Looking deeper into our contradictions

Published: June 8, 2018
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

Pakistan’s social media provocateur in chief has stirred another storm in a teacup. An ex-wife of Pakistan’s would-be next prime minister writes a book — which would have been largely discounted by people because many have an ex and understand how this works — is now firmly in the public consciousness thanks to Hamza Ali Abbasi. Part bully, part social media activist, Hamza represents the worst and best of what Pakistan’s future has to offer.

One scratches one’s head in trying to understand what Hamza’s end-game is here. Is he trying to protect his boss’s reputation or serving as the best PR machine Reham couldn’t have paid for? The only thing Hamza has managed to achieve is to propel Reham’s book into a topic of conversation and insert himself at the centre of the storm.

Love me or hate me, just don’t ignore me, appears to be Hamza’s modus operandi. I detest some of Hamza’s positions on social media but respect him highly for arguing in favour of unpopular positions like protecting minorities. It’s difficult to put Hamza in a box. Is he an attention seeking heartthrob? Is he a disco maulvi? Or a religious liberal? Or does he actually believe what he says?

“At one point in time, I used to love item numbers,”’ Hamza said in a recent interview. “I used to promote them. In fact, there was a time when I was making a small independent film, where I wanted to perform an item number myself. But yeah, you change. Then I realised that item numbers are a huge slander to women. When I talk about equality, I am an actor and I’m judged on my acting skills, but why is a woman only used for the contours of her body?”

In his own bumbling way, Hamza is a product of a society in rapid flux. How do we reconcile our religious beliefs with our not so religious lifestyle? How do we rally for #NayaPakistan, while benefiting from being part of the petty elite (an actor, influencer), while still being able to criticise the ruling elite? Hamza Ali Abbasi may or may not be a man of contradictions. But he is certainly the product of a society full of contradictions.

This is what makes him such a loud voice on social media. It’s not his opinions but the fact that so many of us share them (even if we can’t say them out loud), which makes him an important voice. However, when your voice has influence, you have to weigh what you say carefully.

“Had a very unfortunate experience of reading a manuscript of Reham Khans book,” Hamza tweeted recently. “Here is the summary: IK (Imran Khan) is the most evil man to walk the face of this planet. Reham is the most pious righteous (Tahajjud guzaar) woman ever and Shehbaz Sharif is an amazing guy! #RehamOnPMLNAgenda”

Why would you give airspace to a book that you argue is damaging and malicious? Herein lies the PTI’s biggest weakness and their biggest strength. The PTI is a party where good intentions are found in abundance. But good intentions aren’t good enough. Competence and thoughtfulness are equally important. Asking simple questions about the right PR strategy to handle a book like Reham’s would have resulted in a simple but profound plan: ignore the book. Move on to talking about your manifesto, policies and the 100-day plan.

Soon, the storm over Reham and even the elections will pass. But Hamza will continue to be a force to be reckoned with on social media. And it’s important for the country to have voices like him, which serve as a window into the opinions that so many of us hold, without the filters that most of us hide behind.

Perhaps Hamza’s problem isn’t the sharpness of his opinions. But the sharpness of a society and politics, which only allows a certain level of vitriol to go viral and enter mainstream conversation. Hamza Ali Abbasi isn’t the problem. Nor are the sensational details of Reham and Imran’s marriage. These are simply the symptoms of a bigger problem. To find the real problem, we need to look deeper within our own contradictions.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2018.

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