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Empathy: When is it a force of good and when not?



Yesterday, a friend and I talked about the violence against peaceful protestors in Sudan. She said she can’t believe what is happening to innocent people. What is worse, she said, is no one cares about them. No one is helping.

I said I share your sentiments. But the problem is not that no one cares; it is just that such conflicts are quite complex. Yemen, Syria, Libya and other cases are before our eyes. Intervention or no intervention. People have been dying.

She said but why can’t we do something. Why can’t we be with them, so they don’t feel alone and scared? Why can’t we share their fear and pain, she said.

Again, I said I share your kind thoughts. But one also has to feel mentally and emotionally safe themselves to be able to help others.

It is sad that they are trapped but we can’t do much if we get trapped with them. One can’t help their crying child by starting crying with them. One has to feel ok and take action.

I said I love how empathetic you are but you need to separate emotional empathy from cognitive empathy

The Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom says emotional empathy means feeling the pain and suffering of people. Emotional empathy does not always help and it is not healthy. In work of peace or in life in general, one needs to make sure first they are ok.

Cognitive empathy, he says, refers to understanding other people’s problems and empathizing with them. Cognitive empathy is mentally appreciating the pain of other people and not necessarily feeling their pain emotionally.

Bloom says, another limitation of empathy is that we don’t empathize with strangers as much as we do with people we know. Therefore, individual actions and governments’ policies should base on rational calculation rather than purely on empathy.

As an activist, I follow the news of conflict in my country, Pakistan, and across the world closely. The events in the past year in Pakistan and in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan affected me emotionally.

At one point, I could not watch the videos of Pakistani security forces’ oppression of the protestors of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement or the PTM.

This was one reason why I took a break for four months from social media. I have read and have realized that it is ok to share the pain of fellow human beings. But it is not necessary to feel the way other people feel.

I agree with Bloom that emotional empathy is not good for one’s health. Hope this helps the readers and activists in the field.



America is unlikely to pressure the Pakistan Army, but PTM should knock on all doors for justice 


Since the onset of the rights-based Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM in February last year in Pakistan, its supporters have hopes from America to pressure the Pakistan military establishment to accept their demands. The PTM is a nonviolent movement that is demanding justice for war crimes committed against Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority— Pashtuns. The PTM supporters have protested in various cities of the U.S., including in front of the White House in the federal capital, Washington DC. The Trump administration has not issued a single condemnatory statement on the issue. From such a lack of interest, it is clear that the Americans are not interested in the Pashtun problem in Pakistan. There are a number of possible reasons. Some are general. Others are specific to PTM and Pakistan.

Generally, America has a negative historical track record of supporting regressive forces over democratic forces in numerous parts of the world. In the Spanish–American War in 1898, America supported the “independence” of Cuba and the Philippines against Spanish imperialism, but soon after the Spanish withdrawal it dominated the governments and peoples in these countries. When the local people resisted, America went to war against them. The Philippines did not become independent until 1946, almost half a century after dethroning the Spanish Empire with America’s help in 1898. America’s imperial project goes all the way back to the subjugation of the Natives in first few decades of the 19th century, the occupation of Hawaii in 1898 and subsequent exploits in Latin America and in the Middle East in the 20th century.

More recently, in 1986, the United States drew up sanctions on the white-dominated apartheid regime of South Africa, ending constraints from international sanctions on state repression of the anti-apartheid movement. Around the same time, the Reagan administration and Pentagon supported President Marcos of Philippines despite his government’s indiscriminate repression of the democratic opposition. It was because Marcos was America’s ally against Communism in the Philippines. However, Reagan withdrew his support of Marcos when the military-backed civilian uprising against Marcos transpired. There was also a growing wedge between the State Department and Congress and the Reagan administration and Pentagon. For details on the two cases, you can read chapter two of Kurt Schock’s book, Unarmed Insurrection: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies.

There are other cases of America’s support to dictators against democrats, but the question is will America support the PTM in Pakistan. The answer I am afraid is in negative. I may be wrong, but here is why I think so. First, America has more to gain from cooperation with the Pakistan army, especially for the endgame in Afghanistan, than hapless Pashtuns. This is despite the fact that America and the Pashtuns of Pakistan seem to have a common objective: The end of terrorist proxies allegedly backed by Pakistan army and used in Afghanistan. America is also preoccupied at the moment with the peace process with the Taliban in Afghanistan. A senior American expert on the region also confirmed this in a private conversation.

Second, America has supported generals over civilian leaders in Pakistan in the past. That realpolitik equation has not changed yet. With the Trump administration it has become more robust than ever, although he put pressure on Pakistan at the begging. My fear is that just like America and other powerful Western countries left East Timorese to the butchery by the Indonesian military, they will leave Pashtuns to their fate in Pakistan. It behooves these countries to avoid antagonizing Pakistan’s dominant military while it is blatantly denying rights to the Pashtun victims of war.

Third, one of the PTM demands is the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate possible crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Pakistan army. America will not get itself involved in this, because its own leaders and armed forces are guilty of committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) received 1.7 million cases of war crimes allegedly committed by the NATO and U.S. forces, Afghan secret service and security forces and the Taliban, combined. Since America is not a party to the ICC, the Trump administration cautioned the ICC Prosecutor not get involved. The Prosecutor responded that Afghanistan is a party to the ICC and crimes committed on its soil will have to be investigated. The point is that America will not support PTM in this regard.

Noam Chomsky says America has supported democracy where it has served its interests and opposed it when democracy would threaten American interests. This is true in the light of history. The PTM may stand a chance with the European Union subtracting the United Kingdom, which is the main historical culprit behind the past and current woes of the Pashtuns. Having said that, PTM should knock on all doors for justice, including that of the Americans. It is those who strive for justice, get it someday. The Polish Jew and lawyer Raphael Lemkin got the international community to adopt the Genocide Convention of 1948 after years of campaigning. Don’t forget that Jews were not the favorite of the West at the time and endured conscience-shocking atrocities at Hitler’s hands.

PTM should plead its case and keep telling its story to the world. As my favorite Native American proverb puts, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

In search of identity



The last time I saw my family was six years ago, before coming to the States. I talk to them over the phone now but it does not feel real. A lot has changed since then. New members have joined the family. Some family members have died. Their widows and young children are on God’s mercy because that is how life is in a small, poor village in rural Pakistan. My mom has grown weak and old. One family member, I was told recently, is terminally ill.

There have been tragedies which I keep mourning. And there have been happy occasions which I have missed. However, I also feel like living in a dream. It is not distressing but it is just that life does not feel true. Some call it an identity crisis. Others call it a state of un-belongingness. Whatever it may be, my identity has been shifting in many ways. I am a different man from the one I left in the village one sunny afternoon six years ago. I have transformed in ways which would be unthinkable back in the village. But I also feel I have not changed at all, which is a paradox.

I spent the first twenty years of my life in the village. Now at thirty-one, I live an hour by train from one of the world’s busiest and most populous metropolises, New York City. It is not that I am shocked or in awe (which I was both at first sight), but I am surprised by many things around me. Some of these things are quite trivial. I go to the bar, drink and enjoy but it still does not seem like my thing. I go to the beach and have fun but it still does not feel part of me. Sometimes, I even doubt if I had any fun. I have dated, had relationships but even dating at times seems foreign to my identity. None of these choices are imposed, of course.

I have wanted to do all of this but it still feels novel and, oddly enough, strange sometimes. However, these feelings are not constant realities. They shift from time to time. As I reflect on my life, I feel socialization plays a big role in one’s thinking about the world and their place in it. I grew up with a unique set of values and philosophy of life. The family came first. Parents enjoyed the utmost respect. Death was a constant reminder at the mosque. Praying at the mosque five times a day was compulsory. These were one set of principles I absorbed as a child and teenager.

As an adult, I was introduced to a new set of values. Dating was unacceptable. In fact, I did not know any such thing existed until I met my Turkish classmate in college in Lahore, who had a girlfriend in Turkey. Marriage was arranged. Contact with a stranger woman was deemed odious. The man who stayed away from women gatherings at family weddings was considered the most respectable. Reading or writing as an avocation was looked down on a waste of time. Philosophy was considered the subject of madmen. Questioning subjects such as God and religion was profanity. Quite random picks but such are the shifting sands of memory.

I imbibed these lessons like a sponge. I had to. It took me over a decade to change my ideas about most of these things. Although I have reoriented my understanding, it seems like there is still a deeper layer to my identity that remains unchanged, at least until now. Sometimes it feels like a hole or emptiness, like something is missing. One feels homeless at home, aloof around people and hopeless in a place which many from around the world come to for hope of a new future. One advantage of this uncertainty or confusion, however, is that it has made me more curious about the predicament of human existence and my place in it.

This predicament has turned me to some of the best philosophers and thinkers of all time to see what they thought about life. How they lived. In the last five years, I have collected books by Plato, Hume, Nietzsche, Mill, Aurelius, Frankl, Caums, Dawkins, Iqbal, Orwell, to name only a few. Most of my time spend in reading these madmen because I feel alive in their company. I may not have much in common with the men on the street but these madmen talk about things that are universal. Things that I used to think about in the village but did not comprehend.

I read five or more books at a time. My persistent side interests besides academia in reading are philosophy, positive psychology, religion, war and politics. About two years ago, I also began to read poetry. The topics that interest me particularly are ethics, justice, power, violence, love, beauty, empathy, death, life, mind and much more. This sounds overambitious but most of these topics are parts of a bigger whole.

I think my curiosity stems from uncertainty and the desire to know more, to try to be wise, as the saying in German goes, “wage es weise zu sein (dare to be wise).” Wisdom for me is not knowing-it-all pretentiousness. That is beyond impossible. Wisdom is silence, too. One has to read to know when one has to keep quiet and let someone else speak. My ambition is to discover who I am in my context, so that I can be of a little use to humanity.

While in search of identity, I miss home and struggle to preserve part of the young man from six years ago, so that I have something to share with my family when I see them next.


What would Orwell say about Pakistan Army’s repression of Pashtuns?


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The British novelist and essayist and critic of authoritarianism George Orwell opens the second chapter of his book Why I Write with the following quote:

“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me up with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”

Orwell understood that “one can not see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism and national loyalty.”  He believed no ideology, including religion (Christianity) and international socialism, had a comparison with the power of patriotism. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power because they knew “facts” and how to exploit the national loyalty of their peoples. Orwell was an outspoken supporter of democratic socialism and opposed totalitarianism and British imperialism overseas.

Almost 7 decades after his death, Orwell’s analysis is still relevant to the postmodern world. Today, patriotism and national loyalty are on the rise like never before. From the United States to Hungry in the West to India and Pakistan in South Asia, to mention only a few countries, nationalist jingoism is the popular sentiment not only among the ruling elites but also in the majority of the people in these countries. Americans elected Donald Trump as their president; Hungarians and Indians have elected the xenophobes Orban and Modi respectively, twice, and Pakistanis except for ethnic minorities such as the Baloch and Pashtuns worship the totalitarian army generals as their gods.

Pakistan’s elected totalitarian regime, run by the army,  is similar to Orwell’s England of the twentieth century. The generals and their protégés in the civilian government have established their reign of terror and repression on the Pashtun victims of the War on Terror. In February last year, a peaceful civil rights movement, the Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement or PTM, emerged from Pakistan’s erstwhile tribal areas against the alleged war crimes by Pakistan army in the past decade. The PTM has demanded justice for crimes such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances among others war abuses against innocent Pashtuns. The army ignored it first and then tried to negotiate on its own terms with the PTM. When the PTM leadership refused to budge from their original demands, the army has now begun to crack down on the nonviolent movement.

Two weeks ago, the Pakistan army soldiers in the Boyya area of North Waziristan opened fire at peaceful PTM protestors, leaving 13 dead and scores injured. The army’s media wing ISPR blamed PTM leaders for inciting an attack against the soldiers first. But video footage of the incident showed that the protestors did not possess any arms. Prime Minister Imran Khan did not condemn the attack. In a clampdown, the army through its proxies has arrested the top leaders, including elected members of Parliament, of the PTM on terrorism charges. The irony is that the army created and has hosted terrorists while the PTM leaders stood against them for years, but they are still to blame.

In mainland Pakistan, which is the Punjab province, support for rights movements like the PTM from the country’s ethnic minorities is hardly in dozens. Out of 110 million people in Punjab, one can count on fingertips those who have shown solidarity with the PTM. The rest are either afraid of the generals or celebrate them as their own, as loyalty to in-group, no matter how unfounded, is a primordial human characteristic. It is perhaps not their fault since it takes a big heart and cognitive liberation to transcend one’s skin and empathize with a stranger.

Speaking of England’s then political parties such as Conservatives and Anarchists in Politics and the English Language, Orwell said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In the current political climate of Pakistan, the army is the architect of such political language. Through control of media and use of coercion, it represses the truth. Most political parties except for the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto, a few leaders of PMLN and Pashtun nationalist parties, such as ANP and PKMAP, are in bed with the generals. Imran’s PTI is complicit in the current crime of repression and murder of the PTM activists.

However, the good news is that the truth does emerge eventually. Power also may shift from oppressors to the oppressed. When the truth emerges and power shifts, then there will be accountability and justice. Until then, there is resistance, even if it is only in the mind.







4 ways in which unarmed insurrections may weather repression in nondemocracies


The emergence of movements or challenges for political change threatens the interests of regimes, especially in nondemocracies or pseudo-democracies. According to Kurt Schock, authorities may respond in four possible ways to these challenges: Ignore, conciliate, reform and repress. When a challenge expands and gains momentum, authorities can not ignore anymore because it undermines their legitimacy. When authorities can no longer ignore the challenge, they seek conciliation. Conciliation may take the form of “symbolic gestures,” channeling or cooptation to encourage challengers to adopt institutionalized political channels such as contesting elections and etcetera.

If conciliation fails, then political reforms may become an option. But the problem with political reforms is that if the authorities introduce reforms, it may encourage the further mobilization of the challenge. Lastly, authorities rely on repression. According to Schock, repression may entail the imposition of negative sanctions, use of force and coercion and violence by proxy. Repression may be used in both democracies and nondemocracies, but Schock argues that it is more pervasive in nondemocracies because most overt challenges pose a direct threat to the regimes.

The question is how may unarmed insurrections survive repression by authoritarian regimes. Shock suggests four possible ways: However, they don’t guarantee the success of the insurrections. If followed, the suggested ways “may increase the likelihood that a challenge will remain resilient in a nondemocratic context.” While adopting these strategies, the challengers should be mindful of their political context. Shock contends, “The factors influencing the trajectories of unarmed insurrections and their interactions are far too complex and subject to the influence of factors beyond the control or recognition of activists and social scientists.”

Here are the four ways that a challenge under repression from the authorities may adopt to sustain its struggle.

1. Adopting network-oriented rather than hierarchical organizational structure: Shock and other theorists such as Walter Powell and Robert Burrows contend that social movement organizations under repression should adopt network-oriented or decentralized than hierarchical or centralized organizational structure.  Shock argues that “… Network-organized challenges are more flexible, are more adept at expanding horizontal channels of communication, are more likely to increase the participation and commitment of members and the accountability of leaders, are more likely to innovate tactically and are more likely to weather repression.”

2. Implementing more diverse tactics and methods: Shock argues that “The more diverse the tactics and methods implemented, the more diffuse the state’s repressive operations become, thus potentially lessening their effectiveness.” He emphasizes on using a mix of three methods that the theorist Gene Sharp talks about at length in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Protest and persuasion, noncooperation and disruptive nonviolent intervention. The first method, protest and persuasion “help overcome apathy, acquiescence, and fear; promote solidarity; contribute to the elaboration and dissemination of counterhegemonic frames; and signal to third parties and reference publics the existence of an unjust and intolerable situation.”

The second method, noncooperation, challenges the legitimacy, resources and power of the state, “and the collective withdrawal of cooperation from the state promotes cooperation and empowerment among the oppressed.” Finally, disruptive nonviolent intervention may be used in support of the previous two methods. “Creative nonviolent intervention,” Schock claims, “undermines state authority and contributes to the ability of movements to sustain themselves by providing networks that are alternative to state-controlled institutions.”

3. Shifting from methods of concentration to methods of dispersion: Another way for social movement organizations to weather repression is to shift from methods of concentration such as protest demonstrations to methods of dispersion such as a strike or a boycott. According to Schock, methods of concentration are useful for building solidarity, highlighting grievances and the extent of dissatisfaction and if the state responds with repression, exposing “the fact the state is based on violence than legitimacy.” However, in the face of repression, challengers must be able to shift to methods of dispersion, since the latter does not provide the state with tangible or discriminate target for repression. Shifting to methods of dispersion “may overextend the state’s repressive capacities due to the lack of specific target.” Shock argues that depending on the context, both methods may be useful and effective.

4. Adapting more quickly than the state: Last but not least, challengers need to adapt more quickly to the state’s actions than the state does to theirs. Schock argues that “If challengers adapt more quickly than the state, they increase their likelihood of weathering state repression.” Since the state does the same thing, the challengers must be tactical and innovative in their methods to keep the authorities off balance and save the challenge from stagnation. Several theorists argue that challengers can adapt well if their organizational structure is network-oriented rather than hierarchical and if they use a combination of methods outlined above.

To sum up, Schock argues that “challenges characterized by dispersed yet coordinated networks and decentralized organizations that can mobilize resources through channels not directly controlled by the state, and that implement a diverse mix of methods and respond effectively to the state’s actions, are more likely to remain resilient in the face of violent repression.”


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