Foreign journalists in Pakistan: Embedded in the narratives of military establishment and urban elite
In response to Declan Walsh’s article on Karachi’s deadly divide – by Shaista Aazar
I could not agree more when I read this line in Declan Walsh’s article on Sherry Rehman (Guardian, 23 January 2011):
“A sense of siege is setting in among Pakistan’s elite.”
Of course. Mr Walsh’s choice of the topic and Pakistan’s urban chatterers narrative that Mr Walsh is trying to recycle to his UK audience is an ample proof of the sense of siege currently confronting Pakistan’s elite.
A critical review of Walsh’s article
While LUBP has previously exposed Mr Walsh for his misrepresentations of the blasphemy law episode in Pakistan, his current article is an example of how a foreign embedded journalist recycles elitist narratives to his UK audience.
A cursory look at the said article would reveal the following:
1. Mr Walsh suffers from the same lopsided and myopic view of Pakistani society and politics as is the characteristic of a tiny but noisy group known as urban chatterers (from middle class to elite backgrounds) who love to be known as Pakistan’s civil society but are as detached from Pakistani society as Mr Walsh himself.
[Perhaps not unlike Mr Walsh, the urban chatterers of Pakistan are only to be found on facebook, twitter etc but despite their tall claims and pretensions lack an understanding of everyday social life and politics in Pakistan’s streets, markets, mosques and offices. The urban chatterers are, in general, members of Pakistan’s elite or affiliates whose material and emotional interests remain closely tied with the all powerful military establishment.]
2. The said article is a blatant attempt at promoting an urban elite politician (Sherry Rehman) whose political credentials and support are far tinier compared to her excessively large ego and ambitious self-projection often at the cost of her own political party’s long-term interests.
3. As expected, the article successfully portrays the mullahs and the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party as the villains of Pakistan’s decline into religious fanaticism, in which only a few wine drinking individuals ‘self-arrested’ in their luxury villas in Karachi (Lahore, Islamabad) and Dubai are the true heroes of the Left who are fighting for a liberal and progressive Pakistan.
4. Mr Walsh utterly ignores the fact that besides noisy but sizable mullahs (40,000 in a pro-blasphemy law rally in Karachi) and noisy but tiny urban chatterers (200 in an anti-blasphemy law show in Islamabad), Pakistan is also inhabited by almost 170 million people the majority of whom remain loyal to moderate political parties, the PPP being the largest political party present in all provinces and areas of the federation. He also ignores the fact that it is the PPP (along with some other political parties such as the ANP), not a few dozen urban chatterers, which has offered most sacrifices in the nation’s struggle for a tolerant, democratic and progressive Pakistan.
Provided below are some gems from Declan Walsh’s article. I may add a few comments here and there in a spare moment but the extracts are sufficient for now to reveal the ‘depth’ and direction of the narrative.
Sherry Rehman represents Pakistan’s left and/or liberals
Pakistani politicians have a long tradition of self-imposed exile but 50-year-old Rehman – a former confidante of Benazir Bhutto, and known for her glamour, principled politics and sharp tongue – is surely the first to undergo self-imposed house arrest. Hers is a luxury cell near the Karachi shore, filled with fine furniture and expensive art, but a stifling one. Government officials insist on 48 hours’ notice before putting food (sic) outside. Plots are afoot, they warn.
She welcomes a stream of visitors – well-educated, English-speaking people from the slim elite. But Pakistan’s left is divided and outnumbered. Supporters squabble over whether they should call themselves “liberals”, and while candle-lit vigils in upmarket shopping areas may attract 200 well-heeled protesters, the religious parties can turn out 40,000 people, all shouting support for Mumtaz Qadri, the fanatical policeman who shot Taseer.
A sense of siege is setting in among Pakistan’s elite. Hours later, at an upscale drinks party in the city, businessmen and their wives sipped wine and gossiped about second homes in Dubai. One woman admitted she wasn’t aware of Rehman’s plight because she had stopped reading the papers. “Too much bad news,” she said.
Progressives demonstrate loudly in the English press and on Twitter but lack political support, having largely spurned corruption-ridden politics. Politicians say now is the time to come back. “They will be contemptuous of the politician, but they will not actually soil their hands with politics. But none of them has a constituency from which to stand,” says Ayaz Amir.
The “PPP abandoned Sherry Rehman” narrative
Rehman is polite when asked about the silence of her colleag ues in the ruling Pakistan Peoples party on the blasphemy issue. “They feel they want to address this issue at another time,” she says. The truth is, they have abandoned her.
The party played with fire over the blasphemy issue last November when President Asif Ali Zardari floated the idea of a pardon for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on dubious blasphemy charges. According to Rehman, he also agreed to reform the law. But then conservative elements in the party objected, a conservative judge blocked the pardon and, even before Taseer had been killed, the party had vowed not to touch a law that has become the virtual sacred writ of Pakistani politics.
Sherry Rehman, progressive credentials, principled politician
Rehman is unlikely to attend Pakistan’s parliament when it resumes this week. Her progressive credentials are strong, having previously introduced legislation that blunted anti-women laws and criminalised sexual harassment. But critics, including senior human rights officials, say she made a tactical mistake in prematurely introducing last November’s blasphemy bill without the requisite political support.
Comment: To put things into perspective, let me quote the following passage from a recent post by an LUBP colleague, Sarah Khan: “Another important point that I want to raise is the support for Sherry Rehman. She tabled a private members bill in the national assembly, without discussing the same with anyone in the party, only to gain attention. Now she is sitting at her home in Karachi, which incidentally is next door to Intelligence Bureau Headquarters called the Bhopal House. Off course, Sherry has been a journalist and an editor of The Herald, which was instrumental in 1996 in discrediting the PPP government. She also left the cabinet at the time of Long March of March 2009 assuming that the PPP’s government is on the way out.”
The GHQ jihad enterprise
Herein lies the root cause of extremism in Pakistan. By remaining soft on the GHQ’s investment in jihadi and sectarian fanaticism while being harshly critical of the PPP and other political parties, urban elite are an accomplice with the military establishment. They are a part of the problem not the solution.
The mess is also the product of dangerous spy games by the powerful army, which propped up jihadi groups for decades to fight in Afghanistan and India. Some of those militants have now “gone rogue” and allied with al-Qaida; others, according to US assessments in the WikiLeaks files, are still quietly supported by the military. “Our establishment, especially the army, is in league with these people,” says Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a moderate cleric. “And until they stop supporting them they will never be weakened.”
Veena Malik, the ray of hope in Pakistan? (Not Sharmila Farooqi confronting Jamaat Islami politicians, not the Shias of Parachinar who have bravely defeated the Taliban, not the courageous leaders and workers of the PPP and ANP who have offered most sacrifices in the war on jihadi/sectarian terrorism, it is Veena Malik who is the ray of hope):
Amid the gloom there is some hope, from unlikely quarters. On a popular talk show last Friday night Veena Malik, an actress who faced conservative censure for appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, gave an unforgettable tongue-lashing to a cleric who had been criticising her. “You are attacking me because I am a soft target,” she railed into the camera, wagging her finger.
“But there’s a lot more you can fix in the name of Islam… What about those mullahs who rape the same boys that they teach in mosques?” As the mullah replied, she started to barrack him again.
A question for Mr Walsh
Why is the PPP the only target of both extremist Islamists and the liberal elite? Does Mr Walsh know that the judge who was gunned down in 1997 was an ex-PPP affiliate, the governor who was shot a few weeks ago was a PPP jiyala, the person who remains house-confined in Karachi is a PPP parliamentarian? Why only PPP?
And a suggestion
We suggest that in a self-reflective moment, Mr Walsh may ask himself: “Whose narratives and perspectives am I constantly recycling to the UK audience? To what extent am I surrounded and blinded by the very same urban elite who are historically known to have self-centred, pro-military establishment and anti-politicians views?”