I participated in a panel on ‘journalism practice in a post-truth era’ at Karachi University

 

ON February 16th I presented a paper on Pakistan’s Dual Media System in a panel on journalism practice comprising of the Ex-advisor to the President of Pakistan, Chair media school University of Peshawar, and other distinguished speakers at the International Media Conference 2022 convened by Karachi University in collaboration with Greenwich University Pakistan.

My talk was based on a chapter of my thesis that attempts to conceptualise changes in commercial, political and professional imperatives of Pakistan’s media system since 1988. The thesis is available Open Access at HKBU thesis repository on this link.

I have grown up listening to such scholars so when it was my turn to present I told the audience how I’m used to sitting on the other side of this table and that it was a honour to dialogue with more experienced scholars. 

As the focal person from Greenwich University for this conference I led my team to, among other tasks, successfully host ALL online panels for scholars who couldn’t make it to Karachi. Our collaboration with Karachi University media school, the conference convener, helped turned this two day academic conference into a truly hybrid event. 

Yes, last few months have been crazy busy as I entered into my first full-time academic appointment while juggling married life. More on that later.

But do stay tune for conference proceedings that we are preparing with the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad which is a conservative think tank in Pakistan. I will upload them when they are ready in a months time. Meanwhile, check out our media team’s event coverage on the Facebook handle @IMCKUGU and social media in general on #IMCKUGU. 

 

When my Aurat March 2021 poster was picked by the organisers in Karachi

‘Feminism Inshallah’ (English for ‘Feminism God willing’). Screen grab from @AuratMarchKarachi Facebook Page. It shows my poster performance inspired by the documentary titled ‘Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism‘, Java Films Production. 

By 2020, I had dedicated six years of my life to understand the relationship between dharnas (Urdu for sit-ins) and media. I had interviewed key informants including campaign planners of various local political parties, dived into news archives, analysing bulletins and media texts, and of course looked at what scholars have said on the subject.

Yet I was struggling to convince my advisor and other notable media scholars on Pakistan about my thesis. Has politics in Pakistan really changed due in part to news media? Because at first glance, and through any study of the political economy of a repressive state, nothing seems to have changed.

They say that Pakistanis are stuck in a perpetual time loop. Has media liberalisation brought something new in this equation?

In the last two years I had barred myself to the confines of my bedroom-study-prison at my parents place determined to find a decent answer.

See Thesis Whisperer’s: Leaving the PhD Valley of Shit

Now it was crunch time. The University was not willing to provide another study extension.

The World turned bleaker still as COVID19 disruptions finally arrived in Pakistan.

Then something snapped in my head.

Aurat March, my obsession after PTI party

This was my context as the controversial Women’s Right demonstration took place on 8th March 2020.

Pakistani media coverage had zero-ed in on the posters of young women marching for their rights. And it appeared every Pakistani was triggered; many were offended, speechless or angry.

Some even hurled death and rape threats to what they saw as ‘foreign funded immoral women in a profoundly religious society’.

A very small number of Pakistanis however sympathised with the movement organisers and participants.

I was one such person.

Moved by the messages and well thought out advocacy of these brave womxn I participated to learn more.

What I found was so simple that it was startling. The controversy surrounding these posters was in fact their… impact !

See: My essay on Aurat March appears in a special issue on struggles around COVID19

How can a few posters raised once a year in major urban centres, since 2018 on 8th March, by a tiny group of hapless womxn volunteers shake the very foundations of the militarised Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

Words, symbolism, discursive and the medias

This is where media-centric explanations for creating political advantage in an authoritarian context offer some guidance.

Firstly, it’s important to see Aurat March posters as political slogans; they resonate with certain people, a constituency, taking action against perceived injustice by raising awareness in public.

Aurat March slogans like Mera Jism Meri Marzi (Urdu for My Body My Consent) resonate with many people of similar values systems.

Just as slogan like Kafir (Urdu for Infidel), or Tabdeeli (Urdu for Change) resonates with others. Although, the latter two slogans resonate with many more people than any poster/slogan of Aurat March.

In fact, the latter two slogans are so powerful and unite so many people that they have utility for any political actor in Pakistan with national aspirations. Such as the PTI party.

But the effect is same in both instances. These slogans bring people together against perceived injustice. In other words, they operate in the hearts and minds of the people. In the realm of the symbolic and discursive where movement-media interaction takes places. Although, the eventual outcome of deploying these collective action frames may be different.

Secondly, the battle against patriarchy in a deeply conservative society untempered by civic norms means that reaction or backlash is swift. The controversy compounded by mainstream and social media coverage.

But while detractors of Aurat March may focus on the controversy they inadvertently open up fresh and sensitive conversations among bystanders. Conversations that a fossilised status-quo finds nearly impossible to handle without banning a peaceful demonstration altogether.

In the end, the outcome of the movement doesn’t really matter. It’s about extracting political advantage through agitation and leveraging the power of the media. The agitation builds on the advocacy and work of women’s right defenders in the government and society.

In a landmark judgement recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that women victims of sexual abuse are entitled to protection of the law irrespective of their ‘reputation’. Furthermore, it declared the ghastly ‘two-finger virginity test’ as irrelevant for such cases. The implications of these judgements will likely be profound and the fact that it took the state 70 years, since independence, to officially ban these colonial era practices at this time cannot be isolated from the feminist wave in Muslim Pakistan.

The activists are ok with what they can get. They are here for the long-game.

These posters and images continue to engage in discursive battles with mainstream representation of marginalised groups in Pakistan, South Asia and globally long after activists disperse from site. Posters are available online for any citizen to engage.

See: My Aurat March 2020 poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan

With this realisation everything has changed. I have a better idea of future direction of my work and have an unofficial book offer. My thesis framework looks more coherent and I passed my viva recently. I am now working on a presentation of these ideas for everyone’s benefit.

Please stay tune to learn more.

I was invited to speak on ‘misinformation’ at Art Concepts

I was invited for an hour long Zoom talk on dealing with misinformation on 10th December, 10pm PST. It was organised by Art Concepts which is a unique artisanal space based in Bahrain. 

Key points I addressed:
– What are some global challenges posed by misinformation?
– What is a functional perspective on media?
– When is media content functional and dysfunctional? 
– How can citizens consume everyday media and communication messages more critically? 

Part 1 of the talk has been embedded in this post. Kindly visit Art Concept’s Youtube Page for the complete talk.

Art Concepts can be reached on #instagram @jehansaleh_studio . 

Submitted my thesis for examination

Slideshow: Thesis Title, Abstract and Contents Page.

On 22nd September 2020, I submitted my thesis for examination to the School of Communication at HKBU. Now, fingers crossed. Six years of reading, writing and travelling has reached a conclusion. Or has it really? I’m humbled by how little I really know and excited for what now lies ahead.

A milestone achieved

The year 2020 has been full of bitter-sweet-symphonies. More than my usual share of PhD life shenanigans, epiphanies and emergencies. The COVID 19 out break meant that what little public entertainment and recreation there is in Karachi was closed by the government to contain the virus. Add to that the passing away of several loved ones in my extended family (unrelated to COVID) and one faces a tough mental challenge.

Nevertheless, it appears that I prevailed thanks in no small part to my loving parents and wife. But a lot also has to do with the rigorous mental exercises and requirements of a typical doctoral program. There was a point where I seriously contemplated quitting the program. On these occasions I remembered lessons from ‘sticky’ situations in Hong Kong. What are those memorable lessons? Well the time isn’t right to disclose those tales. But the underlying theme will resonate with others in difficult situations; they train us to bend rather than break.

As entertainment venues begin to re-open in Karachi, I hunt for jobs, prepare for the oral defence and the next chapter of my life. I’m hopeful. Hopeful not because some Pakistani leaders say so but because my work these last six years may improve our understanding of activism, justice and the media systems in Pakistan.

My essay on Aurat March appears in a special issue on struggles around COVID19

In my latest essay for the Interface: a journal for and about social movements, I explain how the artistic expression generated around Aurat March, a radical appropriation of the #metoo movement, is a challenge for mainstream tribalism in Pakistan. In it I dissect the anatomy of some activist posters, describe what they may mean for Pakistan’s changing political context and ultimately, hopefully what they tells us about Muslim women politics elsewhere in the Arab world.

The essay was published as a series on global struggles around COVID 19 pandemic. It is free to access.

It was republished on The Left Berlin, a forum for progressive voices not usually covered in mainstream media.

My own March poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan for their Instagram account. Checkout my earlier posts to learn more.

Preparing for the day after COVID: notes from a short talk by Adil Najam

Event invite sent on my personal email. Najam sb advertised the talk on Twitter. There were roughly 110 participants in the discussion hosted on zoom.

Based on his experience & analysis about the novel coronavirus so far, Najam sb speaks on the magnitude of disruption & rehabilitation effort, rethinking human & global security, role of poorer nations like Pakistan, changes in higher education & dealing with anxiety. I missed the first 10 minutes of this roughly 50 minute session. Following excerpts are mostly from the Q&A. Although I have quoted him as accurately as I could please treat the following content as a paraphrasing. If you want to quote Najam sb publicly from this post, I suggest you drop a line to Aga Khan University requesting permission to do so.

———-

Given the scale of disruption related to the novel coronavirus experts that I know agree that the recession will not be of the usual kind. 

The closest example that comes to our mind is that it will be like the Post-war reconstruction, i.e. after the Great Wars.

That’s the bad thing.

Good thing is that you now have time to think.

Think about how I can make that big change (that is required)?

Social changes are the most uncertain. How work will happen, how our communications will happen, how education will change etc.

How society will think about its understanding of security?

We will have to rethink security. If security for us is important than what is it that makes us insecure?

For instance, front line work has become dangerous for medical staff. Nature of (security related) work is changing.

We find ourselves unprepared for calamities like health emergencies for instance. Why was that?

Human arrogance is a big issue.

But right now we have time where billions of people are introspecting. 

This is not just about health. After this we have the issue of climate change. We were already aware of these problems before but now we are forced to act. 

I don’t believe in conspiracies when truth is already so strange.

Governments versus people

This virus won’t be beaten by government action. It will be beaten by personal action. 

This is a test for people. Not governments.

The crisis is not just that we don’t know much about the virus itself. The crisis we are facing everywhere is the crises of the health system. Don’t have enough beds, enough trained people, field camps are coming up, stadiums are being transformed. This is a rethinking of security.

But we are far prepared to kill each other than save each other. 

Why is it that when someone dies because of enemy is declared a martyr/patriot but when someone dies due to drinking dirty water it is not as important? I’m not saying taking a bullet for your country is not important. But it makes you wonder. This doesn’t mean making defense less important but making health security more important. We must think this very seriously. 

Will there be a World War III ?

With the technology of destruction available to us my hope is that we would not need bullets to fly. 

Some experts believe that we may be already living in a third world war, or even fourth or a fifth. That the third war already happened somewhere around the Cold War era. 

Have you noticed that in the last few months we have been talking about availability of mask, instead of oil? Our conception of what is valuable is changing. It may be that nations with food stores, medical doctors (which Pakistan has many), will become important. 

Regarding IMF & poor nations like Pakistan

Imran Khan (IK) statement requesting aid is very understandable. It should have come earlier. There is a major IMF meeting happening next week. I’m convinced there will be debt relief. IK is being polite, but poor nations should be asking more because the scale of crisis is so huge that even aid won’t be enough. 

Now what will happen with Chinese Aid, I don’t know. 

But we need to decide what kind of work matters, what relationships matter. Basically, what are our priorities.

Is there a power shift from West to Asia? & what is the role for Pakistan?

Shift was already happening. Rise of Great Power China & the reaction of US was already happening. COVID 19 has just put this shift on high momentum.

Pakistan should chart an ‘even’ ‘even’ course. We should keep out of it. There are those who are still advocating playing this game but we should not become a playground for Great Powers. We must make ourselves economically, socially, politically stronger when Great Powers are in transitions. When you are not a Great Power yourself and play these games, you become fodder. There is a saying in Africa that when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. 

Impact on higher education

It’s clear that big changes are around the corner.

In education there will be difficulties in the short term. Value of higher education will increase. 

Nearly certainly classes will go hybrid. 

An army of professors in US are findings new ways to teach. Many are using online classes for the first time and have realized that it works. On the other end, students are becoming more open to online learning. 

In the US another issue is what subjects people will want to learn?

The corona generation will create a new kind of intellectual environment. For those set to join higher education in their lives now things are about to change completely. These people maybe even more important than generation before or even after this period. 

Older generation of professors like me will not be in the forefront because our minds are wired in a previous era.

Dealing w/ anxiety

With all that is happening every day. There is not a night in the last month where I didn’t go to bed with at least these two thoughts; 1- how small my problems are in comparison to other people problems, that student of mine that is cramped in a two room apartment that now has to be converted into a class room, those students who may have contracted COVID, those who have lost loved one; 2- gratitude, a sense of how lucky I am. That there is someone standing at the grocery store who will serve me rice, or at the hospital who will treat me when I’m sick. 

Because I’m so lucky I owe it to everyone to be a more responsible person

My Aurat March 2020 poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan

View this post on Instagram

#DivaExclusive: #auratmarch2020 #karachi

A post shared by DIVA Magazine Pakistan (@divamagazinepakistan) on

Women & men from all strata of Pakistani life gathered to commemorate International Women’s Day with the much-awaited Aurat March, holding placards with important messages, sharing poetry with deep meaning & celebrating the blessing of womanhood. Aurat means woman, & March means rallying, translated from Urdu. 

I’m researching on campaign messages of mainstream opposition groups in Pakistan as part of my thesis. This ‘evangelical’ placard was an outcome of what I have learned. It has two elements; the text, which in English roughly means, ‘shame & honour isn’t determined by your clothes, it’s in the way you think’. In Roman Urdu, ‘sharam aur haya kapron mein nahi, soch mein soch mein’. Such framing irks mainstream sensibilities of morality by highlighting the double standards for men & women in Muslim Pakistan; the costume, a prayer cap & a garment, popularly associated with Muslim men attire in Asia, counters the assumption that Marchers are ‘immoral women’. 

The unprecedented success of Aurat March is in effectively translating universal values of equality & human rights in Pakistan’s cultural lexicon. It moves these conversations from Parliament to the Kitchen. Much like the global #metoo movement. 

Pakistan has a glorious history of women activism. Women have challenged military dictators & discriminatory laws through street demonstrations.

Learn more about the Aurat March 2020 here. Also, see it through my eyes here.

To cite the Instagram post APA style: [@divamagazinepakistan]. (March 8, 2020). #DivaExclusive: #auratmarch2020 #Karachi. [Instagram photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/B9eNEOnppYC/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

(Mis)information in the Coronavirus Crisis – A Roundtable Discussion at the HKBU School of Communication

The coronavirus storm has hit many parts of the world and generated tremendous impacts on people’s lives. In crises like this, people seek information to assess the situation and to protect themselves and their loved ones. However, there are concerns about the credibility and neutrality of information circulated in the virtual space. The Center for Media & Communication Research at the Hong Kong Baptist University invited three speakers to share their observation with participants in a virtual format on April 3, 2020. Here I share excerpts and resources from the discussion useful for journalists, health professionals, fact checkers, educators, organisations engaged in civil/information literacy and interested public at large.

Moderator:

Leanne Chang, Director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research, Hong Kong Baptist University

Speakers:

Summer Chen, Chief Editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center

Masato Kajimoto, Director of Annie Lab; Assistant Professor of Practice, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong

Rose Luqiu, Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University

Summer’s talk:

We are certified with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) for the second year now.

After covering the Taiwan Presidential Elections we are fighting against Coronavirus misinformation.

Last December we became an independent foundation. We cooperate with popular social media in Taiwan which includes, Facebook, Google Claim Review, Line, Yahoo.

We have a large database of fact checks on COVID 19. We have already debunked 110 myths.

Battleline in Taiwan:

1- interview experts, scientists & doctors, 2- support from Science Media Center Taiwan (Academic support is important to build our own knowledge gap on the virus), 3- fact-checking Central Epidemic Command Center (since we are independent from government we do not just report Taiwan government suggestions). 

Battleline around the globe:

1- The IFCN comprises of 65 fact-checking organisations from 45 countries. They have collected more than 1500 fact checks under the umbrella of CoronaVirusAlliance. See their Poynter database below: 

Misinformation timeline in Taiwan (what we have debunked so far):

Jan (first case in Taiwan) – Remedies, Cures, Measures, Virus character.

Feb: Mostly news stories, conspiracies mixed with science papers.

March: Taiwan government is losing control (debunked almost 10 ‘facts’ about this topic). We did digital literacy campaign for the public to help identify this kind of information.

March – now: Virus is from US, or Italy not Wuhan (probably China propaganda). 

March middle: Italy thanks China (also propaganda by China). 

March middle-end: Lockdown policies. US is losing control (misinformation regarding this subject, 9 fact checks).

Current misinformation: #Malicious message “go stock pile supplies”, #Remedies #Cures.

Interesting academic ideas/topics she recommends for research/stories:

  1. There are now two database, IFCN, TFC. Any database can be used for research how one piece of misinformation spreads around the world. For instance, Garlic Soup can cure COVID-19 or Windy data proves there are 40,000 corpses burning in Wuhan. You can see that many other countries reported similar false information. https://www.poynter.org/ifcn-covid-19-misinformation/?search_terms=corpses. https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/2366.
  2. Study on health misinformation about COVID-19. Specially, reports claiming to quote celebrities, relatives, other influencers. 
  3. China’s propaganda; corona virus is not from Wuhan but US or Italy. Italians appreciate China; research on how these misinformation networks are built, how they spread etc. 
  4. If we compare misinformation about Hong Kong protest and COVID-19 we can find similar patterns of misinformation, conducted by China. One pattern: Spokesman + state-backed media + other materials spread on social media.
  5. Comparison of misinformation on COVID 19, specially on social media, to examine how some is debunked while other is not.
  6. Researching on misinformation about COVID 19 being spread also from other political actors such as Falun Gong (a movement banned in China).

Masato’s talk:

I have some observations based on my experience but not based on specific research:

  1. Knowledge gap amoung us (ordinary citizens, the news media, media experts). We all have some knowledge but the gap means misinformation spreads rapidly.
  2. Relatedly, “legit” traditional media not just “bad media organisations” that are amplifying fears and misleading claims. Something not discussed enough. 
  3. Misinformation is a problem, fact-checking helps but this is as much a public health communication problem where we must address the larger information ecosystem on COVID 19.

Knowledge gap

– Experts and journalist often ignore misinformation. They do not see news value in digging through it, since they are able to see through it quickly dismiss it. In other words, experts that are normally critical thinkers, may not see how the ordinary audience is reacting and sharing misinformation. 

For instance; warm water can kill coronavirus. Has become a huge international phenomenon. A popular remedy being reported on social media in Canada, Philippines, India, Cambodia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Spain, Venezuela. 

A small claim that has universal appeal with potentially dangerous consequences for management of COVID 19. 

Journalist think this misinformation is harmless. But if you are in fact-checking field, you realize how many people actually believe in it do not take other precautions. They don’t wash hands. They go out freely. Then they are telling their friends on social media how things are all ok. 

– I run the database Annie Lab. http://annielab.org.

We are in talks with Google as well to take into account our database. Hopefully you would not have to visit our database and can identify information organically. 

Role of journalists

This map was going strong in many parts of the world. It came from a university in the UK. I forgot the name. It was used along with a research paper to illustrate how people travel around the world by airplane.

But many people interpreted it as how people have travelled the world from Wuhan before the city got shut down in January. News organizations in many countries carried the story.

– There are five types of COVID-19 misinformation in my view. I think many fact-checkers would agree:

  1. Origin
  2. Symptoms
  3. Miracle treatment/cure
  4. Reactions (panic, abandoned bodies, violence, etc.)
  5. Government responses (stats manipulation, lockdown, etc.)

– Fact-checking ‘future’ is not possible; example, a story on how China will close down its factories that make toilet paper. 

– If you are a journalist reporting a story, not fact-checking, but reporting, an instance of people panic buying toilet paper is now a story.

We detected early on Annie Lab that this rumour on toilet paper is going viral in Hong Kong. I work from home now with my students since university is closed so when my students initially pointed this out, I ignored them thinking who will believe such a rumour. But people were posting videos of empty shelf, people queing, etc. These were reshared online and covered by traditional media. 

As one result, news organisations report on toilet paper shortage actually pushed people into panic buying since they believed in the shortage. The huge spike in demand obviously effected the supply side in Hong Kong. The story that was rather groundless became true. News organisations are partly to blame. 

COVID 19 episode tells us that news presentation style is important. It operates at a psychological level. 

Misinformation

What to do about it?

Time to think about responsible pandemic news coverage. We have an industry guideline for suicide reporting in many countries already. Why not a similar guidline for health communication/pandemic reporting? Currently, this is a wild west. 

Finally, reporting, fact-checking on epidemic is not easy when even experts sometimes disagree on subjects. For example, should we encourage or discourage aircon use? Fact checking can be misleading too.

I recommend these must read articles for journalists:

Useful comments during Q&A:

Masato says that’s there is no way to fight misinformation through fact-checking. Purpose of fact-checking is not to correct everyone who has read misinformation. People move on from one rumor to another. Many rumors are created all the time. 

Fact checking does help to straighten the historical record. 

But it is better understood as a digital literacy program. By fact-checking we are showing the public how to handle information. If news consumers are doing fact-checks on the demand side, then this problem can be improved. 

While it’s news media’s responsibility it’s the public’s responsibility also. 

Summer says that many of the claims that are received at the Taiwan Fact-Check Center are by the general public. So it’s important to bring the public into confidence. When we fact check, we are not focused on conclusion. Our articles are detailed with interviews, counterclaims etc. We want to show the public the process of reading our articles and the content itself. This will also help ordinary people to learn fact-checking.

We want people to see fact checking as a social program. A social movement.

How can we separate fact from opinion?

Masato says I give my students statements to verify. For instance, Japanese Food is better than Chinese Food – is it an opinion or fact? If this is a fact than based on what data? Is it the medical literature, scientific literature, what is the definition of Japanese Food? Is fried rice Chinese or Japanese. I give my students such exercises.

Summer says fact checking can also backfire when people upon learning about a false information may still choose to believe it. They may think for instance a fact checked story is against values of Taiwan.  

Summer also says that news reports on the pandemic may also make more sense in one context compared to another. Such as the limited use of face mask in Texas, United States. Perhaps open spaces mean people are not wearing masks. But in Taiwan such advise would be nonsense. These reports have more to do with field of journalism rather than fact-checking. 

Other resources:

Recommended article on mask debate: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-pandemic-airborne-go-outside-masks/609235/

Resource on information literacy by Prof. Masato: https://medium.com/@MasatoKJ

This six-week course developed by the University of Hong Kong and State University of New York will help learners develop their critical thinking skills to enable them to better identify reliable information in news reports: https://www.coursera.org/learn/news-literacy

Links to the cloud files on the original discussion:

https://hkbu.zoom.us/rec/share/wu5yd52pzWBOT4Hn02HAUL8ILL-9T6a80SkZqfAKzR0CG4Jd20UHA7PCHY0Qt16F?startTime=1585893985000

https://hkbu.zoom.us/rec/share/wu5yd52pzWBOT4Hn02HAUL8ILL-9T6a80SkZqfAKzR0CG4Jd20UHA7PCHY0Qt16F?startTime=1585899129000

Check out my opinion on Pakistan’s collective action problem in The Wire

Originally published in theWire.in

An editor of an Urdu newspaper once told me how the discourse in Pakistan’s English press is detached from the needs of the ‘common man’.

The gentleman justified the paper’s pro-establishment editorial policy saying, “it is impossible to explain the nuances of Pakistani politics to a fruit hawker.”

Implicit in the remarks (hypocrisy aside) was the assumption that Pakistanis are irrational people which means, they must be told what is right.

Are Pakistanis really so irrational?

I can see why one can be inclined to believe so.

What else explains why they continue to skive off due share in tax? More taxes mean more funds for development.

Online campaigns questioning the ‘patriotism’ of some Pakistanis are common. Often, those who reside in Pakistan are considered more loyal as they have an innate (read irrational) love for the motherland. And those commenting from overseas are considered traitors as they have an irrational prejudice towards it.

However, the assumption that Pakistani citizens are incapable of reason reeks of elitism.

A collective action problem

A key concept of governance is the ‘collective action problem’. Such problems occur because of common goods in a society that everyone benefits from regardless of the effort society members put in to attain those goods.

An example of such goods is water. It is available for everyone residing in Pakistan where there is infrastructure. Rational Pakistanis freeride –  they aim to have others pay the costs of providing water from which they then benefit. The cost can be borne by others by paying a water tax, reducing consumption of water even as others maximise it, having no water supply and so on.

The consequence of this problem is that if everyone thinks rationally and nobody works to provide the good, it is not attained. This leads to water scarcity.

Therefore, the outcome of our rational attitude is wholly irrational.

We can also bring this problem to bear on the on-going revenue drive. In theory, all Pakistanis residing in Pakistan will benefit from a higher development budget if everyone pay their due share of tax.

However, rational Pakistanis would aim to freeride – get away with as much undeclared wealth as possible, minimise the effort and cost of regulating their businesses, avoid the perceived risk at present of investing surplus revenue, etc.

The outcome of a rational response to the tax drive is that the government’s revenue targets will not be achieved.

A matter of perception

Dealing with collective action problems is also a matter of perception.

The contribution of any individual Pakistani to the overall benefits of everyone paying taxes is statistically rather low; the amount of benefits each Pakistani reaps are almost wholly unaffected by whether or not they pay their due share.

For instance, an opposition politician paid an agricultural income tax of Rs 3.83 million in 2017, according to the documents she submitted to the Election Commission. While the amount may appear substantial, it is peanuts (0.000383%) compared to the overall budget of roughly Rs 1 trillion allocated for development projects by the then Pakistan Muslim League (N) government for 2017-2018.

Meaning that in absolute terms, her share of tax hardly puts a dent on Pakistan’s development.

Thus, the rational strategy for the well-to-do like her could be to avoid taxes as they may not perceive their due share of tax as a significant contribution towards the exchequer.

What can Pakistani leadership do about it?

Collective action problems are difficult to resolve. Experts pose several solutions.

One is to limit the size of groups. Small groups are more homogenous (culturally for instance) and that increases the likelihood of cooperation.

Members of smaller groups are also likely to perceive the effect of their contribution and are therefore more willing to participate. Think about pitching in to fix your neighbourhood trash problem compared to that of your city.

In Pakistan’s’ case this is essentially a call for greater provincial autonomy. A formula more successfully implemented in India.

Another solution is to introduce a cost of group membership that individuals must pay if they are to benefit from the common goods.

This can be as ‘simple’ as introducing water pricing. Or more elaborate carrot and stick tactics that incentivise tax payers and punish non-payers. A proposal much written about in the media.

To be sure, collective action problems are difficult to quantify. They are based on assumptions that people everywhere act rationally in pursuit of their individual interests.

So, the more one observes society through this perspective, the more likely it is to debate possible solutions to them.

In other words, leaders must first think of citizens as rational individuals capable of independent decision making.

This may seem unfamiliar as many of us are used to a steady diet of derogatory stereotypes about each other’s identity – caste, sect, religion, nationality, etc. And, perhaps even physical and mental abilities.

So, we must observe closely.

Emotional appeals by Prime Minister Imran Khan might persuade some to file their returns. However, aware of rampant corruption and the failure of such drives in the past to bring meaningful change in the broken tax system incentivises many rational Pakistanis to not comply. Good intentions alone are not enough.

Online trolls who challenge the patriotism of Pakistani expats may appear to be speaking from genuine emotion. But their contempt for any criticism of state policies can also belie a calculation that such criticism poses a challenge to the status quo. With limited choice to find opportunities overseas, trolls in Pakistan may not have the luxury yet to offend or destabilise the status quo.

In the introduction my intention was not to compare the quality of the English and colloquial press. It was to emphasise the need to trust people with the truth however unsettling that may be.

Truth and reason go hand in hand.

The ultimate prize of speaking the truth, i.e. treating the population as rational and capable is a society that has learned to function independently, in practice.

A society on board with the policies of its leaders.

Convinced – not coerced or duped – that it is in their interest to do so.

Check out my view on Islamophobia in The Wire

As the holy month approaches, it’s a good time for self-reflection.

Originally published in theWire.in.

The first time I set foot outside Pakistan was on a trip to Turkey to meet someone I had met on the internet.

The trip promised all the wonders of a Bollywood romance. And it did rock my world in more than one way.

I was literally speechless.

How could it be that a white Christian girl – my friend – had to inform her father before going out with me? And how could a Muslim host, observing a ritual fast during Ramadan, serve alcohol to guests at his hotel without batting an eye? What incredible self-control and discipline, I wondered.

Looking back, I realise that people everywhere are basically the same.

They want to prosper in good health, follow the rule of law, make more money, save for a stable future, send their children to good universities and so on.

But sometimes such a path isn’t so easy for everyone.

Muslims, fuelled by identity-based pride, forget that their perceived ‘others’ are just like them despite their privileges or lack thereof.

The recent terrorist attack on a mosque in New Zealand by a white male Australian that resulted in 50 deaths and 20 injuries demonstrates a similar lack of understanding about minorities in the West and in particular about the followers of Islam.

Clearly, Islamophobia is on the rise.

In general, there is a perception that political Islam emphasises on Huquq Allah (rights of god).

What is debatable, however, is that segments of Muslim communities are yet to reconcile with modernity in ways that privilege civic life – or, Huquq-ul Ibad (rights of god’s servants).

For this reconciliation to happen, Muslims must take ownership of the corrosive discourse that is peddled in their name by fringe elements within their own society – forget the world.

It is not enough to just condemn terrorist attacks; authorities and civil society must collectively admonish those who incite hate. They must encourage counter-narratives rooted in progressive voices within the Islamic school of thought.

In Pakistan, the authorities allegedly use militants to suit their interests. The country’s political leaders then strategically profit from the noxious discourse propagated by those militants.

As a result, this generates a public culture – one which is confrontational rather than deliberative. Over time, this culture creates a bad image of Pakistan.

For instance, the emergence of parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), that draw strength entirely from such discursive tactics, tells the world that extremism is mainstream in Pakistan.

Also read: what is behind the sudden rise of TLP?

We should be honest with ourselves.

‘Confusion of categories’

For centuries, progressive and modern voices have been sidelined in many Muslim majority countries.

Rather than making an effort to understand complex socio-economic and political challenges, some of us take refuge in simplistic explanations which are often riddled with ambiguities.

Others lack the vocabulary to even describe the world beyond a ‘good Muslim right wing’ and ‘bad Muslim West liberal’ dichotomy.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a regular commentator in the Daily Dawn, observes that the debate on religion in Pakistan has mostly been about a modern Islam versus a puritanical orthodox Islam.

Amidst that, terms like ‘secularism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’, have only muddied the debate.

This has resulted in what historian Ayesha Jalal refers to as “confusion of categories”. Meaning, our inability to distinguish theology – nature of God –  from other disciplines, such as fiqh – jurisprudence.

Alarmingly, we can observe similar patterns in even non-Muslim majority countries, including India.

Progressive ideas are increasingly seen with suspicion when they lock horns with essentialist agendas of their populist opponents.

To be sure, I’m not advocating a spirit of self-reflection for its own sake. Many Muslims would prefer a reality that is easy to digest in these unsettling times. I’m advocating a smarter engagement with the modern world through frames of social justice on which it is built.

I have observed that, at times, even the strongest opponents of Islamophobia dismiss progressive ideas.

Scholars, who have studied the rise of Islamophobia in the US, say that inadequate representation of American Muslims in political spheres gives rise to such tendencies.

Also read: 3.3 million Muslims living in United States but American Muslims hold just two of 535 seats in congress.

At the end of the day, arguably, both the extremists as well as the non-extremists use violence to gain power.

What should Muslims do?

With their own struggles with the far-right, Muslims can show the world, in vivid detail, how such views stunt democratic processes.

But this requires a concerted effort on our part.

Muslim minorities will have to increase participation in local civic life.

On the other hand, Muslim majority countries will have to invest more in civic education rooted in their cultural codes.

The good news is that there is no shortage of modern literature on Islam in-sync with the universal notions of justice.

But it requires a strong political will to get pushed through the mainstream where Muslims are a majority.

Only then will popular and academic discourse globally concede space to a humanist vision that is uniquely Islamic.