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.

Journalism education in Pakistan must break out of the liberal mould that shaped it

Media liberalisation in Pakistan was ushered during the presidency of Gen. (rt) Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently scholars at the opening meeting of the premier International Communication Association conference, cautioned against the role of ‘fake news’ in elections around the world.

The menace can be observed in democracies from the most to the least mature. It highlights the changing paradigm in journalism dominated by liberal principals to one where context specific factors form the basis for journalism practice and development.

However, journalists in Pakistan continue to benchmark dated Western ideals about the profession.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals

They lash out against any curbs on press freedom by seeking refuge in the liberal market place of ideas. The argument goes that truth reigns supreme in an environment of unrestrained and free flow of information. Their opponents are quick to point out how the press in even the most liberal media markets, such as the United States, ‘tow-the-line’ during national crisis.

In the Asian context we have seen that a rampant growth of the media industry in the absence of civic norms flooded the market place with partisan voices and junk. The liberalized media in the Philippines after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 is a notable case in point. Rather than enlightenment that facilitates a much needed national consensus a rambunctious media further disoriented the public.

Closer to home commercialization is also strongly associated with the erosion of editorial integrity by marketing departments or owner’s private agendas, as is documented on the Indian press.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals ultimately polarizes the debate in the limited public space there is for fact based informed opinion in Pakistan. Worse still, it allows societal elites that are contemptuous of public scrutiny to justify curbs on truth on grounds of a press perceived ill equipped to report it.

We must break out of the liberal-authoritarian binary in our public discourse where anything that goes against the state perspective is labelled ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ by the media. Just as any critique of religious extremism is seen as a past time of a ‘civil society crowd’

The problem with an unwavering faith in liberalism was starkly visible in the polarization of the American press during the election of President Trump. A large segment of the supposedly liberal media that had historically supported and preached impartiality and fairness in news reporting, more so than the conservative press, deemed it in the public interest to do away with an important journalism ideal.

Else where: why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?

Implications for journalism education in Pakistan

Reality is a complex interplay of myriad factors. Not a zero-sum game. Consequently, journalism students must be taught to appreciate nuances of reporting in relation to factors such as institutional configuration, commercial and political imperatives.

To be sure, journalism is a profession, practiced and learned through participation in the routine activities of a news room. Journalism schools therefore re-create that environment in their training studios and production labs.

However this technical training is based on a strong theoretical foundation. Top journalism schools around the world are also very active in academic research. Professors offer special topics designed to arm students with a capacity to adapt context specific differences in practice with the democratic ideals upon which the discipline stands.

Comparative media research, for instance, shows that sustainable professional journalism can exist in pockets even in the harshest political environments. Just as democracies can exist in sustainable hybrid forms rather than an ideal (read Western) type on a continuum from low to high quality.

I’m involved in one such study, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, that investigates ethical best practices among media organisations in five Asian territories; China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan. We found that reputable organisations here are usually run by journalist-publishers with a strong ethos. Management policies facilitate a democratic culture in the newsroom itself. They understand branding but set their professional ethos as the value proposition.

The project is at a nascent stage but shows the significance for Pakistani media to observe journalism in contexts beyond the American and British benchmarks. Media practices in regions with whom we share commonalities in socio-cultural and economic development are more useful to understand and improve our own.

Why does this matter?

This won’t be easy. It requires updating curricula in our media schools and the particularly difficult task of designing pedagogy that can operationalize such knowledge to the unique requirement of the news industry in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, liberal education is desperately needed for young Pakistanis to understand their role in society and learn to co-exist in harmony. Only that a liberal press is not necessarily professional and certainly not the most effective.

Else where: what is a liberal press?

If we do not arm our journalists with the state of play in the field they will struggle to stay relevant in building a democratic Pakistan. A key function of the press. Media students will face a disconnect between classroom learning and the work place upon graduation. Non-democratic forces will continue to encroach upon the vacuum left by our media institutions.

The overemphasis on the digital divide in Pakistan.

There is an on going debate in Pakistan echoing global concern about the extent to which social media is simply replicating moribund and traditional impulses of the society.

The young ones are optimistic. With some reason. Just take a sample of the rich tapestry of awareness and advocacy currently on social media; a campaign to push for peace between India and Pakistan on Change.org initiated by folks on both sides of the hostile border; a funny viral video by fans of an opposition party around the recent ouster of the Prime Minister on corruption charges; accusation of stifling a story on injuries from an incident during a TV program shot in Pakistan’s premier gated community by a popular blogger, an online furore over a television anchor who had verbally abused a female guest on ‘patriotism’ during a live transmission.

More senior journalists and informed observers are cautious at best. A report by Bytes for all, a local Internet advocacy group, last year highlighted the increase in arbitrary government blocks on websites. While this year marked the first reports in the press on state-suspected attacks on online activists.

But going beyond the human rights perspectives on a restricted public sphere commonly associated with closed societies, question remains whether a more connected Pakistan will be conducive to deliberative and representative discussions en masse to begin with.

I want to bring attention to the copious amount of abuses and barbs traded by partisans on social media. Be it the progressively inclined fans of opposition parties, the conservative activists of the government or some combination of both. These ‘echo chambers’, to borrow a term from political communication, are by far the most prominent aspects of political discussions online. The notable journalist, Najam Sethi, goes as far as to refer to a thriving ‘anti-social media’. Where discussions are rich on emotions and rhetoric, little on substance and reminiscent of crazy talking heads on television.

Consider Youtube.com.pk, an open online public space, in a similar vein, setting aside for a moment the government’s absolute authority to ban it. Even a cursory look at the weekly trending will reveal mostly sensational television news stories regurgitated online, South Asian television soaps and films, ‘item numbers’ (bawdy dances of women on a background of Indian songs) and a sprinkling of Islamic evangelical content.

It appears that the roughly 28 million strong Internet user base, which by the way is no trivial figure (the entire population of Hong Kong is roughly 7 million), of highly educated Pakistanis, according to a recent survey on her Internet User’s Perspectives, seem mostly concerned with entertainment values in all their variants we usually associate with the ‘old’ broadcast age.

And while there is hardly any research on the quality of discussions Sethi isn’t far off the mark either. They fit our understanding of authoritarian emerging media conditions where most online content is used for broadcast purposes, traditional media successfully co-opts online spaces and a civil society voice is further confined or lost in the cacophony of misinformation.

Evegny Morozov in his cynical, albeit astute analysis, cautioned against cyber-utopianism; “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside”; that instead of serving as a panacea in the market place of ideas there is a growing fear that Internet in Pakistan is becoming a game changer for established individuals, politicians, television personalities and (retired) generals who now find it even more convenient to build on their offline persona.

How far has Pakistan’s emerging online culture succumbed to Morozov’s worst fears? My on going research aims to answer this question partly by examining the logic of her social media for civic engagement.

Figures 1 shows a social network analysis (SNA) I conducted based on the Facebook Page ‘like’ networks for two major political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PMLN) in the government, and its nemesis the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the opposition. SNA uses mathematical tools to understand the relationship (‘like’) between nodes (Pages) and the overall structure (Network) they are embedded in. It is often used to understand online organisation. The analysis reveals that the PTI has five times the online presence, 319 Pages, of PMLN, 66 Pages. Although offline, the former commands a much larger share in the National Assembly. In fact the situation is reversed; PMLN has roughly five times the seats of PTI!

 

 PTI PMLN
Figure 1. PTI Facebook ‘like’ network (left) & its PMLN counterpart (right). The size of labels represents level of activity of pages. Thus overseas pages are most active on PTI network. Similar colours reveal pages that depict similar patterns of connectivity or community. For PTI; green = Azad Kashmir related, Black = Insaf Student & fans related, Purple = KPK related, Blue = Karachi related. The much smaller PMLN has been disproportionately enlarged for clarity’s sake. No clear communities are visible likely due to network mostly formed by techy savvy politicians as opposed to activist teams. Note: SNA visualised on Gephi using publicly available Facebook data. The latter is the most used social media platform in the country.

This shows the considerable disconnect between on-ground (offline) and online reality and could be of some consolation; notwithstanding the limited importance of online campaigning in Pakistan the gap means that there is some way to go before the ills of patronage and dynastic politics completely colonize online. An uncertain window that the marginalized exploit and the youth are optimistic about.

But for many it is primarily the digital divide that has limited marginalized voices to the fringe of public opinion proper. As if more Internet is just what is required to keep the window open or for more people to support progressive causes. Pick any recent report mapping media trends in Pakistan and you find a similar introduction emphasizing the poor state of Internet development.

The PTI case is illuminating here as well; its largest constituency lies in Khyber Pakthunkhawa (KPK). Those familiar with South Asian geography will recognize this rugged province, that shares a border with Afghanistan, as having very low Internet penetration compared to the rest of Pakistan. Clearly there are factors beyond simple voting considerations that seem to inform the party’s online strategy; reviving overseas Pakistanis, creating awareness among urban youth, supporting advocacy causes (see figure 1) and raising funds.

Similarly, the digital divide is but one factor, and not necessarily the most important one, Pakistani policy makers should bank on if they are serious about diversity in the online market place of ideas. Media literacy; critical thinking; the capacity of journalist and bloggers for investigative work, contribute equally, if not more, in this equation. It will be an uphill battle. These concerns require novel solutions that go beyond simply paving and clearing information highways.

Hate Spin: the manufacture of religious offence and its threat to democracy by Cherian George. Book review: Ayaz A. Siddiqui

Originally published in The News on Sunday, August 13th 2017.

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Front cover taken from MIT Press site.

In their vehement critique of the media industry, Herman and Chomsky (1988) skilfully show how powerful corporate interests shape the news. It has been 30 years since then; democracies world over, including the US, have ostensibly experienced growing right-wing populism, radical campaigns and hate propaganda. Governance-wise these nations lie on an entire spectrum of democratic maturity, media concentration and diversity. Clearly, political economy is just one side of the powerful influences that shapes news content.

In Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offence and Its Threat to Democracy, Associate Professor Cherian George unravels how strategic religious hateful propaganda is being used as a tool by skilled political entrepreneurs in democracies the world over, for explicitly political goals. He draws particular attention to ‘offence-taking’, which is about playing the provoked victim with malicious intent, as opposed to the more commonly understood ‘offence-giving’ notion of hate speech. Together, the two form a double-edged sword he calls Hate Spin, which “exploits group identities to mobilise supporters and coarse opponents”.

George begins his inquiry by asking why there are strategic time lags between incidents involving violent indignation — protests, court petitions and such — and the moment of ‘offence giving’ activity — offensive cartoons, films — in the name of which they are ‘triggered’. Shrewd middlemen, usually elites, skilled at public relations, he argues, mobilise, often genuine, emotions of people where they see as an incentive. This contentious politics often fades away when there is no longer political advantage to gain.

To expand on these claims, a thick comparison of political campaigns of the Hindu-right in India, of Christian-right in the United States and of the Muslim-right in Indonesia is presented.

Hate Spin is a chilling reminder of the tangible link between material injustices in a society and restrictions in its market place of ideas. For instance, the escalation of the cultural homogenisation project of the Sang Parivar, dubbed Hindutva or ‘Hinduness’ (distinguishable from Hinduism), in Modi’s India is explained through the Gujrat pogroms in 2002, ghettoisation of Muslims and Muzaffarnagar riots in the run-up to 2014 Indian elections.

One can feel the reverberations of Pakistan’s own nasty experience with religious populism, especially in some recent times, throughout the reading. George’s deep theoretical insights will demystify everyday inciting news content we have grown accustomed to in Pakistan.

Such agents cause more abuse in closed societies where freedoms are already restricted. But in open societies this phenomenon presents a genuine dilemma for authorities. The unique case study of the US is telling. George shows how the ‘Islamophobia Network’ has taken advantage of the exceptional freedoms afforded by the First Amendment. However, its activities are necessarily restricted by the US Constitution’s equal importance to protection of minorities, including religions, against discrimination. In this context, the instigators of mosque-banning campaigns, for instance, might be losing the legal battle but they have succeeded in pushing hate propaganda in the middle of public discourse.

Generating national conversations thus is often the prime motivation behind Hate Spin. Which it does at the unreasonable expense of other point of views. This makes it anti-democratic.

The author also engages with various ways to curb the menace. He charts ethical responses that professional journalist can take; upstream approaches that deal with early warning signs of potential incitement and downstream approaches for troubleshooting the impact of hate campaigns. He emphasises the particular role that civil society and religious actors can play to ‘nudge hate speech out of public center’.

Not surprisingly, George believes that the overregulation of hate speech usually backfires for authorities. Insult laws such as those protecting blasphemy, for instance end up providing legal munitions to vested interests, which further harms minority groups and opinions. Citing the case of Shirin Dalvi, a Mumbai newspaper editor who was hounded by authorities when complaints were lodged against her after publishing a picture of the cover of Charlie Hebdo bearing the caricature of Prophet Muhammad. Or, the anti-pornography bill ratified in 2008 in Indonesia that gave a license to declare illegal anything certain uncompromising Muslim clerics deemed as indecent.

One shortcoming is that the analysis sometimes blurs the boundaries between populist politics in general and Hate Spin. For instance, when constitutional provisions to ensure a greater participation of out groups is suggested as a measure that can limit marginalisation of those in the crosshair of dominant groups. In contexts where politics of ‘otherness’ is a norm, hate speech thus could be inevitable. It would be useful to see how Hate Spin operates in hybrid democratic contexts, such as Turkey, Russia and Pakistan, to further crystallise the more dangerous repercussions of hateful propaganda from legitimate expressions of identity politics.

George is aware of this complexity as his cases draw strength not just from the novelty of analysis but by engagement with the most current debates at the intersection of free expression laws, human rights framework and religion. He believes that a plural and tolerant democracy doesn’t require religion to be forced out of the public sphere but that rule of law must be supreme.

One can feel the reverberations of Pakistan’s own nasty experience with religious populism, especially in some recent times, throughout the reading. George’s deep theoretical insights will demystify everyday insightful news content we have grown accustomed to in Pakistan. While specific analysis of international episodes like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and Jylland-Posten cartoon controversy will make one aware of something that is always at the tip of our tongues but somehow get lost amid the ruckus when such stories land.

This review should be taken as a trailer for it’s impossible to highlight many other original insights and facts that make it a compelling read. Relevant international organisations and actors at different sides of the misinformation battle for instance, will be a valuable resource for journalists, policy makers, academics, students and concerned citizens fighting this web of hate and creating a more inclusive Pakistani society.

Hatespin The Manufacture of Religious Offence and its Threat to Democracy
Author: Cherian George
Publisher: MIT Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 328
Price: USD18.95

How has protesting changed in Pakistan since the 90’s?

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University of Hong Kong logo.

On 24th February, 2017 I presented some findings on the Changes in Political Protests in Pakistan since the 90’s, based on my field work last year. The presentation was made in a closed reading group organised by faculty members at the Hong Kong Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (HKIHSS). In this post I summarize key findings of my presentation, some conclusions and finally a word on the reading group itself. I understand that use of certain terms will be unclear. I strongly encourage you to email so we can discuss.

Summary

I compared two major political protests, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Long March in 1992 and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Azadi Dharna (PTI) in 2014. In the paper, my focus was on protesters organisation strategies and division of labour within the party. These two ‘variables’ (in a manner of speaking) are taken from Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993) understanding of the relationship between movements and media. Worth to mention that even though focus is on protest strategies, specific focus is on those strategies that are most related to media. I will not present my research design here. Those who are interested can contact me via email. However, my data sources are Daily Dawn news archives from year 1992 and 2014 collected at Dawn library in Karachi. 17 in-depth interviews with various party media cell officers, campaign managers, journalists and civil society activists. I also conducted a focus group at the Karachi Press Club.

Key similarities and differences between PPP and PTI protest organisation:

  • Patronage networks were leveraged in both protests but not as much by the PTI.
  • Protest events for the PPP were rather diffused where as heavily concentrated for the PTI.
  • Both protests chose the capital city as the major choice of mobilisation however, the PTI took special interest in concentrating resources there.
  • PPP brick and mortar media presence remained mostly limited to its party headquarters in Karachi whereas PTI expanded such presence to major metropolis in the country.

Key similarities and difference between PPP and PTI division of labour:

  • Both protests relied on campaign officers to generate corner meetings and mobilise people to protest sites and to agitate.
  • Both protests relied on young volunteers however, PTI had a much more diverse cadre of youth activist specially in metropolis where traditionally vote banks don’t function as effectively.
  • Both parties have media campaign managed by professionals but PTI campaigns were managed by professionals with a unique skill set related to electronic campaigns that PPP did not have.
  • Other political parties, including PPP, have imitated PTI’s style of division of labour in its protests.

 

Some discussion

Bearing in mind the changes in media landscape since the 90’s, in particular the heavy presence of 24 hour news television in Pakistani politics we can see why PTI protests chose to concentrate in one location over a prolong period. It firstly facilitates television news crews that, unlike print reporters need heavy and expensive equipment for reporting. It is difficult for such crews to report on scattered events. Secondly, prolong stay in certain locations facilitates continuous and therefore live coverage of events. Unlike in the past, where such news crews (state television) were barely present or only supported the incumbent government. This certainly shows protesters changing tactics to get better media standing. Certainly the new forms of expertise required to capture, retain and facilitate this kind of news coverage was also present among the party’s media cell. Such new forms of organisation in other metropolis certainly helps in liaison with various TV news organisations. In contrast, PPP protesters had to find different ways to capture the news attention of a media landscape dominated by a print medium. It fits our understanding of news bureaus and correspondents located in different cities reporting the latest in their area. For after a while, news editors in major cities ignore the protest-as-usual to make room for other events.

About the reading group

This is a brief word on the purpose of the reading group and the format of presentations so that I may illuminate how academic communities are built. It is a learning process for me as well. So a major purpose, as I understand, is to bring together budding scholars studying diverse topics, in fairly diverse university departments within and outside Hong Kong, but with a common interest in anthropological methods. Such methods are distinguishable for presenting in ‘thick descriptions’ the phenomenon/process that are being explored. Journalism writing, if one can call it that, often employs such methods and I find that they are helpful when writing my reports which are indeed qualitative.

Each session has two parts, an hour devoted to a presentation followed by an hour on Q&A. Each presenter has to submit a paper in advance so that participants understand in detail the context of the presentation. For me, the core utility of this exercise is to use my arguments to engage with people who don’t know much about my area. And in the process make the arguments sharper.

Reference

Gamson, W. A., & Wolfsfeld, G. (1993). Movements and media as interacting systems. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 528(1), 114-125.

Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.

Statement of Intent – PhD program at Hong Kong Baptist University

A poignant lesson I learnt in my academic, professional and personal development is that life should not be perceived as a long-term business plan, contrary to what we are dispassionately taught since childhood in Pakistan; prior to my Masters I would never have imagined a career in academia given my temperament but it was a series of anachronistic events that not only invoked in me a dormant passion for the knowledge economy but also convinced me of it’s logic.

I always had a penchant for the untold stories, the underdogs and the way society evolves with progress. So a chance trip to Turkey after saving enough money, to meet a pen pal became a life changing experience in 2011; a festive blend of East meets West, Turkey “opened my eyes,” to the vast similarities among different cultures and human nature in general. It made me understand that people everywhere have the same desires and wants. It also smashed some inaccurately construed perspectives about different cultures I had acquired through popular television.

At that time I was planning to enroll in a postgraduate program in management to complement my exiting faculties – earlier I had planned and secured Rs. 60,00,000 (~ $67,000) for a marketing campaign at Ahmed E.H. Jaffer Foundation’s boarding school of excellence The Hub School, and prior to that given the unprecedented task to revamp the business model for the website Brandsynario.com at Synergy (Pvt.) Ltd, notwithstanding pressure to join the family business full time – but upon my return I decided to pursue a burgeoning interest in journalism. I reckoned that communication sciences would inculcate in me a strong core understanding of reaching the audience; which is far more important for understanding marketing communication, particularly in an evolving pubic sphere in Pakistan where importance of elections, fundamental human rights and free speech have only recently gained traction after media liberalisation.

Thus communication science is a career path I have followed rigorously and whole-heartedly since. 

To learn more in this field I pursued a master’s program in Journalism and Media Communication at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, United Kingdom. Participation in the event coverage of the first St Albans Film Festival, internship at the Eastern Eye – Britain’s foremost weekly for South Asian community in Central London – and the MA thesis on Pakistani media made me cognizant of the peculiarities of South Asians all over the world and the dearth of available literature in the field. 

My dissertation and successive PhD proposal are the two most cherished culminations of my master’s program. The dissertation report for which I spent my entire nine day holiday in Pakistan conducting elite interviews, reaching out to friends at Interflow Communication and Nielsen Saudi Arabia among other venues, taught me the intricacies of conducting rigorous research. It compelled me to dig deeper, read more and collaborate more.

My lucky break came when Professor Anatol Lieven at King’s College agreed to see me last November to offer his critique of my master’s thesis. My ambitions in academia gathered momentum from then onwards. Anatol was kind enough to introduce me to Professor Mathew McCartney at Oxford University who upon my insistence has agreed to co-supervise a doctoral program subject to enrollment at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies. However the strongest support for my PhD proposal came from Professor Daya Thussu at University of Westminster, Professor Pradeep Chhibber at University of California, Berkley and Professor Colin Sparks at your esteemed institution.

Upon my return from UK, I made a tough call to put on hold a lucrative position at an advertising firm to develop my proposal further. It was self-learning in its essence, a trait picked from the excellent faculty at Hertfordshire. Now that I apply for funding while I work at The News International (Jang Group) and prepare to teach media theory at SZABIST this fall, I know that every decision I take must bring me a step closer to a doctoral program.

If given the choice between research work purely in United States and United Kingdom or, partly in Hong Kong and United States, I would chose the later without hesitation; since media systems are inextricably linked with the political identity of a country it makes sense for Pakistani academics to study communication systems in countries such as China, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and India. Pure liberal democratic templates adopted from mature democracies are bound to fail in the global south. There is credibility in my statement; of the five telecommunication companies – the only industry where private foreign investment is officially allowed – operating in Pakistan, four are owned by investors in Russia, Middle East and China. It is highly likely that in future developments in the media industry of Pakistan, such nations will play an important role. The need of the hours thus is to study best practices in both schools of thought and that is why a dual degree program offered at HKBU is of intense interest for me.

My decision to apply for a PhD program was not an epiphany neither was it something I always knew I would take since childhood but something I have actualized over the years. It has been a journey of self-discovery and my four years of experience within the industry, in Karachi and London, puts me in a unique position to undertake this research. I sincerely hope that the admission’s committee will consider my application strongly.

 


I wrote this statement somewhere last summer to contest for a very eclectic and experimental four-year PhD program based across continents in Hong Kong, China and the United kingdom. And much to my bewilderment I was accepted for a full-funded position in Communication Studies in this incredible part of the world! Perhaps my statement will serve as a rough guide or even inspire fellow Pakistanis to dream big, cash in on their strengths and develop the foresight to traverse where others hesitate. I consider myself very very lucky.