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We’re Just Like Everyone Else

April 28, 2010

Updated: Scroll to the end to see additional comments and corrections.

As everyone who’s spent more than a few minutes online knows, it’s common enough to find criticism, fights, and negative vibes on the Internet – whether it be in the form of hate-filled blog posts, trolls on various forums, flame wars in the comments sections of Youtube videos, Facebook wall-to-wall disputes, and more recently, Twitter battles where public barbed tweets serve as virtual blows. So far this has been one of the principal criticims aimed at the Internet – that it can lead to a great deal of unnecessary conflict and is a handy public space for ‘unwanted elements’, ranging from viruses to extremism to paedophilia to bigotry. The ‘traditional media’, made up of newspapers, magazines, television, and radio, is supposedly host to a more balanced, nuanced world view and features thoughtful, intelligent, ‘expert’ discourse. Of course, anyone with a half-critical eye on both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media knows that for all practical purposes, the two worlds now overlap to the point where distinguishing between the two is useless.

The New York Times posts almost all of its content online, and BBC constantly refers to online sources and its website in its coverage of events. Advertising on the Internet is no longer ‘below-the-line’ – it is strictly another prong in the central brand-based communications strategy of most companies. The blogosphere has developed to the point where one can choose between personal and corporates, both of whom may wish to maintain photoblogs and ‘v-logs’ (video logs) as well. Content on both mediums has gravitated towards each other, resulting in a plethora of well-reasoned blog posts and print articles referencing Internet memes. Fragmentation has come and gone – convergence is what’s happening now, and as a result we see both good and bad examples of ‘new media’ and ‘old media’. However, many ‘traditional’ media establishments continue to view the Web either as a threat or as a ‘lesser’ version of itself, as evidenced by Rupert Murdoch’s threats t0 Google.

In response, we often see blog posts taking apart the traditional media’s coverage of what’s happening around the world. This blog post is more of the same, but through the prism of the new reality, where there is no dichotomy between online and offline media.

So, over the past year, a certain place has been receiving a great deal of negative press around the world. From being the subject of international vitriol and holier-than-thou social commentary, to being saddled with stereotypes of every kind and getting singled out as THE source of all evil and suffering in the world, this place was suffering from a public relations disaster. No one wanted to touch it with a mile-long pole, and both tourists and investment dried up faster than a flower in the desert. It was, quite simply, everyone’s favorite scapegoat for the troubles of the age.

This place was once Pakistan: home of the dreaded madrassas, sanctuary for Osama Bin Laden, the Islamic republic that always seemed to be under martial law and one step away from self-destruction. (Terrorism was the biggest problem in the world.)

This place is now, however, Dubai: kingdom of greed, hollow empire of consumerism and brandlust, the city of malls built by exploited forced labor and paid for by oil hoarding sheikhs now mired in debt. (The economy is the biggest problem now.)

Both of these descriptions are uninformed, biased, easy to digest, and simply wrong. However, the real story isn’t that these stereotypes are happily being propogated through every medium possible – a far more telling insight lies in the response (or lack thereof) from the Pakistani media and digirati. A year ago, these institutions were abuzz with indignation over Newsweek’s labeling of Pakistan as ‘the most dangerous country in the world‘, with DAWN publishing op-ed after op-ed bemoaning the poor image of the country and Geo hosting furious rants about the conspiracy to demean our nation. Blogs like Cafe Pyala featured brutal take-downs of misrepresentations of Pakistan in the New York Times. Recently, for example, stand-up comedian Shazia Mirza’s unflattering article after her recent visit in the Guardian was widely lambasted on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere, and even the newly launched Express Tribune delivered a smackdown. The Tribune’s editorial was shared around Facebook and Twitter by the Pakistani community online, celebrated for providing a much-needed desi riposte. Well done.

However, a few weeks later, the same newspaper published an op-ed replicating the misinformed and biased approach taken by much of the western media with regards to Pakistan – this time, though, the target was Dubai, and none of the commenters and retweeters seemed to remember the importance of balance and realism. The article celebrated Pakistan by comparing it to Dubai, formerly one of the most popular tourist and commercial destinations in the world, currently punching bag of choice. While it correctly pointed out that things in Pakistan are not as bad as it may seem from the news, it fell into the same trap of labels and stereotypes that international commenters on Pakistan were caught in. Dubai, if you believed the writer, was a grim reminder of the consumer spirals that led to financial collapse, its malls places where people prayed to Prada.

Many of the commenters to the article did believe the writer, it seems. What’s more, they had shared the same views for a long time – they had supposedly looked down upon the very place where they posed for pictures and showed off to friends back home in Karachi and Lahore. Until very recently, going to Dubai ‘for the weekend’ was a status symbol for the same people who now gleefully flung mud and shared their stories of disillusionment. Dubai has no values, wrote several commenters, aware of course of the traits they were displaying: group think and hypocrisy. It’s a remarkable turnaround for those who are apparently so stuffed with ‘traditional values’ that they would conceivably die rather than speak ill of ‘Muslim brethren’ or backbite.

Of COURSE Dubai has its flaws. Of COURSE there are many sins buried under its sands. But show me any place in the world that is perfect, and I’ll show you a horse playing the guitar while it does the moonwalk.

Oops.

My beef is not with the criticism of Dubai – it is with the nature of, and response to, that criticism. The Express Tribune’s article promotes an extremely one-sided and unfair view, and is cheered upon by the same folks who booed when they were hit by those views. My beef is principally with the journalists who see fit to call out the ignorance they see in Western newspapers but fail to see their own. Calling Pakistan a sexually deprived country is mean-spirited, but calling Dubai (a self-confessed hub of commerce) the capital of greed is appropriate. Why does Two-Face seem to be your idol? Why are stereotypes okay when they don’t apply to you?

Get real. You can’t make judgments about a place through a bunch of articles, or even through business and tourist trips. The only people who can judge a place are those who have lived there for several years. Period.

“I’m so glad more people hate Dubai now.”

I’m shocked.

‘At least we’re not Dubai.’

We’re just like everyone else.

Update: After going through the Twitter history and comments on the article, I see that the Dubai community jumped to defend its city and that the record does show, finally, significant dissent to the writer’s views. Also, the herd mentality by many Pakistanis doesn’t seem to have done our image a world of good in Dubai, where they actually liked us before.

Update II: CORRECTIONS:

The author of the article mentioned above contacted me and gave me a little more insight into the article.

Firstly, the author is indeed well informed and the implication that he is misinformed is wrong. More appropriately, the article seemed (to me and several others) like it came from an ignorant perspective.

The author also agrees with my disappointment at the ‘jingoistic, nationalistic response from the readership.’

He also added that this was not a news story, it was an op-ed, which is almost by definition subjective and looks to generate debate. My view was, and remains, that criticizing a place and its inhabitants will not spur positive debate – and we saw that happen in the rancorous ‘Dubai vs Karachi’ sentiment that briefly reared its head.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 6:59 am

    Well written man.

    I never actually read the article on Dubai, but read the responses to it in the Letters to the Editor in the Express Tribune, most loved the article, some made similar points to yours.

    It’s the problem with our society I guess – insecurity and denial – the combination makes us feel better about ourselves and/or our nation; consequently, hindering progress towards being open-minded, empathetic, and forward-thinking.

    Additionally, one of the major flaws of “new media” for a nation like Pakistan is that the views/comments expressed through this medium represent a minority of this nation; mix that with daily news coming out of this country and it leaves a very obscure image leading people to believe what they want to believe.

    You’re right, people who’ve lived somewhere for a few years have a right to make a judgement above anyone else; but, unfortunately, those people don’t give others what they want to hear. I guess very few in this world accept reality.

    • April 28, 2010 12:36 pm

      Yeah,but the ‘similar points’ didn’t come in after about two days. I would hesitate to call it a problem with ‘our’ society – I’ve pointed out that it was something that many other people have done to – it’s just natural, I guess, to feel better about yourself by making comparisons. It’s also flawed. Again, I would say there’s some insecurity and denial everywhere, but it seems to be more obvious on some cases.

      Great point on the minority aspect – but I think more and more Pakistanis are participating online, which is a great thing. Just see Facebook and, well, Orkut 😛

      Again, the statement that few accept reality is a little too expansive for me…I’d give people the benefit of the doubt and simply say that they are ignorant, as everyone necessarily must be (you can’t know everything), but also that they should realize that.

      See this post: https://nsahmed.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/ignorance-remains-sublime-%C2%AB-lara-gardner%E2%80%99s-weblog/

  2. sheena permalink
    May 1, 2010 2:16 am

    nabeeeeel. so well written. but again I must say I begrudge neither what they wrote about us nor what we wrote about someone else. fact of the matter is, there is a name in the beginning of every article, a reporter’s voice behind every footage. it means that this literature is the opinion of a certain person, this video is the perspective of an individual associated with a brand thats running on the money of other brands.

    where you must have lauded several opinions in the very same papers that youve qouted, you are also disagreeing very articulately to another set of opinions on the same paper. that DOESNT make you wrong or right. that just makes you an intelligent person with a say on a matter. and someone with a say is more respectable than someone who doesnt care/dare to.

    • May 4, 2010 3:08 am

      I do begrudge those who promote inappropriate stereotypes. It only creates misunderstandings and bad blood (for the most part). And often people don’t remember/care about the person who wrote the article/narrated the footage. It often matters, but over the long term, the impact of the report on shaping and influencing opinion is more dangerous.

      I agree that this post is not about me being wrong or right – it’s just me expressing my opinions on something. Important to note that it’s directed to a certain article and the response to it,and not to the paper.

  3. sheena permalink
    May 1, 2010 2:17 am

    and dude. Im loving the moonwalking horse.

  4. Saad Aziz permalink
    May 20, 2010 6:36 am

    In reply to your last post on my note on Facebook:

    There is a thing called emotion. I know rationality should always be there but i guess you need to understand the concept of emotion from scratch.

    Imagine that tomorrow I put up your dad’s or your mother’s or even your wife’s absurd and ridiculous caricatures and put them on display for the world to see and comment on. I am sure you will absolutely cherish the moment. You will want to embrace me. You will try to improve upon your own weaknesses and try to explain to me very calmly. Anger is something you wouldn’t really feel. Haina? NO…I don’t think so Nabeel.

    As Muslims, it is integral to our faith that we love Allah first and the Prophet(SAW) second before any other entity or person. If you’re not doing that then your faith is at stake. So now that you love someone so much how can you not feel anger when that someone is being publicly embarassed. And this emotion demands a protest no doubt.

    It is sad not to be loved but it is even sadder not to be able to love.

    All of what you posted on my note makes sense and you’re right. But Nabeel you too often take the discussion into a particular direction that is uncalled for. I agree with what you say and that is all right. But what you say must go side by side with this protest on the blasphemy. You can not let this happen and just work on your own weaknesses. Both things should happen side by side. Unfortunately it is not happening at the moment and we are more inclined towards protesting and provocations. But I am confident that things will improve soon for the better insha’Allah; particularly if people like you do come back and serve our country; your country; my country. But i believe that the fact that people are reacting like this is a very good sign. Atleast, they have not completely become emotion-less.

    Finally you said: I honestly do not think that we have reached that point yet-and certainly we do not have his level of authority.

    Why would any one be inspired by YOUR honest thinking?? Why would any one believe that your honest opinion values even as much as a dime?

    And when you refer to the Prohet’s(SAW) level of authority you’re making another grave error. Prpohet(SAW) is no more between us. But his actions live on. So on debatable issues like this when there is an ‘Ijma’ of the Ummat then that Ijma holds supreme value.

    • May 20, 2010 10:53 am

      A protest does not mean boycott or ban. I’m not against protest – I’m against the manner of protest – against angrily forming prejudices and reaffirming that others are enemies. A group on Facebook to protest another group on Facebook – all right. Articles in the press about how this is wrong – that’s what I advocate.

      Boycotting or banning Facebook,something that does not hurt that particular campaign under any circumstances,but only gives it more publicity? Wrong, terribly wrong. Did you know that since the Pakistani ban of facebook, that Draw Muhammad Day page has gained more than 3,000 fans?

      Anger is natural,but as the Prophet (pbuh) himself said-Beware of anger, for it is a live coal on the heart of the descendants of Adam. (Tirmidhi)

      See, I don’t think Prophet Muhammad (saws) gets embarrassed by such pointless cartoons-and my faith is secure alhamdulillah. We can agree to disagree on this point.

      Things ARE improving in Pakistan. It’s difficult to see that amidst all nonsensical headlines, amidst this environment of insecurity that dominates the country. I remain largely hopeful that things will get better as long as the people think in the right direction. Often however that doesn’t happen and it’s extremely frustrating.

      No,you’re right,my opinion does not matter. But if you feel that you can judge that things have gone so far that we must resort to violent means and forget about admonitions, then you are obviously bolder than me. As far as the Ijma goes,there is no Ijma here-this is a small proportion of the Pakistani population that is getting worked up.And it’s not like Pakistanis are the last and only Muslims on earth.

      However,we may continue to disagree on this,yet still continue working in the way of Allah (swt). Jazakallah for responding, it really means a lot.

  5. Saad Aziz permalink
    May 20, 2010 3:18 pm

    no problem=)
    but speaking strictly from an Islamic point of view, Facebook has more ills for Muslims than any other practitioners of any other faith. No doubt it’s the best way to stay in touch and get your point of view across to a host of people but it has given way to procrastination such that many people waste their time. Moreover, it is a source of ‘fahashi’ if not used carefully since people generally use it as a means to upload pictures of the next outing and wasting time and energy and effort on commenting and spying on each other. This is precious time lost. Time has no alternative. So sometimes an out right restriction such as a ban might be a blessing in disguise. I hope it is. Finding and staying in touch with friends is only a part of the deal; a peripheral part of the deal, I am afraid.

    • May 21, 2010 12:51 am

      You know what, I agree that Facebook is a huge time waster and if not used carefully, can be pretty horrible. But the same goes for the Internet in general. And I feel now that my point against the boycott and subsequent ban on Facebook is at least partially vindicated – people got worked up, the LHC got worked up, and promptly banned Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, and even Google for a small time. Now how do you defend that? Really…it went out of control and the only people who are suffering are the Pakistanis – the students and academics who used Wikipedia and Google to research, stay in touch, and conduct business.

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