An Interview With Nadeem F. Paracha
By Sobia Ali & Raza Habib Raja
Nadeem Farooq Paracha, or NFP as he is most frequently called, is one of the most famous journalists of Pakistan. Hailing from Karachi, he initially gained fame in the 1990s as a music critic and tried to interpret Pakistani pop music in its sociopolitical context. Subsequently his range of topics broadened considerably and he has emerged as one of the leading liberal commentator. Fiercely critical of right-wing political narrative, NFP has stressed on the need of self introspection and also promotion of a tolerant as well as democratic Pakistan. Currently he writes for Dawn, which is the most widely read newspaper in Pakistan.
Why do you think that there is so much anti-American sentiment in Pakistan? And do you think that it’s merely due to Pakistani mindset or there have been lapses on the part of United States also?
Anti-Americanism had been a widespread phenomenon in various so-called third world countries across the Cold War. Ever since the tragic 9/11 episode and due to Bush’s Iraqi misadventure, anti-Americanism has intensified — especially in Muslim countries.
It is now more rampant in Pakistan because as far as the United States’ war on terror is concerned, Pakistan has been in the thick of things facing an unprecedented number of retaliatory attacks and action from extremist terror outfits like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
In the last decade or so, most Pakistanis have been getting their information in this context from a rather animated private electronic media — a media that is, unfortunately, largely been peddling theories and narratives that were once the sole domain of the country’s right-wing Urdu press.
Such narratives overlap and are integrated with the ones that the Pakistani military establishment has been propagating for decades in which Pakistan is explained away as being some kind of a unique Muslim entity surrounded by hostile anti-Pakistan forces.
These narratives haven’t allowed much self-reflection; instead, they have gone on to actually generate, if not downright encourage, a suspicious and almost paranoid worldview in which our political and economic woes are squarely blamed either on the sinister designs of so-called anti-Islam schemers such as the US, India and the Zionists, or on civilian leaders and parties that are denounced as being irrevocably corrupt, incompetent and too soft on the supposedly anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam forces.
The irony is that on most occasions it is the Pakistani military establishment and its traditional right-wing religious allies who have been the main beneficiaries of the billions of Dollars of American aid that the US has dished out to Pakistan ever since the 1950s.
Here is where the US has always fumbled. As a long-standing ally of Pakistan, this partnership hardly ever ventured beyond America’s strategic military interests in the region. There was hardly any cultural or social contact between the two people.
How can the image of the United States be improved in Pakistan?
The United States’ main contact was always with the Pakistani military establishment and rarely with those who reflected the moorings and aspirations of the country’s civilian population.
So regarding the United States, most Pakistanis now believe what the military establishment and their arms in the popular media tell them to.
Now’s the time for the United States to adjust its ways and try more to engage with the people of Pakistan through their representatives in the shape of the country’s mainstream political parties.
The United States must make an effort to show the human face of America to the people of Pakistan who have just known America either as military men and visiting senators or through pirated DVD copies of Hollywood blockbusters!
Do you perceive Pakistan changing course? How important of a role will the social media play in it?
Let’s just say I don’t see this country surviving as a single entity if it doesn’t change course. And it’s still early I think to figure out the importance of social media in the context of Pakistan.
Do you believe the youth in Pakistan is more radical than the previous generation?
On the contrary, I find this generation to be a lot more conservative than the one I belonged to or the ones before. It’s another thing that this political and social conservatism among today’s generation is being explained, rather marketed, as something radical.
Today’s young men and women seem to be just too conservative and at times downright reactionary for their age. They’re radical conservatives!
What are some ways to de-radicalize the youth in Pakistan?
It’s a simple task, really. Just stop teaching them the kind of history that is taught in a majority of schools in Pakistan. Tell them the truth, and do not distort or sugar-coat our failures. Teach them to self-reflect instead of self-deflect.
Do you believe the silent majority of Pakistan is moderate in their views?
Yes, it is. But it is meaningless if the moderate majority fails to stand up and actively confront a reactionary minority hogging the limelight in the media, schools and the society.
You don’t seem to be happy with Pakistani media. What do you think is the problem?
A good media person, like a sharp scientist, has to remain rational, observant and skeptical — not cynical and greedy. Pakistan’s private electronic and Urdu print media are cramped with a deadly combination: Cynical greed mashed up with a dogmatic establishmentarian worldview that is being peddled as something revolutionary.
It seems in Pakistani media one has freedom to bleat but not to speak.
Do you think liberals’ message is reaching across or they are fighting a losing battle? What do you think is the biggest obstacle in countering the right-wing narrative?
There are multiple messages emitting from the liberals. Some are entirely secular, some are a hybrid of secularism and what is called liberal Islam, some are Islamic but democratic and pluralistic in essence. All these need to be compressed into a single cohesive message constructed through a democratic consensus between mainstream political parties, NGOs and the few liberal media outlets in the country for it to be affective in countering the prevailing right-wing narrative.
The middle class in Pakistan seems quite passive when it comes to participating in social and political activism. How can they be inspired to be more involved and be agents of change?
I don’t think the middle-classes are really all that passive anymore. There is a lot of social activism going on in seminars and the social media involving this class. But so far, much of this activism is based on a 21st century reworking of the dogmatic establishmentarian narratives.
It is unfortunate that this class is thus yet to realize that its empowerment lies in an uninterrupted flow of democracy and not in renegade military interventionists or messiahs propped up by intelligence agencies or the right-wing media.
Do you think that the present government while it has made some important constitutional breakthroughs like greater autonomy to provinces has also somewhat disappointed in competence? Or do you think that governance quality is just media hype to malign the government?
I believe governing Pakistan during what was left behind by Musharraf’s many misadventures would have challenged a regime run by any party. Running Pakistan through an elected cabinet and parliament is no joke.
Trying to take along so many ethnicities, Islamic sects and religions keeping in mind how the state mistreated them in the past and then trying to retain even a semblance of stability in the face of the bloody onslaught perpetrated by Islamo-fascists, a hostile right-wing media and its ideological masters in the shape of military interventionists and self-appointed overlords of the so-called Pakistan ideology, is sometimes next to impossible.
This is not a perfect government, nor is it very competent, but then, neither does it claim to be all this. We must stick to all governments, headed by whichever party or parties, that come into power through a democratic process.
Do you think that political parties have squandered an opportunity by not taking decisive steps against the so called establishment in the wake of Abbottabad episode? Do you think that political conservatives like Nawaz Sharif should have been supported by liberals and liberal parties at least on its stance with respect to army?
What happened in Abbottabad was there for all to see, lament or lambast. What we’re missing out is the fact that ever since Musharraf’s folly of ousting the Chief Justice, the military establishment and its media and ideological mouthpieces have become their own greatest enemies, unwittingly inflicting one embarrassing wound after another on themselves.
And yes, I agree that Sharif deserves as much of an ear from the liberals as do the PPP, ANP and MQM. To me these four parties hold the key to a more sensible Pakistan.
Interview published in Huffington Post in September, 2011.