressive startup entrepreneur.  But two days ago when my friend Christine and I sat down for coffee after a hard days work she asked me, "So if I go to India I wouldn't have a toilet", and I replied, "of course you will, you are the 1%". Not everything is as simply answered or explained though, because then Christine said, "well, going to the toilet can be a once a day thing if you train yourself but what happens when they are on their period... how do they do that"? And I said "you are assuming that they think it necessary to find a toilet for that".

UNICEF says that only 35.5% of entire Indian population uses improved sanitation facilities. Out of that 59.7 is urban and 23.9% is from rural India. UNICEF also lists under 'education'  that 88.4% of India's males (15 - 24 yrs) & 74.4% of India's females (15 -24 yrs) are literate. Which makes me wonder that if 74.4% of India is 'educated' then what makes Sangeeta Vyas say the following?

India has made "impressive strides". According to the World Bank India's economic growth rate in 2010 was at 10.3% which fell to 4.7%  by 2013.  Planning Commission, Government of India presents the following graphical view of 'economy at a glance 1999-2000 to 2014-15.

The point is what Gaurav Dutt & Martin Ravallion discussed in their research paper in 2002 'Is India's Economic Growth Leaving the Poor Behind?'

I don't know if after 13 years, one economic meltdown, Indias position of 136th on the Human Development Index and the recent UN World Food Program reports on the disconnect between poverty & population growth, Beerud Sheth would consider re-evaluating his opinion of India's economic progress; maybe not because the fact is that besides other notable economic 'long strides' in its recent past India has gone forward by leaps and bounds in creating its own 1%.

As I said in my post of January 3, 2014 "It is ... useless and meaningless to comment upon Forbes list of America's 50 Top Givers..." because they are also on Forbes list of America's Billionaires; likewise its useless and meaningless to comment on India's 'Long Strides' in economic growth when it remains disconnected with its own consistently growing poor.

When we put the USA under fire and ridicule over its aggressive (and oppressive) tactics for economic expansion and hegemony over global markets and if we understand that this 'big fish eat small fish' behavior continues to cost dearly to countries who are the smaller fish in this pond, then we must also understand that within our own national perimeters we are doing exactly the same; just on a different level.



Friday, January 3, 2014

The Sum Total of 2013

     The math of gains and losses of life is not as simple and straightforward as the times tables which we remember by heart and recite by rote. Two times two isn't four when the values are measured in feelings instead of size, weight or amount. It all depends upon perspective; where one stands and what is and is not in the line of sight. For me, the sum total of 2013 is in a question that five years old Leah Shanti Velaga asked her teacher on receiving the prize for 'most caring person in class'... after receiving the prize, Leah went up to her teacher and inquired,
"when are you going to give a prize to my brother"?
     Being someone who likes pancakes for all meals, dislikes leaving canine sibling 'Jake' back in California, when the family goes to celebrate Christmas with grandparents in Pennsylvania, and being accustomed to seeing brother Aani at par in everything that happens, I am not sure if Leah understands the significance of her win or the question which followed. To me, however the significance is tangible... to the extent of being 'in your face'. Through the fifty years of my existence I have come across many who were born with the blessed personality trait of being 'caring' but grew out of it by the time they were adults. Somehow, growing up made these people lose the human ability to 'care'; an act that requires going past personal gains and vested interest in order to bridge the disparity gap.

     Grammatically the difference between 'being caring' and 'to care' is simply that of a noun and a verb; one is fixed by definition while the other explains an action. Add an analytic perspective and one finds that the noun and the verb are not mutually inclusive; in fact, in all philosophic complexity it would appear that
'to be caring -as in the noun- does not denote the act of caring itself'. A similar example is that of 'knowledge & understanding' where the presence of knowledge does not guarantee the presence of an understanding to apply it.

     As I said, Leah is five and perhaps clueless about how important 'active caring' is in today's world. I would assume that for her 'to care' is more instinctive than sentient, and her eagerness to include her brother to the list of prize winners is an extension of the same instinct. That is why I have no idea how she would have reacted if the teacher had told her,
"Leah, our resources allow us only one prize so if you want your brother to have one too then it is best that you share".
     Probably she would have shared, because in this country sharing is taught  at the grass-root level, to the kids as young as two and three who come together at day care centers and playgroups... so much so that if a child brings a toy/ book from home, but is unwilling to share, the caregivers/teachers do not allow taking it out in order to avoid comparison, competitiveness, ownership arguments, superiority issues, control factors, choice discrimination and other problems not conducive to a thriving social set up. How and why is it then, that individuals introduced to such concepts at the very beginning of their lives grow up to call it 'socialism' as if the word was an expletive?  How and why do they not feel an iota of responsibility towards forgetting and foregoing a lesson which was poured into their foundation? And above all, how and why is it that factors like comparison, competition, superiority, ownership and control are unacceptable reasons for conflict in a small classroom but assumed normal in the global social order?

     If we cannot answer the hows and whys listed above then we must try to answers the whats. For example, what is the purpose of consistently teaching our kids something which the society vilifies and rejects as a principle for broader human life? What is the logic behind nurturing a certain behavioral aspect in young humans when their adult life will be spent negating its practice and criticizing its suggestions? Caring is an emotionally triggered response with the purpose  to compensate for what lacks in a situation be it material or immaterial, worldly or spiritual, intellectual or simple; in other words, caring is an attempt to create balance through equality by redistributing mood, material, skill or temperament; what is the reason behind encouraging and rewarding our children for demonstrating such an idea of mutual equality when ultimately they will be living in a world of cut throat competition for material gains where 'big fish eat small fish' all the time?

     Here's a picture:
Every year, in exchange for huge tax deductibles, the world elite donates massive amounts of money to programs, efforts and maneuvers dedicated to investigating, uncovering and documenting the existence and the reasons for the existence of socioeconomic disparity in the world.
Every year data is refreshed and updated either about no food in Congo, or no water in Somalia, or no jobs in Djibouti, or 303 doctors for the entire population of Malawi or no schools for more than 1/4th of the entire school age children population of the world.
Every year employees of various world organizations efficiently retrieve, verify, approve and induct facts and figures into reports and papers in exchange for lucrative salary packages of generous base, paid travel, paid leave, educational benefits, medical benefits and pensions, made possible by the aforementioned massive, tax deductible donations.
     This entire picture is so convoluted that it is useless and meaningless to comment. The same way that it is useless and meaningless to comment upon Angelina Jolie (average annual household income $33 million) when she adopts a child from Cambodia (average annual household income $750), Ethiopia (average annual household income $307) or Vietnam (average annual household income $200). It is also useless and meaningless to comment upon Forbes list of 'America's 50 Top Givers,' out of which 40 are also on Forbes list of Billionaires.

The World Organizations, the Jolies and  the Top Givers are not unaware of the global socioeconomic imbalance and its reasons are not lost on them. "I am rich because they are poor" is an omnipresent reality of their lives which never stops staring from all directions but fails to receive a reaction even a wee bit similar to Leah's.

     Is it because Leah is only five and has yet to be influenced by the idea of private ownership and free market? Or is it because she has not yet turned cannibalistic by considering herself the proverbial 'big fish'? Could it be that she does not find being human a burdensome responsibility and would rather share and play than own, accumulate and sit on it?  Or is it that the 'middle man' has yet to discover the potential for financial gains in Leah's activities? Whatever the reasons, I am grateful that this five years old decided to ask that question when she did, because without it, I might not have had any values to add up and find the sum total... not just of 2013 but of the entire two thousand and thirteen years of the Georgian Calendar.