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Big Brother (and Sister) is watching you

Published Jan 23, 2012 12:06pm

"The recent Maya Khan episode suggests that absolutely nothing has been learned by the channels and nor are they willing to learn."

Last week a video clip of a morning show hosted by one Maya Khan on a local TV channel began doing the rounds. The clip shows Ms. Khan with a posse of assorted thirty-something women and a cameraman raiding a famous public park of Karachi and prowling the lush vicinity looking for young unmarried couples.

The idea was to confront ‘wayward’ young women and embarrass them for ‘betraying their parents’ trust’.

The very next day another video clip showing the same Maya Khan bouncing off the walls on TV via a dance routine that can at best be explained as a hefty personification of a rhythmic earthquake, appeared.

This thus perfectly capped the volatile moral state of Pakistan’s urban bourgeoisie that, especially in the last 15 years or so, have managed to grow two heads on a single body – one spouting loud moralistic clichés while the other animatedly bopping up and down and sideways to the tune of assorted Bollywood masala numbers, as if totally oblivious about what the other head was harping about.

This also affirms the fact that contrary to popular perception, the ‘Islamization’ wave that began cutting through and across Pakistan from the 1980s onwards had little to do with the uneducated and the have-nots.

It was always and still is a phenomenon that is largely associated with the country’s urban middle and trader classes.

In the 1980s, a number of Islamist outfits had already made in-roads in the politics and sociology of Pakistan by riding on the Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation process.

But as most of them were highly militant and eventually got themselves ‘strategically’ linked with certain sections of the radicalised military institutions, it were the evangelical movements that managed to reap the most success within the country’s social and cultural milieu.

The largest of them was also the oldest. The ranks of the Tableeghi Jamat (TJ), a highly ritualistic Deobandi Islamic evangelical movement, swelled. But since the TJ was more a collection of working-class and petty-bourgeoisie cohorts and fellow travellers, newer evangelical outfits emerged with the idea of almost exclusively catering to the growing ‘born again’ trend being witnessed in the county’s middle and upper-middle classes in the 1990s. Three of the most prominent organisations in this context were Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda, Zakir Naik’s ‘Islamic Research Foundation’ and Babar R. Chaudhry’s Arrahman Araheem (AA).

Naik, Hashmi and Chaudhry were all constructing feel-good narratives and apologias for the educated urbanites so that these urbanites could feel at home with religious ritualism, myth, attire and rhetoric while at the same time continue to enjoy the fruits of amoral modern materialism and frequent interaction with (Western and Indian) cultures that were otherwise described as being ‘anti-Islam.’

Of course, the whole question of such narratives smacking of contradiction went out the window as young middle-class Pakistanis admiringly saw pop and cricketing stars ‘rediscovering God’ with the help of the mentioned organizations - but not without the things that kept them materially satisfied (corporate contracts, modern fashion businesses, music products, etc).

Such contractions and their patrons were largely passive in orientation, but with the emergence of 24/7 electronic media in the last decade, they became more visible and evangelical and a lot more ‘popular’ – a happening that went down well with the cynical ratings-hungry TV channels.

What’s more, the trend in this respect is now no more the sole domain of the trendy 'born-agains'.

One can even see decked-up film and TV actors and actresses, pop stars, morning show hosts and even chefs on cooking shows completely bypassing the irony and absurdity of them spouting the almost obligatory sentence or two about the need for piety and good morals in society.

Not that their respective passions and professions are immoral, but they are certainly not in step with the kind of pious spiritual alignments habitually advocated by these men and women and that too, smack-dab in the middle of topics and scenarios that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with religion.

Pussycat vigilantism: A brief history

This strange phenomenon is not just about simple hypocrisy, it is also and actually about glorifying this hypocrisy through gung-ho acts in which pussycat media vigilantes prey upon soft targets to exhibit their ‘bravery’ but squeak away if ever an opportunity arises to do the same to those who can and will bite back.

Since when have so-called ‘educated’ and affluent urbanites become moral crusaders? Is this a new phenomenon

encouraged by a ratings-hungry and vindictive private electronic media that is reflecting the contradiction-laden acts of morality being flexed by the country’s urban middle-classes; or is there more to what meets the immediate eye? A quick research on the matter suggests that nothing of the sort was ever reported in Pakistan till about 1979. I mention this year because after going through newspapers of yore, the first reported case of moral vigilantism that I stumbled upon was mentioned in an issue of Dawn of 1980.

The report is about groups of youth carrying sticks and bricks, moving into streets of some of Karachi’s areas, randomly knocking on the doors of houses and ‘ordering’ the male occupants of the houses to come with them to the mosque to say their prayers.

According to Rauf Talib, a former chief reporter of Urdu dailies Imroz and then Aman, most of such groups became active between 1978 and 1980 after the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship decided to form ‘Salat Committees’ whose job it was to enforce compulsory prayers (in mosques) upon the men; and (during Ramazan), punish those found eating or smoking in public.

Talib said that when these committees propped up, most Pakistanis did not even know the meaning of ‘Salat’ – the Arab word for the Urdu word ‘namaz.’

Interestingly, reports about the committees simply evaporate in newspapers after 1982, but news items about how groups of moral vigilantes publically punished supposed offenders of Ramazan’s ‘decorum and spirit’ increase between 1981 and 1985.

The punishments usually included beating the offender with shoes and sticks but there were at least two reports (one in Dawn and the other in Jang) where the accused (men caught eating during Ramazan), were first beaten and then tied to lampposts, with a garland of shoes hung around their necks!

Talib suggests that the idea of forming Salat Committees by the government was soon shelved when the people of some areas where the committees were active, reacted to the constant and unwelcome knocking by strangers on the doors of their houses, ended up scuffling with the committee members.

But who were these people who ran the committees?

‘Young Jamat-i-Islami members,’ says Asghar Waris Ali, a lecturer at a local government college in Karachi. ‘It was them and some high school kids from various government schools.’

Asghar says that the organisers of the committees were usually university students belonging to religious and pro-Zia student organisations working closely with the head molvies of the areas’ mosques.

‘They were a huge failure,’ Mr. Ashgar said.

What about those who were going around punishing people caught eating or smoking during Ramazan?

‘Yes, that became common in those days as well,’ Mr. Ashgar explained. ‘I don’t know exactly who was doing that, but such behaviour was being encouraged by the government as well as by the police,’ he added.

The ‘encouragement’ that Mr. Asghar was talking about triggered two tendencies in this respect, one saw the overenthusiastic displays of moral policing by certain religiously-inclined civilians and media outlets and the other was the more cynical trend amongst many policemen who began to exploit the carelessly defined moral edicts of the Zia dictatorship to actually extort money from the public.

For example by the late 1980s groups of conservative middle-class youth calling themselves the ‘Allah Tigers’ emerged. Between 1989 and 1995, they became infamous for ‘raiding’ hotels and social clubs during New Years Eves and harassing and attacking ‘obscene women’ and ‘drunkards’ there.

Then throughout the 1980s, newspapers (especially English dailies and monthlies) are full of reports about policemen stopping couples in cars and on bikes and asking for their marriage certificates (nikanamah).

Farah Nawaz who was an active member of a women’s rights group during that period and now runs a small education-related NGO in Karachi, says that in their greed to extort money, the cops did not even spare old couples.

Farah said: ‘There was an incident at Karachi’s Sea View area in, I think 1987, where a son who was driving his old mother to her sister’s place in a rickety car. He was stopped by two cops and asked to first explain his relationship with his mother and then prove that she was his mother and not a prostitute! He got enraged and began beating up the cops who could not retaliate because a mob had gathered. So they ran away.’

Until about the late 1980s and early 1990s, the growing cases of moral policing and harassment largely involved conservative urban men coming from lower-middleclass backgrounds (the petty-bourgeoisie) or among the youth from nouveau-riche families who’d gotten rich during the Zia regime.

I returned to Rauf Talib to ask him when did these tendencies of moral policing by certain sections of the society and the police become entangled with the ways of the media?

He said that during the Zia regime the private media (mainly newspapers and magazines) did not play any major role to encourage or advocate his politics of morality.

He explained: ‘I think only Jasarat (Urdu daily sympathetic to the Jamat-i-Islami) paid any heed to highlighting the supposed areas of immorality in society,  but all the major Urdu and English papers and magazines actually spend more effort in castigating the actions of those who were harassing people in the name of faith.’

‘But, he continued, ‘it was very tough for a lot us who were journalists in those days to criticise the regime. It was a time when journalists and students were being flogged, whereas known drug barons were being patronised by the regime and young men were openly harassing defenseless men and women in the name of safeguarding Islamic morals.’

Most journalists that I talked to pointed at the famous/infamous Urdu magazine Takbeer as the media organ that ‘pioneered’ the idea of turning civilian moral vigilantism into a successful media ploy.

Though a right-wing political magazine, Takbeer also became famous for publishing social ‘exposés’ in which it printed photographs and reports of men and women drinking alcohol and dancing, and couples caught dating in certain public places such as parks, cinemas and restaurants.

When Takbeer became a hit with readers, many other Urdu dailies and magazines began forming their own moral raid brigades.

Misbah Junaid a former assistant editor of an Urdu daily (now settled in Australia) points out that (in the 1990s) those journalists who would be involved in moral policing were largely conservative men who would dress in simple kameez-shalwar and more often than not have beards.

‘Yes they were from urban areas and middle-class, but they stood out because they looked conservative,’ Misbah wrote to me.

Then Misbah went on to make an interesting point: ‘The moral vigilantism by civilians and certain journalists that was encouraged by Zia (1980s) and then by rags such as Jasarat and Takbeer (1990s), introduced a form of activistic journalism among certain media personnel who did not exactly come from conservative backgrounds but realised that this kind of journalism can advance their careers faster in a society riddled with moralistic and ideological confusions.’

If so, then I guess couple this with the kind of glorification our society and state continues to provide to empty ideological and moralistic jingoism and the ready apologists a hate-monger or a quasi-fascist finger-wager is likely to bag, journalists and their bosses (especially in private TV channels), cynically (and greedily) envision Pakistanis to be a society that is always ready to applaud sensationalist exposés about someone’s morals failings but would remain ignorant (or mum) about the greater forms of indecency, amorality, greed and carelessness that usually accompanies such self-righteous media-backed behaviour.

In the last ten years we have seen how cynical, ratings-hungry televangelists have gone on to actually instigate violence against opposing sects and religions; how conspiratorial nuts and their robotic dodders have infused a rebellion against reason and rationalism amongst venerable, confused and  highly impressionable sections of the youth; how careless, loud and attention-seeking blurting from anchors have fuelled the fires of hatred in those who believe that murdering a supposed blasphemer is actually a good deed.

Most of these men and women and the channels they are or were part of have come under criticism from the more concerned sections of the society, but the recent Maya Khan episode suggests that absolutely nothing has been learned by the channels and nor are they willing to learn.

So what if it was due to a televangelist that four Ahmedis were murdered in Lahore; so what if a reactionary doll’s fist-pumping on TV against former Punjab Governor’s stand on the Blasphemy Law most likely led a fanatic to shoot the Governor in cold blood; and so what if a hefty morning show hostesses’ exposure of young women (who are not as affluent as she is nor willing to dance on TV like a walrus on amphetamines), puts their lives and reputations in danger in a highly chauvinistic male oriented society.

The show must go on because such irresponsible, hypocritical and self-righteous nonsense can bag something for the channels that may actually rank above God’s blessings and promises of paradise: i.e. high ratings.

The writer is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com