What do right-wing news media outlets in Pakistan and their counterparts in India have in common? They are intolerant of progressive voices, and will go as far as doctoring videos and images to spread hate and fear.
A recent seminar on religion and culture at Habib University in Karachi earned the ire of certain sections of the local press that doctored images to present a false account of the event. This resulted in a social media campaign against Habib University, accusing it of mustering support for Israel.
The doctored image and false reporting in Pakistan are no different from the doctored videos aired by BJP-aligned news outlets in India earlier in February that tried to accuse the left-leaning student leaders at the Jawaharlal Nehru University of sedition.
On April 14, Habib University hosted a learned American scholar of Islamic studies, Professor Marcia Hermansen, who presented a seminar titled, ‘Cultural Worlds/Cultural Wars: Contemporary American Muslim Perspectives on the Role of Culture’ — on how American Muslims are confronting religious intolerance and Islamophobia in the United States.
The flyer for the event depicted two Muslims standing in front of an inflammatory advertisement in a subway station in New York. The image (below) provides a true depiction of the Islamophobia that American Muslims and intellectuals, such as Professor Hermansen, are confronting.
How can one portray an event that highlighted the discrimination against Muslims in the US as one that tried to garner support for Israel? It requires intellectual dishonesty and bigotry of the highest order.
Here is how this feat was accomplished.
A reporter from a local daily falsified the event, calling it "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad". The newspaper in question printed the inflammatory doctored image from the New York subway.
The story further accused Habib University of acting against “national interest”.
Another local daily used the same doctored image, accompanied with an editorial, that accused Habib University of destroying the "ideology of Pakistan".
The dailies deliberately cropped out the hijab-wearing woman and the bearded Muslim man from the image, who were protesting against the advertisement at a New York subway station.
One of the newspapers later published a factually correct version of their originally misreported story, after the grieved university took to social media to explain its stance. While this is appreciable, the newspaper's motives, for publishing the false story in the first place, remain questionable.
The anti-Muslim advertisement in New York provided the backdrop for Professor Hermansen’s lecture on American Muslim perspectives on the role of culture.
Professor Hermansen has spent a lifetime researching Islam. She has produced hundreds of articles and books exploring Islamic theology, Muslim cultures, and Muslim women.
She is recognised for her decades-long research on the works of Shah Wali Ullah and Sufis in South Asia. The American Embassy in Islamabad supported her lecture on the struggles of American Muslims.
The lecture that she delivered was not a covert attempt to start a campaign for Israel in Pakistan, but an overt effort to highlight how Muslims in America are resisting bigotry.
The inflammatory pro-Israeli ad first appeared in San Francisco and later in New York in September 2012. In fact, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) had refused to carry the advertisement. It was only after the organisation behind the advertisement won a court injunction that the MTA reluctantly displayed the poster.
And while the right-wing news media and the self-appointed guardians of the nation’s ideology spilt vitriol against Habib University and falsely accused it of a pro-Israeli stance, the same never get tired of praising their spiritual masters in the House of Saud who, until recently, were busy colluding with Israel to attack Iran.
In the absence of media ethics in Pakistan, leading Urdu dailies routinely print false accounts of events. Reporters dream up conspiracies, citing fake unnamed sources. Even worse is when the news media incite hatred against individuals and institutions.
Habib University, the victim of the targeted hate campaign, is one gem of an institution. It was established recently with a generous gift of $40 million by the Habib family.
The University prides in imparting undergraduate education that is at par with esteemed institutions of higher learning in the west. Habib University has partnered with the likes of Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M University. Almost all need-based students receive generous scholarships so that a lack of financial means may not become a hurdle in their pursuit of academic excellence.
Instead of promoting an exceptional institution of higher learning, the right-wing news media is instigating the gullible against the University.
Surely, the courts in Pakistan can be proactive to enforce libel laws before a maddening crowd starts marching.