Bilingual, Bipolar, and Deeply Schizophrenic: Diagnosing Pakistan’s Press

The language Pakistani newspapers are published in dictates the very way reporters and columnists look at facts, writes C.M. Naim in Tanqeed. It’s a cynical calculation: even when two newspapers are published by the same tycoon, or, absurdly, two columns by the same writer, the “posture of moderation” in the English papers is matched by the unabashedly extremist opinions of the Urdu papers. And while the Anglophone press and elites like to treat the press in Urdu with patronizing disdain, it is probably the latter that should be taken more seriously.

An editorial—‘Into the Open’—in the Express-Tribune of December 16, 2014, begins: ‘There has been much speculation, frequently alarmist or simply ill-informed, as to the extent or otherwise that the Islamic State (IS) has a presence in Pakistan. Government ministers have gone on-the-record to say that there is no IS presence, but there are reports of supportive wall-chalking and the circulation of literature that supports the IS from several parts of the country.’ It then goes on to allow that ‘there are parts of the country where the extremist mindset has been fostered and grown over many years, and the ideology of the IS may find fertile ground to root itself in,’ and offers two examples. One is of Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad—the paper charges: ‘[Aziz] is happy to declare that he holds the group in high regard’—and the other is the case of some ‘female students of Jamia Hafsa [a part of the same institution]who have prepared and circulated a video extolling the IS.’

The naming of names is commendable even if it amounts to only one institution, for the practice is rather rare in Pakistani editorials and columns. But I wonder why the editors of the Express-Tribune had go to the trouble of finding just one example so far away from their comfortable offices when they could have easily found an equally redoubtable supporter of IS in their own sister Urdu journal, the Daily Express. I, of course, mean the one and only Orya Maqbul Jan, the self-proclaimed expert on International Finance, Muslim Political History, and the Doomsday. Consider his column of November 17, 2014—titled ‘Taqsim Wazih Ho Rahi Hai’ (‘Lines are now clearly drawn’). In it he ever so blithely argued that Syria was the place where lines had been clearly drawn between Islam and non-Islam, and where would likely be, in his view, ‘the headquarters of [the promised]Imam Mehdi and the capital of his Caliphate.’ He then expanded his argument by quoting two alleged hadith. According to one, the Prophet allegedly prophesied that before the end of the world there would be a decisive battle between Muslims and Christians near Aleppo, and that, according to the second alleged hadith, the best among the Muslims at that time would be those who would do the hijrat to Syria—in other words those who would leave their lands to join the Mehdi’s army.

A few days later, on December 5, 2014, Mr. Jan shifted from Doomsday forecasts to Political History and questioned the sincerity of any Muslim who accused Amirul Mominin Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his IS crowd of wanton killing. I cannot reproduce here his long and a bit convoluted argument—it should be read in Urdu to get its full flavour—but this is how he closed: ‘According to all the principles of Political Science the Daulat-e Islamiya [i.e. IS] is a state; it is also a state according to those who champion the cause of a Muslim Social/Political Contract (musalmanon ka nazm-e ijtima’i).” He then proceeded to argue that in 1988 the revolutionaries in Iran were fully justified in declaring Iranian Communists and Liberals to be mulhid (heretics) and munafiq (dissembling enemies) and therefore fully deserving execution as enemies of the Revolutionary Islamic State. If that was right in 1988, he asked his co-religionists, why should it be wrong and un-Islamic now?

Then, only a day before the Express-Tribune published its editorial, Mr. Jan published the second part of a long essay against contemporary democracies, arguing in favor of a system where only certain ‘worthy’ individuals should have the right to choose the ruler of a Muslim state, and that once a Caliph had been chosen in that manner it was incumbent on all Muslims to obey him. No one must challenge a ‘chosen Caliph,’ he wrote, and then, expectedly, quoted another alleged hadith in which the Prophet allegedly ordered that in situations where two persons claimed the title and obtained allegiances (bai’at) from different supporters, ‘the person to make the second claim must be executed.’

Now it is quite possible that the common owner of the two journals has issued strict orders that the people of one journal should never question or even read what the other publishes. That would make good business sense. Each journal then meets the expectations of the audience the owner and his advisors imagine for it, and does nothing to rock the boat of commerce.

The same business acumen might be seen in two other sets of twin publications that I am slightly familiar with: the hellfire and brimstone in some of the columns of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt do not find their way into the columns of The News and The Nation, just as the moderate and rational mode of thought in most columns of the latter two does not seep into the la-la musings that the former two mainly peddle. Most instructional in that regard are the English and Urdu versions of the column that the ‘Father of Islamic Bomb’ Dr. A. Q. Khan writes in The News and Jang. When writing on some political issue he always appears more subdued in English, but lets loose in Urdu. In the same two newspapers, Ansar Abbasi, another popular columnist, takes an easier way out by writing on certain subjects only in Urdu, avoiding them in English and in general dampening down his rhetorical flourishes.

Not quite coincidental to the above is the fact that these same conglomerates make piles of money presenting endless talk shows in Urdu on the channels they own, but have not done much to provide anything on the same channels that could possibly reflect the moderate posture of their English publications. They know what sells, and in what language.

But perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree. It may be more accurate to assert that the ‘Anglophone’ population in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad prefers it that way. Who are these ‘Anglophones?’ The people who quickly switch to English when after starting a serious conversation in Urdu, seldom buy and then read an Urdu newspaper, and prefer to look with disdain at what they may perchance see in Urdu—’Just some more backward thinking.’—rather than take it as seriously as any scribbling from the English language sister journals of the same Urdu dailies. As I wrote I tried to recall some serious engagement with Urdu columnists in any English newspaper of Pakistan, but nothing came to mind. I hope I am wrong.

On the other hand, to see how juvenile a view ‘Anglophone’ Pakistanis take of what is published in Urdu newspapers just check the section, ‘Nuggets from the Urdu Press,’ in any issue of The Friday Times. This week’s (Dec. 19, 2014) issue contains a dozen or so such ‘nuggets.’ The shortest is titled, ‘Widower runs away on the day of second marriage,’ and reads: ‘According to Nai Baat (November 26, 2014), a widower and father of three ran away from his home in Narang Mandi on the day of his second marriage. He was caught from Lahore, where he said he was joking about wanting to get married again, only to see if someone would give him their daughter. A panchayat seized his tractor and trolley when he failed to pay a Rs. 1 million fine.’ Giggle, giggle!

Never mind that Nai Baat is generally considered to be the paper of preference for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ supporters of the Jama’at-e Islami, and should be taken as seriously as The Friday Times, if not more so, where the political, intellectual and cultural future of the country is on the table.

This article was originally published on C.M. Naim’s personal website. C.M. Naim has graciously permitted us to re-publish it on Tanqeed, with an Urdu translation.

Choudhri Mohammed Naim is a renowned scholar of Urdu language and literature. He is currently professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Choudhri Mohammed Naim