DAWN - Opinion; January 10, 2009

Published Jan 10, 2009 12:00am

Thinking outside the box

By Shandana Khan Mohmand


IF there is anything that the Mumbai terror attacks have made clear, it is that it’s time to think outside the box.

The manner in which we in Pakistan have thought, spoken and acted so far has led us here. If we want to move away from this spot, the same conventional thought process and attitude is no longer going to work. A dramatic shift is now required in the way we perceive our region and conceive our identity.

First: we need to be less defensive. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that it simply makes us look stupid. It is one thing to insist that you need more evidence in order to initiate action. It is quite another to question each piece of mounting evidence, especially in the face of a general popular acceptance of the fact that there are organisations here in Pakistan that openly purport the ideology that they are being accused of, about which we choose to do little.

Imagine this: a Pakistani organisation is so implicated in such activities that the United Nations actually sees fit to declare it a terrorist organisation, but we sit around and let it operate freely and openly until we get news of this declaration, at which point we spring into action.

What were we thinking until now? The banners hanging from most lamp-posts in Lahore for the last few weeks, asking people to contribute their “qurbani hides” to the organisation should demonstrate well the unfettered operations that this group enjoyed.

Being defensive, however, may be a hard behavioural trait to alter because it is firmly embedded even in our everyday social interactions. Mohammad Hanif , the brilliant author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes made a fantastic reference in a BBC article to “that uncle that you get stranded with at a family gathering when everybody else has gone to sleep but there is still some whisky left in the bottle” in describing Musharraf’s behaviour when he announced his coup against himself last year.

Taking this analogy further, this quintessentially Pakistani uncle has two other very familiar traits. One, he is extremely defensive about every one of his own identities — nationality, religion, sect, class, career — and has a deep distrust of all those who inhabit the realm of the “other”. And two, he resolutely believes that the only verification any fact needs is for it to be emitting from his mouth. Musharraf suffered heavily from this delusion, but so do so many of our other uncles, those in our homes, those at our parties, and those currently issuing statements on TV.

Second, we need to stop acting in a merely reactionary manner. The “if they were in our place they would have behaved in the same way” attitude isn’t going to get us very far. Many of us tried to point that out to the Pakistani government all the way back in May 1998 when India first tested its nuclear bomb.

Our government thought for about two weeks and then chose to act in exactly the same way, rather than to secure its position on the moral high horse by backing away from such childish tit-for-tat arguments and games.

Our ‘outside-the-box’ collective thinking now needs to demonstrate that though it may be true that if some other country had been in our position they may have acted with misguided nationalist bravado, we are capable of acting differently, not because it is demanded or expected of us, but because this is the right thing to do and because we take such terrorist attacks very seriously, both at home and abroad. The moral high horse may be the only thing that Pakistan can have going for it right now, and yet, even that is being squandered away by the defensiveness of those who claim to speak on its behalf.

Third, Pakistan needs to accept a very harsh reality — it is not the equal of India, and the belief that we can be compared has stunted our development no end. We cannot win a war against it, we cannot compare the instability of our political system to the stability of theirs, we cannot hope to compete economically with what is a booming economy well on its way to becoming a global economic power, and we certainly cannot compare the conservativeness of our society to the open pluralism of their everyday life.

Accepting these realities may allow Pakistan to give up its nationalistic bravado and posturing, and may actually allow it to accept its more realistic role in this region — one that requires that it live in peace with India, that it not unnecessarily provoke its wrath and that it understands that its most beneficial economic strategy would be to get in on the boom next door.

For that we need to think outside the box — outside the box of the two-nation theory, outside the box of the violence of 1947, and outside the box of the ill-conceived wars of the last six decades.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Slaughter in Gaza

By A.G. Noorani


WHAT precisely are Israel’s war aims in Gaza? Is the massacre it unleashed there designed simply to stop the rocket attacks by Hamas?

Or is its real aim the elimination of Hamas as a power in Gaza with all that it would entail? The result would be that its sole negotiating partner would be Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, enfeebled, not strengthened by Hamas’ ouster, and the wreckage of the remnants of the peace process. The military had been preparing for the attack for a year. The US is complicit in all this.

Hamas’ proneness to tactical mistakes and to excess is not doubted. But that stems from exasperation at the economic boycott and border closing it has been facing all along. It was prepared to play a constructive role, but that was denied to it. Quite regardless of how the Israel’s military venture ends Mahmoud Abbas will emerge a diminished man Steven Erlanger of The New York Times reported from Nablus in the West Bank. “Fury is rising here over the war in Gaza, as are support for Hamas and anger with the Palestinian Authority…. Security forces had broken up pro-Hamas demonstrations, arrested Hamas supporters, confiscated Hamas flags and torn up placards carrying pro-Hamas slogans.”

Mahmoud Abbas’ term as chairman of the Palestinian Authority expired yesterday (Jan 9). The Israeli Knesset goes to the polls on Feb 10. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had resigned last year. His foreign minister Tzipi Livni could not drum up a coalition. Hence, the elections in which Likud’s hard-line Binyamin Netanyahu will make a strong bid for return to power. The ruling Kadima needs to show that it can be as tough.

Israel never accepted the poll results which brought Hamas to power and soon began to contain it forcibly. Having failed, it now seeks to crush it.

On Jan 25, 2006, around 1,073,000 Palestinians went to the polls to fill 132 seats in the Palestine Legislative Council. Hamas secured an astonishing 74 seats. Fatah got 45. Hamas’ rallying cry was “For change and reform”. Its number two candidate Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir said “Israel and a future Palestinian state could live side by side.”

On Jan 29 four days after the polls, a communiqué was issued after the cabinet meeting: “The State of Israel will not negotiate with any Palestinian administration even part of which is composed of an armed terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

On July 5, 2006 Israel Radio announced the cabinet’s decision to jail the Hamas government leaders and destroy the movement’s infrastructure. A spate of bombing raids began on July 2, 2006, lasting days and pounding the prime minister’s offices in Ramallah, Gaza and Nablus and the ministries of the interior and foreign affairs in Gaza.

When Mahmoud Abbas met President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in the White House in October 2005, the president warned “Don’t have an election if you think you will lose.”

A Hamas-Fatah coalition agreement arranged through Saudi mediation fell apart. Hamas controlled Gaza; Fatah controlled the West Bank. However, Israel immediately announced that it would not deal with the new government because its programme fell short of the three conditions for acceptance — recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous peace deals.

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was designed, not to promote, but to wreck the peace process. Its architect the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s friend and Chief of Staff Dov Weissglas said as much to the Israeli daily Haaretz on Oct 6, 2004: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. When you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and you prevent a discussion of the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Disengagement supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” Formaldehyde is the liquid in which dead bodies are preserved.

A security wall was built around the West Bank to cage in more than two million Palestinians, an electrified fence having already imprisoned more than a million in Gaza. More than 1,000 Israeli settlers are added every month to the thousands in the West Bank. More than 500 checkpoints hinder Palestinian movement. Palestinians were split into two Bantustan statelets behind high concrete and electrified fences.

This is the lot of 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.5 million in Gaza. There are besides 1.13 million in Israel; 2.8 million in Jordan, l.64 million in other Arab countries and 0.57 million in the rest of the world. A nation of 10.1 million dispossessed from its own lands by force and deceit.

The Hamas leader Khalid Mishal’s plea to president-elect Barack Obama is naïve and pathetic “The start is not good. You commented on Mumbai but you say nothing of the enemy (Israel). This policy of double standards should stop”. But Israel is a valued ally.

After his nomination as the Democrats’ candidate, Barack Obama rushed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and declared that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

Secretary of State-designate Hilary Clinton is no less staunch a supporter of Israel. It is heartening to know that at long last the UN Security Council has done its job by passing a resolution calling for an “immediate” and “durable” ceasefire in Gaza. How it is translated into practice remains to be seen.

The lawyer is a lawyer and an author.

Recession’s human toll

By Andrew Clark


ONE day, they have it all. The next morning, they don’t. Sudden, dramatic slumps in fortunes caused by the credit crunch can take a tragic toll on high-flying businessmen accustomed to a life of success.

Germany’s fifth richest man, the billionaire industrialist Adolf Merckle, this week threw himself under a train in an act blamed by his family on the “desperate situation” of his business empire, compounded with a sense of uncertainty and powerlessness. Merckle had lost hundreds of millions of euros on a speculative bet in Volkswagen shares. His act was not an isolated case. There has been a trickle of self-inflicted deaths among financiers unable to come to terms with heavy losses in a brutal, barely anticipated economic downturn.

At least six documented suicides in the financial industry have been linked to the credit crunch. Experts caution that suicide is never caused by a single factor — underlying mental health problems often play a role, as can substance abuse. But it has become clear that the recession is exacting a human toll.

“Some people have been so successful throughout their lives that they haven’t learned through experience how to tolerate loss or failure,” says Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “Some people identify their sense of self so rigidly around the concept of success that loss of success — failure — can push them to despair very quickly.”

Just days before Christmas, French fund manager Thierry de la Villehuchet was found dead at his desk in New York with slits on his arms. His firm, Access International Advisors, had lost more than $1.4bn of clients’ money at the hands of the Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff, who has been accused of fraud. Villehuchet’s brother Bertrand, who was the recipient of one of several suicide notes, described his death as an “act of honour” after “catastrophic” losses.

A Bear Stearns analyst, Barry Fox, jumped from the balcony of his 29th floor apartment last year within days of learning that he had lost his job at the bankrupt bank. His partner, Fred Philippi, said that after several personal setbacks, the bank’s collapse had been the “last straw” in breaking Fox’s spirit.

This week, the chairman of a leading US property brokerage was found with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound inside his car at a wildlife preserve near Chicago. Steven Good, chairman of Sheldon Good & Co, left no note and his reasons are as yet unexplained. He had recently spoken at a business conference of the tumultuous conditions facing the real estate industry.

As yet, there are no statistics to demonstrate whether suicide rates have been affected by the global financial crisis. But there are historical precedents — in the US, the rate of suicide reached an all-time peak of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 in 1933, at the height of the Depression.

Researchers say that unemployment has a “clear and direct” relationship with suicide. So does the loss of a home — a concern after a year in which US banks began foreclosure proceedings on more than two million households. Ronald Maris, director of the University of South Carolina’s suicide research centre, invokes the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie” - a condition of weakened social regulation during a crisis which leaves individuals feeling adrift.

“A recession can cause a lack of orderliness, a disruption in social control,” said Maris, who argues that high-flyers can be particularly vulnerable.

“Their situation is more volatile, they have got a lot more to lose,” says Maris. “It’s the disruption, the change in lifestyle, the suddenness and abruptness of that transition.”

The male-dominated culture of high finance does not help either. In America, suicide is three times more common among men than among women, partly because depressed males are less willing to seek medical help. Women, in contrast, are more frequently involved in non-fatal suicide attempts.

The long-term suicide trend has been downward on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, the latest government figures showed that suicide dropped to an all-time low of 8.5 per 100,000 population in 2006. In the US, the equivalent rate was 11 per 100,000.

Aware of the danger of burn-out, many Wall Street banks offer confidential employee assistance programmes for staff suffering from personal problems. These can include 24-hour helplines offering a referral service for anything from depression to alcoholism, substance abuse or legal problems.

But Alden Cass, a New York-based clinical psychologist who specialises in treating financial workers, says some are reluctant to use such services for fear that word could get back to their colleagues.

“There’s a lot of foolish pride. As you go higher up the food chain, you’re going to be more tight-lipped about problems and issues,” says Cass, the author of Bullish Thinking: the Advisor’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street.

“If you’ve lost a lot of money, there can be a sense of shame, of guilt and helplessness going on in peoples’ minds.”

A year ago, Cass noticed an increase of 25 per cent to 30 per cent in inquiries from frazzled traders and brokers. But the increase has tailed off, which he blames on money: “The money’s not there any more for therapy; people are cutting back. Therapy, for a lot of people on Wall Street, is viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity.”

In Britain last year, fund management boss Kirk Stephenson jumped in front of an inter-city train after struggling with pressure over the financial crisis’s impact on his firm, Olivant Advisers. His wife, Karina Robinson, told an inquest jury that when the banking system seized up, he had become “very tense and worried about a lot of things he had worked hard for”.

— The Guardian, London

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