crackdown
Plotting a revolution
By Murtaza Ali Shah
The arrest last week of 35 activists of banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in the federal capital from a posh locality sent shock waves across Pakistan for the sheer fact that those arrested were no madrassah educated, stick-wielding, Osama-loving and fire-spitting rabble rousers.

Q&A
"Unconventional war needs a similar strategy"
Javed Husain, former Brigadier of the Pakistan Army, has served in the armoured corps and the elite Special Services Group besides holding many other important positions. In a sitting with The News on Sunday, he talked about the recent wave of militancy in Pakistan, especially after the GHQ attacks, and made some useful suggestions regarding an effective strategy to fight this war against militancy. Excerpts of the interview follow:
By Waqar Gillani
The News on Sunday: How do you see the attack on GHQ? What are the lessons learnt?
Javed Husain: The very first impact was from the so-called nursing assistant Dr Usman who breached the entire army security, knocking it down. This created great demoralisation in the army, especially when the militants caught MI (Military Intelligence) director. It was the main office of the force. What if the militants were more in number?

Believe it or not
At a time when it seems the entire society is turning to God for solace, a chat with three young declared atheists who are too happy to reject the idea
Aatekah Mir-Khan
Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between atheism and education and intelligence. Yet humanity is far from letting go of the concept of god. Even though, according to statistics, atheism is on the rise – about three times as many people are losing faith than gaining one – it is still considered a dirty word in most parts of the world. A study at the University of Minnesota in 2006 polled about 2,000 households in the United States to find that atheists were the most distrusted of minorities, even more than Muslims and homosexuals.

RIPPLE EFFECT
Flirting, 'open' prisons and drinking water
By Omar R Quraishi
From time to time I get all kind of interesting and almost-weird news from this very good email listing. Sometimes the articles are quite news worthy as well and deserve to be in mainstream publications. Some fit well with the entertainment/leisure pages that some of our newspapers have started of late. A recent one that I got this week – from a website by the name of www.bolohealth.com quoted researchers at the University of Washington as claiming that flirting – yes flirting! – was in fact good for one's health.

 

 

Plotting a revolution

The arrest last week of 35 activists of banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in the federal capital from a posh locality sent shock waves across Pakistan for the sheer fact that those arrested were no madrassah educated, stick-wielding, Osama-loving and fire-spitting rabble rousers.

Almost all detained activists are middle-class, university graduates and belonging to prestigious professions, including one linked to Pakistan’s atomic agency and one working for the USAID. The rest were, among others, computer engineers, educational institutions’ head, businessmen, telecom engineers, and students of different institutions, environment scientists. 

Prior to these high profile arrests in Islamabad, the main opposition Conservative party in Britain, where the HT has its global operational headquarters, came up with a major announcement that it will ban Hizb ut-Tahrir immediately after coming to power.

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary of Conservatives, currently leading Labour by a huge margin in all public opinion polls, told the conference in his policy speech: “I will immediately ban Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), and any other group that actively incites hatred and violence.”

So what is it about HT that has brought it so much attention that it has been banned in Pakistan, in the main middle eastern countries and now banning it in Britain is seen as one of the many populist slogans adopted by the Conservative party, on course to form the next government.

HT was established in Britain about 20 years ago by a Palestinian ideologue Fuad Hussain, who lives a retired life now. Omar Bakri Muhammad, the radical Arab cleric who fled from Britain after the 2005 terrorist attacks on London underground and who now lives in Lebanon, was HT’s leader at one stage.

Bakri, the self-styled sheikh who famously praised the 9/11 hijackers as the “magnificent 19”, quit HT in 1996 to form his own, even more radical salafist Al-Muhajiroun, which disbanded in the UK in 2004 but reformed under Saved Sect and al-Ghurabaa which were banned by the UK Home Office in 2006. Al-Muhajiroun, according to its mouthpiece website Islam4UK, was re-launched in May 2009 this year and it’s currently led by a Pakistani origin solicitor Anjum Choudhry.

Al-Muhajiroun has on numerous occasions pronounced to hoist the flag of Islam on 10 Downing Street and hang the drinkers and adulterers in Trafalgar Square. The group, like its parent organisation HT, is committed for Khilafah rule but its different from the HT in the sense that Al-Muhajiroun wants to make the UK a Khilafah state but HT wants to begin with the Muslim countries.

HT’s global leader currently is an engineer called Sheikh Ata Abu Rashta who used to be HT’s spokesman in Jordan but as a party policy only a handful of top confidantes know where exactly is he situated in the Middle East.

The News on Sunday (TNS) spoke to a number of former high profile HT stalwarts and all of them agreed that HT recruits people through what sounds like an intellectual answer to the basic beliefs in Islam. The party covers up its political ideology by using the Quran and Hadith to prove that HT ideology must be imposed with no room for democracy, freedom of belief or even really changing tyrant rulers. For them, all the problems afflicting the so-called Muslim Ummah —  such as political and economic problems, wars in Muslim lands, corruption, Kashmir conflict, economic backwardness, and disunity —  will be solved by following their brand of Shariat and its harsh rules on all of the countries.

HT begins with telling the new recruits that everything one knows about anything is wrong and haram. You have to begin with a clean slate in HT and there is no room for opposition. There is only one truth and it’s the Hizb ut-Tahrir’s version of Islam. Every aspect of its members’ lives must be shaped in line with the interpretation of HT’s Islam.

After coming under criticism, the party has adopted a new approach: it works though shadowy community groups, study groups and through infiltrations in media, mosques, Islamic societies and campuses. HT is working overtime to project itself as a serious intellectual and forward-thinking party. It doesn’t simply bother with recruiting the elderly and traditional-thinking Muslims who do not seem to have a lot of time for a Khilafat-led world. It needs young, middle-class, English-speaking educated upward moving classes who can be influenced and brainwashed —  and who can do the same to others —  to plot the Khilafah revolution and there is no doubt the party has been quite successful in setting up cells all over Britain in Muslim communities. It tells western Muslims that capitalism, communism and all other isms have failed them and their salvation and the salvation of their future generations lie in working for the establishment of Khilafah.

It has openly held public debates on “British or Muslim?” suggesting to British Muslims that their first and foremost loyalty is with their religion, as if Islam was a monolithic scripture.

It is Pakistan where HT loves to work after their Khilafah experiment met a crushing response in Middle East’s Muslim countries, where joining HT is prohibited. It is believed that HT’s former global leader, Abdul Qadeem Zallum, who is now dead, is the man who first turned his attention to Pakistan to use it as a strategic base after the country went nuclear in 1999. It was decided at the highest command level that infiltration and penetration at all influential tiers of Pakistani society should begin with haste. Influencing the military and recruiting senior officers was the prime motive of HT. Many former members have stated that they were given the task of exclusively targeting army officers, intelligence services and members of the media.

When some military officers were arrested in Pakistan for plotting a coup in 2003, HT cadres were in panic here as it came as a big blow to party’s strategy in the most militarily powerful Muslim country. It has been openly stated by many former members that HT recruited some of the arrested officers while they were training at Britain’s prestigious Sandhurst military academy. Many dedicated HT activists, such as Naveed Butt, the HT spokesman who studied in the States, and Tayyib Muqeem, a British national, are based in the cities of Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar to keep the room warm. It is suspected that British national Imtiaz Malik is the current leader of HT in Pakistan.

There was alarm when the federal capital’s police successfully busted an illegal HT meeting in the capital and arrested its members and claimed to have retrieved hate literature. The arrests reinforce how resilient HT is in Pakistan as it continues to spring surprises in the urban heartlands.

After Pervez Musharraf banned HT in Pakistan, following the arrests of the military officers, it has resorted to operate more secretly and through fake fronts and names.

The global leadership of HT seems to be confident that it is the nuclear-armed Pakistan where the so-called Islamic revolution — Wahabist/Salfist style —  will first start, going on to engulf the rest of the world, starting with Muslim-majority countries.

Activists agree that HT leadership has always been willing to put more money into campaigns related to Pakistan than all other target countries put together.

During Pervez Musharraf’s visit to UK in September 2004, the party launched “Stop Busharraf” campaign to take Pakistan out of “Musharraf’s continued subservience to the Bush regime” and held massive demonstrations outside his appearance venues. Musharraf was so angry at the near-ambushes he met from HT members that he publicly rebuked British government for not doing anything about the HT extremists at home but lecturing to Pakistan on how to deal with religious extremists.

During the same period, dozens of HT activists were working full-time on the Pakistan chapter and one of the Pakistani section leaders, an IT specialist operating from London, at the time was optimist that Islamist generals sympathetic to HT’s ideology will throw out Musharraf.

He told this scribe at the time that HT’s high command had passed on this message to HT cells all over the world to prepare to reach Pakistan in the “definite event” of a takeover as their services will be required to pave the way for the nuclear armed Khilafah state. Around the time many Pakistan origin professionals from the west, mainly UK and America, reached Pakistan to consolidate their activities in anticipation of the Khilafah.

Neither the Khalifah state emerged nor the generals supposedly sympathetic to the HT cause ousted Musharraf but that has not deterred the HT from focusing on Pakistan in a concerted and professional manner.

TNS spoke to a former leading light of HT who admits of sending dozens of British Muslims to Pakistan to implement HT’s agenda. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals from his former colleagues, the former ideologue, who preferred using his name as Sajid Farooq, stated that HT seniors told them —  and he was later on tasked to infuse it in the minds of Pakistan-dedicated-cells —  that Pakistan had large a army, nuclear weapons and the nation loves Islam “so we should give all of our family and friends military and influential people’s contacts and we should go to Pakistan, and infiltrate the society and military and do a coup.”

Farooq, who served as mushrif and a mas’ul (a father figure, guide and mentor) for UK and Pakistan related activities, revealed the party wants to make Pakistan the base of the Khilafat state and make Abu Rashta as the first Khalifa of 21st century Pakistan.

“HT wants to manipulate the love of Pakistanis for Islam and change their belief in democracy and make them establish Hizb ut-Tahrir in power and dismantle democracy and tell people their modern constitution is Islam.

“They hate Jinnah, they hate the creation of Pakistan and say that it was haram, and they hate democracy and say if you believe it you are kafir, and that ruler who believes in democracy is a kafir and should be forcefully removed.”

HT says it’s non-violent and it does not use violence against the public, as it will obviously backfire. But it has a firm faith in achieving the final end through violent means and that involves using the military coup and killing the opponents of HT’s version of Khilafah. HT is desperate to experiment its Khalifah system in at least one country — ideally Pakistan —  to use it as a model and launching pad for Khilafah experiments in other countries. It is HT’s ideology that all non-Muslim countries are non believers, and Pakistan and other Muslim countries with “despotic tyrannies” fall under the category of Khawariji - they must be fought against until they accept Khilafat.

Sohail Omar, a former HT frontline leader, told how he, then aged 17, joined HT and worked for the party for nearly 15 years at different positions, from local area responsibility to working with the national committee based in the United Kingdom.

It was the feel of “doing something great for Muslim Ummah” that brought Omar close to HT.

“I grew up in a multi-cultural area and it was HT’s attractive message of Muslim brotherhood, unity and community solidarity that got me going.

“There was no appeal for me in the environment I found around myself I was growing up with many contradictions and I needed a purpose in life and HT came calling asking us to work for the biggest of all the causes: the establishment of Khilafah.”

Disillusioned and frustrated for not being able to work for his Pakistani community in Northern England, it was disagreement with the HT’s increasingly isolationist approach towards the community that led him and dozens of others — almost all of the Pakistani origin, graduates and working as business advisors, lawyers and teachers —  to call the quits.

Many of those who deserted the party have joined mainstream Labour and Conservative party and some work closely with political parties of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League’s UK wing and Barrister Sultan Mehmood’s People’s Muslim League has former HT activists managing its press conferences and meetings with British officials. Sharp-suited and well-spoken, these highly trained activists bring flair of discipline and order to the Pakistani parties otherwise known for doing things in a chaotic way. All these activists were strictly told not to share platform with any other political party, Islamist or secular, and such military style restrictions despaired them. 

Houriya Ahmed and Hannah Stuart, researchers at the Centre for Social Cohesion, a UK based think tank with expertise on HT and other radical groups, said: "Ideologically HT is no different to al-Qaeda. It is a dangerous and divisive organisation that aims to implement a totalitarian dictatorship that will use violence to spread its rule. HT's strategy is to propagate its ideology amongst all levels of society and to indoctrinate the population with its extremist belief system, which it presents as 'true' Islam. The party's claim is a lie. Its ideology must be challenged and totally rejected."

Hizb ut-Tahrir media spokesman in Britain didn’t dispute that HT was targeting Pakistan with full force.

Taji Mustafa said HT considered Pakistan an “integral part of the Muslim Ummah” and the love of its people for Islam was best suited for HT’s vision.

Mustafa also didn’t deny that HT has sympathisers in Pakistani establishment as these “sincere people in the establishment” find attractive HT’s “vision of a Khilafah state with an independent foreign policy”.

As Pakistan grapples with the wave of terror attacks launched by Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies, it will be pertinent to demand of the security establishment not only to completely cease all kinds of liaisons with the banned as well as other Islamist parties seeking to overthrow the democratic system and replace it with a system unknown to Pakistani people.

Groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir are choosing not to use violence at this stage but they are draconian in nature and will not shy from employing extreme terror at the opportune time and more importantly, they are, at the most serving as the conveyer-belt to al-Qaeda and Taliban jihadists. Opting to not use violence but wait in the wings to become empowered and then unleash all forms of intimidation and arm-twisting is the hallmark of Islamists’ strategy. We don’t need to look too far. Our own Islamists, for example Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Jamiat, provide enough proof how they can be brutal and undemocratic on campuses and on the streets.

 

The making of Hizb ut-Tahrir

Hizb ut-Tahrir —  the Islamic Liberation party —  is no ordinary Islamist radical group. It was founded in 1953 in Jerusalem by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani as an international pan-Islamist Sunni political party to unite the Muslim countries under a despotic Khilafah rule, ruled by HT’s medieval and distorted interpretation of Islamic law and caliphate. HT is clear in its aims that it will wage offensive jihad to unify all Muslim-majority countries into one state as well as declare jihad against non-Muslim countries to force them to accept their Khilafah’s rule. The ultimate objective is to rule the world through an iron fist where no dissent will be tolerated and there will be no place for the natural diversity.

Some estimate suggest that HT, active in over 40 countries, has nearly 2 million members worldwide, with Indonesia taking the lead and Pakistan ranking amongst the top 5 countries providing the main workforce for the party.

In July 2009 in Indonesia, HT’s conference gathered 6,000 HT ulema from Muslim countries and they issued a call to Muslims everywhere to work for the re-creation of the Khilafah. A conference in Jakarta in 2007, raised eyebrows when over 100,000 HT participants thronged a stadium, waving HT’s black and white flag and called for return of global Khilafah.

London, the British capital, is known as the nerve centre and operations headquarters of the party as from here the work is being carried out to bring this entire planet under the rule of a Khilafah. Arguably, it is Britain where the party has met the greatest recruitment success in the shape of young and educated British Muslims, mainly from South Asian background, from both affluent middle class backgrounds to disaffected young Muslims looking for an identity and meaning to their otherwise dull lives. The party boasts that it has hundreds of doctors, intellectuals, engineers, and professors as its staunch supporters.

The 9/11 atrocities in the US, London tube attacks in 2005 and suicide mission of two members of HT in Israel brought focus on HT’s work in Britain and since then the party says it’s been a victim of undue scrutiny. HT says all references linking the party to violence and intimidation are aimed at hindering its no-violent struggle for the Khilafah system.

— Murtaza Ali Shah

 

 

Q&A

"Unconventional war needs a similar strategy"

Javed Husain, former Brigadier of the Pakistan Army, has served in the armoured corps and the elite Special Services Group besides holding many other important positions. In a sitting with The News on Sunday, he talked about the recent wave of militancy in Pakistan, especially after the GHQ attacks, and made some useful suggestions regarding an effective strategy to fight this war against militancy. Excerpts of the interview follow:

By Waqar Gillani

The News on Sunday: How do you see the attack on GHQ? What are the lessons learnt?

Javed Husain: The very first impact was from the so-called nursing assistant Dr Usman who breached the entire army security, knocking it down. This created great demoralisation in the army, especially when the militants caught MI (Military Intelligence) director. It was the main office of the force. What if the militants were more in number?

Next to the MI building is the office of COAS and other important installations. The long-term impact is exposure of our intelligence and security network. There is a need to focus on it after the weakness has been highlighted in one attack. In fact, army has been badly humiliated. The questions are being raised about its ability within the army circles, even though the civil society and the masses are supporting the soldiers.

TNS: You say our intelligence and security measures have been exposed. How?

JH: The attack on GHQ has sharply and clearly exposed two things. First, lack of coordination because of competitiveness among our intelligence agencies. It seems they don't want to share the available information. In US, intelligence agencies have set up a national intelligence body for effective coordination. We don't have any such setup in Pakistan. We need a body on top of all intelligence agencies like MI, ISI, CID, IB, and Special Branch.

Second, large deployments are made on security installations. Police are also deployed outside Vital Areas (VAs) and Vital Points (VPs) but these people who are deployed to perform the function are not well-trained. Take the GHQ incident where the infantry battalion was deployed. These are soldiers groomed for fighting a conventional war. Security is not their sphere. For security, they need to have quick reaction and thinking abilities. The lack of expertise exposed the security lapses and resultantly the post was demolished and armymen killed.

The first lapse took place when the militants carried out the reconnaissance of VA. The second lapse occurred when they reached the vital point wearing camouflaged army uniforms. The attackers ran backwards, with their backs turned towards the gate instead of running straight towards the GHQ entrance. The armymen thought they were their own men fighting with the militants. They approached the gate and sprayed bullets posed as soldiers. These security pickets and barriers generate a false sense of security. The true sense will be when the government and forces will have scientific and professional security persons, especially security-trained people.

TNS: Can we say that the current forces, army and police are not equipped to deal with this kind of security and guerrilla war?

JH: Plainly, an untrained armyman or policeman is standing against a highly-skilled, trained and motivated militant. It is a complete mismatch. Look what happened in World Food Programme office, Marriott and in many other areas. WWII was also fought with the tool of deception, with tactical innovations. These are unconventional operations against conventional forces like army. Guerrilla or SSG operations are unorthodox, unconventional. They rely completely on the element of surprise, achieved with stealth or deception. The militants have effectively applied deception here. Our infantry has no training of these things, suicide attack skills etc. except SSG, which is small in number.

Pakistan army, like any other army in the world including the US army, is a conventional army, originally trained on conventional means. Suddenly you put them in a different situation and they are bound to lose. In conventional terms the battlefield is decided; we have rear and front areas, flags etc. but in guerrilla war there is no such thing. Disposition of the enemy is invisible. In guerrilla war the enemy is here and yet he is nowhere; he is nowhere and yet he is everywhere. The conventional soldier is totally alien to these concepts. This has happened with the US conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

TNS: It is said that the credit of training these Jihadi guerrillas goes to ISI.

JH: Yes, when Russians came to Afghanistan, all types of Afghan mountain fighters, including Pushtuns and Tajiks, put up resistance. It was when the then US President Ronald Regan decided to provide maximum assistance to them through Pakistan to fight against Russia. There were two Pakistani agencies, ISI and SSG, but actually it was ISI that coordinated between jihadis and America. SSG was inducted to train and equip these jihadi guerrillas along with the ISI. But remember they were already highly motivated because their country was occupied. The SSG trainers were used to accompany them for the mission. They were taught all the tactics.

The Russian soldiers got frustrated and started committing suicides. Similar frustration can be seen among the American and NATO forces presently. It all started in Iraq, the main theatre of the "war on terror". The militants are well-trained, well-planned. Even, the young jihadis who were in their 20s in late 1980s are now not more than 40; they are working as trainers and guides.

TNS: Isn't it surprising that the trainer of these militants -- army and ISI -- now seems helpless in tackling its own disciples?

JH: I wouldn't say the army has failed. They are aware of their tactics. But we need a strategy with which this entire movement has to be defeated. We need human intelligence to pre-empt their plans and proper security measures. Currently, the militants' intelligence is far ahead of army intelligence. You guess how many attacks have been launched despite intimation. CID warning was ignored by other agencies. This is a consequence of non-professional competitiveness. The army leadership must question other agencies: why did they disregard the warning?

Security, including use of effective check post management tools, is a weakness that needs to be overcome.

Militants have also exploited the situation in South Punjab. They have sympathisers across the country, even within the army. They have also made it a psychological warfare. They are battle-hardened. They know that they cannot fight pitched battle. They play in small groups. They only use large numbers like 200, 300 when they are sure they will overcome. They rely on element of surprise and guerrilla war.

TNS: How can this strategy of militants be effectively countered?

JH: It's been more than five months the Operation Rah-e-Rast is going on in Swat. Army says it has cleared all areas but actually it hasn't. Take Helmend valley in Afghanistan: The US claims it has captured the heartland. But they are wrong like Pakistan army was wrong in Swat. Actually, Taliban or militants withdrew from the mountains and started returning in small groups. In Swat, the army spread two division forces who were everywhere but not where there they were required. Resultantly, the forced diluted. In Helmend, the US has had record causalities in July. Now the US has sought more troops. The forces thought they had conquered but the militants beat them badly.

Actually, the theatre of war should have been divided into sub-theatres. First you should seal the whole of Swat and then seal another sub-theatre Buner and then you hit them in Buner. This sealing will help in shrinking space and choking them; so they withdraw into the mountains. I hope these mistakes are not repeated in Waziristan. Army must fight a total war, use all equipment, except nuclear, to stop this guerrilla war. Mountain is militant's sanctuary and army has to deny them that sanctuary.

And if militants are already in the mountains, force them to go down into the valley. It is a laborious but a sure process to choke the guerrilla population. Army needs three months in Swat. But in Helmend the US needs 500,000 troops to deny them the Hindukush mountain sanctuary. And for this, there has to be compatibility of mission and resources. Otherwise, there is no solution in Afghanistan and ultimately they will have to engage in dialogue and accept Taliban demands. Similarly, Pakistan should fight this total war in Waziristan asking America to press India to not start intrigues from the eastern border.

TNS: What about the reports posing threats from South Punjab too?

JH: South Punjab does have human resource ability for militancy. But Waziristan is the centre of gravity of militancy. Madrassas are their recruitment centres from where they get readymade, brainwashed recruits. The seminaries are their ideological grounds. To tackle these root causes, we need to understand the ideology and then move towards reconciliation -- like, al-Qaeda is an ideology which is borne out of the Middle East and Palestine issue. Unless, the world does not address these issues, the ideological sanctuaries of the militants will keep brainwashing more youth.

TNS: What is your take on the strategy of forming private Lashkars (armies) against militants as it has happened in Swat and many other areas?

JH: You will have to consider the repercussions. They are unreliable. You cannot rely on them. What if they are motivated by someone else? It is a bonus to support them but do not bank on them, I repeat.

 

[email protected]

 


Believe it or not

At a time when it seems the entire society is turning to God for solace, a chat with three young declared atheists who are too happy to reject the idea

Aatekah Mir-Khan

Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between atheism and education and intelligence. Yet humanity is far from letting go of the concept of god. Even though, according to statistics, atheism is on the rise – about three times as many people are losing faith than gaining one – it is still considered a dirty word in most parts of the world. A study at the University of Minnesota in 2006 polled about 2,000 households in the United States to find that atheists were the most distrusted of minorities, even more than Muslims and homosexuals.

With the arrival of an accessible plethora of literature on the Internet as well as universities and professors encouraging students to question and critically evaluate everything, one comes across many young atheists around. The social and legal discrimination leads many to conceal or deny it in a country like Pakistan where there is no boundary between the 'church' and the 'state'. The News on Sunday decided to talk to three such young people – Abdullah Hasan, Sara Yousaf and Zubair Ali (the names have been changed to protect the identity of the people concerned) – to find out what they believe in (or don't believe in is more like it). All three turn out to 'strong non-believers' meaning that they do not just reject the concept of an Islamic God but rather the idea of god itself.

Abduallah was born into a household where he grew up with both points of view. His mother is a Muslim while his father is an atheist. Abdullah tells he was an agnostic when he was young, and by the time he was a teenager he had completed his transition to atheism. "It was considerably easy for me", he says, "because of my father. As I grew up I saw there was no hard evidence that god exists. I think humans created God because it was convenient for them to believe in a higher being. For me god is unnecessary, especially in today's day and age when the list of what we do not or cannot understand or do is shrinking."

Sara terms organised religion not as wrong, "just false". Atheism was where she ended up after starting to question the beliefs that she was taught from childhood. "It started from questions like why do we believe that the Christian [concept of] god is wrong and not ours? Then I started studying sociology. That was my first step towards analysing the social institutions that we usually take for granted. Then there were the conversations that I had with a friend of mine, who made me seek answers. Those conversations went a long way in making me see what was already there but what I was hesitant to see. Lastly, studying at a university where critical thought is encouraged introduced me to many new concepts and a critical way of approaching the society. Knowing that respected academics questioned the same things I did made me feel it was okay to not believe. I know it is the argument of authority again but it just made me feel better."

Zubair is a relatively new addition to the clique. An eight month old atheist, he used to be what many of us have started labelling 'practicing Muslim'. "I used to offer my prayers and fast because I come from a conservative family. I think I started questioning things after I started medical school because as doctors we have to have evidence before we believe. I went back to the theory of evolution and after studying it, I arrived at the conclusion that I found it more believable than the religious account of the creation of the universe."

Coming from a conservative family was it not difficult to let go of all the beliefs? "It was very difficult. For the first few months I felt so guilty but then gradually it got better."

Did their conversion have to do with their disillusionment with Islam, particularly how it is interpreted these days by extremists when it comes to jihad or the way that they insist women should be treated? The answer from all three is a vehement no. "It is true that Islam is known to be socially oppressive these days but all the religions, except maybe Buddhism, have been oppressive over the course of their history."

The trio believes that since there is no superior being, they themselves are in control of their lives and not 'fate' or 'destiny'. "Actually the tension between the concepts of free will and predestination is something I always discuss with believers but none of them have given me an answer that can satisfy me", quips Sara. "I feel a lot better knowing that if I live right and make the right choices I would live to a certain age. However, that does not mean I have all the answers. There are certain questions and things that depress me from time to time."

So who do they turn to when the going gets tough? "I turn to myself", says Zubair, "I believe I am the only one who can put things back on track."

And what about death? Sara thinks the concept of an afterlife is a religious luxury. "There are certain luxuries that come with belonging to a religion just as there are burdens and this is one of them. The believers can rest a little easy because they think there is an afterlife. The definite concept of death is a hard one to come to terms to." Abdullah is a little more forthcoming, "If anyone dies I would just regret it, cry and move on just like the believers would. But if believers know that there is an afterlife and that whoever they lost is going to heaven, why do they cry?"

TNS also spoke to a few believers and asked them why they thought people turned atheists. The most popular answer was that they choose to escape the responsibilities that religion brings. When this viewpoint was put to the trio they responded that more than the 'non-believers' it was the believers who escaped the responsibilities that belonging to a religion bring. "People do not pray or even do half of what they are supposed to do if they are Muslims. They are the ones escaping," says Sara.

"I think we are more responsible because we have to take the responsibility of all our actions and deeds. We cannot say 'oh! this was predestined' or that 'this was god's will'," says Abdullah.

Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons' revolves around the continuous struggle over authority between science and religion. The battle this time around starts with the murder of Leonardo Vetra, one of the world's leading physicists who works at CERN. But in addition to a physicist he is also a Catholic priest. Vetra is a scientist who has created antimatter in order to simulate the Big Bang and he hoped that the creation of matter from nothing would prove gods existence. To Vetra enough advancement in science would culminate automatically into a belief in god. That is his life's goal and that is what he strives for.

So do they believe something like this can actually be proven? According to Sara, "I seriously doubt that. Scientific reasoning refutes the idea of god. There are so many fundamental contradictions in science and religion. But I do admit that if anything proves god's existence, it will be science, not theology or philosophy."

Abdullah is the more skeptical one. "If someday we perfect science and it shows that god exists, it will only prove there is a god but even then it won't be proven whose version of creation of the universe is correct or justify the imposition of morality by god or religion. If science does discover religion, I think the religious people would be unhappier than I would be."

 

 

RIPPLE EFFECT

Flirting, 'open' prisons and drinking water

By Omar R Quraishi

From time to time I get all kind of interesting and almost-weird news from this very good email listing. Sometimes the articles are quite news worthy as well and deserve to be in mainstream publications. Some fit well with the entertainment/leisure pages that some of our newspapers have started of late. A recent one that I got this week – from a website by the name of www.bolohealth.com quoted researchers at the University of Washington as claiming that flirting – yes flirting! – was in fact good for one's health.

Lest I be accused of promoting promiscuity, let me first enumerate their reasons. The first was that it builds confidence and self-esteem in the individual. To quote verbatim: "A little harmless flirting can help you feel attractive again and confident about yourself. The only thing to keep in mind is setting boundaries. Make sure you and your partner are clear about what's okay when it comes to flirting. One simple rule of thumb: don't say or do anything you wouldn't do in the presence of your partner."

Now that should be food for thought for readers – and if people think that married couples (and I am talking about Pakistan) don't once in a while engage in harmless flirting then they better think again.

 

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And now to Norway, a country known for being socially responsible and humane. A report by www.globalpost.com (a website that tracks stories and news reports from around the world), spoke of a prison system in the Scandinavian country which has facilities that would put many a resort to shame!

The correspondent wrote of visiting the island of Bastoey, said to be an "open prison" south of Oslo. The prison – if it can be called that – had around 115 detainees and these included murderers and rapists. The 'prison' had its own forest and sea-front and sports facilities like tennis courts and a slope where inmates could indulge in cross-country skiing. The detainees work around six hours every morning till afternoon after which they are free to return to their "comfortable wooden houses". The 'work' involves pretty much what one would see on a farm given that the "open-prison" is in fact located on what is a farm.

The report said that the prison was based on the Norwegian idea that "traditional, repressive prisons" do not work and only make inmates worse (perhaps those who doubt this view need to see the compelling US television series Oz). A former head of the prison was quoted as saying: "If you treat people badly, they will behave badly. Anyone can be a citizen if we treat them well, respect them, and give them challenges and demands."

The report pointed out that Norway was similar to other Scandinavian countries in this regard in that none had the death penalty or even life sentences – not even for murderers. In fact, the maximum jail term was 21 years and that the majority of convicts served two-thirds of it – or 14 years – before being released. And unlike in the US and other developed countries, convicts did not have their right to vote taken away, not even while serving their sentence. A professor of criminology at the University of Oslo put it well when she said that the reason prisons were kept "open" in Norway was so that people could see inmates as "human beings" they could identify with. The professor also said that in Norway the emphasis was not so much on punishment but on the issue of a prisoner's reintegration into society – and quite rightly so because that had repercussions, in case their was recidivism, on the larger population.

Norway's incarceration rate by the way is 66 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 738 per 100,000 inhabitants for America – Norway also has far less crime per capita than America.

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And now – also something that one got through this news service – a study from UCLA according to which those who use the Internet are likely to have more brain activity compared to those with little experience of using the net. The report, quoted by Fox News, said that the results suggested that "Internet training can stimulate neural activation patterns and could stimulate neural activation patterns and could potentially enhance brain function and cognition in older adults".

The report said that the UCLA researchers worked with "24 neurologically normal volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78". Prior to the study, half the participants used the Internet daily, while the other half had very little experience. Age, educational level and gender were similar between the two groups. At the same time, the participants underwent MRI scans – to track their brain activity.

The report said that an initial MRI scan of participants with little Internet experience showed brain activity in the regions that control language, reading, memory and visual abilities. A second scan, carried out after they used the Internet at home, showed additional activity in the "middle frontal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus" – both areas, the researchers say, known to be central to working memory and decision-making.

On a related note, researchers at the University of East London (as reported on a health blog and which quoted a medical journal by the name of Appetite) wanted to examine the effect of drinking water on cognitive power. According to them, a study of the effects of drinking water on children between six and seven years of age suggested that there was "significant" change after the child had drunk water. So there is certainly some medical merit as well to those who say that drinking water is good for you. The researchers recommended that drinking water right before an important meeting or, say, interview is likely to have increased potential for the individual in that chances are that his or her brain will perform better.

The writer is Editorial Pages Editor of The News.

Email: [email protected]

 


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