Blame Game

From (Viewpoint Online)

Samaa TV program anchor Meher Bokhari, whose aggressive interview of Taseer a few weeks prior to his assassination has raised troubling questions about media responsibility. Did her insistence, that Governor Taseer had somehow engaged in defamation of Prophet Muhammad by simply calling the blasphemy law a man-made law and as such, amendable, seem an appropriate line of questioning?

I want to begin with an observation: most Pakistanis I know were even more rattled by Taseer’s murder than they were by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination a few years ago. Why is that?

Because this latest heinous act was preceded by a level of frothing-at-the-mouth, ignoramus expressions of hateful intolerance for rational discussion around issues of religion and blasphemy, followed by sickening jubilation on the streets of Lahore, Karachi and the killer’s hometown in Punjab ( a province few Pakistanis were willing to admit had become seeped in Islamofascist thinking over the past several decades)—which has left folks reeling in shock and dismay at what this murder portends for them, and for the Pakistan they believed in. Oh no, I was told repeatedly in visits to my familial hometown of Lahore over these past few years (by none other than educated family and friends)– —no, no, you are misinformed, you are a dupe of American propaganda, Talibanization is not our problem; America is. As recently as December 2009, I was heavily criticized at a leftist bookstore-café in Lahore by students and faculty of a prestigious and supposedly liberal Lahore university, for daring to suggest that the Taliban posed an internal and existential threat to Pakistan which needed tackling head-on, quite apart from the ongoing so-called US-led War on Terror. To my assertion that “Pakistan has a 500-pound gorilla sitting in its living room that it must acknowledge and fight”—someone in the audience whom I’ve known since we were both students in Lahore in the 1970s proffer the following sarcasm-tinged response: “ Its not the 500-pound gorilla that we have to worry about; it’s the 2000-pound gorilla sitting on our borders and unleashing drones against our people that we need to be concerned about and which is responsible for the ills of our country.”1

How did liberal- thinking, educated citizens of Pakistan come to believe wholeheartedly in conspiracy theories against Pakistan, in blaming everyone and their uncle (Sam) for all of Pakistan’s ills, in a refusal to see that Islamist thinking had permeated every sphere of public life to the degree that private domains also were steeped now in religious rhetoric to the exclusion of all other modes of reasoning and belief? What role had Pakistani media—“freed” under the reign of military dictator Pervez Musharraf to expand its tentacles into a proliferation of TV channels galore, and into more print venues in English and indigenous languages alike—played in this ideological battle for the control of Pakistani minds and hearts? It is my contention that while the media and its personnel should not be made into the scapegoats on whom to heap the blame for the current climate extant in Pakistan, a climate that certainly contributed to the killing of Taseer– nevertheless, we do need to understand how the media has played into the hands of rising extremism in Pakistan. That said—the people of Pakistan, the viewers and consumers of this electronic and print media, must shoulder responsibility for their “self-seduction” by the media, a concept discussed by media theorist Jean Baudrillard in the 1980s. Everyone must question themselves as to how this sorry state of affairs has come to exist today in Pakistan, where, to employ Gramsci’s insight into how citizens come to be ruled by certain forces—everyone, not just the media—has “consented” to being governed by religious hegemonic forces.

Marshall Mcluhan, a Canadian professor and perhaps the first theorist and critic of modern mass media, wrote in the late 1960s, “we become what we behold.” If we are to accept his postulate, then we might argue that indeed, media tools such as television, which we have shaped, are now shaping us. This is technological determinism at its best—and a theory propagated by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy in much of what he says about the role of Pakistani media, particularly television, in fanning the flames of religious extremist thinking and inciting hatred and even violence against those who would differ from this type of thinking. In comments he made last year at a gathering of Pakistani Americans in the USA, while recognizing the opening of media in Pakistan since Zia ul Haq, he claims this free media has been hijacked by the young anchors who actually came of age during and since Zia’s time, and have thus been brought up in its ethos: “media mujahideen” was what he termed them—purveyors of conspiracy theories, hysterical in their denunciation of US and vocal in support of Taliban. “They will not use the word dehshart-gard” to describe suicide-bombers, he claimed. Instead, these media folks have coined entirely new words such as “uskariat-pasand” “shidat-pasand”—why? “Because they do not want to discuss internal terrorism.” After some incident of suicide bombing, CNBC program anchor invited Hoodbhoy and a PPP MNA of Peshawer to discuss it on the show. He introduced Dr Hoodbhoy as one “needing no introduction, since everyone knows him as the one who will never blame India for anything!” The ideological “common-sense” platform the anchor assumed most, if not all viewers to be sharing with him was predicated on the belief in “conspiracies.” Such a shared belief demands one always be on the lookout for “foreign hands”—India (RAW) or Blackwater (USA) etc—who are surely behind every dastardly terrorist act. Surely, such thinking goes, it cannot be “Muslims” doing this “dehshatgardi”! Hoodbhoy, then, needs to be exposed as being outside this circle of shared lunacy—or trust! And so, TV anchors decide the outcome of their shows ahead of time—Gen Hamid Gul, Zaid Hamid etc are favored guests….and an example of predetermined media consensus in recent years pointed out by Hoodbhoy, was the way media channels reported the Red Mosque debacle. Media reports said 15-20 army commanders were killed, while 200 or so inmates of the Red Mosque in turn were killed by the Army. The emphasis however, was on the “slaughter of unarmed innocents.” Why did the media not ask the logical question: did the commandos drop dead of their own accord?

These are important issues raised by Hoodbhoy. And in the wake of the Taseer murder, the role of media contribution to it has become ever more urgent—but again, we need to simultaneously ask, how far is what media anchors are saying, the line of questioning they are pursuing, or not pursuing— a reflection of what the larger society has become over these past several post-Zia decades? Thus, for eg, we can briefly look at the controversy surrounding Samaa TV program anchor Meher Bokhari, whose aggressive interview of Taseer a few weeks prior to his assassination has raised troubling questions about media responsibility. Did her insistence, that Governor Taseer had somehow engaged in defamation of Prophet (pbuh) by simply calling the blasphemy law a man-made law and as such, amendable, seem an appropriate line of questioning? Grilling him as to what he thinks should be done to assuage feelings of “Muslims” who have been offended by blasphemers like Aasia Bibi (implying those who weren’t calling for Aasia’s death were therefore not “real” Muslims), seem a reasonable and responsible line of questioning?

Several things need to be said at this point about the program and its anchor. On Youtube, this show is being circulated with the title: “Meher Bokhari Murdered Salman Taseer,” by which I take it that she is being seen as a metaphorical assassin in her role as a media person who kept trying to portray Salman Taseer, because he put forward a mercy appeal for a poor Christian woman being tried for blasphemy, as a blasphemer himself. While such an insinuation was indeed reprehensible, and while many of her assertions in the program were highly questionable—such as her claim that because Western countries like the USA and the UK have blasphemy laws on their books, therefore Pakistan’s is no exception, which entirely overlooked the disparity in importance given to such laws in the former countries–she certainly should not be imputed as the metaphorical murderer of Taseer. I say this because she represents the thinking of a very large segment of Pakistani society today—in fact, the example of Ilam Din which she cited a few times in the show, underscores how from even prior to the formation of the Pakistani state, Muslims of what became the Muslim homeland were doomed to end up in the exact spot where they are today. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that secular Muslim par excellence, tried to defend the 19-year-old illiterate assassin of the Hindu publisher of Rangeela Rasool, a book that had been deemed an insult to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by some of the Ulema of the day. And that other avatar of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, a wine-loving admirer of prostitutes, our liberal and world-renowned philosopher-poet, lent a shoulder to the bier of Ilam Din after he was duly sentenced and executed for the murder of the book’s publisher, and tearfully remarked in praise of the young assassin, “This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones.” Apparently, Mr. Taseer’s father had also lent a shoulder to the bier—and this fact was mentioned a few times on the show by Ms Bokhari, as though to castigate him for straying from the exemplary, anti-blasphemy stance of his late father. Indeed, her aggressive line of questioning forced the usually pugnacious Mr. Taseer into adopting a defensive stance—“I am a Muslim, and as such, would never condone any type of disrespect against our Holy Prophet…all I have done is ask for mercy for a poor woman who is alone, without connections”—“baybus aurat” is how he referred to her in Urdu. “What have I done that is so bad?” he asked almost pleadingly of the host and the audience several times during the course of the interview.

The shape and content of this apocryphal interview, as well as those of many other TV talk shows following in the wake of the murder, not only underscores Marshall Mcluhan’s observation that the “message” of the media is greatly impacted by the way it is delivered (in the case of talk shows, by a sound-bite format which does not allow for deep and meaningful debate, and which rather, allows the most aggressive formulations to lodge in viewers’ minds)—but also helps us see the truth of Stuart Hall’s notion of how media messages achieve a “common-sense” appeal for audiences.

In his essay, ‘Encoding/decoding’, Hall suggests media messages accrue a common-sense status in part through their performative nature. Through the repeated performance, staging or telling of the narrative of ‘9/11’ (as an example; but there are others like it within the media) a culturally specific interpretation becomes not only simply plausible and universal, but is elevated to ‘common-sense.’”

( James Procter(2004) Stuart Hall, Routledge critical thinkers series)

This second point about how media messages achieve a “common-sense” status for viewers is crucial for understanding the interplay between media, religious extremism and the thinking of the general populace in Pakistan today. Media anchors like Khan Haripur, Hamid Mir, , Kashif Abbassi, Meher Bokhari, religious shows like Alim Online, news and talk shows associated with the aforementioned anchors and others like Capital Talk, Express News, Off the Road, News Beat on channels like ARY, Aaj TV, Azaan TV, Samaa, Geo etc—which constantly bring on right-wing extremists and give them unlimited airtime, all the while addressing personalities espousing anti-western, anti-secular, pro-Islamist views such as Zaid Hamid, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, General Hamid Gul and so many others, with undue deference and deep respect—well, such shows and “performative utterances” repeated ad nauseum—accrue the “common-sense” effect of shutting up/maligning anyone with dissenting views on the role of religion within the state, for example. The views of the religious right and their sympathizers, through incessant repetition and over-exposure in the media, become the hallmark of Pakistani and Muslim “common-sense.”

An example of this phenomenon occurs during a recent interview of TV news journalist Talat Hussain on Friends Korner of Dawn News, following the assassination of Taseer. When asked by the show’s host about whether the killer Qadri, was motivated by religious zeal, or “something else,” Hussain immediately goes toward the latter explanation—i.e. into the arena of conspiracy theories. He and many other media personalities and political actors in a variety of talk shows and news shows keep wanting to insist that we need to wait for “a full report” to come forward before we decide what or who was “really” behind the assassination. In other words, lets us not take the killer’s own words as explanation of his dastardly deed—there is some other network behind him, most likely some political networks (i.e. another political party wanted Taseer dead)—so, let us not speculate as to Qadri’s “real” motivations, what we need is a proper investigation into this incident, which also has national security implications (here is a hint that there may be external agents-provocateurs involved). On Hamid Mir’s Capital Talk, the invited guests were from Jamaat-i-Islami, PML-Q and Geo News, and each one of them hinted at the element of “sazish”—conspiracy—and also kept trying to play the game of blame-the-victim, while ostensibly stating their abhorrence for the crime committed. Thus, the senior executive from GEO News hinted that Taseer said too many “controversial” things about the Blasphemy Law and opined that he shouldn’t have said these things if he wanted to be accepted as a part of the “Muslim Ummah.” Salim Bokhari on Aaj TV kept referring to the “Million Man March” of the Jamaati-i-Islami following Taseer’s murder as “the voice of the people” of Pakistan, thus exemplifying what Pakistan needs to become—an Islamist state. And finally, Aamir Liaquat Hussain, the naat-singing, designer-sherwani clad preacher of the show Alim Online on Aaj TV has made a living speaking out against western evils, and in the case at hand, castigating the UK and the USA for letting blasphemers go for the paltry fines of $300 dollars and 200 pounds sterling respectively. Tut-tut, he says, shame shame…we in Pakistan demand the blasphemer’s life—meaning, we are the ones with “kahones”—real “balls”! This is a marvelous way of emasculating the West—by those who obviously cannot win against the “western enemy” and its sympathizers (i.e. Salmaan Taseer and his ilk), in any other way. And therefore, it is hardly surprising, that invariably, across all the shows mentioned, one of the common refrains, a not so hidden subtext is: Taseer was a blasphemer simply for living the way he did—as one of the speakers put it on Hamid Mir’s show, “for living this ‘khula dula’ lifestyle.” Even Najam Sethi, one of the members of the liberal elite, felt constrained to say in an interview to the NYT, that Taseer’s lifestyle aroused ire in many class-conscious and Islamic-minded people. Taseer himself, in that fateful interview with Meher Bokhari, allowed himself to be pushed into a corner regarding a question about the anti-Ahmediyya law passed by the former leader of his own party, the late Z.A. Bhutto. “Did you approve of the law against Ahmedis , Mr Governor” Bokahri kept badgering him—until at last, Taseer had to say, “Yes, yes, if the NA and all parties approved it and it did not have any ill effects, then I approve of it…” This, from a man who was trying to get a presidential pardon for a Christian woman being victimized by the anti-Blasphemy law! All these instances exemplify Hall’s notion of “common-sense” leading to a Gramscian instantiation of hegemony-through-consent, which has been brilliantly achieved through performative iterations of the Pakistani media.

And yet, and yet, as I said in the beginning of this essay, it is all too easy to “blame the media” for leading innocent citizens down the garden path. Douglas Kellner, a “third generation” critical media theorist in the tradition of the Frankfurt School, provides a reading of some of Jean Baudrillard’s insights into the media industry which back up my claim that Pakistani media is but a reflection of what the society as a whole has become:

sometimes, Baudrillard downplays the ideological functions of the television industry and questions its control over the audience. Instead he emphasizes the audience’s mass self-seduction: “The group connected to the video is also only its own terminal. It records itself, self-regulates itself and self-manages itself electronically. Self-ignition, self-seduction. The group is eroticized and seduced through the immediate command that it receives from itself…

(Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1989), p. 148)

The question then becomes: are Pakistanis going to wake up and see what horror of mind and soul they’ve allowed themselves to be seduced by in this media-saturated, hyper-real world of today? Islamism, for all its being touted as an anti-modernist movement, has demonstrated its full understanding of the role of the media in both reflecting, and manipulating the Real of (post) Modernity. What kind of self-seducing terminals has mediatized Islamist discourse created and which the Pakistani citizenry has consented to be plugged into?

End Note:

1. With all due apologies to gorillas; having just read the wonderful novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, I realize that this analogy (made before I’d read and been challenged by the novel) –was the result of ignorant, human-centric thinking.