If you are a public figure in Pakistan — especially of a more liberal bent — you cannot always express the views you hold in private to a wider audience. You have to curtail your opinions for public consumption. There are some topics that are acceptable with close friends but that would accelerate your demise if aired publicly. A natural filtering process occurs. That said, it still remains possible for public figures to be fairly consistent with their public utterances. But it seems these days our politicians and popular TV hosts like to radically tailor their statements depending on their audience.
Take my old colleague and friend Syed Talat Hussain for example. A man I had admired for being a rare voice of sanity on Pakistan television. “Live with Talat Hussain” was consistently one of the better talk shows — holding politicians to account with facts rather than innuendo (you know who I am talking about). His coverage of the 2005 earthquakes and the recent flood produced journalism of the highest quality. Yet this liberal, thoughtful image dissolved after reading his article in the Daily Express newspaper entitled “Jolie ka Thhappar” — a column I was only able to read in translation, thanks to the Cafe Pyala blog. The piece was a vile, vitriolic attack on Miss Jolie’s character that frothed with a latent misogyny. In it he attacked her ‘immoral’ lifestyle, her allegedly self-interested and ruthless personality, and even her ‘plain’ looks. Nor did he spare her for adopting children.
Now Talat has always appeared the alpha male type, a man’s man, but never a misogynist. But then it occurred he wasn’t communicating to the likes of me or the Express Tribune readership; he was playing to the gallery. He was talking to the patriarchal, conservative middle-class readership of the Urdu press. Instead of challenging this reactionary readership, he was giving them what they wanted.
Nor is Talat alone in suffering from this forked tongue affliction. The Quilliam Foundation, a UK anti-extremist think tank, recently held a function in Islamabad. The event gathered together some of Pakistan’s media elite, youth activists, reformed terrorists and foreign journalists. One of the speakers at the event was Hamid Mir. I have it on good authority that Mr Mir was the voice of rational moderation that day. He talked unequivocally of his disgust with the intelligence agencies, he explicitly condemned the Taliban as anti-Islam forces and passionately argued — in English — that the only future for Pakistan was democracy and that it should be protected at all costs. Yes, I am talking about Hamid Mir, host of “Capital Talk”. Version 2.0 of Hamid Mir had transformed, becoming the personification of enlightened moderation. But then he was speaking in English and not to his usual Geo constituents.
Of course the reason that the Hamid Mirs and Talat Hussains of this world can get away with this duplicity is due to the linguistic Berlin Wall that the establishment likes to retain. Project an urbane, liberal image to the West with your (mostly) rational, logical and relatively free English media, and feed the wider public bile, conspiracy theories and irrational, simplistic nonsense in Urdu, thus ensuring that a suitably malleable, impressionable public can be whipped up when said establishment is fed up with the present government.
Do you remember when AQ Khan was forced to apologise to the nation for giving away nuclear secrets for personal gain? In what language did the disgraced scientist speak to his countrymen? English, of course. The establishment didn’t want the father of the bomb discredited as a money-grubbing chancer in the eyes of the public. Change the language and you change the audience.
This linguistic apartheid must stop — only then will such deceitfulness be eradicated. A colleague of mine has twice requested that his columns be translated and published in this newspaper’s Urdu language publication. Twice he has been rejected. So for this column, kya aap isse chhapain gai?
Published in The Express Tribune, October 27th, 2010.