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DAWN - Editorial; September 20, 2006

September 20, 2006

Social security & reforms

THAT the World Bank has taken notice of the weak state of social security nets in least developed countries and in emerging markets in volatile regions as one of its principal concerns should reassure the poor in these countries. More encouraging is the fact that this concern, according to the Development Committee chairman, forms part of the commitment of the world to achieve millennium development goals. Concerned social scientists in South Asian countries, including Pakistan, do share this disquiet about social security nets because the total spending on social protection in most countries of the region is relatively low compared to other parts of the world. Indeed, while social protection spending as a share of GDP is known to rise with an increase in per capita income, this has not happened in the case of South Asia. In Pakistan itself, spending on social assistance has remained static at just about one per cent of GDP and that on social insurance at less than two per cent, while the per capita income has gone up to nearly $1,000. According to a WB study, South Asia’s track record on redistributive policies has been weak: most have been ad hoc and populist, with the effectiveness of expenditure remaining far below the potential because of improper targeting and leakages of benefits.

One cannot but agree with the study that rapid economic growth can generate additional fiscal resources for redistribution, social protection, education, health, and infrastructure services. For making these additional resources work more effectively, growth needs to be made inclusive. The World Bank believes that this can be achieved by expanding opportunities and the capacity to participate, on fair terms, in a thriving economic environment; improving the effectiveness and coverage of social programmes to protect the vulnerable; and reducing civil and political conflict by using rapid growth to tackle the underlying disparities that create marginalised minorities or political factions riven by discontent. In order to achieve the first condition, the Bank very rightly advises the regional countries to introduce equalising reforms in the labour and financial markets and to deal on a priority basis with poorer regions and depressed sectors like agriculture. For the second condition to be met, the Bank suggests improving targeting of programmes like Zakat distribution. Its study has also detected tension between centrally designed and financed social assistance programmes and stressed the need and desirability for local accountability and flexibility to ensure impact.

While discussing the third condition — reducing conflict — the World Bank study argues that such conflicts divert valuable financial resources from public investment and instead promote military expenditure. Therefore, the study suggests that resolution of civil conflicts will have substantial pay-off in terms of unlocking development potential and focusing policy attention on building a constituency for difficult reforms, rather than holding such reforms in abeyance. One can hardly disagree with these suggestions and hopes that the government will keep them in mind while making and reforming social protection policies. In Pakistan’s case, there is indeed an urgent need to make strenuous efforts to reform the labour market to increase the opportunities for the jobless and equalise access to financial markets. There is also the need to make the benefits of Zakat reach the really poor. And finally, Pakistan has to try and resolve the multitude of conflicts troubling it, like the issues of resource distribution and provincial autonomy, regional disparities, sectarian conflicts and religious obscurantism.

For unity’s sake

LEAVING aside the angry rhetoric echoed by the opposition and nationalist party leaders who held a rally in Quetta on Monday, the other important message that came out loud and clear must be heeded: the provinces must be empowered and the policy of over-centralisation of authority in Islamabad must be changed. This is necessary to save the federation and to allay inter-provincial misgivings created by years of authoritarian role played by the civil-military establishment at the centre. Inter-provincial relations are arguably at their worst since 1971. Today more and more people in the three smaller provinces have come to share the views of the ethnic nationalists because they have many justifiable grievances. Punjab is once again being seen to support a strong-fisted federal government engaged in military action in parts of the Frontier and Balochistan. The feelings of powerlessness found among the minority ethnic groups do not augur well for the federation.

What the country has long needed is the shortening of the concurrent list of federal functions, as once agreed upon under the 1973 Constitution. It assigned the centre far too many powers in too many areas that should have been devolved to the provinces over the subsequent years; but that was never done. The centre has remained all too powerful and the provinces have been denied the right to even legislate in many areas for fear of their being at variance with federal laws. This is true across the socio-economic and political spectrum. Over-centralisation of authority in one organ of the state to the exclusion of all others has led to an acute sense of alienation and has bred deprivation, particularly among the smaller provinces and their people. The political role assumed by an army that does not have equal representation in its rank and file from all the four federating units has become untenable. The absence of a genuine and credible democratic system, too, has played a major role in bringing the affairs to their present state. Unless the provinces are trusted with greater socio-economic and political decision-making, and an effort is made towards establishing a genuine federal democratic system, the country will remain trapped in the troubled waters of popular alienation and anger.

Crime rise in Peshawar

THE alarming rise of kidnapping cases in Peshawar points to a complete breakdown of law and order in the provincial capital. One newspaper report says that as many as 24 persons have been kidnapped for ransom since August. The police’s response is dismal as they are reluctant to register cases, because they do not want to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. If they do register a case, they report it as a missing person case instead of kidnapping. As a result of this erosion of faith in the police, the victims’ families have perforce to deal directly with the kidnappers, paying whatever the ransom amount demanded of them. Meanwhile, families that registered cases with the police — like those of an orthopaedic surgeon who was kidnapped on August 16 or of a seven-year-old boy and his father who were kidnapped last week — have not had any luck in finding them. The police have their own grievances: they say they are ill-equipped to deal with such crimes and that they do not have the backing of their senior officers if they want to proceed against someone. The provincial government too seems to have turned a blind eye to the issue, preferring to adopt an “all’s well” attitude. Criminals are well aware of these problems and are profiting while residents are paralysed with fear.

It is believed that many kidnap victims are taken to the tribal belt where it is difficult to enforce the writ of the law. The government will have to seek the support and cooperation of political agents in this regard. However, many victims have been traced to places like Mardan and Swabi which are well within the jurisdiction of the NWFP government. Nazims in Peshawar have also expressed their concern and recently asked the government to take strict action against criminals. The situation calls for a comprehensive strategy for combating the surge in crime.

Benedict and the backlash

By Mahir Ali

BY the beginning of this week, the wave of anger over a mediaeval quotation used by Pope Benedict XVI in a speech he gave at his old university in Bavaria appeared to be dissipating, following a litany of ambivalent apologies from the Vatican.

Many of the Muslim organisations that had taken strong offence appeared to accept in good faith, so to speak, the papal explanation that the controversial citation served an illustrative purpose and had not been intended to hurt anyone’s feelings.

That is just as well. Although a repetition of the apparently concerted violent reaction that greeted the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons critical of Islam cannot be completely ruled out, such a development would inevitably veer into quod erat demonstrandum territory, reinforcing the opinions of those who perceive a visceral connection between Islam and the use of force. Deplorably, there have been reports of attacks on churches in the Palestinian territories and the death of an Italian nun in Somalia.

For the most part, though, the protests have thus far been restricted to parliamentary resolutions, statements and the like. Even these appear to have taken the Vatican by surprise — which in itself provides some cause for amazement. After all, the quotation that the Benedict used in his discourse at the University of Regensburg wasn’t exactly innocuous. He did make it clear that the words were not his own and noted their “startling brusqueness”, but the test of speech offers little evidence of any attempt to categorically dissociate himself from the sentiment that the founder of Islam introduced “things only evil and inhuman” into the world, “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”.

These words are attributed to “the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus”, but without any hint of the context, which may be of some relevance: notably that Manuel II spent much of reign, which straddled the 14th and 15th centuries, trying to ward off Ottoman conquest, and that he had been an Ottoman prisoner until shortly before he wrote these words. It may also have been worth mentioning that Manuel was similarly ill-disposed towards the Catholic church.

The subject of the Pope’s speech was reason and faith, and he went on to say that whereas “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent — his will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality”, Christianity “took on its historically decisive character in Europe” as a consequence of an “inner rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry”. It is understandable for Benedict to consider Catholicism superior to Islam and all other religions — why else would he be Pope?

That does not entitle him, however, to distort history: violent conquest and coercive conversions are very much a part of Christianity’s past. It is also widely acknowledged that back in the Middle Ages, Muslim rule was frequently more enlightened than Christian rule. And more tolerant: Karen Armstrong, the author of Islam: A Short History, pointed out in The Guardian on Monday that in Islam’s early years, “Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Quranic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own”.

Much has changed in the intervening centuries. Particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, the trend in Muslim societies has broadly been towards decreasing tolerance and a gradually increasing reluctance to absorb outside influences or engage with divergent points of view. There are, thankfully, numerous exceptions to this rule, but a certain philosophical insularity tends to deter rational debates both within Islam, and between Islam and other cultures.

As for Christian rule, on the face of it there appears to be no such thing — and that may be precisely what irks Benedict so much. Towards its conclusion, his Regensburg speech descended into a diatribe against secularism, against the relegation of “the questions raised by religion and ethics” to “the realm of the subjective”. Thus, “ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity... A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” One suspects that many of his Muslim critics would be inclined to agree with such opinions, unlike those who consider religion and rationality to essentially be incompatible.

The Pope’s alarm at Europe’s lack of religiosity is well known. His attitude towards Islam is said to be guided in part by the perception that whereas Muslims in Europe enjoy freedom of worship, Christians in predominantly Muslim societies tend to feel beleaguered. Insofar as this complaint is justified, efforts to resolve it ought to be directed towards embarrassing Muslim countries into following the European example rather than the other way around.

But then, if Benedict seriously desired a meaningful dialogue of some sort with Islam — as his predecessor evidently did — it is unlikely he would have adopted a different tack. As Giles Fraser — the vicar of Putney and a philosophy lecturer at Oxford — put it, “claiming that Islam may be beyond reason, and then to claim that to act without reason is contrary to the will of God, is pretty close to the assertion that this religion is godless. And that’s not how different faiths ought to speak to each other — especially when we all have each other’s blood on our hands.”

In his pre-papal incarnation, Benedict was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the arm of the Vatican that organised the Inquisition. In that capacity, he brooked little dissent, and he was particularly ruthless in dealing with a Latin American tendency that became known as liberation theology, because the priests involved in it began paying too much attention to the material, rather than just the spiritual, welfare of their impoverished parishioners. It certainly could have been argued that many of them were doing God’s work, given that the Bible is partial to egalitarianism. But that didn’t prevent Ratzinger from being rather liberal with his excommunications, much to the delight of dictators in countries such as Brazil.

Ratzinger’s determination to bolster the status quo is of a piece with Benedict’s desire for a Christian Europe, in the interests of which he opposes the idea of Turkey joining the European Union. Which means there’s at least a smidgeon of irony in the fact that his first trip to a Muslim country will take him to Ankara and Istanbul; the latter, once known as Constantinople, is where the Pope’s favourite Byzantine emperor was based.

The chief problem with Benedict’s remarks about Islam and its founder is, of course, the likelihood that they will reinforce existing prejudices and embolden racist attitudes, which is particularly hard to take from someone who once belonged (involuntarily, it is said) to Hitler Youth.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the perceived nexus between Islam and violence cannot be blamed on the Pope. The anarchic terrorism of recent years (as opposed to the state-sponsored variety, a category in which the US brooks no rivals) has largely been perpetrated by purportedly holier-than-thou individuals and organisations.

It is widely believed said that Islam is a religion of peace and that the practitioners of indiscriminate violence are deviants far removed from the Muslim mainstream. But if that is indeed the case, surely the mainstream ought to be far more vociferous in its denunciations. Here lies an opportunity for perfectly justified intolerance: if the suicide bombers and various other forms of terrorists are violating the tenets of their faith, this ought to be made painfully clear as often as necessary.

There is also a case to be made for a kind of glasnost in Islam (as well as, incidentally, in the Catholic church) whereby the past can be viewed in all its technicolour glory (or shame, as the case may be) instead of being restricted to snapshots in black and white, and the future can openly be debated, with no holds barred and without the threat of violence or intimidation.

Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Islam does not enjoy a monopoly on misguided fanaticism. On the day that the Pope was preoccupied with matters of reason and faith, George W. Bush granted an audience to conservative journalists and told them that the “confrontation between good and evil” which he had initiated had led to a Third Awakening of religious devotion in the US.

The reference was to a resurgence of religious fervour. The First and Second Great Awakenings supposedly occurred in the years 1730-60 and 1800-30. The Washington Post quoted a White House aide as saying, “He’s drawing a parallel in terms of a resurgence, in dangerous times, of people going back to their religion. This is not a ‘God is on our side’ or anything like that.” One can only wonder whether the aide seriously expects anyone to believe that Bush ever contemplates the possibility of God not being on his side.

A day earlier, on the 9/11 anniversary, Bush had spoken in terms of an “ideological struggle” and “a struggle for civilization”. Five years on, he may be surprised to discover that some of the supposed adversaries of the values he upholds more or less share his quasi-theological ideology and his manichean outlook.