by Mosharraf Zaidi
The voice of Pakistan’s emerging middle class will not always be amplified in ways that serve Pakistanis’ collective interests. The overwhelming majority of the Pakistani middle class takes great pains to conduct and promote an honest and open debate about the issues. Part of taking those pains includes introspection. There is an increasingly important deviant strain of hyper-nationalism mixing itself in with the voice of the Pakistani middle class. Pakistanis need to tackle it with the same integrity and purposefulness that has enabled the establishment of this middle class voice in the first place.
While it remains true that the majority of critique of the Pakistani media is malicious and motivated by attempts to delegitimise the country’s fragile middle class voice, it is also true that the low quality of research, fact-checking and integrity among Pakistani hyper-nationalists makes their work dangerously counter-productive, and hardly strengthens the case of Pakistan. Hyper-nationalist pundits always find America and India as the root of all evil. Hyper-nationalist newspapers seem to have all the news scoops about the evil designs of the enemies, without any evidence. Their abuse of the freedoms that technology and economic growth have afforded to Pakistan is a threat to the growth and influence of the organic middle class — of whom they represent no part.
It was not so long ago, that Pakistan was forever stained by the blood of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The safety of foreign correspondents should be of paramount interest to anybody who loves Pakistan, and is interested in protecting its reputation, and its potential as a place where foreigners can be safe. Even the most egregiously intellectual light-weights among Pakistanis would want to ensure that foreign journalists would never again have to endure that kind of threat again. It is therefore particularly mind-boggling that in their irrational, unsubstantiated and blind rage, Pakistani hyper-nationalists thought nothing of making a target of Matthew Rosenberg, yet another Wall Street Journal reporter, causing him to be evacuated out of the country, and sending ripples of fear and trepidation among the corps of Pakistan’s foreign correspondents. Accusing someone of spying for Israel, in a permissive environment (for a reporter working for the Wall Street Journal, no less) would only be funny if it was fictional. It’s not. It is deathly serious. Already, other correspondents (like Marie France Calle of Le Figaro) are asking questions about their own safety.
When I recently adopted Twitter, and began tweeting a few weeks ago, I engaged several western reporters and analysts who seemed to be overly flippant about painting Pakistan as an unsafe place for ordinary westerners. Not true I argued, informed in part by my own Pakistani sensibilities, and in part by a very strong history of hospitality, and a reasonable set of indicators that suggests that Pakistanis have no record of lynching westerners. Being white and western in Pakistan has always tended to be an asset, not a liability, I argued. In retrospect, and in the context of growing shrillness that seems to want to paint every negative aspect of Pakistani life on other countries, other religions and other ideas, perhaps I was wrong. If the middle class in this country continues to tolerate accusations without any evidence about the wild and demonic obsession of ‘the other’ with tearing apart Pakistan, then Pakistan will very much resemble the caricature of this country that so many of us have sought to fight.
That would be a tragic irony. Fighting a caricature of Pakistan that paints it as a wild outback for medieval values and resourceful terrorists has been one of the primary preoccupations of the Pakistani urban middle class. The media has been central to this fight. Over time, this has helped in developing the capacity to debate and discuss issues, and to hold powerful people to account for their actions in a way that previous generations of Pakistanis could have only dreamed of doing.
We defeated the arrogance and contempt for civilian institutions of Gen Musharraf’s military with not one, but two peaceful long marches. We laid petals on the streets of Lahore and Karachi to welcome leaders who had failed us before, for the sake of a national culture of due process and democracy. We resisted terrorists as they stole the religion of most of us, and the culture and innocence of all of us. We repulsed the Flintstones of Swat, and their misogynistic world view, and deified and embraced the very same military that had treated our will with such contempt for so long.
The media has been instrumental in these struggles, both as an articulator of middle class values and as an amplifier of middle class politics. Indeed, the recent efforts of the media to moderate the graphic nature of terrorism coverage suggest that the institution is capable of a measure of course correction too. But as the bombs become more frequent, the challenges more urgent, Pakistan’s urban middle class, its civil society and its media need to take moment to consider the consequences and integrity of mitigating confusion, fear and pessimism, with a hyper-nationalism rooted in conspiracy theories.
No one doubts that Pakistan has enemies. No one has legitimately made an argument that any country is particularly interested in Pakistan for noble or selfless reasons. And no one that can be taken seriously can defend politicians and their enablers as they slavishly tout talking points that have no basis in the South Asian Muslim narrative around which mainstream Pakistan’s values and ethos are constructed.
The hyper-nationalist discourse that seeks to locate Pakistan’s problems in Zionism, Indian spies, or American development assistance, however, is not nationalist at all. How can anybody, who really cares for Pakistan, be so wickedly unaware of the potential dangers of targeting foreign correspondents? How can anybody that cares for Pakistan continually attempt to inject Pakistanis with the heroin of blaming ‘the other’? How can anybody that cares for Pakistan so consistently defy and deny any attempt to inspect and assess the damage that Pakistan does to itself? How can anybody that cares about Pakistan surgically delegitimise questions about the accountability of mercenaries hired to protect diplomats?
When Pakistanis that love their country read the hyper-nationalist press in Pakistan, or watch pundits spew irrational and unsubstantiated allegations on television, they need to resist embracing the warm comfort of blaming ‘the other’. The overwhelmingly vast majority of Pakistan’s problems are a direct consequence of decisions made by Pakistani individuals, groups and organisations. The dangers of allowing conspiracy theories to go unchallenged are not just intellectual. Daniel Pearl lost his life because of a delusional, conspiratorial and escapist culture among extremists. Pakistanis, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, should have nothing but contempt for this culture. It certainly must not be allowed to expand its influence. And being rational about the threats Pakistan faces does not mean you are being unpatriotic. Quite the opposite.
Resistance to hyper-nationalism must begin with rejecting it, and end with registering that rejection in writing. Write a letter to every newspaper and television channel and raise your voice. The depth and seriousness of Pakistan’s fragile middle class voice rests on it. We cannot allow this voice to be hijacked by the hyper-nationalists that concoct malicious and dangerous lies to appeal to our patriotism.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website www.mosharrafzaidi.com