Dear oh dear oh dear. What can one possibly say about this article in The Atlantic?
We all remember how Facebook once beat the Taliban, and how kids picking up trash once beat the Taliban, and how raves once beat the Taliban. Those bloody Taliban, eh? Always coming in for such a beating!
The latest to step forth in a long line of Taliban-beaters is Coke Studio. The basic argument of the Atlantic article is that Coke Studio is good Pakistan, the Taliban are bad Pakistan, and that Pakistanis are proud of the good Pakistan. I wish I were doing it injustice, but that’s really the gist of it.
I have two main problems with this piece. One is the argument it is making. The second is a set of very basic factual and inferential errors in the piece. It is, on the whole, an extremely disappointing piece of journalism.
The first point will seem tired to many, and fairly so. I know I’ve covered this quasi-orientalist “Oh, look, Pakistanis aren’t all terrorists, how nice!” logic embedded in the collective psyche of the Western press enough on this blog. Others, such as Cafe Pyala, have done so too. But I can’t bring myself to ignore this piece. I just can’t. It’s too simplistic and too offensive. Cafe Pyala calls it “trash and orientalist” and the normally understated Mosharraf Zaidi says it’s “exceptionally atrocious”.
The reason for such strong emotions against it, I submit, is that articles like this are so predictable and yet infuriating at the same time. They are infuriating because they reduce Pakistan and Pakistanis to caricature. They reduce the metrics of multiple Pakistani social, cultural and political identities to one catch-all variable; that is, are Pakistanis relatable to Western audiences in superficial ways? Can particular Pakistani practices be mapped as products of Western-value laden reflective processes? If yes, they are worthy of applause, and should be encouraged to become more like “us” (the Western audience).
This would be bad enough on its own. But in trying to encourage a certain worldview and set of practices to take hold, the article starts taking short-cuts. It asserts things that are simply untrue, and makes causal arguments that are silly at best.
There are multiple examples of this peppered throughout the article. For instance, it claims that “former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif forbade Pakistanis from wearing long hair and jeans” — which is simply an untrue and bizarre statement; nothing of the sort happened. Or take the claim “In March 2009, social networking site Facebook was vital in bringing together the lawyers’ march that helped reinstate the country’s dismissed judges,” which is laughably and woefully false. The (multiple) lawyers marches took place in 2007 and 2008 primarily (i.e. not 2009) through the efforts of bar associations, professional communities, elements of the NGO and civil society world, and political parties such as the PML-N, Tehreek-e-Insaf, and others. None of those people used Facebook as an organizational tool.
To understand the extent of the absurdity of the Facebook claim, one only needs to click on the link embedded in the offending sentence. The reader would be taken to a Facebook group titled “Lawyers Standing Strong Against Musharraf’s Dictatorial Rule in Pakistan”, with a total of 35 — yes, thirty five — members. The creator of said group is not a lawyer nor a politician not a journalist nor a blogger. It is not even a Pakistani. Instead, the creator of this 35-member Facebook group — held responsible for the massive organizational cache displayed during the long marches, and ultimately the downfall of a military autocrat in power for a decade — is a Mr. Matt Sinkman. I know only three things about Mr. Sinkman: first, his hometown is New Rochelle, New York; second, his currently lives in New York, New York, and third, he has 546 Facebook friends. What I do not know is what his relationship is to the lawyer’s movement and I suspect the writer does not either.
These are simply elemental factual mistakes. As, if not more, troubling are some of the inferences drawn. We are told, as an example, that Coke Studio’s rising popularity is based on the rising threat the Taliban pose to Pakistan’s population. To quote directly,
When the show first aired on Pakistani television in the summer of 2008, it received a lukewarm response. At the time, violence related to growing Islamic militancy was limited to the distant North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan. The rest of the country was yet to feel the wrath of the Taliban. But by the show’s second season, the Taliban had begun to attack cities like Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. Simultaneously, the global spotlight on Pakistan intensified. Pakistanis found themselves under increasing scrutiny as linchpins in the war against Islamic terrorism.
Suddenly, the show’s popularity skyrocketed. Its website crashed repeatedly, unable to handle the unexpected onslaught of traffic.
It is true that the Taliban’s threat to average Pakistanis has increased over the last three years and it also true that Coke Studio’s popularity has increased during the same time, but I’m not sure what those two propositions have to do with each other. Well-made and well-executed television shows tend to draw in more viewers over time as a matter of course, especially those that rely on the internet; word of mouth, advertising, and the quality of the production take care of that. What on earth does the Taliban’s threat increasing have to do with any of those factors?
More generally, the article repeatedly and unproblematically forwards the claim that Coke Studio stands on one side of some mythical divide within Pakistan society — the Taliban, obviously, are on the other side. As a result of this tendency, it analytically draws down all of Coke Studio’s constituent elements to how they discursively reproduce this “opposition to the Taliban”. Meesha Shafi is not a model, artist, and singer who graduated from NCA but the “female singer in a cropped leather jacket, tight jeans, and siren-red lipstick.” Arif Lohar is not Arif Lohar but “a squat, aging Pakistani folk musician with a curling mustache.” Omar Bilal Akhtar is quoted not to speak glowingly about the show’s production — which he was in Open Magazine’s excellent article on Coke Studio — but to talk about the threats to security. At times, the piece comically drops the pretense, and simply claims its central thesis explicitly, reducing Sufi culture to a leveraging device against anti-Taliban statement (“By promoting Sufi culture, Coke Studio is sending out a message to its viewers, setting itself in distinct opposition to the Taliban’s narrow vision of Islam and Pakistan”).
Interestingly, I was interviewed for this article by the writer for almost an hour. For the length of the interview, the author, Riddhi Shah, tried, in vain, to convince me that Coke Studio is an institution specifically designed, executed, and interpreted as an anti-Taliban mechanism. Also in vain were my efforts to convince the writer otherwise; I repeatedly told her that sometimes a TV show is just a TV show, and should be enjoyed as such. My comments did not make it to the piece — which is fair enough; maybe the word limit was at risk, or I wasn’t articulate enough, or whatever — but it is glaring that this piece is published without any reference to such notions. Could it be that the writer cherry-picked quotes only from those supporting her simplistic point of view? Possibly.
The sad part of all this is that writers writing stories describing Facebook or raves or Coke Studio beating the Taliban mean well. They most assuredly do not mean harm. And in a sense, their work is not harmful per se. It’s just intellectually offensive and amusing in their simplistic prescriptions and descriptions of Pakistan, joint products of an orientalist mindset and some YouTube comments.