Recently I heard Andy Rooney on '60 Minutes' make a funny and accurate statement about Pakistan stories dominating the western media these days. He doubted that any of them even really knew anything about Pakistan. Not only do I think it's a true statement, but it is a woeful indicator of what happens when the media spotlight is turned on a 'hot zone' and every newsie in Christendom descends, looking for glory.
In the old days, an editor would say, 'get out there, kid, on the double, and bring back a story!' The kid would bust ass to get there, but if they were worth anything, the route to the story would be taken up with cramming any info that was available in order to achieve some kind of background status in order to deliver a credible story. Today it seems that reporters just show up and expect the story to present itself for convenient packaging.
Such is the status of Pakistan in the western media's impatient eye. I've hardly heard any reports from or about Pakistan that really deliver much depth of understanding or even displaying much interest. (Philip Reeves, who supplies stories for NPR, is a rare exception.) The wretched branding of Pakistan being the 'world's most dangerous place' is now the rallying cry. East Timor or Rwanda in all their awful turmoil presented no perceived threat to the world at large, regardless of the fact that they were, for their inhabitants, right up there with hell as being on the most dangerous list. But you see, they aren't nuclear nations, so who cares?
Pakistan: nuke nation. Run by a dictator. Overrun with jabbering fanatics. Dealing nukes on the sly. Surrounded by either hot conflict (permanently-ruined Afghanistan) or simmering potential conflict (kooky Iran, lurking India, further-but-still-lurking China). A returning challenger immediately deported (Nawaz Sharif). A returning challenger almost bumped off (Benazir Bhutto). Trouble. Trouble. Trouble. Trouble. Everywhere you look. Trouble in River City. That's what the western media thinks about Pakistan.
Well, I guess some of that stuff can't be denied. Far be it from me to be an apologist for Pakistan's current situations. I am, however, irked, annoyed, and consummately pissed off by much of the western media's choices in covering this misunderstood entity in the world. 'Misunderstood' is too easy a label to slap on it, but in an era of sloppy-seconds coverage of the world's affairs, a sloppy term might be appropriate.
Without turning this into a bloody thesis, let's get right to the essentials:
- Pakistan is not the Middle East. It is not Central Asia. It is Indic. For only 60 of its multiple thousands of years amassed as a cultural hearth, the territory now delineated as Pakistan has been Pakistan. Before that it was as diverse a part of India (and I'm not at all referring to greater India, but India as a cultural unit) as anywhere in the subcontinent, with the subcontinent's myriad of variations appearing under the Indic super-category, as it were. In addition to these regional basics, the long era of British domination (which for Pakistan really only extends back to the mid-19th century) brought with it English language medium in education, British-created modern infrastructure, and, very importantly, a British-model military. Since the military crisis of 1857, the Indian Army was intentionally crafted to be one of the most disciplined in the world, and this tradition survived Partition in 1947 intact. It is precisely this tradition of discipline that has enabled it - the military - to run Pakistan for many of its 60 years.
- Pakistan is 99% Muslim. The enveloping culture though, is Indic, not Arabic, nor Persian. Taxila and Harappa are sites that are among the world's most ancient civilizations. There are extensive and highly-honored ancient Buddhist remains throughout the land. Alexandrine associations abound. Hindu and Sikh influences are built into daily life. Urdu is the language of the majority, but it is basically Hindi with Persian script. Other languages (to mention only a few) are Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch, Pushtun, Kashmiri and Afghani. Like India, diversity is what Pakistan is all about. But the Indic culture, combined with British and post-British modern systems, with widespread English-speakers, all combine to form a considerably durable entity. Despite its current duress, Pakistan is in no way a failed state.
- Women in Pakistan encounter adversities which are worthy of criticism and ripe for reform. Yet, Pakistan is one of the more liberal Muslim societies regarding women. Indic culture has had strong matriarchal traditions since time immemorial. Pakistan has elected a woman as prime minister twice. So has India. So has Bangladesh. So has Sri Lanka. This is the Indian subcontinent. It is different.
- Most of the conventions that westerners apply to terms like 'dictator' do not necessarily apply to Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf is no Saddam, or Hitler, or Stalin, or Bob Mugabe or even Marcos. When Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India in 1975, she was immediately branded as a dictator. But after the crisis passed, she was still Mrs Gandhi first, and the dictator label faded, but not completely. Musharraf has without a doubt performed dictatorial gestures, but with variations that are simply not compatible with western journalistic interpretations. On the other hand, just because Musharraf appeared on 'The Daily Show' and seems not to be a snarly bastard doesn't mean he's a dictator that we can feel wholly comfortable with. Dubya's cuddled up to him because of his dumbass but precious War on Amorphous Terror, but for wholly opportunistic reasons.
- Much of Pakistan's very being has to do with the most important factor in its daily existence. More important that Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran, the USA and terror put together. That factor is: India. Three wars, losing East Pakistan and seeing it become Bangladesh, and yes, because of the nuclear issue, India has everything to do with how governing Pakistan is handled. And it's not all bad. India and Pakistan are part of the same super-family. A high percentage of people in both countries have or have had relatives in the other. The Indian subcontinent was a house divided, but the house has essentially stood, with annexes, so to speak. Back in the days when the US didn't give a shit about the subcontinent except how it affected the Cold War, letting things drift didn't matter so much. Now that India is more 'OK' with the US, and Pakistan is more important to the Bush Machine's immediate needs, the western media has landed. And they are generally dumbos who treat the place as if it's Iraq or something.
- Pakistan's army, efficient instrument that it is, is oriented to India, whether in the defensive or offensive mode (it has usually been offensive). Kashmir is officially unsettled, but it is a stalemate that has gone on so long it will probably add up to a settlement to new generations who have known nothing else. The Pak army is not geared to fighting a bogus 'war on terror.' The Tribal Areas on the Northwest Frontier were never conquered by anybody. The British were still dusting up with them right up to 1947. The Pakistani government has had agreements with them that have been relatively functional, until recently.
These factoids, among many others, are extremely important, because they add up to a considerably complex and sophisticated array of challenges that must be dealt with carefully at any one moment, and most of them cannot be reduced any further into sound bytes. Indeed, there is so much to keep in mind in this part of the world that the average journalist is not up to the task. Yet the dabblers are at it, packaging the Pak puzzle for public consumption, and perpetuating misunderstandings right and left with the greatest of ease. Lost in the frenzy are, surprise, surprise, the Pakistani people, who have been reduced in western sensibilities to non-entities, largely in stock shots of autistic-appearing kids in madrassas and other generic cliches. 160 million can be reduced to a convenient barcode, so to speak, I suppose. It's nothing short of disgusting.
When I heard NPR's Jackie Northam, a proudly seasoned reporter supposedly used to Asiatic climes, refer to a particular area in northwestern Pakistan as 'something called the Swat Valley', then blithely called it a 'tourist zone', I thought, stupid, stupid people. They make my eyeteeth curl. A minor detail, perhaps, but it speaks volumes of the dismissive tone of some of these worthless hacks. Philip Reeves never would have engaged in such a blatant lack of meticulousness, in a region where meticulousness is absolutely required. This 'thing' called the Swat Valley is, or was, a profoundly beautiful region with a hospitable populace, whose splendid isolation has been ruined by Bush's mobile 'war on terror'. Oh, and a busy Jackie also says 'the Islamists' are coming, and that they're heading to all the cities in Pakistan. Never mind the 160 million other Pakistanis, engaged in their daily lives, hardly affected at all by Musharraf's state of emergency, who might have something to say about that.
My point being: more depth of understanding is required from the western media if they are going to take on the subcontinent. It seems that in the western media's view, the essentials that I have only started to outline above, are not really attended to, or even acknowledged. If the media are not up for the job, they had best stay home and cover the region via Google Earth and just make cell phone calls.