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Covering Pakistan: How Journalists and Experts Reproduce Empire

Madiha R. Tahir
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010

The wiry black beard could hoodwink one into believing he’s a seasoned mullah from the forbidding Waziristan mountains, but he’s a young student, and incompetent too, for he’s trying to set a flag on fire—and failing. It’s June, and I’m standing on a road embankment outside the Karachi Press Club watching the protest against the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla. It’s been organized by the student wing of the Jamaat-e- Islami, one of Pakistan’s Islamist political parties.

The student crouches next to the Israeli flag, arm out, flames from the weak lighter licking the ends of the cloth to no avail. As it turns out, they’ve unfortunately brought a flame-retardant flag, and this is rather deflating for the rally. Some appear listless, others embarrassed. Cameramen, photographers, reporters are all waiting for the performance. A photographer finally asks the group to at least hold the lighter still so he can take a shot. A cameraman steps up. “Louder!” he directs the flagging protestors. At his call, they begin sloganeering again, pumping their fists in the air. Cameras zoom in on bearded faces, exerted and hot from the afternoon sun. Photographers click away.

Tomorrow, these images will confirm the story that was written before the rally ever happened. It will be a story about the rise of Islamism, angry male youth, and the need for military operations. It will mention that Pakistan is a shifty ally in the “war on terror,” that it is “nuclear-armed,” “a country of extremes” about to be overrun by the “Taliban.” If the story mentions FATA (A Federally Administered Tribal Area), it will likely be followed by the descriptor “lawless tribal areas.” It will leave the reader feeling that Pakistan is a morass of inept governance, remorseless militants, rancor, and terror. The only questions are whether the country is doing enough to fight the Taliban and whether it will survive or disintegrate. This, in a nutshell, is corporate journalism’s Pakistan.

The truth curls to ashes in the media glare. “For the native,” wrote Frantz Fanon, “objectivity is always directed against him.” It appears irrelevant to many policymakers, journalists, and people in the US generally that Pakistan has, for example, peasants, unions, working-class politics, LGBTQ organizations, feminist groups—that, in short, the overriding ethic of Pakistani democracy and resistance movements is secular. The idea of “Pakistan” continually overwrites the country itself to devastating consequences for Pakistanis.

The narrative of Pakistan that now circulates through the mainstream media began during World War II when strategic and security concerns compelled the US to produce expertise on newly post-colonial South Asia. Since then, discourse around Pakistan has drawn from two related strands of thought. The first is modernization theory, which places the “West” as the apotheosis of development. The second perspective is the Orientalist perception of Islam as a totalizing worldview.

In both cases, to borrow a phrase from Manan Ahmed, a “geography of exclusion” persists: if the Pakistani state is failing—a tendentious and alarmist proposition—it’s not because of continual US support for successive dictatorial regimes which comprise the better part of Pakistan’s short history. Nor is it a result of continued funding of Pakistan’s military at the expense of the civilian government, a process that has only accelerated. No, it’s simply and solely because our civilian leaders are corruptible, conceited robber-barons.

And if insurgencies are smoldering inside the country, it’s not due to actual grievances like drone attacks in the north, or the enforced disappearances and sales of Pakistani citizens by the Army to the Americans, or the severity of the economic deprivation in the very areas where insurgencies arise. No, it’s simply because Islam has permeated uneducated minds and driven them mad.

“What passes for knowledge,” wrote Edward Said, “is a very mixed thing indeed, and is determined less by intrinsic needs…than by extrinsic ones.”

Knowledge production, in other words, is never disinterested. It opens particular options while foreclosing others. In Pakistan’s case, journalists and analysts regularly elide the links among US foreign policy, the policies of successive Pakistani governments to use religion for political ends, and the hold of the Pakistani Army over the country. This offers only the most unsophisticated of explanations for the country’s ills—and pitiless, vulgar solutions.

With the onslaught of the floods this August, the effects of this discourse around Pakistan have become painfully obvious. A fifth of Pakistan’s land was deluged. Twenty million people have been affected. Yet the UN’s current $2 billion appeal for the floods remains only a third of the way funded.

Observers say that the conflation of Pakistan with terrorism in popular discourse has had a significant effect in creating apathy among donors. Perhaps predictable, if unconscionably callous, pundits have been persuading donors to give aid not for humanitarian reasons but to fend off a wildly unreal Taliban-takeover. It’s little surprise then that, even as the country struggled to cope with the floods, US drones attacked and killed thirteen people in North Waziristan on August 14, 2010, Pakistan’s day of independence from the British Empire. And September has been the heaviest month of drone strikes. But US organizations have simultaneously also been running flood relief efforts. The king may be dead, but Empire continues to arbitrate living and dying.


It’s wretchedly unfortunate for Pakistanis—particularly those on Pakistan’ s margins—that we are ruled by an elite class of liberals that cannot seem to hold two thoughts together, namely that it’s possible to reject both the barbarism of the Taliban and the barbarism of the Army; that it’s possible to blame both American foreign policy and Pakistan’s cynical use of religion for the rise in militancy. Any break from the current impasse requires a thorough grounding in history. It necessitates foregoing the blank categories of corporate journalism and liberal alchemy whereby the Army is magically transformed into a force for Good. It means taking a few interrelated factors into account.

First, the state uses religion in politics to counteract ethnic fractures and class divisions. In 1974, after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, had lost the country’s east wing—now Bangladesh—and deployed the Army to brutally suppress an ethno-nationalist rebellion in Pakistan’s largest and most destitute province, Balochistan, he looked to the Islamist parties to strengthen his position. The avowed secularist accepted many of their demands, banning alcohol and passing laws declaring Ahmadis, a small Muslim sect founded in the late 1800s, non-Muslims. General Zia-ul Haq who would succeed Bhutto, carried Islamisation forward, adding the anti-women Hudood Ordinance along with a plethora of other laws.

Second, it’s not all “Talibanization.” Of late, the nebulous term “Talibanization” has become a catch-all phrase for all forms of overt religiosity or political Islam that many liberal Pakistanis view as harbingers of the Taliban. While several Islamist political parties do exist, they have never managed to win more than a fraction of the vote. And, the young urban youth, drawn to the political ravings of celebrities like the political commentator Zaid Hamid, are more self-styled nationalists. They want to preserve the state, not do battle with it, and that puts them at odds with both the tactics and ideas of the Taliban.

Most of the Islamist groups inside Pakistan, which number in the hundreds, are not the Taliban. They network with each other, but also disagree. As far as the Taliban are concerned, Pakistan’s Army distinguishes between the “good” Taliban and the “bad” Taliban. The former include the Afghan Taliban, which the United States produced in collusion with Pakistan. Pakistan’ s Army still has its own uses for them from Kashmir to India, and linkages still exist. The Wikileaks “Afghan Diaries” provide ample proof. The Pakistani Taliban or TTP have launched attacks on the Pakistani Army, but the status of their members as “good” or “bad” Taliban appears to vary.

While Islamists have managed bombings with increasing frequency, the balance of power still rests with the Pakistani Army. It’s the sixth largest in the world, with 550,000 active troops. And that’s the final point. The military in Pakistan is not just the army, the navy, and the air force. It’s also the fertilizer factory, the cement factory, the cereal company, and the largest landowner. In fact, it’s a multi-billion dollar empire and the biggest business conglomerate in Pakistan today.

The Army has shown its willingness to systematically savage Pakistani citizens to pursue its economic interests during the farmer uprising at Okara, eighty miles south of Lahore. A Human Rights Watch report documents how Pakistani Rangers attempted to force thousands of tenant farmers to cede their land rights by cutting off electricity, gas, and water, and when that failed, through torture, arbitrary detentions, and murder. More recently, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Army may have flooded the town of Jacobabad to save its own property—a base it’s renting to the US.

The Army failed to remove the peasants at Okara. It failed again during the recent lawyers’ movement. Imperial narratives may cover up Pakistan for international forces, but Pakistanis continue to be involved in a myriad of struggles and a multitude of dreams. They give us hope. And from hope comes revolutions.

Madiha R. Tahir is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. Her work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The National, and The Columbia Journalism Review, as well as on “Democracy Now!,” PRI’s “The World” and other venues. She is also co-editor of a forthcoming volume, Dispatches from Pakistan.