People, politics, power and policy

But whereas thuggery operates against the will of the majority by intimidation, lobbies and interest groups can only succeed within a congenial and sympathetic, or at least a neutral and apathetic, public opinion, not against it.

 (Daily Times, 16 January 2013)

The Indonesian government has decided to scrap the teaching of science in primary schools in favour of more religious studies.  The Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh and other promoters of the new curriculum say that religious education from an early stage would create better citizens.

It is highly questionable whether religious education from an early age produces better citizens.  But to scrap science in favour of any other subject of study at any stage of schooling is definitely a retrograde step.  If the Pakistani experience with madrasa education is any guide, then certainly more religious education from an early age does not produce more good citizens.

Most studies done on this issue show the close relationship between science education and national advancement and technological progress (assuming other things being the same or similar).  This correlation is best demonstrated by the astounding progress of Germany, Japan, South Korea and now China, all of which emphasize science education from an early age.

Most Indonesian pedagogues and parents would support science education in primary schools but the latest decision of the authorities is being implemented nevertheless because of pressure from the increasingly influential religious parties and groups.  As in Pakistan and Israel, the religious parties in Indonesia wield an influence on national policy far in excess of their votes or the number of seats they hold in the national parliament.

We all know how even a few thugs are able to intimidate and oppress large groups of ordinary citizens on the streets and suburbs of any city in the world.  Drug dealers, youth gangs, common street thugs and what we in South Asia call “goondas” (goons) hold entire suburbs hostage to their thuggery.  Call that “hard power”, “willpower”, “group power” or whatever you like.

An excellent demonstration of this occurs in the natural world where a small pack of hyenas, lions or wild dogs can overpower a whole herd of huge wildebeests through better organization, concentration of forces and the threat or actual use of violence.

Much more sophisticated and subtle but far less obvious is the “soft power” of organized interest groups such as the gun lobby and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US and the religious parties in Pakistan and Israel. Even winning elections is not just a matter of public appeal or popular support, but organization, strategy, resources, campaign and leadership.

It is known that religious parties in Pakistan don’t get many votes and win few seats but they still wield significant, even decisive influence on the government.  They force changes in policy to favour their own agenda and veto those potential changes which they do not like.

A good example is the capitulation of Prime Minster Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the Islamists on the Ahmadi issue in 1974 and his further concessions in 1977.  When President General Pervez Musharraf wanted to remove the requirement to mention religion in Pakistani passports, the religious elements forced the powerful military dictator to retreat by threatening him with their “street power”. 

A well-entrenched Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba influences all academic and administrative decisions in the Punjab University, although it represents a minority of students.  Its parent organization, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is not even represented in the provincial or national government and barely represented in the parliaments in the best of times.

But whereas thuggery operates against the will of the majority by intimidation (through actual violence or threat of violence), lobbies and interest groups can only succeed within a congenial and sympathetic, or at least a neutral and apathetic, public opinion, not against it.  To understand this, ask yourself if a “pro-India lobby” could exist in Pakistan, or a “pro-Pakistan” lobby could operate in India. 

Take the “gun issue” in the United States.  The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) has such clout that if feels it can stand up to a popularly elected US president and defy him.  No matter how many deaths of innocent people (including school children) result from mass shootings, the gun lobby musters enough support in the US congress to pre-empt any legislation towards gun control.

Similarly, the pro-Israeli lobby has long influenced US Middle East policy to an extent which many American decision-makers find unacceptable.  It has now reached a point that presidential candidates and nominees for the posts of secretary of defence or state have to pass the litmus test of steadfast loyalty towards Israel.  And it does even suffice to express unequivocal support for Israel but it is also necessary to commit oneself to hostility towards Iran.  Put simply, in the current environment, all decision-makers in the US have to foreswear to a policy of “kick ass (Iran); kiss ass (Israel)”.

It is important to note that the success of the gun lobby and the pro-Israeli lobby owes to the fact that they operate within a sympathetic or apathetic environment.  In other words, they succeed because more people support them (or are neutral) than are against them.  The American “gun lobby” draws its strength from the high level of gun ownership and membership of the NRA and bolstered by the Second Amendment.  The pro-Israeli lobby draws its strength from the large number American Jews, good organization, excellent resources and leadership but also the support of Christian evangelical organizations and well-known personalities.

The NRA succeeds because although most Americans want an end to the killings in schools and shopping malls, many love their guns and most cherish their right to own guns.  The pro-Israel lobby achieves one victory after another because most Americans regard the Israelis, rather than the Palestinians, as the victims, although they support the two-state solution.

The Indonesian ministry of education can scrap science classes in favour of religious studies because, while most Indonesians appreciate the need for science education, their love of religion superimposes over all else.  Although most Pakistanis and Afghans disapprove of the Taliban’s methods, the Taliban flourish because most Pakistanis and Afghans endorse their Islamic agenda. 

By Razi Azmi

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7 Responses to People, politics, power and policy

  1. Ishtiaq Ahmed says:

    Yet another example of religion trumping science and objective knowledge. You are absolutely right about hynenas and other wild animals terrorizing the rest of the animal kingdom and parallels among human beings.

  2. tony says:

    Hi Razi I think it is important to distinguish between the power of the NRA and the power of the Mullahs. The NRA is an electoral lobby group which has the power to make or break someone’s chances of success in an election. The Pakistani clerics who are trying to bring down the Government are demagogues who will bring people onto the street and are quite happy to use mobs of Islamic Zealots to take over the streets regardless of what the electorate thinks. The Mullahs and the NRA are both nasty groups but the NRA is a single issue lobby which doesn’t want to govern but merely to keep its guns. The Mullahs want absolute control of everything.
    Lions, Hyenas etc do not “overpower” herds of Wildebeest. They single out a few week ones and bring them down. The Wildebeest may be terrified but the herd is never controlled by the predators.

  3. Razi Azmi says:

    Tony, I suppose if the lions succeed in making the herd run for their lives and then pounce upon an isolated wildebeest, the effect is the same — the lions have achieved their objective and a wildebeest or two have become meal for the lions.
    As to your other objection, the point I was trying to make is that both the ARA and the Mullahs are successful (as is the pro-Israeli lobby) because they operate in a sympathetic environment, not against it or in spite of it.

  4. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Razi sb has rightly pointed towards this current and burning issue in several societies of today. But, considering the contribution of scientific knowledge in the service of humanity through centuries, the learning of science should be upheld for future progress of human race. Very well done for raising this significant issue.

  5. Jacob Kipp says:

    Excellent article. Living in Kansas we know something about fundamentalists’ war on science. That is an on-going battle. The issue with guns in the United States is more complex. The NRA is a lobby to protect the rights of citizens to keep their guns, but within their supporters there are distinctions. Hunters and sportsmen seek to guns for recreation. Others want to keep guns out of fear of domestic violence. This side is as old as the founding of the colonies and had its origins in three threats: foreign invasion when Britain hardly wanted to defend the colonies, Indian uprisings on the forntier, and slave uprisings among those held in bondage. Today the paranoia seems to be about state tyranny, black helicopters in the night, and invading UN armies. The world has changed since the ratification of the second amendment. We now a standing army and the state’s arsenal includes the means to destory human kind, but some how having an assault rifle and a maxi clip for Glock will stop a tyranny that others can not see. One is reminded of Bert and Ernie on Sesamme Street, when Ernies has a banana in his ear. Bert asks why. Ernie says itis to keep the alligators away. Bert tells Ernie that there are no alligators within 500 miles. To which Ernie replies tha the is glad to know the banana in the ear is working so well.

  6. Razi Azmi says:

    If the constitutional sanction to have guns is considered sacrosanct, I suggest a way out of this conundrum, which will safeguard the Americans’ right to own firearms while making America safe. Americans should only be allowed to possess such firearms as were in existence when the Second Amendment was passed. Any kind of firearm developed after the passage of the Second Amendment should not be covered by it. Common sense. For that’s what the authors and supporters of the Amendment had in mind.

  7. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, Excellent article. I think this quote tells a lot about how and what Mullahs do. “Organized religion is like organized crime, it preys on people’s weaknesses, generates huge profits for its operators and is almost impossible to eradicate” Mike Hermann
    The lobbies to are like organized religion and have a clout way beyond their apparent strength.
    Best Regards.

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