Anchorperson Naseem Zehra, often associated with Pakistan's progressive intelligentsia, interviews Admiral Mike Mullen for a private television channel in Islamabad (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
"It is a history of blunders, plunders and surrenders" speaks Hassan Nisar in response to a question on a television program regarding the relationship between religion and state in Pakistan. The veteran progressive columnist then goes on to castigate the country's political elite and right-wing, sparing precious few in the process. Such a spirited outburst of well-informed free speech may be out of place in any country normally associated with an over-arching military and hyper-nationalistic sentiment but it is not too uncommon in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A mainstay of Pakistani print and television media Nisar is known for his hardline stance on religious extremism and for his progressive, moderate outlook. He appears as a guest speaker in some of the country's most popular television shows and writes widely-circulated columns in Urdu newspapers. Surprisingly, he is not alone in his call for progressive reforms in the land of the pure.
Progressive thinkers are a small but resilient section of the Pakistani media. The small number of progressive, reform-minded people is perhaps not surprising given the country's religiously charged domestic environment. Having to contend with hordes of belligerent supporters of the racist, supremacist but nevertheless omnipresent Two Nation Theory — a controversial 'founding ideology' of Pakistan — is difficult and sometimes even dangerous. Liberal and progressive thinkers often find themselves increasingly at odds with the very society that they seek to reform through their speeches, programs and writings. However, what is remarkable is that even despite the dangers associated with voicing the need for reforms there is a section of the Pakistani intelligentsia which tenaciously persists in its scholarly pursuits, and keeps the country's proud culture of dissent and free speech alive.
Nusrat Javed — veteran journalist and co-host of the popular television show Bolta Pakistan — is an example of the country's progressive intelligentsia. Javed's use of sarcasm and humor to highlight some of the country's most pressing challenges is second only to a select few others in South Asian media. He routinely comments on sensitive issues such as corruption, militancy and forced religious conversions but usually does so using a far more nuanced and elaborate pattern of speech in comparison to most of his other progressive counterparts, often disarming his opposition with well-timed humor. Other members of the progressive Pakistani press have also used humor to make serious points on critical issues — most notably Nadeem F. Paracha, a columnist with Dawn who is known for debunking various popular conspiracy theories circulating around the country.
Another example of the country's moderate, progressive intelligentsia is the soft-spoken journalist Saleem Safi. He may be one of most criminally underrated experts on Taliban and its jihadi affiliates in the tribal areas — perhaps due to his works mostly being in the Urdu language. His accounts of the Af-Pak region usually have a focus on detail that compares favorably with the analysis offered by several other experts on the subject. His interview with an unrepentant jihadi fighter affiliated to the Tehrik-i-Taliban stands out as one of the most chilling displays of the psychology of a radical extremist. Safi's critical views on stopping the export of terror and militancy from Pakistan to other countries are also expressed with clarity and candor of the highest standards.
Advocating for social equality, religious moderation and a peaceful foreign policy comes with its own costs in Pakistan. The highly respected physicist and rationalist Pervez Hoodbhoy was verbally attacked on live television by ultra-nationalist 'scholars' Ansar Abbasi and Orya Maqbool Jan while the host Kamran Shahid — who once graciously wished a Happy New Year to all non Muslims — giggled instead of stepping in to stop the ignominy. The firebrand human-rights activist Marvi Sirmed was also verbally attacked on live television by Zaid Hamid — a conspiracy theorist who has been promising to invade India himself for quite some time, often dressing in bizarre costumes in his living room in order to 'send a message to India'. Sirmed held her own, generating a viral video of a rare occasion in which the moderate side actually prevailed in a war of words and wits. However, there have been incidents where others were not so lucky.
Husain Haqqani — perhaps one of the most formidable scholars to hail from Pakistan — was informally granted a de facto persona non grata status following the so-called Memogate affair. Since then several observers have pointed out that the controversy over the memo may have been grossly exaggerated to diminish the standing of Haqqani, who was serving as the country's ambassador to the US at the time. Haqqani had been critical of the Pakistan army and his book Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005) had gained widespread popularity and critical acclaim, much to the chagrin of many in the country's security establishment. Since the memo incident Haqqani has been serving as the Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, and has not yet been able to visit Pakistan due to safety concerns.
As disheartening as Haqqani's ordeal may be it is certainly not the worst thing that can happen to proponents of moderation and progressivism in Pakistan. The veteran analyst and author Raza Rumi barely survived an assassination attempt in March 2014, in which his driver was killed by gunmen supposedly belonging to the anti-Shia outfit Lahkar-e-Jhangvi. Rumi has been residing outside the country ever since due to security concerns and has taken up teaching in the US. Another popular media personality to have been attacked by unidentified gunmen was Hamid Mir — a vocal critic of the excesses of Pakistan's security establishment and the first television anchor to popularly establish the fact that the 26/11 Mumbai attacker Ajmal Kasab hailed from Pakistan. Mir was shot in an assassination attempt but survived and was able to make it back to the television screens. Pakistan's security services are also accused of being behind the death of journalist Saleem Shahzad, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2011.
There are several reasons for the existence of such vibrant media and progressive intelligentsia that persists despite threats. Pakistan — like India and Bangladesh — inherited an English speaking middle-class which was not easily manipulated by state-run propaganda and was more critical in its outlook. The tenure of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — with all its shortcomings notwithstanding — managed to instill a more left-leaning and progressive outlook in some segments of the society which, although partially undone by the Islamism of dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, persists to this day. However, it was not the democratic leadership of the country that was responsible for revolutionizing its media but rather the military dictatorship of President General Pervez Musharraf, who governed Pakistan from June 2001 to August 2008. Musharraf's tenure saw a media revolution that was unprecedented in the country's history and his reforms broke the monopoly of the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) for the first time. Ironically, it was the same media that turned against the Pakistani strongman during the lawyer's movement and was partially responsible for creating conditions for his ouster from office.
None of this is to suggest that the media of Pakistan is entirely progressive and reform-minded. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. For every Ayesha Siddiqa demanding greater accountability from the army there is a more vocal Ahmed Qureshi defending its every excess, often with dubious reasoning and even more dubious history. For every Farzana Bari or Asma Jehangir demanding greater adherence to universal human values and rights there are personalities like Fareed Paracha or Ansar Abbasi demanding a march towards ultra-conservatism. For every column written by the moderate Kamran Shafi there is a more widely circulated column authored by Orya Maqbool Jan — who is known to base his modern-day 'analysis' on holy scriptures, dream interpretations and divine signs. Even analysis as detailed and well-reasoned as that delivered by Najam Sethi can be quickly dismissed by the likes of Zaid Hamid, who seems more at home with the fictional works of Mumtaz Mufti and Naseem Hijazi than actual scholarly reference material. Ultimately, the progressive segment is a small — albeit impactful — part of the media of Pakistan.
However, the very fact that such a segment exists and vocally contributes to the academic and popular discourse of the country is heartening in itself. In other countries where the dominant public sentiment swings too far away from the centre the very existence of such an intelligentsia would not be conceivable. Consider the far-right Iran for example or the far-left North Korea. Vocal calls for alteration in the country's national status quo can potentially land an individual in far greater trouble in these countries than in Pakistan. Indeed, for a country that is viewed as an 'intolerant' monolith by outsiders the resilience of the vocal and progressive segment of the Pakistani civil society and media ought to be a reminder that reality is often more complex and nuanced than pre-conceived notions.
Ultimately, if Pakistan manages to bring itself out of the perpetual state of crisis and finds itself at a place more stable than the 'crossroads of history' then it would be in no small measure due to the sustained efforts of a small but dedicated segment of progressive scholars who voiced their reform-minded opinion for their country's well being, often forsaking their own in the process.
Manoj Saxena is the Editor of South Asia News Review.