Extremist religious protests highlight the dearth of civic education

Khadim Hussain Rizvi founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Photo – Wikimedia Commons.

A religiously fuelled violent protest that brought the nation to a standstill has subsided. For now.

Once again ordinary Pakistanis are left scratching their heads.

We understand something rotten has happened. However, the symbols of ‘Islamic oppression’ and religion inspired vocabulary used by the protesters appealed to our emotions in ways that confounded who or what is to be blamed.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for speaking out against the protesters threatening the writ of the state. The prohibition on news channel to provide coverage was another commendable response to fear traders hell bent on pushing divisive voices into the mainstream. The response of the government shows that while intentions were sincere, it lacks the capacity to deal with this menace. It needs our support.

The menace of hate speech is a growing problem the world over. It is slowly corroding democratic life in both industrialised and emerging countries; be it through the activities of the Islamophobia network in countering a perceived threat from Shariah in a secular America; the uproar over ‘killing of cows’ created by the Sang Parivar in a Hindu India; or, the threat from minorities in a Muslim majority Pakistan.

Hate speech can be defined as the vilification of a group’s identity in order to oppress its members and deny them equal rights.

But here is where the similarity between Pakistan and other countries (irrespective of economic status) ends. A poor understanding of civic life and humanism (Haqooq Ul Ibad), lack of public etiquettes and persistence of tribal values, has meant that Pakistanis are particularly vulnerable to the kind of politics that social scientists refer as the ‘dark side’ of democracy.

It is imperative that Pakistanis of all income, ‘nationalities’, class, education and sect understand that hate speech is a cancer. Similar to the cancer of corruption, if left unchecked, it eats away the social contract between the state and the citizens by extorting unfair advantage in public life for select groups.

Worse still, if not eradicated, it has the macabre potential to dehumanize entire segments of population. Recently, the world watched in horror at the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. What the state (and public opinion) did to the Rohingya in Myanmar could one day happen to minorities in Pakistan. And it won’t stop there. Right now, our ‘fight’ is against Christians and Ahmedis, soon it will be between Sunnis and Shias (oh I forgot, it is already there), between various Sunni sects, between various ethnicities.

In addition, there is now ample evidence to suggest a causality between hateful propaganda in the name of identity, and genocide. Researchon the genocide of the Tutsi sect in Rwanda in 1994 found that radio was a critical tool used by the Hutu led majority government. For days, local stations fanned the flames of hate urging the Hutu’s to “weed out the cockroaches”, meaning kill the Tutsis. In 100 days, some 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists, BBC reports.

We might mistakenly assume that such a catastrophe is only possible in a poverty riddled weak African state. But let’s not forget the holocaust during World War II keeping aside for a moment our traditional animosity with the Jews. The rich and powerful Nazi war machine used hateful propaganda to justify the genocide of not only Jews, but also minorities, the disabled and political opponents it deemed inferior to an Aryan race.

Mounting research on social movements has shown that violent protests in the name of religion appear to address a profound moral wrong. But observe closely and we find skilled middleman – politicians, elites, etc. – managing these protests, often using genuine emotions of the people, for their own short-term gains. In his recent book Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy, Professor of Journalism Cherian George explains this using case studies of the Islamophobia network in the United States, the Sang Parivar in India and the Islamic public sphere in Indonesia.

Critical for this understanding is to accept as a fact that hate speech is a crime. There should be no alternative opinion on this. Same as the fact that the sun rises from the east and sets in the west.

George urges us to observe political actors that benefit through fear mongering instead of wasting our efforts dissecting the psychology of protesters out on the streets. The real hate traders in Pakistan are not those stealing bananas or smashing cars but resourceful rational actors skilled at harnessing hate to achieve their political ends.

The illegal actions of those like Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Mumtaz Qadri, have a foothold in our society partly because many Pakistanis, irrespective of income and education, either believe in their cleverly crafted messages uncritically or prefer to stay silent out of sheer confusion.

The gravity of this challenge shouldn’t be underestimated for a nation born partly out of religious fervor. If our religious leaders stoke the flames of hate, we are also partly to blame. The crisis of morality is in our DNA. However, while the abstract question of Pakistani ideology is too complex to resolve yet, it’s easier to wrap our heads around the menace posed by hate speech.

Consensus about this issue has finally emerged in the shape of the National Action Plan but recent events highlight the tremendous collective effort that is required. Civic education from the grassroot all the way to the top is imperative. Measuring progress through number of erected schools though commendable on its own, is not enough. Civic education is a special kind of literacy that is desperately lacking in private, state and madrassah school systems across the board.

Also read: 5 ways to counter hate speech in the media through ethics and self-regulation

To this list I’d also add our everyday conversations with friends, family, neighbors and staff that cater our homes and businesses. We must encourage conversations on humanism at a personal level to chip away the audience for hate mongers.

It is critical for us to understand hate speech not only as a crime but also as a menace that prevents us from co-existing with mutual respect and harmony in practice.

Understanding جہالت (Jahalat) as incivility, rather than illiteracy

What are some of the things that come to your mind when you hear the word ‘China’?

1- Large population

2- CPEC

3- Chaptay (‘flat faced’, in local parlance)

4- Godless

5- Food (more specifically, Chicken corn soup and Chinese rice)

6- Weirdos?

Do any of these responses sound familiar? There is probably a lot more to the only sophisticated ancient civilisation that has resisted the throes of Western modernity than a chicken corn soup recipe.

Indeed this is but one instance of our stereotype towards people of other nationalities. And, it should be of concern to any rational Pakistani why he/she has such a limited understanding of a country that they believe is an all weather ally.

But this post is not about clarifying stereotypes.

The responses above also say a lot about our media diet; a healthy doze of local television and newspapers and a large platter of heresay (word of mouth on WhatsApp or face-to-face conversations with others like us). It shows how what we have seen, read and heard about China has shaped our views, attitudes and behaviour towards it. You can do a similar mental exercise for any other country, object or individual.

The information we consume shapes our reality.

See there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming the local media content (which will gradually mature). Living on Pakistani soil we are dependent on it and have entrusted it with the sacred duty to provide credible information and serve the public.

As do citizens of other nations on the content of their media industry.

After all, Chinese people may have similar misgivings about Pakistanis; ‘brothers of the Chinese people’, ‘unsafe’, ‘supporters of Islam’, ‘women and hijab’, ‘terrorist’, etc. going by the typical comments of Chinese tourists on their travel websites.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with our local media system. It gives us a sense of identity and projects a point of view that is typically Pakistani in the global market place of ideas.

However when we become dependent on this media diet it becomes a problem. Or in other words when what we see, read or hear comes mostly from our local media.

Now despite this seemingly common sensical explanation the ignorance in our society (myself included) about the media never ceases to amaze me. For instance, we blame television channels for broadcasting junk but conveniently forget that it is our tastes that it cater. And by the way, I have lived in Hong Kong for four years where the Chinese chicken soup looks and tastes nothing like you would imagine. Hint: they don’t ever add cornflour!

Last Monday I led a workshop titled “Thinking beyond professionalism: the role of journalism outside the newsroom”, at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) at IBA in Karachi, where I elaborated on this point.

IMG_7021
Participants were masters students of the journalism program at CEJ-IBA. Image: author

The problems of the media industry are manifold but a crucial part is our lack of basic media literacy. It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘literacy’ and ‘media literacy’ here. Although I suspect we are implicitly aware of it when we use the cheeky phrase paray likhay jahil (Roman Urdu transliteration for: a countryside bumpkin who has acquired formal education).

Typically it is assumed that the rote learning centred public education system is the root cause of our jahalat جہالت  (‘iliteracy’ – if transliterated from Urdu; ‘incivility’ – more accurately as I will now argue). This argument doesn’t explain the many foreign educated Pakistanis who return to their home towns with the same attitudes towards women, religion, family ties, tribalism etc., they took with them.

That we must ‘do as the Romans when in Rome’ is a bit off-mark as well; many of us think it is justified to break laws because of circumstances. Although there are those who break laws as a natural right or a force of habit. Similarly, many educated Pakistani expats seem to share the same tribal mindset with those of us back home.

Conversely, many graduates of local public schooling  have a mature understanding of modern collective co-existence, respect for rule of law and empathy with the disenfranchised such as minorities and women.

It is becoming apparent that our formal education, public or private, foreign or domestic, doesn’t have a strong correlation with our jahalat. This is a unique Pakistani problem.

While I’m not an expert on education psychology the need for ‘civic education’ for Pakistanis of all colour, age, creed, class and education is abundantly clear. Have a look at this TedxLahore talk by Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi on the issue for further clarity.

Media literacy continues in this tradition of raising standards of civility in a society. It aims to inculcate critical and clear thinking about the messages we receive. But at it’s core is the creation of an informed society. Where civic values, fact based reasoning and consensus building are cherished and go-to method to solve problems.

Learning about media is thus necessary for everyone. Not only for quality television content that will be needed for an informed public unwilling to accept junk but also for a public that must learn to co-exist with mutual respect and harmony in practice, rather than paying lip service to these values.

Media discourses after all occupy our public airwaves similar to what we do in our public squares, D-Chowks, roads, malls etc.

 

 

 

A resource for humanitarian reporting in Pakistan

Aerial view of a destroyed bridge in Upper Swat valley during floods in 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Most of us have travelled by road to Northern Areas alongside the twists and turns that characterise the spectacular banks of the river Indus. The lush scenery was not so pleasant in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan.

“When we visited Swat (a popular destination along the route) in 2010, most bridges connecting the valley were found destroyed,” says Arif Bilgaumi, a well-regarded architect and urban planner based in Karachi.

Arif was alluding to the risk of debris from illegal construction such as dhabas, hotels and restaurants, along the river banks which gets dislodged during natural calamities and destroys everything in its wake. He was talking to reporters from a wide array of news organisations across the country attending a workshop on humanitarian reporting recently organised by the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA in Karachi.

I was auditing the workshop for a day and found it personally exciting for two reasons. It brought me back to the ‘roots’, or a professional teaching environment in Pakistan, since I haven’t stepped foot in a local classroom in nearly ten years. Secondly, the training program was well thought out between experts who kept the sessions engaging and informative. Mind you I was not appraising the workshop for which I’m neither qualified or inclined. Think of my role as a participating observer.

Workshop participants. Photo: author.

It was refreshing to interact with marginalised media workers; a reporter from Quetta, the capital city of the restive Balochistan province, for instance told me how their head office in Karachi is often not interested in anything but terrorism and crisis related stories. As if people in Balochistan have no other life. Pakistanis of all shades and colours complain about similar treatment by the Western media.

The combination of expert knowledge and its professional delivery came in to stark focus on the issue of crisis reporting in areas where the state lacks infrastructure. A senior member of a development organisations talked about their role in creating national awareness. Aid is often the first organised collective response in such areas. Reporters of resource constrained media organisations often rely on ‘aid vehicles’ to reach effected areas.

Understandably, this part of the session was off record. Often these areas consists of non-state actors engaged in their own development efforts and agendas. The remaining session was on nurturing a ‘situational awareness’, safety, strategies to negotiate the demands of various stakeholders, traveling to and across the terrain and of course reporting in those conditions.

It was a welcome change to be in my country and talk constructively in Urdu on sensitive issues. It reminded me of a sharing session on the controversial Tiananmen Square Protest I attended in Hong Kong few years back.

The workshop program, classroom facilities and visiting experts wouldn’t be out of place in any of the conferences or universities outside Pakistan that I have had the pleasure of attending. Near the end instructors sneaked in an ‘anonymous questionnaire’ that was in fact a psychological well-being test presumably for reporters often working under stressful conditions.

By the end of the day I was nostalgic of my time as a sub-editor at The News. There is after all a charm and a sense of purpose when doing good old fashioned journalism; a powerful method of storytelling in the service of the public.

Some resources recommended by Arif Bilgaumi for reporting on natural disasters in Pakistan.

How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

What sets Logan apart from X-Men?

IMG_4015
Watching the film with some fusion spicy dumplings.

I’ve always enjoyed the thought the provoking stories of X-men franchise that brings it closer to science fiction novels than comic books. But Logan set’s itself apart from the usual plot; it’s not the exceptionally violent and gritty feel of the film, although that plays to the unsettling aura, rather a fresh take on the story of ‘good mutants’.

Set in the near future where mutants in their quest to live harmoniously alongside non-mutants have actually struggled to survive. As if the picture that Charles Xavier had imagined and the course his followers took ultimately backfired, after the events of ‘X3: The Last Stand’.

At first this alternative story line may not seem surprising. After all, this scenario is quite close to what Magneto had been fighting to prevent all along. Although, I imagine that in his version of the clash of species, there would have been a ‘battle of all battles’, where if mutants lost they would be exterminated.

But Logan hints of a fate far worse; new mutant babies are no longer born, those considered too dangerous are hunted down, and the remaining ones face every day struggles of ordinary living outside the usual comic book fantasy.

At the same time, mutant genes are harvested to enhance ordinary people, especially for military purpose. In this reality, mutation is merrily a tool, to be exploited by those in power. Although this theme of absolute power is a bit clichéd, the story keeps it fresh by demystifying superheroes and subjecting them to travails of life. No one is above the government and the corporations.

I suspect that in the future we might see ‘bad mutants’ working alongside government mercenaries to hunt down ‘good mutants’ and dissidents. Speaking of such new directions, the installment paves a very flexible way ahead for the franchise. A drama? A TV series? I won’t be surprised.

For now we can be assured that the series has complicated its usual good vs evil vision of reality, thereby also catering to a mature audience.

Goodbye to an era of resolutions

img_3591
Fireworks over a mosque around the Seaview area on 1st January 2017, DHA Karachi.

A warm welcome to an era of discipline!

It is not in my nature to be morose about what lies ahead. So in a typical fashion my New Year’s Eve was spent among good company. Both of friends and hooch. Now, that the fire works (and the fire arms), the tributes and the visceral high of celebrating together with millions around the world start to fade, things that made last year so difficult begin to dawn.

Indeed, 2016 has been rather poignant for me. The PhD program ‘came of age’, meaning that the course requirement and comprehensive exams were completed, a prospectus was negotiated with an advisory committee and field work was conducted in Karachi and Islamabad. Also, around summer time I attended a themed poster session @ the ICA in Japan.

It was a ridiculously packed agenda. One that raised the bar, set new standards and pushed me to stop complaining and get shit done. To put no-so-subtly.

The costs are high ladies and gentleman of stumbling along new pastures.

But the rewards are… oh so satisfying.

I’m surprised how clear I am about my plans for 2017 at a moment when many are celebrating the uncertainty or bemoaning what has passed. Much credit is due, among other things, to the rigorous requirements of the program that has instilled a measure of discipline. To be sure, the plan requires considerable rework. But I understand that is just part of the game.

Key learning here is that some form of structure no matter how rudimentary is crucial. For me the myth of having no rules as the driving engine was busted in 2016. Working in academia as with everything else worth pursuing requires a certain mindset, not least the ability to work alone for extended periods. A certain discipline which takes time and training. Rules make things simpler.

So in celebrating New Year’s Eve in my home town after four years I say goodbye to uncertainty, lack of discipline or an era of half-baked resolutions. I welcome 2017 and many more to come, hopefully, with a new found appreciation for responsibility and structure in life.

 

 

Just like how our life advances

So here I am once again, amidst the familiar cacophony of unintelligible voices on the streets. Cantonese can sound soft, delicate, at times even comical, but always beautiful. Which is amazing because I hardly understand it. The accent though for me was a delight when I first heard it. I used to find it difficult to take locals ‘seriously’ when conversing as I would often get mesmerised by the cadence and lose track of the words. Women seem to be masters of this dark art. When I complained about this to some friends from the Mainland and other parts of the world, they usually dismissed it or at best cited Japanese influence among the mannerisms, clothing and speaking styles of the locals. I always thought that there is a grander explanation for the language’s appeal than mere ‘Japanese influence’. In fact I always thought there is a grander explanation for all the little things that excite me every time I step in this wonderful city called Hong Kong.

I’ve spent considerable time thinking and discussing what it would be like to make Hong Kong a second home. ‘Home away from home,’ as they say. How does one even make such a decision?

The usual way of doing this is to unpack the ‘grander explanation’ in to possible constituent units;  what kind of jobs will I be eligible for? How will my PhD thesis and career trajectory in general be effected? How long to become functionally proficient in the mesmerising language? What avenues for permanent residence does the government provide? Then there are teething questions related to assimilation; how open am I to marrying a local? How high will be the social cost for this action? Most important, how far will I be able to focus on Pakistan in a career based on research?

But then I wonder whether such rigorous planning will in due course dilute, or at worse erode the magical feelings I have nurtured about the place. Quite like the way we start losing interest in things the moment we start taking them seriously. Like how those same beautiful voices can get extremely annoying on hot summer Sundays when malls are packed with families and infants, and you must get in queues at restaurants when all you want is to fill your stomach in peace.

There wont be any quick conclusions here. One can only speculate, prepare and hope for the best. Quite like the research process; as I wander around news archives and harass journalist for comments in Karachi these days I am often disappointed when the findings do not fit initial ideas. But time and again new themes emerge and highlight patterns that never occurred to me earlier. And that is how knowledge is created. Perhaps just the way our life advances.