On screen, out of touch

Popular media in Pakistan is playing to the gallery of glorified irrationalism, writes Nadeem F. Paracha.

On the day renowned Islamic scholar Dr Sarfraz Naeemi was brutally slaughtered by a suicide bomber of Baitullah Masud’s terrorist set-up, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) [1], mainstream television talk show host, Dr Shahid Masood, and former Amir of the Jamat Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, were discussing the ‘infiltration (of foreign agents) into the fold of TTP.’

Bizarrely, Dr Masood went a step further while talking to his second guest on the show by asking him whether certain members of NGOs in the NWFP might also have infiltrated Baitullah Masud’s organisation?

It was his good luck that conservative politician Ejaz-ul-Haq was on the other end of the line. Otherwise, any person with a bit more sense would have either blasted Masood’s absurd innuendos, or better still, laughed his head off!

Imagine, people trained to administer polio-drops to young children turning into suicidal infiltrators of fascist Islamist organisations? I doubt any other talk show host can top this one.

It is a rather stunning experience watching certain TV talk show hosts, journalists and assorted ‘experts’ continuing to find newer and more bizarre ways to stick to an obviously reactionary and, if I may, paranoid line in this respect, especially at a time when a majority of Pakistanis, including well known religious scholars, have started to freely exhibit anger and bitterness towards phenomenon like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. [2]; [3]

The question arises, is this a matter of defending an ideology for which these TV and press men are ready to face ridicule? Or is this peculiar attitude about something else?

Sceptics would suggest that this is nothing more than these gentlemen first determining a populist line of attack that they discover gets them instant attention, and then sticking to this line. [4]

Their on-screen and on-paper attitude becomes their professional-ideological identity and, in a way, they become prisoners of this mind-set. Their new-found celebrity status and economic wellbeing (at least in their minds) becomes ever-so-deeply entangled with this largely reactionary identity that they have adopted for popularity’s sake.

Thus, the above dilemma also sees most celebrity talk show hosts increasingly losing track of the shifting nature of populism. They end up defending the ideological comfort zones that they had built around a preceding phase of populist thought, sounding ‘out of it’ as a result.

The above is exactly what has happened on most local TV talk shows and on the op-ed pages of the country’s Urdu newspapers. For example, prior to the showing of the Swat girl flogging video by mainstream TV channels [5], and more so, before the controversial ‘peace deal’ between the government and the Taliban in Swat collapsed, most frontline talk show hosts, Urdu journalists and televangelists had gradually built up a long-winded narrative that explained religious extremism in Pakistan as being an expression against ‘American imperialism’, ‘Zionist conspiracies’, ‘Hindu infiltration’, ‘economic inequality’, and ‘injustice’. [6]; [7]; [8]

But this narrative started to display all of its loopholes the moment the TV channels exhibited an about-turn and started running the video, and especially after the ‘peace deal’ with the government collapsed. [9]

Educated follies

Whereas critics have blamed populist TV talk shows and certain Urdu columnists for trivialising complex issues and presenting – in a rather romanticised manner- what is clearly a barbaric contingent of extremists, there are others who have shown more concern over the phenomenon’s influence on young Pakistanis.

They believe that already distorted versions of history and Islam are taught (and uncritically swallowed) in most schools and colleges. They fear these shows and columnists are furthering this trend, instead of checking it.

What’s worse, these hosts and journalists are bypassing academically sound works of history and politics, and instead going directly to the already debunked works of conspiracy theorists, most of whom are anti-Semites and dangerously compartmentalised in their thinking. [10]

TV host Iftikhar Ahmed in his show confronted his counterpart Masood and asked him to explain why he lifted chunks of material from Turkish pseudo-scientist and controversial Islamic creationist Harun Yahya’s book, ‘Last Days,’ to construct his own TV documentary and book, ‘End of Times’ that was run on a mainstream Pakistani TV channel?

Whereas in back-to-back articles, columnist, Fasi Zaka took to task ‘security analyst’ and celebrity TV speaker, Zaid Hamid, indicting him for ‘digressing dangerously into hate speech’ and adding, ‘blanket condemnation (of Zionists, Hindus and Christians) – whom Hamid blames for everything that is gone wrong with Muslims- is for demagogues, not TV anchors.’

Zaka also demonstrates how Hamid distorted history just to score some bizarre points, one of them being that the ‘Sikhs in Punjab were really Muslims!’ [11]; [12]

Educationists who were already fretting over the way generations of Pakistani students have been taught skewed history lessons about Islam and Pakistan – at times through state-approved history books – are now worried that the biased and distorted imagery of Muslims and other faiths in text books are being given glamorous currency by certain TV personalities.

After the 1971 break up of Pakistan and the war with India, educational discourse on nation building in Pakistan became much more introverted. The shock and horror of the defeat in East Pakistan led to the reconstruction of ideological boundaries in a much more narrow form. A violent, militaristic and negative nationalism, which saw enemies on every border, was reconstituted. This nationalism was not so much for progress or development as much as against Pakistan’s myriad enemies lurking behind every door.

According to eminent Pakistani academic and reformist, Dr Rubina Saigol, this new nationalism required a re-ordering of the past. Those unacceptable to the newly formed insecure national self had to be violently expunged. The pages of time had to be cleansed of the enemy’s presence. Ram, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Gandhi and several others, who had earlier been allowed in with a generous hospitality, had to make unceremonious exits from the pages of history textbooks. In their stead, the Khulfa-e-Rashideen, belonging to Arabia and to an ‘other’ and alternative past, were welcomed warmly into the texts. [13]

During General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, religion as an instrument of homogenisation and control became centre-stage in educational policies. An elaborate study conducted by a group of distinguished Pakistani historians and educationalists in 2003 states the prevalence of a theocratic vision in social studies textbooks.

The report noticed the following in Pakistani social study and history books: An insensitivity to the existing religious diversity of the nation; incitement to militancy and violence, including encouragement of jihad and shahadat; a glorification of war and the use of force; inaccuracies of fact and omissions that serve to substantially distort the nature and significance of actual events in our history; perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination towards fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities; and omission of concepts that could encourage critical self awareness among students. [14]

During the Zia era, science too faced the dictator’s Orwellian Islamisation process. Sullied science and farcical concepts of religion came together in an official conference called by Zia (at the cost of millions of rupees) in which papers on the following, (and absurd) topics were read: The harnessing of Djinns to create an alternative energy source; chemical compositions of Djinns; measuring the temperature of Hell; calculating the formula for sawab (blessing); and measuring the speed of Heaven! [15]; [16]

The (un)common man

Interestingly, whereas one should expect the proverbial ‘common man’ to be the most affected by the above-mentioned phenomenon in the media and education, it is the expanding urban middle class that is responding a lot more prominently to what they are learning as ‘Islam’, ‘politics’ and ‘history’ in schools, newspapers and on television channels (and, of course, on the net).

It can be safely assumed that since a bulk of the classes that make up the ‘common people’ are the ones who are directly facing and being bludgeoned by the frightening terrorist attacks in the cities, most of them are now rapidly changing their perceptions about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. [17]

The above may also suggest that the ideological divide between Pakistan’s middle-classes and the classes bellow them may have grown – even though, by largely responding affirmably to TV shows based on conspiracy theories and reactionary populist rhetoric, sections of the country’s middle class actually believe they are sympathising with the common people.

During a recent spate of interviews that a mainstream TV channel conducted with residents of the war-torn Swat Valley, the interviewer was hard-pressed to get an anti-American and/or anti-Army statement from most of the interviewees. In fact, some of them exhibited curious facial expressions when the TV interviewer spouted anti-American/anti-Indian rhetoric to rouse the interviewees.

If private mainstream TV is reflective of the politics of urban middle class Pakistan, then shows that continue looking for ‘hidden hands,’ ‘foreign agendas’ and ‘enemy infiltration’ in the matters of the Taliban and other such extremist organisations are only exhibiting a serious disconnect between urban middle-class Pakistan and ground-level realities.

Over and over again, the state and government of Pakistan – in spite of committing numerous logistic and policy blunders – have proven the direct involvement of home-grown terrorists in cases of unprecedented destruction, murder and mass bloodshed.

And yet, channels continue to give wide open space to absurdist theorists, who are behaving as if the hard proof available in this context may take the gloss off their TV identities – identities constructed on the sensationalist art of putting forward incongruous theories, most of which have absolutely no roots in reality or in sound academic investigation.

Take, for instance, a private TV channel’s coverage of the mass blast that razed the Islamabad Marriot Hotel. Two days after the attack, a prominent Pakistani TV and press reporter, Ansar Abbasi, reported that the attack was actually against US Marines staying at the Hotel. [18]

Critics immediately censured the report, accusing it of trying to justify the atrocity, and in a way suggesting that maybe it is okay to kill people as long as they were Americans. Critics also claimed that American Embassy members had been stationed at the Marriott for quite a while along with members from other western embassies, so why did the reporter choose to report this after the blast?

Abbasi was again in the picture recently when on the day TV channels started to run the Swat girl flogging video, he was heard lambasting on air a (female) TV news anchor for ‘sensationalising’ the news of the flogging. [19]

But the irony of it all is that the same reporter has, on record, ridiculed politicians and ‘secular intellectuals’ who had criticised the TV channels for sensationalising the Lal Masjid episode and overtly highlighting the Farah Hamid Dogar case. [20]

He had also accused such critics of trying to curb freedom of the media. Ironically, he was quick to describe the flogging video’s airing as an ‘irresponsible’ and ‘sensationalist’ act by the media, whereas before this he had joyfully found the exhibition of all the blood, gore and the revengeful swearing of the (albeit armed) ‘victims’ of the Lal Masjid by the channels as perfectly justified.

As the consensus against the Taliban and for the military action takes hold more than ever in the country, there is now clearly a feeling of exasperation and disarray amongst those TV and press journalists who have had a field day gaining celebratory attention, especially the sort that they moulded for themselves by reporting and commenting on the two-year-long lawyers’ movement and during the Lal Masjid debacle. [21]

Critics within the media maintain that the reporting on the Lal Masjid episode in particular was overshadowed by media men with ‘rightist backgrounds’, who ended up glorifying and sympathising with the terrorists holed up in the mosque with sophisticated weapons. [22]

Senior journalists, including Najam Sethi, Irfan Hussain and Imtiaz Alam, have lamented the fact that rational and objective voices were drowned out by most mainstream TV channels, and sensationalist TV anchors were given a free hand to run the show, with most of them even going to the extent of conducting live interviews with the terrorists who had taken over the Lal Masjid and its madrassa. [23]

Though most TV talk show hosts’ and televangelists’ narratives are liberally sprinkled with clichéd rhetoric revolving around classical political Islam’s take on ‘western economic and political imperialism’ – even though many academics believe political Islam was actually ‘a construct of [the] West’s anti-Left agenda during the Cold War’ [24] – it is interesting to note that almost all of these political shows and religious programs are punctuated with dozens of commercials of products and brands made by western, multinational corporations.

For example, a show that keeps harping about ‘economic terrorism’ (and various economic conspiracies) by western economic interests is actually sponsored by products of large multinationals.

So why hasn’t anyone noticed the glaring dichotomy? Moreover, why don’t the companies raise an eyebrow about the content of such shows when asked by the channels’ marketing departments to sponsor them? Can it be that most urban, educated Pakistanis running these companies are likely to be fans of such shows?

In the last couple of years, a series of televangelists have become popular mainstays across various TV channels. Their fame is reflecting a growing interest among the urban bourgeois to rediscover the ‘power and meaning of Islam’, and regarding one’s place and behaviour in society and the state.

Thus, these televangelists are achieving what the conventional mullah failed to. That is, to make the notion of looking and sounding Islamic acceptable among the so-called educated elite. These evangelists – from Aamir Liaquat to Farhat Hashmi, Zakir Naik, and even Juniad Jamshed – with their brand of dressed-up evangelism are actually the softened versions of the scary, ferocious mullah.

The message remains the same, though: One needs the services of a wise, holy agent to reach the wise, Divine Saviour. Of course, this is something your neighbourhood mullah has also been insisting for years but only looking and sounding a lot cruder.

This ongoing fad may have managed to captivate large sections of the urban middle class, but it has in no way broken the shackles of obscurantism and distortion from religious debate and thought. On the contrary, it has merely dressed it up and made it more acceptable to the educated middle classes, helping obscurantism to now survive as an unquestioned and newly fashionable entity in this class as well.

For example, whereas Aamir Liaquat’s following mainly comes from the more conservative sections of the petty-bourgeois, those making up the fan list of televangelists like Zakir Naik and Farhat Hashmi and politico-religious speaker, Zaid Hamid, also constitute a large sprinkling of men and women from the elite sections of the middle- and upper-middle classes.

Recently, pop stars and trendy fashion designers have been known to hold ‘talk sessions’ with Zaid Hamid, some even going to the extent of calling him the ‘new Iqbal.’

Perhaps disappointed by another one of their favourites – Imran Khan’s now-I’m left-now-I’m right somersaults – and unable to relate to the populist politics of parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP), these classes have found men like Naik and Hamid to represent that ready-made, middle ground in politics and religion they had been looking for, the sort they wouldn’t have to do much thinking or reading for.

Of course, these men offer anything but a middle ground, with Naik obsessed with demonstrating his scholarly muscle through meaningless intra-religious wrestling matches and Hamid awestruck by the somewhat unsound and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories involving Zionists, Hindus and the Americans.

One flew over the cuckoo’s nest

In the last three years or so, critique of the conspiratorial and largely reactionary model being followed by most TV news channels and Urdu newspapers has grown louder and deeper, especially in the mainstream English press.

A number of journalists and columnists associated with the English press have stepped up their criticism of the ‘negative and, (at times), destructive role’ being played by popular talk shows and religious programmes, which they blame for whipping up a militaristic mindset and hatred, sometimes also sympathising with extremist points of view. Some critics also believe that these channels and journalists do not overtly criticise the extremists because they fear they will be attacked. [26]

Thus, their critics suggest that such journalists and channels do not have any moral right to criticise politicians as well, which they take great pleasure in doing.

Recently, especially after the fallout of the Swat peace deal, some Urdu columnists and TV hosts have decided to drop out of the closet and take the extremists and their ‘pro-jihad’ colleagues head-on. Two journalists immediately come to mind in this respect: Imtiaz Alam and Hassan Nisar.

Out of the two, Nisar has been a lot more aggressive, becoming an iconoclast of sorts in the spheres of the largely rightist Urdu media. [27]; [28]

This is an important development because since the language they are communicating in is Urdu, the much-needed alternative to the largely convoluted quasi-Islamist narrative their colleagues have constructed will now have a better chance of being heard on a much larger scale.


[1] Suicide bomber kills anti-Taliban Cleric: (DAWN)
[2] Pakistani cleric speaks out against Taliban: (Reuters)
[4] Televised Populism: Kim C. Schroder

[5] Taliban hand out lashing to girl: (The Guardian)
[6] Kon Thay, Kahaan Chalay Gaye: Shahid Masood (Jang)
[7] Economic Terrorism: Zaid Hamid (Video Clip)
[8] Koi Mushtry ho tho Awaz Dey: Haroon-ur-Rashid (Daily Express)
[9] ‘Democracy is a system of Kufer’- Sufi Muhammad: (GEO Site)
[10] Abuse of History in Pakistan: C. Rosser

[11] Hate Speech-I: Fasi Zaka
[12] Hate Speech-II: Fasi Zaka
[13] Curriculum in India & Pakistan: Dr Rubina Saigol
[14] The Subtle Subversion: A. H. Nayyar & Ahmed Salim

[15] Djinn Energy: Robbie Honerkemp

[16] Science & The Islamic World: Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy

[17] Tribesmen rise up against Taliban: (VOA)
[18] Was it an attack against US Marines?: (The News)
[19] Reaction Swat girl flogging: (Video Clip)
[20] Farah Hamid Dogar Case: (Interface)

[21] Pakistan Army Storm Mosque: (BBC)
[22] Report Card: Huma Yusuf
[23] So Many Roads From Lal Masjid: Najam Sethi
[24] Political Islam in the Service of Imperialism: Samir Amin
[25] The Holy Mind Blow: Nadeem F. Paracha
[26] Death Threat for Editor: (Times)

[27] Hassan Nisar Critique: (Video Clip)
[28] Imtiaz Alam Attacked: (Report)

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