Egypt's Pakistani future?

Having living a long-time in Egypt, Londonstani has been following the election news  quite closely. Amongst the claims of counter coups etc, there's little giving a sense of where Egyptian politics is going. 

The ever insightful Juan Cole, however, has been one of the few observers putting events into a long term and wider regional context. 

In his most recent blog post the Middle East scholar compares political developments in Egypt to Pakistan, that other heavily populated, cultural hub of political Islamist ideology. 

"Ironically, in Pakistan since 2008, the president’s powers (originally based on martial law amendments to the constitution made at will by a series of military dictators after their coups) have been much reduced as a result of popular pressure, the insistence of opposition parties, and the country’s feisty courts. Pakistan may be the sort of system toward which Egypt’s SCAF is groping, where the officer corps controls aspects of foreign policy (e.g. Afghanistan) and has huge economic holdings that the civilian government cannot easily challenge. But the continued power of the military in Pakistan derives in part from the war the country is fighting against elements of the Taliban in the tribal belt, and from the weakness and corruption of the parliamentary parties. And, even in Pakistan, it should be remembered, a military dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) was successfully removed in 2008 under threat of impeachment by the elected parliament, and the prerogatives of the officer corps have been whittled down in subsequent years. In Pakistan, big street protests and marches gave support to parties’ demands, a dynamic that we’ve seen in Egypt in the past year and a half."

Having spent a fair amount in each country, Londonstani would say that they main difference between Pakistan and Egypt right now is that Egyptians have found a public voice and a confidence to say what it is they expect from their leaders. And, this new-found expression is being tentatively exercised on a daily basis. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have little faith in the political system or their collective ability to change things for the better through the systems that presently exist. Despite talk of the lawyers marches a few years ago, in Pakistan there really is no such thing as "popular" dissent. Public protest in Pakistan only reaches significant levels when it is backed by an established political force. 

In Egypt, political actors have learnt to fear "the people". In Pakistan they fear particular political parties, the military, families that run madrassa networks or media bosses. 

The obvious exception to this rule is Imran Khan. He is still a political actor, but has managed to gain legitimate political following based on his ideas. In other words, he's not bribing people to back him. In Egypt, popular opinion has only become a political force since Mubarak's ouster. In Pakistan, politics has begun to be based on ideas since the rise of Imran Khan. Perhaps the real similarity between the two countries is that both have, for different reasons, discovered real politics very recently. 

 

Imran Khan on the politics of culture

Reading Imran Khan lay out his feelings towards Pakistan's history of colonialism in Jason Burke's article in the Observer today, Londonstani couldn't help wonder whether the dynamic he describes is felt as universally as he suggests.

"Khan says he first became aware of the effects of colonialism as a teenager. "My first shock was going from Aitchison to play for Lahore. The boys from the Urdu [local language] schools laughed at me… Then in England we had been trained to be English public schoolboys, which we were not. Hence the inferiority complex. Because we were not and could never be the thing we were trying to be."

Even the memory agitates him. "I saw the elite [in Pakistan] who were superior because they were more westernised. I used to hear that colonialism was about building roads, railways etc… but that's all bullshit. It kills your self-esteem. The elite become a cheap imitation of the coloniser."

Londonstani does agree that the feeling of inferiority is real and does propel people to attempt to exorcise themselves of the stigma in different ways. There was a time in South Asia when "aping" Western habits, dress and modes of living was seen as a way to be equal (As Londonstani has seen in his great grandfather's memoirs). When, as Imran suggests, the acquired habits didn't lead to acceptance on equal terms, later generations came to vilify those same Western habits and idolise the "indigenous".

It's always struck Londonstani as odd that its often the wealthy (or upper middle class) in post colonial countries in the Middle East and South Asia and Muslims in Western countries that almost fetishise an imagined sense of the "pure" and "original". In this world view, "Western" or "modern" norms, vices or "problems" include (but aren't limited to) dysfunctional families, drug or alcohol use, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, consumerism and greed. As if somehow none of these things existed in 1,400 years of Muslim civilisation from Morocco to Malaysia.

The result is that those from formerly colonialised countries either idolise or vilify their own society and the civilisation that used to rule them. Neither the West nor their own societies are seen for what they are; good and bad.

However, this unhealthy relationship is based on a power dynamic. The former coloniser needs to be seen as powerful and influential. Therefore, worthy of emulation or vilification. What happens when the goal posts change?

The reason Londonstani brings this up in the context of Jason's article is that he mentions Imran Khan turning 60. The former cricketer is seen as amongst Pakistan's "younger" politicians. In reality, Imran Khan's age means that his world view is fashioned by an experience most Pakistanis will not have lived through. 66 percent of Pakistanis are under 30. Colonialism definitely does not loom as large for them.

While it's true that Western fashion, language and habits are seen as status symbols across various levels of Pakistani society, no longer are they "English" cultural markers. What makes you "cool" in Pakistan is increasingly likely to be the trends of a globalised youth culture. Some of it might be Western in origin, but a lot of it is going to be filtered through Chinese, Indian, American or Arab tastes.

To get out of this nasty little vicious circle Imran Khan needs to figure out how in the future Pakistani youth culture will be contributing to the global mix. A plan to unleash Pakistani creativity on the world is what Londonstani wants to hear from a man who plans to be the country's future leader. What he doesn't want to hear is a man who courts the country's young sounding like the old guy at your grandmother's house on Eid that everyone avoids.

Pakistan and its (friendly) networks

 

Talking about networks, Londonstani had the pleasure of coming across two initiatives recently, both seeking to tap into the concern and goodwill of British Pakistanis to help Pakistan develop into a stable and prosperous country.

The British Pakistan Foundation seeks to harness the funds British Pakistanis send to family and friends to  spur economic development. While the Samosa blog is a forum for debate and a foundation for action.

Both organisations draw on the resources, contacts and knowledge of British Pakistan - a potentially very powerful force for positive change in Pakistan.

Samosa director Anwar Akhtar has an article in the Royal Society of Arts magazine laying out the relationship between Britain, Pakistan and the community of British Pakistanis that, along with a shared history, tie the two countries together. In the article, Anwar makes a point that encapsulates the "potential" part of Londonstani's earlier comment.

"What, if any, are the responsibilities of diaspora communities such as the one to which I belong? Many British Pakistanis have expressed their disgust at the treatment of minority communities, and the misogyny and sectarianism of far-right organisations that use religion to spread hate and prejudice in Pakistan. There was despair at the inability of the Pakistani military to see beyond a cold-war obsession with India, an addiction, of course, that their peers in Delhi share."

Helping Pakistan involves engaging with issues at its ideological core. This is not something that can be accomplished with aid money alone.

Independence, partition and devo max - the narratives of separation

Say "Independence for Scotland" to many people across the English-speaking* world and you can be quietly confident that the image forming their minds' eye looks something like this: -

There is a reason for this. Whether we like it or not; where facts fail, narratives succeed. And at no time are narratives more important as when nations are seeking to turn a hazy idea of sovereignty and self determination into a living, breathing state with institutions, laws and most importantly, a social contract between the rulers and the ruled.

Since the pro-independence Scottish National Party became the largest in Scotland's parliament following the 2011 election, the issue of independence for Scotland has emerged as a plausible eventuality.

Although the United Kingdom is an old and established democracy and state, competing regional indentities are still a very raw reality.

So, amongst all the discussion about political points and legalese, Londonstani was interested to read Anthony Barnett's article over at Open Democracy where, quoting Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph, he warns of the cost of defending the union of united kingdoms if the price was a "descent into mean squabbles and brutal negativity".

Brogan argues that the ruling Tory party's approach to campaigning against Scottish independence in a future referendum should not be an all-out onslaught that would run the risk of coming across as anti-Scottish. Part of his justification was the need to deal with the post-referendum reality, whatever it may be.

"His [Prime Minister David Cameron] reticence is required not because it will deprive Mr Salmond of something to complain about, but because he must reserve himself for the consequences of the vote. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there will have to be a renegotiation of the terms between Scotland and the rest of the Union. Whether Scotland chooses independence or opts to remain, there must follow a detailed re-balancing of the political and financial relationship. Be it the “devo-max” Mr Salmond speaks of, or some other arrangement, Mr Cameron must be in a position to negotiate as a respected equal after Scotland has decided."

This sounds like the right way to go about the legally tricky and emotional charged process of decoupling communities with long, close (and often acrimonious) history.

A good example of when this can go wrong is painfully evident in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan scholars such as Stephen Cohen have noted that the idea of Pakistan was born out of an existential fear amongst the Muslim population of British-ruled India. In fact, Nicholas Schmidle's book about Pakistan takes its title from a pamphlet written in 1933 by a Indian Muslim worrying about the future of his community in a free India: To Live or to Perish Forever.

One version of events suggests that the men who carved India and Pakistan out of British India originally planned for a united India. But when they couldn't agree on a formulation that Muslim leaders felt safeguarded their community, the narrative of a separate Muslim land for a separate Muslim nation was born. And to this day, the effects of that narrative makes its presence felt on a global level.

Londonstani can't think of a better historical illustration of the power of narratives to change realities than Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, the cultural capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

This once magnificent building, built by the first avowed atheist member of the British parliament at the turn of the 20th century, played a central role in the founding and growth of the political party that rules India today.

Back in today's Britain, where Anthony Barnett seems to ask why the ethnicities that make up the UK couldn't have their own countries and yet live together happily, Londonstani wonders whether its time to consider a new narrative of belonging for the UK. One that doesn't focus on the outmoded concept of "blood and soil" but instead revolves around whether people share a mutual dependency within interdependent cultures.

* In Londonstani's experience, Braveheart was massively popular in the Arabic-speaking Middle East - Can't imagine why.

Pakistani media, society and the pussycat vigil-aunties

Londonstani did not intend this blog to be dominated by crap in the Pakistani media. But, hey, sometimes the crap in the Pakistani media is just too amusing to ignore (eg. Mansoor Ijaz, Pakistan's own Austin Powers). And then, sometimes, something that seems frivolous and silly allows you a sneaky peak into the dynamics beneath the surface.

About a week ago, a Karachi television show host decided to spice up her regular format by descending on a public park to camera-ambush couples (who didn't seem to be doing much other than chatting or walking arm-in-arm) and demanding to see their marriage certificates.

So far so (sadly) predictable. However, what happened next says more about the direction of Pakistani society than any much of the social science research you are likely to come across.

Best to let Declan Walsh of the New York Times explain:

"This hourlong spectacle, broadcast live on Samaa TV on Jan. 17, set off a furious reaction in parts of Pakistan. Outrage sprang from the Internet and percolated into the national newspapers, where writers slammed Ms. [Maya] Khan's tactics as a "witch hunt...

"Now, the protests are headed to court. On Friday, four local nongovernment organizations will file a civil suit against Samaa TV in Pakistan's Supreme Court, hoping to galvanize the country's top judges into action."

In a country where estimates say that only about 10 percent of the population has access to the internet, it's interesting to see a protest that started on social media platforms amongst a wealthy minority (who are seen as detached and culturally unattuned to the "masses") trickled down to mainstream media and from there it made its way to the legal process. (Seasoned Pakistan watchers might not see this as surprising at all, but Londonstani suspects it would be news to many).

Declan balances this with the observation that the uproar against Maya Khan's intrusion is limited to the English press and has hardly been mentioned in the Urdu newspapers, which are far more widely read.  As for Maya Khan, she says that her critics are "an elite class that don't even watch my show".

But there's more to this than a cultural tussle (as central as that is to many of the currents that belie Pakistani society and politics). It's also about media and society in a country where most people are under 30.

Back to Declan:

"The controversy has rekindled a debate about the direction of Pakistan's TV industry. Since liberalization in 2000, the sector has exploded from one channel - the state-controlled one - to more than 80 today, 37 of which carry national or local current affairs.

"The media revolution has transformed social and political boundaries: in 2007, feisty coverage played a central role in pushing Pervez Musharraf toward the exit; in recent weeks it helped guard against a possible military coup.

"But television is also a lucrative business controlled by powerful, largely unaccountable tycoons. Last year Pakistan's television stations had advertising revenues of more than $200 million, according to Aurora, an industry journal - 28 percent more than the previous year.

"Amid stiff competition for viewers, channels have relied on populist measures - rowdy political talks shows and, in recent times, vigilante-style "investigative" shows modeled on programs in neighboring India."

Obviously, Pakistani media and the political and financial context it operates in is subject to the same pressures that you'd expect to find in many countries. Money needs to be made, the right (or wrong) people need to be placated and costs need to be kept down. The result is that what is presented as daring and edgy, is in fact very safe territory - in financial and political terms (ie. it's cheap and doesn't annoy the wrong people).

One of the people Declan spoke to called Maya Khan and her cohort of "crusading" reporters, "pussycat vigilantes" because they "avoided challenging rich or powerful Pakistanis, whose Western-style lifestyles go unexamined."

"They only go after the people they know will not bite back," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a culture writer.

For those looking to see how not to do television on the cheap, here's Maya on her one-woman mission to fix Pakistan.

Pakistan's democracy burden

Zafar Hilaly is a former Pakistani ambassador whose articles Londonstani has long enjoyed reading. From his writings Amb. Hilaly seems to embody some of the best traits of Pakistan's proud diplomatic corps. He's a staunch supporter of the rule of law, and a vocal critic of the destruction of Pakistan's institutions. In Londonstani's mental map of Pakistan's comment-sphere, Amb. Hilaly is definitely not in the pro-military camp. 

So, it was a surprise to see Amb. Hilaly call for the removal of the present government. Londonstani might not agree with Amb. Hilaly's final analysis, but it is a measure of how badly this government has done its job that people like the ambassador would rather have the military and/or judiciary remove it than to have it complete its last few months in power.

"Watching the prime minister pass by in a seventy-car cavalcade even as local investors flee; foreign investments dry up; hunger drives families to suicide and despair takes hold is a cathartic experience. Hence, even if dispatching the government before it has completed its term harms democracy and means that we can’t get to spew criticism at the regime, so be it. The risk is worth taking. As for the public, it is more than ready to trade democracy for bread, a modicum of jobs and a sliver of hope. They’ve had it up to their gills with democracy. All that democracy does is ‘to substitute election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."

How much misgovernance will Pakistanis tolerate for the promise of eventual democratic progress? Amb. Hilaly for one has found his limit.

Read the whole article here.

Ministry of You-Can't-Make-This-Up

After boring and horrifying Pakistanis in equal measure, the "memogate scandal", took a turn for the absurd and downright embarrassing a couple of days ago. 

It turns out Mansoor Ijaz, the guy at the centre of the scandal, who might be coming to Pakistan to testify, played the part of a  comentator in a 2004 music video that featured naked female wrestlers.

(Sorry mum) But the video is here. Yes, you just couldn't make this stuff up.

And the best Pakistani comment on the whole sad debacle (remember, the memo was totally pointless):

"A businessman from Lahore, who wishes to stay anonymous, thinks Mansoor Ijaz’s wife is the coolest woman on the planet. “OMG! There is a woman out there who wants her husband to partake in such activities and was there by his side all the way through. She is definitely a keeper.”

(Actually, there's a whole bunch of hilarious comments in Tazeen's article for the Express. Read it here)

Not the front page

.. more like page 4 or 5. Maybe even the back page.

Front-page news in Pakistan is often boring. Seriously, there comes a point when you just want to be told if a coup has actually happened. Everything else will be wrapping tomorrow's nans.

Like many other places in the world, news coverage in Pakistan often has more to do with the political leanings of the people who own the outlets than it has to do with actual, legitimate interest or news worthiness.

However..

Whereas in those other parts of the world, the really interesting stuff gets ignored or repressed, in Pakistan it just appears buried in local news or the comment section. So, it was with great interest that Londonstani read Umar Cheema's article about the tussle between the old and new faces in Imran Khan's PTI party.

"Imran Khan-led PTI has accepted political heavyweights in bulk, majority of them constituting the lot of people who found space shrinking for them elsewhere. Although their decision of joining has given a boost to the PTI, the political baggage they carry along is something hard to defend within and outside the party."

Read the article in English-language daily, The News, here:

The reason this is interesting rests on Imran Khan's promises of a new politics. Many observers have previously said that Imran is setting himself up for a fall if he presents himself as some sort of magic bullet cure for all of Pakistan's problems. As Pakistan scholar and former foreign correspondent Anatol Levin pointed out recently;

"The truth is that Pakistani politics revolves in large part around politicians' extraction of resources from the state by means of corruption, and their distribution to those politicians' followers through patronage. Radically changing this would mean gutting the existing Pakistani political system like a fish. Nor is it at all certain how popular the process would really be with most Pakistanis."

Imran has become something of a saviour-in-waiting for many Pakistanis, particularly the young, which is understandable but also a little scary. Pakistan's problems are going to need concerted action by many, many people over a number of years. There are no quick-fix solutions of the sort favoured by taxi drivers all over the globe. The answer for Pakistan lies in developing a new political culture.

However, it seems as though Imran's political party is in many ways business as usual.

Cheema describes Imran Khan's reaction to a resolution pushed by long-time party members wary of the new big wigs coming on board; "As the reading was done, nobody stood up to oppose but Imran Khan. 'The resolution stands rejected,' he said, explaining that he did not want to cause any embarrassment to the new comers."

No consensus, debate or compromise, just the clunking fist.

If you're new to the Imran Khan phenomenon, a good place to start is this post on the Cafe Pyala blog:

Pakistan is indeed, as he hammers home again and again, saddled with a parasitic elite that has insisted on usurping, keeping and abusing power to the detriment of the many hovering around the poverty line; but his reductionist identification of them as people who have strayed from the one faith and become 'westernized' is sadly flawed. The powerful elite of which he speaks include the shallu-wearing landlords and industrialists that are now part of his movement for justice. They can also wear beards, uniforms and burqas as well as jeans and ape Saudi Arabia as well as Western pop culture, but apparently that isn't quite as bad."

Read the whole thing here.

Buried in the corner of another English daily, The Express Tribune, was a story illustrating that there are politicians who do "get it".

One is Marvi Memon, an activist and member of Pakistan's People's Assembly, who has launched a new political party in the southern Sindh province.

“Sindh has unfortunately been blessed with a lot of political parties,” she [Marvi] said. “But the mindset – the ‘bothaar’ (feudal) – exists in a sector in-charge or in an SHO [local officials] or feudal. These are old politics.” The ‘new politics’ is good governance, rule of law and institution building."

Another politician, Mehtab Rashidi, sounded a pretty circumspect tone about what the head of the party would need to accomplish.

“Let’s say a few hundred thousand show up – and I’m being optimistic (at estimating that),” she says. “But what next? That’s a big question mark.” She points out what many people demand of anyone eyeing an election: “He has to work on the roadmap. What type of change? How can you change the mindset overnight or in weeks? What happens if early elections are called – is he prepared for that? He has to do a lot.”

This all reminds Londonstani of Stephen Cohen's comments last week in the Express Tribune (weekend magazine, this time) that it's not clear how, but Pakistan is bound to change. 

Pakistan and India take it to TV

If you want to get people to listen to your message, you need to make it interesting. Many campaigns struggle to bridge the gap between imploring and entertaining.

This is particularly a problem in Pakistan, where, with the exception of music and political skulduggery, Pakistani media is pretty dull. Which is why most Pakistanis watch Indian films or US entertainment (no link since hard numbers are near impossible to come by).

Pakistan's largest media organisation, Jang Group, has been running a campaign for a couple of years called Amn Ka Asha, which aims to promote peace and better relations with India.

Much of the campaign has been about the usual; visits, articles etc etc. But recently, Geo (Jang's flagship television station) has announced two new Pakistan-India themed shows. They aren't branded after the campaign, but it very much works on the Amn Ka Asha ethos. Both will show on Geo and a major Indian channel.

The Independent reports that Foodistan will be a Pakistan vs India cook off.

"Neatly bringing together two national pastimes of eating and regional rivalry, the reality cooking show Foodistan will pitch a team of professional Pakistani chefs against a team from India."

The other, Sur Ki Bazi, sounds like an X-Factor type format pitting Pakistani and Indian hopefuls against each other in a singing duel.

Here's the poster:

Music, food and regional rivalry. It's a sure bet! Foodistan has already been recorded, but the music show just started auditioning. And, Londonstani is hearing that they have been swamped.

This is a genius campaign idea. On one hand it shows that there's much scope for useful engagement in Pakistan through media. On the other, it shows that it pays to work with what people actually want.

If you are into communications, media and foreign policy (like Londonstani), this is worth keeping an eye on.

Weekend Reading - Cohen on Pakistan

Over the weekend, Pakistani English-language daily Express Tribune published an interview with scholar Stephen Cohen, who knows a thing or two about Pakistan.

Londonstani particularly likes Cohen (and quotes him in the background section of papers he's written) due to his dispassionate insight. It's rare when discussing Pakistan to find someone who combines deep knowledge with a cool, objective approach. Check out the whole article, otherwise here are the highlights (according to Londonstani).

"...the army can’t govern the country effectively but it won’t let others govern it either. This is the governance dilemma."

"... with the obvious breakdown of law and order, the decline of the economy, as well as a dysfunctional civilian-military relationship — change seems to be in the wind — but few of us can be precise about what that change will be. Pakistan is muddling through, but change and transformation are coming, I just don’t know when or how."

"...Weakness in governance, education, and the absence of land reform made Pakistan a victim of contemporary globalisation. It doesn’t make much that anyone wants to buy, and it is cut off from its natural regional trading partners."

"...the negative aspects of Islamist globalisation have hit Pakistan hard. Some of the weirdest ideas in the Islamic world have found rich soil in Pakistan, and the country is regarded as an epicentre of terrorism. Pakistan, which was once held up as the most moderate of the Islamic states, seems to be embracing extremists and their dysfunctional violent ideas."

(As a student and long-time resident of the Middle East, Londonstani would deeply concur with this. Everyday religiosity in Pakistan is very similar to the Middle East and some parts of Muslim Africa, but the religious-political public rhetoric is, as Cohen says, weird to behold if you are a non-Pakistani Muslim)

"The Indians tend to be bullying when it comes to their neighbours, but Pakistanis are capable of defending their interests. Many Indians are ready for a change now. India sees itself as a major rising Asian state and Pakistan is a drag on it."

"...their dilemma is that they cannot live with each other and they cannot live without each other. They need to cooperate along several dimensions, there is no military solution for the problems each has with the other."

"So, looking ahead at Pakistan’s future, we don’t know what is going to happen to Pakistan but we know something alarming is happening to it. Pakistan will remain, but its identity is changing."

"the US should have provided trade opportunities, instead of only military aid, to Pakistan after 9/11. There was a serious Pakistani interest in increasing trade, not just receiving military aid; the US did not respond to this."

"Pakistani governments have been cowardly in dealing with those who oppose modernity and try to push the country back to the seventh century. Perhaps the cowardice comes from the fact that the state uses some of these groups for its own strategic purposes, a fatal and self-defeating miscalculation."

"The long-term key to normalising Pakistan is India. The fear of India drives the Pakistan army and the army drives Pakistan. If India can normalise with Pakistan in one way or the other, then Pakistan can devote its resources and energy to becoming a more attractive and respected country."

"The US should provide aid to Pakistan but link it to more concrete reforms in education, administration, and democratisation."


Cohen makes two important points that deserve repeating:

1 - Pakistan's present status quo is unstable and unsustainable. There are two main views when it comes to Pakistan; "Oh my God, extremists are about to take over." And, "Nothing will really ever change." Cohen is saying extremists not about to militarily take over the country, but it plainly will not continue as it is. The question is, what form will that change take?

2 - Pakistan's identity is changing. There's an oft repeated factoid that Pakistan's population is 65 percent under 35. The people presently running the country are in a minority not due to their religion, race or even gender, but rather because of the generational outlook gap between them and the people they rule. Londonstani spends his non-blogging days working on Pakistani media, and one thing that comes up time and again is that young Pakistanis see the world through a different lens than their elders.

Keeping in mind Cohen's reputation as a clear-eyed, non-sensationalist academic, perhaps it's best to end with summing up of Pakistan's present predicament.

"Never in history have we seen a country so big with so many nuclear weapons in this kind of trouble."

Wembley vs. South Asia

Londonstani was mighty relieved to wake up today and find yesterday's speculation over the imminent fall of the Pakistani government had come to nothing - again.

Much more interesting than the gyrations of Pakistani politics (someone wake me up when there's an election or a coup), is Sagar Sharma's blog on life in India.

Sagar, a former top communications operative for Her Majesty's Government, and Londonstani have known each other for a very, very long time. They went to the same school, enraged the same teachers and flattered the same girls. (Yes, a pact of mutual silence is in place).

Modern Britain is no longer represented in the Subcontinent solely by Sanskrit-speaking public school boys. Nope, now they let blokes from Wembley comprehensives tarnish the national image abroad as well.

Over a border that makes Pakistan and India seem as close yet distant as parallel universes, Londonstani is pleased to see that Sagar is staying true to the Wembley tradition of unleashing motorised hell:

".., driving... I’m LOVIN’ it. It's like a 360 virtual video game but where you only get one life. The thrill and concentration required to stay alive makes driving a hugely stimulating experience. I never smiled when driving in London I can promise you. Over here, I’m hysterical."

If Londonstani manages to convince Sagar to cross the border, Lahore will need to brace itself for some serious Toyota Corolla drag racing.

Like the Harrow Road, but (even) more guns

Pakistan's invisible news

In most places with a relatively free press, editors decide what goes on their pages (or websites) based on what they think will interest their audiences most.

So, in the UK, for example, when Prime Minister David Cameron opted out of a European plan that would have involved tighter regulation for the UK's financial services industry, media reaction was fairly predictable.

The Guardian (leftie liberal, generally pro European Union) - Casting Britain Adrift in Europe

The Telegraph (traditionalist, anti European Union) - ... In Splendid Isolation

The Mail (sensationally right of centre, anti most things foreign) - The Day the PM Put Britain First

(The notable exception here is the Express, once the world's largest circulation newspaper, which cant seem to go two days without a xenophobic story about immigrants or a conspiracy rant on the death of Princess Diana?!)

In Pakistan, things are a little more complex. Editors, of course, do want people to read their newspapers, but at the same time they have to navigate much more complex environments. Newspapers and television channels will be part of a larger conglomerate, which might print news and comment but may also buy advertising as well as produce it. At the same time, the owners of these businesses will have their own relationships with political players including the military, feudal landowners and the rest. In addition to this, no one really knows how many people read or watch anything. At the same time, as in many other countries (but without the legal restrictions in more structured media environments) cost plays a large part in how issues are covered. Ie. People arguing in a studio is cheaper to organise than an investigation.

Londonstani wouldn't pretend to understand what the exact decision making process is for Pakistan's media editors, but the end result is a propensity to cover stories that lend themselves to a simple X vs Y formula, focus intently on political manoeuverings (cheap to cover) and fit within a simple emotive narrative.

As a result, what's on the front page of a newspaper is of questionable news worth to your average Pakistani. For example, after a considerable respite from bomb attacks over the past several months, yesterday saw an explosion in a market in the Khyber Agency kill about 30 people. Pakistan's English-language newspapers are carrying this pretty major story on the back page, while the two Urdu-language newspapers Londonstani looks at daily (including the biggest circulation daily) have a small headline.

It could be argued that downturn in recent months or not, bombings are depressingly familiar in Pakistan and do not generate headlines anymore. More likely, the story has been pushed off the front page by political wrangling between Pakistan's highest court and the sitting government over the validity of the legal get-out-of-jail card that let politicians avoid old corruption charges and paved the way for a civilian government replace former military ruler Parvez Musharraf. An editor may say that this legal battle directly affects the survival of the government and is therefore of vital national interest. But, frankly, the government has been on the verge of falling for the whole time Londonstani has been in Pakistan (since October 2009). So, its not really all that new.

More likely, those who own the newspapers and TV channels will have their own positions to promote regarding whatever political spat is playing out at the time. But, the importance of an easy narrative shouldn't be understated. And by "easy narrative", Londonstani doesn't just mean something that a journalist finds easy to portray to his/her audience, which is just part of it, but also something that fits an already existing perception.

So, NATO forces killing Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border elicits huge amounts of attention and generates much coverage because it slots neatly into the "The US is really our enemy. The US is trying to destroy us. The US takes our lives for granted" perceptions that already exist. However, those same Pakistani soldiers kidnapped, tortured and killed by militants generates nothing like the same sort of fury. The reason being, Londonstani would sugget, that editors aren't sure what wider context the story would sit in. "Who are these militants? Are they Indian funded agents trying to besmirch the good name of Kashmiri or anti US freedom fighters? Aren't the militants just retaliating for what our military has been doing to them at the behest of the Americans? Why would militants who claim to be true Muslims want to kill the soldiers of the army of Islam?"

This isn't to say Pakistani media is rubbish. It remains rambunctious and robust. Opinion pages are routinely filled with nuanced and detailed discussions about tries with India, accountability and governance, which in many other more stable countries would be deemed to "boring" for a mainstream outlet. For example, see today's article by former ambassador Maleeha Lodhi on building confidence with India.

The result is that if you only have the newspapers or news channels to go on, you get a skewed idea of what is really affecting people's lives. Right now, in Pakistan, it's not terrorism, political infighting or military-civil relations that will push the country towards meltdown. It's more likely to be a simple, unsexy, energy crisis. But people outside the country will have to look pretty hard at the Pakistani media to find references to a problem that's bringing rioters out onto the streets, causing unemployment as factories shut, leaving even the wealthy without heat as night-time temperatures dip to near zero, and shutting major arteries between cities. Dawn as a good, but short, article on the situation. 

Anyway, Londonstani (as a media consultant) has a potential solution in the form of a ready-made, instantly deployable, sexy narrative.

To be deployed in any media environment when you face a boring issue of essential public concern:

(thanks to Chris Allbritton)

Pakistan's youth solution

Common sense suggests that Pakistan's problem's are not about to solved by a saviour who gathers them all up squashes them into a little (cricket?) ball shape and hurls them into the sun. Making things better is going to take groups of people with new ideas and approaches, supported by similarly minded people with the resources, taking legitimacy from an even bigger group of people who support what they are doing.

Huma Yusuf does a great job on the IHT's Latitude blog of illustrating that the best bet for change in Pakistan is the country's young.

"An exciting shift is now under way in Pakistan: the young are becoming politically engaged. In coffee shops, beauty salons and workplaces, instead of gossiping or deconstructing the latest televised drama, youngsters are arguing about the merits of various politicians. As a journalist, I can’t walk into a social gathering without getting grilled by my peers and their younger siblings about this policy or that. Older Pakistanis who have long bemoaned the apathy of the country’s educated, middle-class youth are sighing in relief at this newfound activism. As one elderly family friend put it, “Your lot has finally woken up.”"

Huma makes the point that Imran Khan has benefited from (or perhaps sparked) this awakening of interest among the young, but this is part of a bigger trend.

"Several social media sites have hosted online voter-registration drives for the 2013 general elections. Many of these are not affiliated with any political party; they are simply seeking to boost youth participation at the polls. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (P.P.P.) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (P.M.L.N.), are launching youth-oriented campaigns and showcasing a new generation of politicians. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, of the P.P.P., is encouraging private media outlets to emphasize youth-oriented programming. The opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who heads the P.M.L.N., recently drafted a new strategy to revamp his party’s Facebook presence and, in a bid to entice young voters, promised to distribute 300,000 laptops to students if he is elected."

Pakistan is a young country with a tumultuous history, and as such the era you were born into has a big impact on your outlook to life, culture, your view of the outside world and politics.

What Londonstani finds really interesting about all this is that there is evidence to suggest Pakistan's under 35 year old majority approach life in a very different way to their elders. The impact of social media, mass communication and migrations all have their place, but there is an even more elemental level to this. For examle, someone who grew up being told to fear a Hindu-dominated Alll-India government will approach things differently to someone who's lived their whole life secure in the "Muslimness" of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Londonstani's work recently involved researching the views of Pakistani young people. The picture that emerged was of a huge body of people who are more confident in their identities as Pakistanis, less interested in ethnic backgrounds, more questioning of received logic, less fearful of India and much more keen on travel and engagement with the outside world. The study was limited and much more work should be done looking at this area, but, for Londonstani, it was well summed up by one of the interviewees:

"The most influential person in my life? Well, I should say my father. But, he often talks very forcefully about a subject and then I look online or ask my friends and find out he doesn't have that much information."

The reality is that life in Pakistan at all levels is dominated by men who are typically over 45 (this, of course, includes Imran). Whether military, religious ideologues, feudal landlords, business moguls or media magnates, they do things in very similar, patriarchal ways. The political parties' scramble to get young people involved is an effort to direct the inevitable trend. (The young generation the parties are promoting are often sons and daughters of the leaders).

Huma makes the point that she is not talking about a Pakistani version of the Arab Spring; "Unlike their counterparts in the Arab world, young Pakistanis are less inspired by revolutionary rhetoric than in producing results through the existing system. They are demanding issue-based politics."

This in itself is a revolution.

If you want to see what sort of people Huma is talking about, watch Al Jazeera's documentary on Ali Abbas Zaidi:

And while you're at it, check out rapper Adil Omar:

Oh, and of course Co-Ven

 

** oops, I wrongly cited the writer of the original piece as Huma Imtiaz when it was in fact Huma Yusuf. This has been fixed apols to both Humas.

Pakistan's Imran dilemma

If you follow Pakistan with any degree of interest, chances are you've heard a lot about Imran Khan. If the press coverage is to be believed, the former cricket captain carries the hopes of the entire nation - particularly the young (who form the majority of the population) - on his shoulders.

There's little doubt that there is something different about the support Imran is getting. In Pakistan, votes are usually bought (one way or another), so it is rare to see a politician earning genuine support. But more than that, the buzz building up around Imran would be rare in any political arena, anywhere in the world. In the words of US political campaign strategists, Imran is transitioning from "politician" to "movement".

But don't let the likes of this cloying cinematic tribute

lead you to think that Pakistanis are waiting in frenzied awe to be led by "the Kaptaan".

Some of the best analysis of Imran's plans and fortunes has been done by Pakistani writers and bloggers. (The FT's editor in comparison couldn't resist trading in a proper interview for the chance of playing an over against one of the world's best fast bowlers)

The most popular criticism levelled against Imran by observers in Pakistan (and a fair few abroad) is that his populist stance panders to the fundamentalist fringe.

Let Ahsan Butt at Five Rupees spell it out:

"...allow me to say that Imran’s view on foreign policy, and in particular the war against the Taliban, are legitimately dangerous. His views completely miss the point of what the threat is, where the threat is coming from, and what can be done about it."

Observers and friends of Pakistan in the West find it difficult to imagine Imran - who himself was once roughed up by Islamist student thugs - could be sympathetic to right-wing, reactionary politics. If the observers in question happen to be over 30 and from a cricket-playing nation, the idea that Oxford-educated, "playboy Imran" is courting people whose idea of Pakistan's best interests involves wars with India and the United States produces a serious bout of cognitive dissonance.

It could be argued that politicians in Pakistan think that looking the other way to a bit of sabre rattling is little different to US politicians saying silly things to avoid looking "soft on national security". However, over at Pak Tea House  Yasser Hamdani, a supporter of Imran's Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf party (PTI), articulates the fear of many that this rightwing bent of mind translates to a position on the wrong side of THE core issue in Pakistani politics; the status of the military.

"...I feel threatened rather by a certain line of thinking – a line of thinking that still believes that the military has a role to play in Pakistani politics, that ISI and GHQ should hold a veto against corrupt politicians, and that some how the Pakistan Army is defender of some arbitrary ideological frontier of the country.  Sadly many of our fellow travellers in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf also subscribe to this view."

Hamdani's is a cry for Pakistan's best political prospect to affirm the principle upon which he is building up the hopes of millions. For Hamdani, as for many Pakistanis concerned about the future of their country, a brighter tomorrow is not possible as long as the present alignment of power exists.

"The truth is that so long as this mindset prevails, no political leader no matter how well intentioned or honest will be able to dent the systemic failure which affects the democratic process in this country."

Nasir Jamal, writing for the impressive Herald magazine, takes the PTI and Imran to task for failure to grapple with any deep thought on the problems facing Pakistan.

Nasir quotes the party's secretary general, Dr. Arif Alv as saying, “Our agenda is the agenda of Pakistan. It is all in the newspapers. Everybody knows what the issues are."

"At a mundane level, why is PTI so reluctant to provide details of its programme?" asks Nasir.

Alvi responds, “We are not releasing the details because we do not want others to steal our programme, cut it and paste it as their own.”

Really? Cut and paste?

Nasir goes on to sketch out why the simple, generalised auntie-uncle logic* doesn't address Pakistan's serious issues.

Running with the secretary general's newspapers reference, Nasir makes the point that "Khan’s answers to complex economic, political, social and strategic problems seem to come straight from the opinions and editorials pages of newspapers and television talk shows. He wants to make Pakistanan energy-surplus and self-reliant economy by exploiting the country’s natural resources. That these natural resources require money, technology and elaborate political, administrative and environmental measures does not seem to matter."

Nasir points to the promise of solving the energy crisis as an example, "For instance, most of Pakistan’s natural gas and coal reserves happen to be in Balochistan and Sindh and after the 18th amendment to the constitution no federal government can extract and use them without the consent of the provincial governments. Does Khan propose to bypass such constitutional niceties, risking further distrust between the provinces and the centre or will he be willing to take the long and painful route of creating a national consensus on how to extract and use these natural resources for the common good of the country?"

To press the point home, Nasir goes on to complain about Imran's habit of quoting statistics and figures that seem to be plucked from thin air and using them to back up impressive sounding claims built on flimsy logic. 

He quotes Imran as saying; "Pakistan loses 3,000 billion rupees (about $33 billion) annually to corruption and in unpaid taxes; if we succeed in stopping this loss (to the revenue) we can turn the economy around, woo fresh investment and achieve self-reliance."

Nasir adds, "In an undocumented economy like Pakistan, it is difficult to say if his statistics are authentic but even if they are correct, doing something about them will help Pakistan only balance its budget — something that may be one of the many factors in an economic turnaround but cannot on its own put the economy on the right track. What about current account deficit, foreign loans, international and regional trade and, most importantly, a level playing field and an enabling environment?"

(As a former Reuters reporter, Londonstani can't resist a bit of rigorous economics)

Perhaps most worryingly, and related to the core problem of the military's role in the country, Nasir suggests Imran has a problem with the concept of causality:

"Khan pledged to remove the sense of alienation among the Baloch but did not say anything on the role of the military and bureaucratic establishment in creating this alienation, just as he did not touch the civil-military relations which lie at the core of many political crises that Pakistan has faced in the recent past."

But let's say Imran develops some serious policies as the elections start rolling round, the next stumbling block, says former ambassador Zafar Hilaly, is getting Pakistani officialdom to turn policies into actions.

"the one instrument for implementing policy, the civil services, is in complete disarray. Just about every human ill afflicts them. Corruption and “speed money” and people who delight in doing nothing and to say “nothing can be done” abound... The bureaucrats will resist change and innovation. They will find “a difficulty for every solution” and they know how to take “good ideas and then quietly strangle them to death... Merely tweaking the way the bureaucracy works will not do."

But despite all the gaps and questions, there's a deep desire welling up in Pakistan for Imran Khan to take the reins of the country. Hilaly sums up the desperation from which it springs:

"..in our peculiar circumstances Imran offers a better prospect than the others. To the desperate masses he brings hope and, even if his performance falls short... in the end we have to make a choice based on what we have on offer and backing Imran Khan is a risk I am prepared to take."

When Imran and his party colleagues are assessing their political fortunes, it would serve them well to remember that the support he is building is the thin wedge of a deep well of despair. Maybe soon, Pakistan's least-worst hope needs to stop trying to be all things to all Pakistanis. Pakistan has a long way to go and maybe Imran can push it in the right direction, but that won't happen until he answers this fundamental question posed by his own supporter:

"You cannot speak of a progressive Pakistan and also send a note to Jammat-ud-Dawa (the suspected LeT front) rally in Lahore. You cannot, on the one hand, rightly condemn Mumtaz Qadri (Salmaan Taseer's killer) and then have Ejaz Chaudhry (a party official) represent you at the free Qadri rally. Imran Khan, please choose, so that we may also not be under illusions about anything."

*"auntie-uncle logic" is Pakistan's equivalent to the UK's "taxi driver logic". Both are refined arts that rest on the proponent's ability to offer opinions in a manner that is inversely related to their lack of knowledge. The Pakistani version of this all too popular art form derives its name from the actions of older relatives - often the most advanced practioners.

Kicking Off

After a six-month break from blogging, it’s time for Londonstani to once again put pixel to webpage.

But first, as a courtesy to those stumbling across Londonstani for the first time, this is probably a good time to explain.

Londonstani is the alter ego of Amil Khan, who – about four years ago, was working as a documentary journalist at the BBC and Channel 4 on projects that involved crime, gang warfare, extremism and armed conflict in far off places. Andrew Exum - aka Abu Muqawama – who was sharing a flat with Londonstani in East London’s Walthamstow area, featured some of Londonstani’s whispered ramblings on his counter insurgency blog.

It wasn’t long after that Abu Muqawama’s “violent Pashtun flatmate” started writing regularly for the blog, drawing on his privileged access to people and places as a journalist to analyse issues related to extremism, UK foreign policy and identity in Britain.

Blogging at Abu Muqawama gave Londonstani the leeway to delve unfettered into the topics Amil was being asked to cover as a professional journalist. Amil and Londonstani settled into a productive partnership. Amil would pimp his languages/professional background/ability to use a camera to get access to refugee camps/war zones or sink estates and Londonstani would bask in the freedom of the interwebs and write whatever he wanted.

The arrangement produced articles that Amil had to grudgingly admit he was glad to have collaborated on. Including:

An interview with an al Qaeda fighter returning from Iraq.

A series of three reports from Sudan’s Darfur conflict that looked at how traditional societies are affected by political upheaval and violence.

And, while Amil covered racism in a typical UK housing estate, Londonstani looked at the draw of the extremist narrative in less nice parts of modern Britain.

Amil arrived in Pakistan in 2009 to run a UK-funded counter extremism project that worked with religious leaders. Londonstani, of course, came along too. Pakistan was as newsworthy then as it is now (perhaps more so). Several foreign correspondents do a great job covering headline news events in Pakistan. So, as before, Londonstani stuck to exploring the issues behind the headlines in an effort to present a little context and background to those hoping to understand why people feel and/or act as they do.

Since then Amil has caught up to Londonstani with some writing of his own at Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel. As the Arab Spring rolled around, Amil couldn’t resist revisiting his first infatuation - the politics of the Middle East – and wrote a couple of articles looking at why Arabs had decided they had had enough.

With the situation in the Middle East evolving around us and Pakistan looking like its set for social and political changes as its young (65 percent of the population) look to have their voices heard, Londonstani will be going through a little transformative process of his own.

After nearly four years residence at Abu Muqawama, it’s about time Londonstani ventured out in the big wide world on his own. The Londonstani blog will look at the issues of violence and politics, much as before (ie. in the third person tense of plausible deniability). But as the world changes, Londonstani’s coverage will adapt to address it. The blog will still cover extremism and how to address it but will expand its horizons to encompass issues of political development (the developing ideas behind the politics of the Muslim world) and how to engage with emerging trends in a productive way. In addition, the Londonstani blog will come at these issues from a UK angle, because – well – Londonstan is part (by consent and not coercion) of a larger entity known as the United Kingdom.

There will doubtless be technical teething problems as the blog takes its first steps. Feel free to comment (if they work), get in contact (if that works) or get a hold of Londonstani via twitter @Londonstani.

Londonstani aims to be a resource for all those interested in the politics of the Middle East, South Asia and community relations in the UK. If nothing else, you’re likely to find out something you might not ever have known about a fascinating and underreported part of the world… like the ‘Stow.