4 stories that shed light on Pakistani media’s failings in 2015

Motivated by higher ratings, there were occasions in 2015 when Pakistani media went overboard with its reporting and turned news events into blockbusters. Here’s a look at four of the biggest stories of the year that saw editorial judgement thrown to the wind.

Imran-Reham divorce

Privacy of celebrities is a contested concept everywhere in the world. Tabloids and entertainment news (read: gossip) websites are reported to be raking in huge revenues while news providers who want to produce stories without added spice are struggling to break even. This question of protection of privacy is also a litmus test for how ethical the media is.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Pakistani media gave in to the temptation when PTI Chairman Imran Khan and journalist Reham Khan parted ways.

Before long, a story of ordinary marital souring had turned into a saga of intrigue. There were — largely unsubstantiated — rumours of clashing egos and struggles for control floating around as authentic news reports.

This type of coverage raises many uncomfortable questions for those of us working in the media vis-à-vis ethical reporting and journalism.

Shouldn’t media managers, editors, and opinion makers, as the gatekeepers of information, be above such temptation?

Why should the news cycle be dominated by a personal matter between two individuals when 300 Pakistanis had just died in an earthquake? Isn’t part of the media’s job exercising judgment on which issues should be of more or less public concern, and thus deserve more or less coverage?

Axact/Bol scandal

It is ironic that a scandal brought forward by a piece of excellent investigative journalism became a story of terrible journalism.

In May, Bol Television Network, the new media house touted as one to end all others, was exposed by The New York Times’ Declan Walsh as being built on fraudulent funding to finance the attractive perks to poach almost every renowned television journalist in the country.

The scandal caused mass layoffs across the board, but it disproportionately affected the middle and junior-level staff members who found themselves caught in a hostile market. With such a clear class of affectees, it is highly disappointing that the media at large chose to settle petty scores than to focus on the plight of the laid-off staffers.

Instead, media organisations chose to give in to their baser instincts of competition and money-making, devoting more air time and print space to Bol than to the kind of work that would show a mirror to their own industry.

The casualty in this conflict of interest was clearly ethics of journalism.

Nine Zero raid

High-profile raids get plenty of airtime because there is plenty of action to present and action sells. But perhaps sometimes other things should take precedence.

In March 2015, the first raid on MQM headquarters by Rangers became even more controversial and ‘sensational’ when a young MQM worker, Waqas Shah, was shot dead during the operation.

Yet the media callously aired footage of the ‘alleged’ shooting that resulted in Shah’s death. The inconclusive video showed the victim on his feet in one frame and on the ground after a few seconds as a Rangers vehicle and on-foot soldiers advance, firing aerial shots. A plain clothed man with a pistol in his hand is also seen standing next to Shah before he is seen flat on the ground.

With MQM claiming Shah was shot by the paramilitary’s firing and Rangers denying it, the media’s job was not to fuel the fire in an already tense environment by airing questionable videos that can possibly lead to premature conclusions on what is clearly a very serious matter.

Ayyan Ali case

While a supermodel attempting to smuggle half a million dollars to Dubai is a tempting opportunity to throw in puns and quips, our media went too far yet again.

News packages on Ayyan Ali’s hearings were hardly ever informative. Instead, they would focus on anything but the case: from Bollywood scores in the background to Ayyan’s clothing, her stumble, her makeup and more.

Sometimes the ‘news reports’ got plain embarrassing to sit through. There can be a lighter side to some stories but a line needs to be drawn somewhere, which is where editorial judgment comes in.

It appears most compromised on ethics to achieve higher ratings — a major blow to serious journalism.

Written in collaboration with Muhammad Omer Hayat, who wrote the second half of this blog. This blog appears on Dawn Blogs here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1229827/4-stories-that-shed-light-on-pakistani-medias-failings-in-2015

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No, Hamza, Karachi IS that important to Pakistan’s politics

As the only ones in the extended family who were based in Lahore, our home was always open to guests passing through the city for something or the other. Most of these guests would come from Karachi, where both my parents’ families were based. And as such, every time someone called to say they would be staying over at our place, I would bring out my list of why “Lahore Lahore hai”.

But the one thing that I never had an answer to would be when someone pointed out the vibrancy inherent to Karachi because of the unparalleled diversity of its populace. I would scoff about how all of those groups just wanted to kill each other all the time. After all, what good is diversity if there’s no security?

I saw a glimpse of that ignorance in a recent video by actor and self-styled political pundit Hamza Ali Abbasi, following the crushing defeat of the PTI (the party Abbasi spends the latter half of his video eulogising) in Karachi’s local body elections.

Abbasi begins by saying how disappointed he is with the election results.

How self-centered and arrogant must one have to be to think that his disappointment should be a factor in anyone’s decision to do anything?

The visual of this arrogant man paternally speaking at Karachi’s voters from on top of his plush Islamabad home is downright offensive.

But, it isn’t just his arrogance which blew my mind, but the ignorance that he proceeded to display in the next 30 seconds of this 16.5 minute-long rant.

“If one were to speak honestly, politically, you can neither make a federal government nor a provincial government by winning Karachi’s four or five seats,” he says in Urdu, which I am translating. He added;

“This one city is not that politically important.”

At this point, I am grateful that Abbasi chose to make a video, so that any arguments that his words have been mistranslated or manipulated can barely even get off the ground. Because this claim of his is simply, absolutely, and completely W.R.O.N.G.

I apologise for bringing facts into an argument that is based purely on emotion, but Karachi is that important.

According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, Karachi does not have four or five seats – it has 20, a little less than eight per cent of the contestable seats in our country’s National Assembly, and seven more than the second-largest city of Lahore.

Therefore, Karachi is more politically significant than any other city in Pakistan. It is true that by winning Karachi alone, you cannot make the federal government, but if a party were to win all of Karachi’s NA seats, it could very well establish itself as the third-largest political party in the country.

While I can concede that Abbasi’s general point about Karachi’s importance to the National Assembly has some merit, his argument about the city’s role in the formation of Sindh’s provincial government is laughably inaccurate.

Karachi has 42 seats in the Sindh Assembly, about a third of electable seats.

Just by winning Karachi, a party is pretty much already eligible to make a coalition government and needs only 24 more seats to form an independent government.

Moving on, Abbasi talks about how there is really nothing in Karachi other than “Clifton and Defence”.

As if that wasn’t insulting enough to the majority of Karachi’s population that lives outside these cantonment areas, Abbasi then brags about his life in Islamabad, which apparently is so good that the only reason he would walk into Karachi’s Orangi Town or Lyari neighourhoods would be if he had been bit by a rabid dog. This is some first class arrogance on display, folks.

As he continues to patronise Karachi’s voters from the comfort of his own home in Islamabad without knowing even so much as the number of seats in Karachi, the irony is lost on him as he criticises MQM’s exiled chief for controlling the city from outside.

He goes on to claim that Peshawar – the scene of Pakistan’s most horrific terrorist attack to date – and insurgency-hit Quetta have better law and order than Karachi. These claims are so wild that one struggles to even think of a cogent argument to refute them.

Abbasi then says that if things stay the way they are in Karachi (the horror!), nobody would want to come to the city.

Really, Hamza? Remind me again, where was the television serial produced, you know, the one that propelled you to fame? Didn’t you just say a few minutes ago that you regularly come to Karachi for work?

Undoubtedly, it can be argued that Karachi deserves better than the MQM. But Karachi isn’t irrational. Karachi knows what it needs to go on, because it knows how to go on.

Karachi is not Lahore or Islamabad, where the oppressive homogeneity of the population makes politics seem a zero-sum game.

In Karachi, there are competing interests of the sort that Abbasi doesn’t and probably will never understand.

This blog appeared on Dawn Blogs here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1224986/no-hamza-karachi-is-important-to-pakistans-politics

The APS Peshawar embarrassment: 5 lessons for Imran and PTI

You know you have done something very, very wrong when distraught, infuriated parents who have lost their children can still find the strength to tell you they don’t appreciate your show of solidarity. That was exactly the public embarrassment that Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan had to face when he bothered to show up at the reopened Army Public School, Peshawar, the scene of a heinous attack that killed over 130 children and shocked the nation last month.

I hope that Imran Khan sb and the PTI leadership uses this as a wake-up call that they have kept this nation – their own voters – waiting for far too long. Here are some key lessons that they can learn from today’s protests.

  1. Khan’s point that the attacked school is run by the Army who is thus responsible for its security is completely valid. However, the students who attend that school and their parents are first and foremost Pakistani citizens who live in Peshawar, the capital of the province that PTI won by a huge mandate, which does rest some responsibility squarely on the administration’s shoulders. When the people vote for you or your party so overwhelmingly, they expect you to advocate for them. They believe that you will work towards improving their lives and speak out for their welfare. In a situation like this, making statements such as “we didn’t run it so it wasn’t our responsibility” appears to be attempts to shirk responsibility instead of showing resolve to take the fight head on.
  2. The people still have a soft corner for you, sir. Even when you appeared to put your personal happiness before their sorrow. Even when you and your party leaders disappointed them by not showing up at the school even once in the month between the attack and the school’s reopening. Even when you chose to shift your focus and your energies back on your demands of alleged rigging barely a month since the attack. Even when you ideologically align yourself with the parties that apologize for the murderers of their treasure, and then sometimes do it yourself too. This is a huge responsibility, Mr. Khan, one that you have borne since you became this nation’s beloved by leading its cricket team to an unlikely win at the World Cup of 1992. You cannot fail us now, this nation (even those who vehemently disagree with your politics) still refuses to give up on you.
  3. Winning an election is tricky business. When your people are hurt and scared, when they have lost everything they lived their lives for, they don’t care about rationales about who is responsible. Everyone is responsible, because everyone disappointed them and everyone failed to protest their children. So even in times when you feel your hands were tied, you will be held responsible because you are the people’s representative. Also, remember that the lines you use can also be used against you – especially when they sound suspiciously like the ones used by “status quo” politicians, many of which found space in your speech after the APS protests.
  4. Are public schools any better secured? At this point, you can sort of get away with it by putting all the blame on the Army’s shoulders. But if, in the future God forbid, a public school were to come under attack, are you prepared? You are right in stating that the government cannot provide security to 65,000 schools across the province, so then should Peshawar’s students and citizens stop expecting that the administration will at least try to secure them? This was an Army-run school, what about the ones run by private individuals or organizations? Should they interpret this to mean they are on their own since those who run the school are the ones solely responsible for its security? Make your chief minister do his job to the best of his ability, instead of showing him a way out by making irresponsible statements such as these.
  5. Don’t throw away these votes for ones that you didn’t get, due to rigging or otherwise. This nation, especially the voters in the areas you won, came out to vote despite immense threats, with terrorism one of the biggest ones. You and your party must get off its campaign trail now and singularly focus all you’ve got on governing for those who did vote for you. Those who didn’t, or those whose was robbed, give them another chance with compelling reasons to vote for you. Your Naya Pakistan, sir? Show, don’t tell. Make it happen, and see the logical conclusion that this nation takes the movement you started.

Imran’s quotes are from this press conference he did soon after the protests: http://tribune.com.pk/story/821723/imran-perplexed-by-parents-protests-says-aps-run-by-army-not-province/

Pakistanis may be getting tired of war hysteria against India

American publication Quartz’s India section recently published a story that sought to follow the change in Pakistanis’ views of India over the past 30 years through eight charts.

Quartz appears to believe that the views haven’t changed so much, basing their opinion on results that show that 61% of Pakistanis hold a negative opinion of India. But the way I see it, among the charts that they have selected, some show a different and more hopeful picture.

Based on data collected through Gallup Pakistan polls, one of the charts shows that in 1981, only 17% of Pakistanis believed that India and Pakistan will not go to war in the near future. That number has since increased to 31%. Another chart shows that in 1979, 33% of Pakistanis believed that India and Pakistan should resolve the Kashmir dispute through war. Now, only 13% think so.

Of course it’s 13% more than should think so, but this change in view must not be taken as insignificant by any means. As someone growing up in Pakistan in the 1990s, the height of anti-India hysteria in Pakistan, this is big news.

It means that if Pakistan plays India in a cricket match today and ends up losing, the captain’s home will not be pelted with tomatoes as was the case with Wasim Akram’s team back in the 90s. It means that school-going children today are maybe not picturing how much they hate someone across the border who they have never met as they sing the national anthem in their morning assembly.

And, if I were to be perhaps a little too optimistic, it means that we are moving away from being a war-mongering nation, weary from years of hate, violence, and fighting. As one of the charts shows, the distrust against India continues to be pervasive in Pakistan, but the great thing to focus on is that fact that the idea of war seems to be losing steam. This, by itself, is heartening news. Slow as it may be, if we continue to think this way about the neighbors, maybe in a couple of decades from now, trade relations with India will normalize and the onerous visa process will be eased for good.

I’m skeptical that Pakistanis would ever completely lose their suspicion of Indians, and vice versa, but I also think that progress towards peace is possible without trying to reach a utopian form of complete trust in each other. Too much has gone down in history for either nation to get to such a point of perfection, but poll results like the ones mentioned above show me some light at the end of the tunnel.

For now, I’m willing to take that.

Why Pakistan would gain from a secular feminist movement

Columnist and author Bina Shah recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about feminism in Pakistan. The thrust of her argument is that Pakistani feminism faces so much antagonism because it is seen as an ideology appealing only to the English-speaking class of society. This is why it doesn’t find mainstream support in Pakistani society, which continues to see it as anti-Islamic. Therefore, she concludes, feminist theory in Pakistan must marry secular and Islamic strands.

While I see the logic in her argument, and reluctantly agree that this might be the practical way forward, I disagree with the idea that a secular concept like feminism should be rooted in Islam in order for it to gain mass appeal in Pakistani society.

I see the strategy of blending Islamic ideals into every debate as yet another way of ceding territory to conservative Islamic forces that threaten to convert Pakistan into a completely theocratic society. The more we try to include Islamic beliefs and thoughts into national debates in Pakistan, the more space we give to such ideologues and the faster we progress towards a society where religion reigns supreme to all other forms of rationality.

In a country where persecution against religious minorities is pervasive, advocates for civil society causes such as feminism need to find a way to push through with their ideas in Pakistani society without having to appeal to Islam. Too many debates in Pakistan use Islam as the winning argument. When we do that, we begin to solidify Pakistan’s position as an Islamic Republic (a theocratic state) rather than a Muslim-majority country (a demographic fact).

Among the reasons that Pakistan is such a horrific place for non-Muslims to call home is because everything in the country appears to need a stamp of approval from Islam. Peace-meal steps such as refusing to conflate strictly secular concepts like feminism with Islam may help curtail the escalation of Pakistan towards an even more ideological and intolerant place than it is right now.

Book review: Making a case for the Presidency – Hillary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

Before saying more about Hillary Clinton’s recently published memoir Hard Choices, I want to begin by admitting that it will come as a huge surprise for me if she decides not to contest the 2016 US Presidential Election. That will not just be the case because of the momentum around Hillary and the Democrats’ optimism that they will return to office in 2016, but also because of the entire tone of this book.

Hard Choices, which narrates the story of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as the US Secretary of State, quickly climbed the best seller list of The New York Times, and only fell to second place once a book revealing the rumored tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas hit the market. It seems that the only thing readers are more interested in than Hillary is Hillary herself.

All autobiographies, including this one, are meant to portray authors as heroes and are thus written with the intention of telling the story of the author’s life with as much nobility as is plausible. Naturally then, after reading this book you may catch yourself wondering why all the problems in the world hadn’t gone away by 2013 when she ended her tenure as Secretary of State.

But what makes this book somewhat different is that it is less about Hillary herself but more about being the chief diplomat of a global superpower that is insecure about its influence in the world and fears that it is on the decline. Hard Choices is worth reading because of the insights it provides into the strength of American democracy and two of the greatest moments in America’s recent history – the humiliation that America felt on the world stage after the 2008 financial crisis and the taking out of America’s Enemy Number One Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Hillary describes in detail, and with some thinly-veiled amusement, how she was poached for the position of Secretary of State by the Obama Administration – the same campaign staff that had left no stone unturned in the previous two years to highlight her unsuitability for public office. After conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, she was fairly adamant to return to her job as Senator of the New York State. What changed her mind, however, was a “sense of duty and service” inculcated in her by her parents and “a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” Yes, reading this book is a little like watching “The West Wing”, a romanticized American television series about the White House.

The book again adopts a diplomatic, humdrum tone, with Hillary detailing how the White House was supportive of almost every decision she made on who she wanted on her State Department team. That’s a little hard to accept on face value for someone familiar with the age-old wariness that characterizes the relationship between the State Department and the White House, both of which share much-guarded territory as representatives of the US President on the global stage.

Eventually, though, Hillary bounces back to her rather undiplomatic self in part, talking about the difficult things about the job more candidly. “I had logged in more miles and sat through more awkwardly translated diplomatic speeches than I imagined possible,” she writes at one point, in a line that perfectly captures the essence of her time as Secretary of State. In the short span of four years, she travelled to 112 countries, including China and Japan whose emergence as global business centers was adding to the anxiety that the US was feeling with regards to its own financial health. In many of these meetings, the leaders of the newly-confident economic powers never missed an opportunity to lecture her on how the United States was doing it all wrong. She makes it obvious that those were not her most comfortable or cherished moments from those meetings, even though a number of them ended in successful outcomes.

Her sharpest criticism, however, is reserved for the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This section, I believe, is the actual test of the book’s objective: be a feel-good story for America and Americans or have a serious discussion on American diplomatic history. No points for guessing which way the book tilts (it’s the former). For example, while she clearly mentions the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency’s links with the Afghan Taliban from the 1980s struggle against the Soviets, she fails to mention the American role in the conflict that is a well-documented part of history. Although I had little expectations, this omission was still a slight disappointment for me since, for the most part of the book, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad decisions made by American diplomats that have led to some of the deadlocks she tried to break.

Interestingly, though, she only mentions those mistakes in the context of events that she considers her diplomatic victories, such as Myanmar and China, or when there is an opportunity to blame others for their behavior. For instance, she accepts that complications were created by America’s quick and irresponsible exit from Afghanistan in 1989, but only to chastise Pakistan on what she calls irresponsible behavior towards its counterterrorism policies. She also takes no clear position on drones, insisting that the Obama Administration does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties and hides behind the fact that the program is classified information.

More diplomatically, the book is planned such that while the chapter on Pakistan begins with the Bin Laden raid, it carefully moves on to say nicer things about the two countries’ strained relationship.

Her description of the OBL raid is another part of the book that convinces me of Hillary’s ambitions to announce her intention to run for president. She makes it clear that during deliberations about whether America risked irreparably damaging Pakistani national honor by sending in US Navy SEALs, her priority for American honor. “What about our national honor? What about our losses? What about going after a man who killed three thousand innocent people?” she asks an official who brings up the question about Pakistan. It is clear that in Hillary Clinton’s mind, Pakistan was less a partner and more a threat in America’s quest for fighting militancy and militants. And that view of Pakistan is shared by her compatriots, many of whom see Democrats as soft on Pakistan and other countries that harm US interests. By emphasizing Pakistan’s role towards securing America while also clearly mentioning her frustration from “too much double-talk from certain quarters in Pakistan or the still-searing memories of the smoking pile in Lower Manhattan” as the reasons for her support to the Bin Laden operation, Hillary appears to have the intention to ensure that the American public knows her strong position on the matter as well as understands the need to continue US engagement with Pakistan.

She then moves on to describing her first trip to Pakistan in 2009, where she was famously likened to an angry mother-in-law by the Pakistani media, and was a “punching bag” particularly over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. She bravely tackles the failure of America’s approach to development aid for Pakistan, admitting that the “toxic politics” of US-Pakistan ties have become a huge hindrance in addressing Pakistani peoples’ anti-American sentiments.

While Hard Choices is not the most engrossing read, and tends to be almost tedious at some points, it is worth a read to understand the persona of Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have generated the sort of respect that even conservative America is waiting with bated breath for her to announce her intention for 2016. In May, I attended a Ready for Hillary event in Chicago. For a Thursday evening, technically still a weeknight, it was packed. Speaker after speaker, including the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel who is close to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, stressed that it was time for a woman in the White House. Clearly, if Chicago is any indication, America is ready to elect Hillary Clinton as its next president. Hard Choices will give you the clearest glimpse into why. Hillary Clinton is a seasoned policy wonk, one who knows the world and who the world knows. As America begins its economic and diplomatic rise, an event it has been craving for since the financial crisis of 2008, Hillary Clinton may just be its best bet.

A shorter version of this review was printed in Dawn’s Books and Authors magazine here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1125712/cover-story-hard-choices-by-hillary-rodham-clinton

My personal journey with CAP’s Oral History Project

People do internships to make contacts. In my internship, I literally made history.

On August 14, 2008, I was manning a stall in Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the country’s best art schools. It was an “Azadi Mela” organized by IVS, and the stall I was a part of had been put up by a tiny non-profit organization called “The Citizens Archive of Pakistan” (CAP) for which I was volunteering that summer.

“The Citizens Foundation?” asked a rather confused middle-aged woman as she walked past us, really only stopping because of the hyper enthusiastic way we were calling out to people. “No,” all of us responded, almost in unison. She smiled at us, and then walked along.

Her confusion was understandable, though: TCF is one of the most well-known Pakistani non-governmental organizations for its stellar work in education and our name did sound similar. Our work, however, was completely different. We were trying to talk about the history of Pakistan – oral history, to be more specific, which made it even tougher to tell people exactly what we were trying to achieve.

That also explained our enthusiasm: history is a tough topic to sell to Pakistanis, who’d much rather spend hours watching inconclusive television “talk” shows than listen to short clips that may give them a better sense of our identity as Pakistanis and how the country came into being.

But the aim of CAP was not to be some sort of self-righteous, nationalistic organization inculcating in Pakistanis the belief that we are the greatest nation on earth. We were there to make no declarations, and CAP’s founders – all in their late 20s in many diverse professions – were very clear on that. All we were after was exploration – what was it like when Pakistan was made and we wanted to hear it from the mouth of those who had lived through the partition, who we called “first-generation” Pakistanis. All of us, the founders as well as the 15-odd volunteers, were skeptical of the information provided to us in our substandard history books. The objective was to present an alternative view of history that may allow us, and other Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis who interacted with our work, to trace back to the earliest days of Pakistan through as many unbiased accounts as we could find.

The organization barely had anything by way of a budget, so it was hardly any surprise for me when we were asked to bring our own laptops to work and to donate if we had any old ones lying around. The internship was unpaid and all volunteers for college students and later high-schoolers.

The “office” was located first in the drawing room of one of the founders’ parents’ house and then in the backyard of that same house. I remember being fed Indus Biryani the first day, while listening wide-eyed to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the founding President of CAP (yes, the same incredible woman who has since gone on to win Pakistan’s first Oscar award). Then, we were bundled up into rented cars and sent off on our assignments with a recorder and a short questionnaire.

Those 10 weeks changed my life, as I met one inspiring person after another. I had walked in as a rather clueless 19-year-old, fed on a steady diet of lies that pass in the name of history curriculum in Pakistan. The Oral History Project taught me to think about Pakistan more critically than I used to – or perhaps was even comfortable with – while also instilling in me a sort of pride that comes from feeling part of a nation as opposed to the member of a state. It taught me to look at history without any political angle, and let the stories tell the story.

Since that very first one to this day, my love affair with CAP has only grown. I love that in 6 years it has evolved into an organization running several programs simultaneously from actual offices in 3 cities, and employing over 70 people (and paying them, always on time mind you!). But I also hate (ok, don’t like) that it has grown so much – there’s more to be protective and defensive of now than there was in 2008!

CAP used one of our culture’s most favorite pastimes – sharing stories – and converted it into a project that has become a collage of all things Pakistan. And what is invaluable to me is that I am both one of the makers and a part of that collage. Now, there are at least two more oral history projects in Pakistan, studying the partition just as CAP started out doing. We are still asked that question that the lady asked us at our stall, but we can now respond with a clear answer: No, we are The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, the leading repository of audio-visual sources of Pakistan’s history.

They say you can’t look to its future unless you know the history of a country. On this Independence Day, while there are marches and politics and debates, I am spending my day going through OHP clips that I and my fellow interns had manually transcribed for hours on end. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a better idea to translate a quote I had heard from one of our interviewees. It wasn’t annoying then, and it isn’t annoying now. As Swaleha Alam Shahzada, then project coordinator and now Executive Director of CAP, says “once a Cappie, always a Cappie.” I live with that line, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

To learn more about the process of OHP, please read: http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/the-citizens-archive-of-pakistan/

Did PPP really handle the assorted marches “better” than PML-N?

There is no doubt that, on the face of it, the Zardari Administration has handled the political crisis of Imran Khan’s and Tahirul Qadri’s previous marches much better than the Nawaz Administration has so far. However, the constant comparisons that political pundits have made between the two situations are not only unfair but also erroneous.

The reason that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government was able to handle the situation with “calm” was not because Zardari is some sort of a political mastermind. Contrary to what we would like to believe, the PPP’s response was not part of some strong commitment to a democratic plan or a political master stroke by the party’s leadership.

I see three key differences between the situation as it was during the PPP’s tenure and as it is during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) time, which can explain PPP’s calmness and PML-N’s nervousness in the face of the proverbial storm.

Firstly, the political situation before and after the elections of 2013 is completely different. When the PPP was faced with the nuisance of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), no one had any idea about the PTI’s or the PAT’s position in the political universe of Pakistan. It was the first time that the country was transitioning from one democratic government to another, a situation so rare that it was excitingly impossible to predict any result with any certainty at all. This time, however, the PTI has established itself as a formidable political force with a loyal voter base, even after the avowedly disappointed voters who supported the PTI in the 2013 elections. As for PAT, although they did not perform well in the election, they were still able to manage a fairly large number of people in Islamabad during their first rally. We now know the levels of loyalty and support for PAT and PTI, and also their ability to demonstrate street power. Furthermore, this time both PAT and PTI have decided to join forces, something that the PTI had categorically refused to do pre-elections.

Secondly, the PPP was pretty much at the end of their term when PAT mobilized itself while the Nawaz Administration has barely made it through its first year. Even if the PAT had been able to dislodge the PPP government, a caretaker would have had to take over – something which was going to happen anyway and, in this case, would just have happened earlier than scheduled. The Nawaz league, on the other hand, has waited for its term for 10-odd years and is thus desperate to ensure that it is able to complete its five-year term. This makes a significant difference to the way the two parties perceive the PTI and PAT shenanigans.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, neither the PTI nor the PAT threaten the core vote bank of the PPP i.e. Sindh. By the time these dharnas and revolution marches started happening, the PPP was well aware that it had lost any chance it had of winning Punjab in the 2013 elections, which was the core focus of both PTI and PAT. This means that the PPP really wasn’t so nervous about the outcome of these marches, while the PML-N’s future may well depend on this. Additionally, the fact that PML-N, PTI, and PAT share the same vote bank makes negotiations that much more difficult than it did for the PPP. Comfortable in that knowledge, it is then small wonder that the PPP didn’t bother to respond with anything other than calm.

This is not to defend the PML-N or their fascist, control-freak tendencies. As friend and journalist Zarrar Khuhro (@ZarrarKhuhro) put beautifully in one of his tweets, the PML-N’s greatest talent so far has been to panic and in the process manufacture a political mess where there was none. Given how huge a mandate the PML-N won in the 2013 elections and that it is not in a coalition government, it is amazing to see them so besieged! But, to say that the PPP is somehow better at managing political crises like these or that Zardari is some sort of a genius of a statesman are completely invalid statements. It was their callousness, not some intelligent leadership capability, that made the PPP ignore Qadri’s chants of revolution and Imran’s general belligerence.

Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock

When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at gulaabjamun.wordpress.com.

– This blog first appeared on the Living Cities blog here: http://www.livingcities.org/blog/?id=345#sthash.Zk14SHIU.dpuf

Dear Karachi, your wariness is understandable but the internally displaced Pakistanis need you

When I visited Sweden’s largest city Stockholm in 2011, I found it to be unbelievably non-diverse. Everyone was white and English was a language such few people spoke that sometimes I had to communicate in gestures. That appears to be changing, with Sweden taking in large numbers of immigrants particularly from conflict areas like Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and Syria.

As all migration does, there was a sense of alarm among the Swedish people who were wary of the immigrants who were coming into their country from parts of the world that many Swedes have never even been to. On the other hand, the immigrants felt isolated and unwelcomed, unable to adjust to their new home with all its seemingly insurmountable cultural differences.

Today, I read a heartwarming story about a Swedish woman who used this cultural gap as an opportunity to bring together all the diverse cultures that were now beginning to form a presence in Sweden. She started by hosting small potluck dinners in Stockholm where she invited migrants from the suburbs and natives from the heart of the city. Naturally, once they had interacted in an informal, friendly environment, the two groups of people developed a level of comfort.

This reminded me of the mass-scale internal displacement in Pakistan right now due to a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan. While Punjab, the country’s strongest province by economy, has opened itself up for these internally displaced persons (IDPs), the smaller province of Sindh has responded with suspicion, even the people of ethnically-diverse city of Karachi.

It’s easy to see why, though no less dehumanizing and infuriating. The IDPs are predominantly Pashtuns, who in the world of Pakistani stereotypes have come to be associated with conservative ideology and a sympathetic corner for violence. Pashtuns already form a large part of the population in Sindh, where they inhabit the province’s largest city Karachi and pretty much own all of the city’s broken yet lucrative transportation sector. They are the second largest ethnicity in Karachi, and are widely stereotyped as having conservative Islamic views and a cultural acceptance of arms and violence.

It is primarily this clash of ethnicities that explains why protests have erupted in Sindh against this current wave of IDPs.

Let’s start with the Sindhis, a cultural rather than a geographical term. They are already a political and economic minority in the province because of non-Sindhi influence in the province’s largest city Karachi. They feel that with the arrival of thousands of more non-Sindhis they will become even more marginalized.

And who has the most influence over Karachi? The Muhajirs, ironically the people who themselves or whose ancestors have migrated from India into Pakistan ever since the two countries gained independence from the British in 1947. The Muhajirs who settled in Karachi were mostly from Urdu-speaking areas of India, such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), and have ultimately come to form the largest ethnic group in Karachi. In the aftermath of the partition, the Muhajirs became Pakistan’s ruling elite by default. But they also considered themselves the cultural elite and thus never adopted any of the cultural aspects of the Sindhis. Instead, they started to enforce their own language and lifestyle onto the few Sindhis who lived in Karachi. This has contributed to Sindhis’ phobia (for the lack of a better word) of migrants.

While these clashing ethnicities have been consistent themes in Karachi’s, and Sindh’s, governance problems, they also make this area of Pakistan the most diverse in the country. Karachi used to be described as “faqeer manash” – the city that provides a home to the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately, now the city mostly functions on auto-pilot while the political groups that claim to represent the clashing ethnicities of Karachi continue to quibble among themselves instead of trying to collaboratively govern the goldmine that they are sitting on.

All these factors, among others including deteriorating security in the province following an influx of IDPs from the Swat operation against Taliban, have contributed to suspicion towards migrants in Karachi and Sindh. But suspicion towards migrants fuels many of the problems of migration, turning the situation into a vicious cycle.

To be sure, the entry of migrants does cause economic, social, and political pressures and problems that make the lives of current residents difficult. But for all of those categories, there is also the healthy diversity that migration fosters.

Instead of pushing distressed people out just to selfishly further your own interests, residents can help ease migrants into the life of a city and ensure that they don’t have to resort to crime and terrorism in order to get by and feed their families.

Let’s not make an economic issue into a political one, for when we do, we create hostility in our own people for our own people. Suspicion is the last thing the IDPs deserve from us in their need of hour.