The Questions You Should Not Ask

Source: AP/HBO

Source: AP/HBO

In recent days, a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher has been circulating all over the social media, and even in news publications. The clip is about the confrontation between Academy Award winning actor and director Ben Affleck and atheist scholar and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

Well, no introduction to the clip needed.

                               Source: HBO

This brief confrontation led to a number of critiques, both on Ben Affleck and Maher and Harris. The primary criticism on the latter was about their Islamophobia and bigotry. In comparison, Affleck was attacked for not being thoughtful in the debate.

There is little doubt about the fact that Ben Affleck was emotional form the word go, and Sam Harris even claimed he was “gunning for him from the start.” But in short, Affleck lost his cool and should have acted in a saner manner.

But instead of wasting our time with Affleck calling Maher and  Harris “racist”, which they most probably are (who cares), let’s focus on the other side of the debate.

You could argue that both of them have been displaying behavior toward Muslims, which could be termed hostile by many. Despite their claims that they do not engage in Islamophobia.

What is noteworthy is that most of their critics completely ignore their objection on tolerance of cruel and illiberal fundamental beliefs among Muslims. And the questions they raise are:

  • What is the punishment for apostasy in Islam?
  • What is the punishment for adultery in Islam?
  • What is the punishment for blasphemy in Islam?

The answer to all three questions happen to be death, like it or not.

These are the questions that you should not ask.

Even the recent opinion article from religion apologist and scholar Reza Aslan, who claims the moral high ground by saying that both sides lacked sophistication.

Curiously, that eloquent article conveniently lacked any mention of those questions, which kills the criticism on Maher and Harris for someone who is familiar with their rhetoric.

Now this could put some serious questions in the minds of someone who would actually want to disagree with them.

But yet another problem with this is that those who have already picked a side would not be prepared to change their minds. However, from my own experience, I know it is not true for everyone.

What Maher and Harris mean is that we probably have a big problem when that many Muslims actually believe in fundamental beliefs that have no room in a modern Western civilization. And which are simply unacceptable by any standard but their own.

And especially because their population makes up such a significant portion of the world population. So why not talk about it and take a step toward sorting this issue.

However, asking these very questions have become unacceptable in the unwritten rules of the Western progressive liberals. While they accuse people like Sam Harris to be indulging in bigotry and Islamophobia in the guise of criticizing religion, they could be accused of tolerating illiberal and even dangerously brutal beliefs in their eagerness to avoid being xenophobes as well.

So what is the solution?

How are you going to confront most Muslims for their irresponsible beliefs that they would gladly defend?

Should you just shut up because that’s racist?

The Gridlock Misery

Source: Dawn/AP

Source: Dawn/AP

I don’t mind paying a good amount of bucks when it is due. Believe me, I don’t.

But not when you are doing so for absolutely stupid reasons… Or even wasting time and energy, for that matter.

September 19, 2014 was by far the most chaotic day I have ever had in recent memory. And I was not alone. Pretty much everyone who was moving between Rawalpindi and Islamabad was that day.

The day was declared to be the “Day of Deliverance” by the protesting opposition party PTI to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. Needless to say the Prime Minister did not resign and it was just another good old PTI concert with a bigger attendance. And the federal government decided to prevent people from reaching there.

But who cares either way?

The traffic gridlock occurred all of a sudden. It was when I was moving back to my office after attending a client meeting, before which my former supervisor had informed me about the Islamabad Highway being blocked.

I was stuck for an hour on a route that should have taken less than minutes. Then ended up reaching my home after about 5 hours when it would have normally taken me 40 odd minutes. This should have cost less than a $1 and ended up paying near $10, yet walking no less than 4 kilometers.

My misery (as a matter of fact, I had probably never walked that far to my home from the route that I took that day), which I enjoyed a little due to the surreal scenes, was nothing to that of hundreds of families stranded in a mega traffic jam that probably lasted all night. Probably some people had to get to the hospital and others wanted to just reach their apolitical, private destinations for their apolitical, private lives and chores.

In other words, it was chaos. The doomsday scenario. Somewhat close to the kind of surreal apocalyptic scenes you watch in a Roland Emmerich film. But thankfully, nowhere near in destruction. Which probably proves that most people are civil.

Or probably that traffic problems occur all over the world, from New York City to Dhaka. But not really, when you don’t have to have them.

It is another example of government making a mess of people’s lives.

It is yet another example of complete disregard of the rights of the citizens.

Yet another example of exceeding bureaucratic powers over people’s lives.

No, the chaos was certainly not because people are disorganized, unruly, or ungovernable barbarians.

It was because the government was preventing them to function freely, probably with the intention of their greater good, as is always the case.

Are you not sick of the idea of know-it-all, all-controlling government?

The Heer Waris Shah Sessions by Paraga

Waris Shah - Source: maati.tv

Waris Shah – Source: maati.tv

My friend Sohail Abid, who also happens to be the founder of Folk Punjab and the Folk Punjab Fund for Punjabi Books, was leaving town so I thought I should see him. He invited me to come over to the Academy of Letters and introduced me to a remarkable treasure for which I would remain grateful to him.

Every Wednesday evening, a calm but captivating session of reading is held in the common room of the Writer’s House in the Academy of Letters, Islamabad.

People passionate about Punjabi classical literature gather to recite the epic love story Heer Waris Shah, which is considered the most famous literal masterpiece of the civilization in Punjab. Written by renowned Sufi poet Waris Shah in late eighteenth century in Central Punjab, this romantic tragedy epic is surpassed by very few works of art, if any, in terms of its eloquence.

But what is so significant about reading Waris Shah in this forum when you can do so at home, you would ask.

Not only is the language difficult to grasp for even the more experienced readers, but the discussion in the sessions offers the right historical, etymological and cultural context for the passage. And every single session is an education.

The session is regularly attended by some of the renowned Punjabi and Urdu poets and writers. A regular is Punjabi short story writer Malik Mehr Ali, who is known for his mastery of the language and exploring rare interpretations. The likes of Punjabi poet and vocalist Hazrat Shaam also attend the sessions, who keep alive the age old tradition of reciting this piece of poetry in a melodious tune.

I have personally learned a lot from these sessions, which have ignited a renewed interest in Punjabi classical literature, but more than anything else, in Heer Warish Shah. The lyrical quality and the folk wisdom of this fascinating work of art really gets you hooked. And add the intellectual orgasm the discourse offers you and there is little else that you can ask for.

The sessions are organized by Tariq Bhatti, a civil servant by profession and a man of refined taste in literature. He founded Paraga in 2013 for the development and promotion of literature and arts in Punjabi language.

“I always had this urge to establish a forum where friends with a common interest could gather to read Punjabi classical literature.” Tariq Bhatti said while explaining his aims behind Paraga and these sessions. “Since the times of the Mogul, Punjabi has largely been a verbal language. Even today people cannot read or write the language because of the lack of familiarity with the script. Paraga is a humble effort to bridge this gap.”

Bhatti also said that the forum plans to recite literature from other classical Punjabi poets such as Shah Hussein, Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah. The forum also plans to offer a platform to budding poets.

You can join the Paraga.org facebook page for updates pertaining to the sessions. The recordings of the previous sessions can be found at paraga.org.

The session will not be held in the last Wednesday of Ramadan. However, it has the last session of July tomorrow right after Iftaar at the same venue. After the fasting month, the sessions will be regularly held at the usual time of 7 in the evening at the usual venue.

It is an excellent opportunity for those who want to learn about classical Punjabi literature and want to increase their Punjabi vocabulary.

In any case, I always look forward to the event and there is hardly a better way to spend the evening.

Paraga welcomes everyone.

———-

Note: The edited version of this post was published here

Islamabad Event on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Pakistan

Bytes for All, an organization dedicated to promoting internet freedom and free speech in Pakistan, organized an event in Islamabad on Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties on September 19, 2013. The event featured participants from all over Pakistan, including the FATA.

The event included three sessions, focusing on hate speech, fair trial and surveillance in relation to freedom of expression. The introductory speech was made by author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who primarily spoke about the human rights violations in Baluchistan by Pakistani security agencies. Hanif revealed that no less than 529 people have died over 5 years in such incidents, which involved torturing and mutilating the victim’s bodies beyond recognition.

Hanif also served as a panelist for the first session, along with Taha Siddiqui, Murtaza Solangi and Sabeen Mahmud. that focused on hate speech. The session was moderated by the flamboyant Ajmal Jami. Taha Siddiqui, journalist, presented the findings of his research report on the presence of terrorist organizations on the internet and the hate speech they propagate to find recruits. A participant objected that the report focused on only a certain kind of groups, which sounded reasonable, but apparently Taha’s focus was on emphasizing that terrorist groups were operating unabated in the country with a clear online presence and that authorities were not moving a muscle in response while banning other websites instead.

Murtaza Solangi, broadcasting journalist, defined hate speech for the audience and said that you should not impose your beliefs on others for harming them. What he did not explain was what if that was precisely what the beliefs required you to do. Mohammed Hanif was the one who actually briefly touched that aspect, emphasizing that you would not be able to take the poor people’s God away from them and that it simply would not happen. He also mentioned that it is hardly any use complaining about extremist militant groups if the state itself handpicked a community, namely the Ahmedis, during a democratically elected government and declared them literal outcasts by legalizing their expulsion from Islam and inviting hatred against them.

Sabeen Mahmud, the Karachi based founder of T2F, presented the hate messages and death threats, quantified on the Nafrat Aggregator, that she received in response to her controversial pro Valentine’s Day campaign in response to Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign of forbidding people to celebrate the holiday using Koranic verses and Hadiths. She offered a personal viewpoint on how it is like to be threatened with groups invading your free speech and right to life in that manner. The shocking aspect remains that most people in Pakistan would consider it their religious duty to violate other’s freedom and security like that, even though in this case, she had hardly done anything that can be considered wrong. I personally fully support her actions and consider her a free speech hero.

The second session focused on Fair Trial and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rabia Mehmood. The panelists included the eloquent Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, Safdar Dawar, a FATA based journalist and journalist Mahvish Ahmed. The most important point was made by Ijaz that legal jurisdictions and continued debate about fair trial, surveillance and privacy violations are necessary and will eventually make a continual but certain difference for the better. The session also focused on the implications of the vagueness of legal definitions. Dawar emphasized how FATA was not ruled by any court of law and that there was no way to address violations of civil liberties there. Mahvish Ahmed raised the importance of political solutions.

The third session focused on Surveillance and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rahma Mian. The panelists included Abid Imam, a lawyer and academic, Asim Zafar Khan, a technology adviser to the government,  Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All and Fahd Deshmukh, a technology expert and activist. The crux of the session was that surveillance was inevitable, so staying ahead of the technology curve is all that people could do. Abid Imam pointed out that avoiding surveillance is not even a declared fundamental human right in the law, and not one that states are likely to grant. Shahzad Ahmed spoke passionately about the need to reclaim the right of privacy and to raise voice against growing state surveillance.

The good thing about such events is that introduces a lot of people to the very idea of freedom of expression, which is pretty much alien to a society like Pakistan where questioning is discouraged and you are mostly required to practice self-censorship right from your childhood. However, when you hear about an event focusing on freedom of expression, you prepare yourself to reflect on a more academic discussion about the subject, especially focusing on the subtleties of hate speech and freedom of expression. It is not always the case when you get there and in this case discussion often deviated from the topic due to the line of questioning from the participants as well.

As a matter of fact, a lot of participants use the forum to bring forth other subjects than the one under discussion. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, as I understand many of these participants need a forum like this to be heard, but it is rather unproductive, time-wasting, largely distracting and drains a lot of energy of everyone involved.

The event was concluded after recommendations from the participants. While I believe that such seminars that educate people about freedom of expression are very useful, further interest among the educated general public could be stirred by holding public debates between liberal and conservative columnists and intellectuals who are for and against freedom of expression, instead of constantly offering a lecturing monologue.

If it does not convince more people of how important free speech is, it would actually make the anti free speech debaters look bad.

Rejecting the Candidate Running from Multiple Constituencies

Source: Dawn

Source: Dawn

Alright this is no good reason to reject a candidate’s party in any way. But it seems good enough for the people of Peshawar.

It seems good enough to me at least. But only when it comes to the candidate.

While I totally respect the decision of the people of Peshawar to elect Ghulam Muhammad Bilour on the National Assembly seat vacated by Imran Khan because of his victory from two other constituencies, people have been getting offended for all sorts of moral reasons.

But the people of the NA-1 constituency of Peshawar have made their voices heard. They probably voted for Imran Khan, not the PTI. Surprisingly, similar results surfaced in Imran’s native Mianwali. I bet many of the original general elections voters never returned.

So what is the positive out of the August 22 by-elections? That people have rejected the party or substitutes of the candidates running for more than one constituencies.

This also happened in a seat vacated by the independent candidate Jamshed Dasti in Muzaffargarh and Shazia Marri has won the seat from Sanghar which she lost earlier in the general elections like Bilour.

I think if all the people start deciding to boycott voting for candidates who run from multiple constituencies, perhaps our politicians could be convinced to change this ridiculous rule from the electoral constitution. Of course, if the people choose to do so.

Take Javed Hasmi’s example. He ran from NA-55 in Rawalpindi and beat Sheikh Rasheed in the 2008 elections and won his seat from Multan as well. He later vacated the Rawalpindi seat which was taken by Malik Shakeel Awan of PML-N. In 2013, he ran from NA-48 Islamabad and again vacated the seat for his other win in Multan.

Politicians such as Javed Hashmi, Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif and Nawaz Sharif have made a habit running from multiple constituencies, it seems.

I know it is perfectly legal for these candidates to do so, but I have a problem with it. It unnecessarily results in by-elections that everyone can do without, which only ends up wasting public money. In NA-54, the PML-N candidate Malik Abrar ran for both national and provincial assemblies at the same time in 2008 and won both offices. At least that can be avoided.

Personally, given the political structure in Pakistan, I’d rather vote for someone local. Someone who actually lives in the constituency. But this does not mean that educated and reasonable people like Asad Umer should not be given a chance if they run from another constituency, and he won from the NA-48 seat vacated by Javed Hashmi.

However, I am familiar that all these political heavyweights are too insecure to take the chance of running from just one constituency, though people like Chaudhary Shujaat, Sheikh Rasheed and Amin Faheem can do that, and this is what justifies this rule. But I would really like to see this rule go, among so many others.

But then again, that’s just me.

Day 3: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “Evolution of Cities”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 22, 2013, the third and final episode of the three day event, “Evolution of Cities” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists of the Islamabad event included columnist Ishrat Hyatt, renowned award winning photgrapher Syed Javed Kazi, Shafiq Siddiqui, urban town planner and senior director of CDA and Fauzia Minallah, nature conservation and peace activist and founder of Funkor Child Art Foundation. The event was moderated by Parveen Malik, the President of Asian Study Group.

I am sure a lot more significant sister event was held in Lahore with the same topic, where panelists included one of my favorite speakers and writers about history, travel and archeology, Salman Rashid. The Lahore event also included urban town planning expert Imrana Tiwana, artist and preservationist Dr. Ajaz Anwer, journalist Nusrat Jamil and architect Nayyar Ali Dada.

The event started with the moderator Parveen Malik recalling her early days in the twin cities when she moved in here with her husband in the ’60s. She talked about hanging out at the Shezan Restaurant, at the London Book Store and spending New Year eves at the famous Flashmann’s Hotel. She also talked about the covered market in Islamabad, which was sold off to everyone’s shock, apart from one of the Nafdec theatres in Islamabad, which was temporarily closed after a bureaucrat’s wife was bitten there by a rat.

She also mentioned a discotheque, aptly named “Disaster”, in the early days of the Islamabad Club where families used to hang out and dance. The discotheque was shut down after one Saturday night, a couple of MNAs demanded entry into the club and jumped into the swimming pool after stripping when denied. The membership fee was a few hundred rupees in those days, which is now up in hundred thousands.

Ishrat Hyatt talked about the peaceful environment in Rawalpindi and Islamabad in the 60s. She recalled how parents had complete faith that their children would return home safely each time they went out. She mentioned the unforgettable sight of fireflies in Rawalpindi, which gradually disappeared as the city expanded. She mourned the loss of a bunch of beautiful cottages that made way for the construction of a cricket stadium.

Photographer Javed Kazi painted a picture of his pleasant walks across Rawalpindi, from the Charing Cross all the way up to Topi Rakh, the location of the Ayub National Park. Kazi observed that the natural beauty of the city offered numerous photo opportunities. Structures such as Flashmann’s Hotel and the 1907 built St. Paul’s Church are located on the same road, known as the Mall. A 30 feet high statue of Queen Victoria also stood at the square by the St. Paul’s Church, which was later uprooted.

According to Kazi, one of the most remarkable structures in Rawalpindi from the colonial times is the Rawalpindi Cathedral, which was built around 1852. Another significant building of the period was the Presidency, which was actually the palace of Sikhs related to the legendary Sujan Singh of Rawalpindi. The building now serves as the campus of Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.

Other structures by the Mall Road included the Odeon and the Plaza theatres, which were surrounded by gardens at the time. Freemason’s Hall was one of the little known structures of the city on the way to Florence Road. Rawalpindi also housed religious structures of Hindu and Sikh communities. There used to be a major Hindu temple in Bagh Sardaraan, while there was a Gurdwara of Narankari Sikhs in the Narankari Bazaar located in Rawalpindi city center.

Shafik Siddiqui of CDA commenced a long account laying out the history of the creation of Islamabad with the mention of the formulation of the Federal Capital Commission under President Ayub Khan. The commission selected a territory of approximately 350 square miles spanning an area from Kohala to Hassan Abdal and from Rawat to the location of Khanpur Dam, beyond the Margallas. The commission ruled out the idea of moving the federal capital to East Pakistan.

The Greek architects of Islamabad, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, chose to plan the city in a grid iron pattern. This was a feat in its own right, since the grid pattern is suited for planes, instead of plateaus and hills that make up the territory of Islamabad. To the astonishment of the audiences, he mentioned that the notorious Nullah Lai, used to be a source of fresh water supply for the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which was discontinued after an epidemic broke out in the 1990s. The rest is history.

He also mentioned that four major highways were planned to be built around the city, namely, the Kashmir Highway, Islamabad Highway, Capital Highway and finally the never-built Sawan Highway, which was meant to replace the GT Road. He observed that the CDA plans to remove encroachments around the city were badly affected by corruption and lack of law and order, apart from fear of certain religious groups.

Fauzia Minallah began her account by expressing her attachment to the natural beauty of Islamabad. She recalled that she instantly fell in love with the place when she moved there. She passionately talked about the pleasures of exploring the Margallas and the Saidpur village. She spoke fondly of her experience of interacting with the natives of the village and especially with the village potter Rahim Dad, who had a pottery workshop in the village.

She mourned the loss of tolerance in the society, apart from the gradually diminishing natural beauty. She told the story of the chopping down of the “Buddhist Tree” in the E7 sector at the hands of religious fundamentalists for being sacreligious, where her Japanese friend Tajima Shinji used to meditate. I found this rather ironical because I once tweeted that maybe the only way people in our culture could preserve trees was declaring them sacred.

She also noted that Saidpur used to be a pilgrimage site for Hindus but they cannot dare visit the place anymore out of fear of extremists. She observed that the fundamentalist Muslims were narrowing down the living space for people from other communities, giving them an impression that they are not welcome here. Perhaps it was her, or Parveen Malik, who mentioned that the very name of the city, Islamabad, was like a warning to people following other faiths.

She also attacked people who called Islamabad a “dead city” due to the lack of social activities. She said that Islamabad was never a dead city to her because of its immense natural beauty and for being very habitable. She said that people should understand that every city has its own mood and this is how Islamabad is meant to be. It is not supposed to look like a city with high rise buildings.

According to Minallah, the construction of high rise buildings in Islamabad has been disastrous to its appearance and environment. She warned that unusually high structures are not meant to be built in Islamabad due to its high earthquake risk for being located on a fault line. She also criticized the “so-called developmental projects” from the CDA which were a threat to the trees of the city and which polluted the then pristine fresh water streams of Saidpur village. The stream now pretty much looks like an open sewer.

Minallah mourned the insensitivity of the town planners regarding ancient and heritage structures, as well as precious trees. She mentioned that most of the urban development of the city was misguided. She insisted that people would rather have cinemas instead of shopping malls. Answering one question she rejected the notion that people do not have a good sense of their connection with nature and their heritage. She insisted that the results of the 2013 elections confirmed that the people of Pakistan were aware.

On my question about the pathetic transport system in Islamabad, which was particularly unfriendly to anyone who dared to commute to the Capital from Rawalpindi, Mr. Siddiki admitted that it has been a problem area. He said that much had been planned to develop the transportation system of the twin cities, but out of lack of funds and sincere will,  no such projects materialized the way they should have. He also blamed the local tranporter’s unions for the problem.

Siddiki also mentioned that religious extremism and blackmailing have been on the rise in Islamabad for years and it has been a major hurdle for the CDA to carry out disciplinary measures. Parveen Malik noted that mosques in Islamabad were not allowed to build madrassahs, but just about every mosque had been violating the law, without attracting the attention of the CDA. She mentioned that President Musharraf wanted to take action against the madrassahs but Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman intervened and convinced him not to.

The panelists and participants seemed to agree that the newly constructed high rise buildings looked ugly and out of the place in Islamabad. Many raised the point that the rusty water supply pipes in the city should be fixed, which were getting mixed up with sewage at places.

But as a citizen of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the cause that appealed to me the most was the preservation of trees. Fauzia Minallah deserves applause for raising the issue. I wish there were ways we could help people who stand up for nature for a change.

In the end, I found the Kissa Khwani event a very fulfilling experience as far as interacting people was concerned. I congratulate the Citizens Archive of Pakistan for organizing the event.

I really hope this town sees another one of these events.

Note: This is not a paid post.

Day 2: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “PTV & Radio Pakistan”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 21, 2013, the second episode of the three day event, “PTV and Radio Pakistan” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists included Agha Nasir, veteran broadcaster and producer, the pioneering director of Radio Pakistan and the former Managing Director of PTV, Muhammad Zubair, the former Director International Affairs of PTV and the first director of PTV Academy, and playwright, screenwriter and former columnist Ahmed Saleem, who created plays like “Amaawas” and “Kaala Pul“. Kanwal Naseer was also supposed to speak at the event but did not show up for some reason. The event was moderated by journalist, columnist and news anchor Farrukh Khan Pitafi.

A sister event was held in Lahore in which the panelists included Seemi Raheel, Salman Shahid, Naveed Shahzad and director and producer Ayub Khawar and was moderated by Adeel Hashmi and Alizeh Khalid. I really wish I were in Lahore to hear these brilliant speakers. The headline from the more interesting Lahore event was “Zia dictatorship ruined it all“, which was also discussed in Islamabad and immediately brought to mind the hazards of state-imposed censorship.

The Islamabad event kicked off with Agha Nasir presenting a historical account of the formative years of All India Radio. He was actually the only panelist in the entire three day event that mentioned the tragic Kissa Khwani Bazaar massacre, an Amritsar massacre like carnage, at the hands of the soldiers of the British Raj. Nasir mentioned that All India Radio was modeled after the BBC itself and was launched in 1935.

Remarkable pioneers such as Z. A. Bokhari, A. S. Bokhari and Patras Bokhari were engaged for establishing the state radio. Radio stations in present day Pakistan were established in Lahore at the YMCA on the Mall and in Peshawar. According to him, the Peshawar station was donated radio apparatus by Marconi himself. The monthly budget of a radio station used to be Rs. 1,500 per month and its main purpose used to be educational programming.

Agha Nasir expressed great satisfaction over his work at the Radio, despite the fact that it offered low income. According to him, the satisfaction of the work was the greatest factor why great names such as Saadat Hassan Manto and Z. A. Bokhari , apart from many prominent actors and stars, were attracted to the medium.

Muhammad Zubair lamented that the present day media is directionless and has become excessively moralistic and sardonic in its approach. He observed that radio was a medium that empowered him with the faculty of visualization during storytelling. He mourned that television was a medium which actually took that ability away from him.

He complained that the mandate of Pakistan Television of “education, information and entertainment” has eroded over time. He expressed his concern over the degeneration of the media and criticized the growing sensationalism and commercialism. He also expressed his concerns over the lack of censorship.

Playwright Ahmed Saleem mentioned producers and writers who pushed the frontiers of tolerance. He mentioned Dr. Anver Sajjad, Agha Nasir and Iqbal Ansari to be some of the most important names in this regard.

He recalled how his play “Amaawas” became a landmark in pushing the limits of tolerance on state television. The play was directed by Iqbal Ansari which portrayed the female lead played by Bushra Ansari demanding a divorce from the male lead played by Asif Raza Mir. The play stirred a great controversy at the time.

He recalled that people wrote to them objecting to the content of the play, worrying that it could corrupt the minds of women. He also recalled that they received threats from religious groups and clerics for airing such a play. However, he paid a tribute to director Ansari for encouraging him to express himself in the play as he pleased, even though the daring director had to offer an explanation and an apology once the play ended.

He also recalled working for the documentation of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of PTV. However, he left disgusted when many producers started claiming credits for things that were obviously were not their contributions. However, he said that he was proud to write scripts for Shireen Pasha’s landmark documentary on Cholistan.

He recalled that government interventions started plaguing PTV during Yahya’s regime when Tagore and Nazar-ul-Islam were banned in East Pakistan while adding more Urdu content, alienating the Bengali population.

Saleem recalled joining the newspaper “Aman” in the 80s as a television critic and used to interview TV stars. His interviews were criticized for being politically loaded such as the one involving actress Marina Khan in which he quoted her of criticizing the construction of Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. She said that many schools could have been built with that money.

Questions and answers session saw someone asking for a direction for the media. Mr. Zubair said that Pakistan was not prepared for freedom of media in its years of infancy and needed stability instead. He also insisted on the importance of following religious guidelines.

Agha Nasir recalled that PTV was issued one directive per week during Zia’s regime. Directives were about things like how the dopatta should be worn on air, that female singer should not gyrate while singing and that duets should be banned. Nazia and Zohaib Hassan’s duet also came under fire, despite the fact that they were siblings. The puritanical disciplinarians responded that not everybody was aware of that.

Moderator Farrukh Pitafi conceded that the media is rightfully criticized by the audience for sensationalizing reporting, distorting facts and commercializing and trivializing information, as well desensitizing audiences. He said that Pakistan was a classical example wherein space was expanding and quality was diminishing.

He said that poetic license of freedom was being used in news in Pakistan instead and that anchors have been guilty of such excesses. However, he also made a point that educated audiences would demand better content from the media and that the population explosion has been making things worse.

Almost unanimously, the panelists agreed that excessive freedom of expression is inappropriate. Ahmed Saleem gave a similar reply to my question why people were so fond of censorship in Pakistan. I found that rather disappointing coming from a writer.

He narrated how a news anchor misrepresented CM Shahbaz Sharif’s medical aid to him for undergoing a liver transplant as an act of corruption. He noticed that it came as a surprise to him since he was a political critic of the Sharif brothers. Yet the generous and praiseworthy deed of the leader was painted as a vile act by a news anchor with a political agenda.

But this story made me doubt his understanding of freedom of speech, which he later mentioned to be a positive tool if used properly. He recalled how they used to wonder what they should play and write about after the death of dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in 1988. But they frequently followed their heroic struggle for freedom of speech with the warnings of the need for discipline and order.

Revolutionaries of yesterday, with the exception of Mr. Zubair of course, have become the conservatives of our times.

But it is hardly a surprise.

Note: This is not a paid post.

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