Military & the media
By Afiya Shehrbano Zia
The writer is an independent researcher who has also written for The News, Dawn, The Friday Times and EPW. She is also a member of the Women’s Action Forum
It’s an accurate observation by Mazhar Abbas (who wrote on these pages some days ago), that the only force that can rightfully claim to have co-opted religious militancy to some extent, is the media. However reluctant the militant, he has realised there can be no cause unless it’s gotten many ‘k’ hits on YouTube.
The social media may have extended a relevance to individuals who may never have been seen, heard or published otherwise. However, it is the power of mass media that renders visibility to groups and (de)legitimises their causes. Apparently, Pakistan’s military has realised this too. Their previously dull campaigns of nationalism on never-watched PTV have graduated to state-of-the-art, populist ventures, staged by private media and aided by the tool of corporate event management — thus giving an additional angle to the term, ‘Military Inc.’.
The messages conveyed (propaganda, for the older, pre politically-correct generation) by militants and the military are starkly similar — masculinist, abstract notions of loyalty, sovereignty, patriotism, sacrifice, martyrdom and defence of higher ideals. This also means that some of the images of bravery, courage, honour and The Enemy are also similar, though more restrained in military agitprops.
However, the mode, props, budget and target audience of militant and military promotional campaigns are clearly divergent. So are the forms of communication — cultural activities, drama, singing and gender-assimilated settings are certainly not the militants’ preferred choices of promotional material.
Ironically, the strategy of appealing to nationalist and religious sentiment has so far been most effectively deployed by not national but multinational corporations, which have used these to peddle everything from, azaan-activated-Android phones to Pepsi-pushing-Pakistaniat. The high rate of subsequent pietism and cola consumption seems to have convinced the military of the success of such stratagem.
Some optimists suggest that ‘modernising its image’ is part of the de-radicalisation drive within the army. This has been dovetailed into its campaign (post-lawyer’s movement) to recover its bruised image as a political maverick that interrupts democracy. Why cultural shows though? In the last decade, the antidote to religious militancy has become this vague thing called ‘culture’. Too affected by 9/11 to recover anything along the lines of a secular political identity and too worried about the westernised connotations of liberalism, the idea of ‘moderation’ suddenly became a vastly appealing compromise to our urban elite.
This apolitical, ahistorical, concessionary concept was to be promoted through ‘indigenous culture’. Since its patron was General Pervez (retd) Musharraf, this meant that while many artists drew, painted, sang and designed abstractedly against militancy (at least till the funding lasted), they certainly weren’t pushing against military culture or, for the restoration of a philistine democracy — until these became inevitable.
Meanwhile, as dancers, poets and pietists were being killed by militants in one province, we celebrated resistance in the form of fashion shows in the metropolis. Culture itself, became almost exclusively defined by the spectacle and the song. The military, keen to demonstrate a break from its own‘anti-culture’ reputation, seems to have bought this hook, line and coke studio.
As the affected populations of Swat, Swabi and other parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will testify, cultural activity may certainly serve as a tool of commerce or resistance. But before that, much before, culture is really about the continuity of identity and ethnicity that is most authentic when it is not used as a symbol — of oppression or liberation. When it becomes an instrument of either of these, it tends to get unhinged from its craftspeople, its location and its beingness — into a commodity — to sell nationalism, serve as resistance or boost the economy.
Last week, the Pakhtun Rorwali Saqafat festival organised by the Lower Dir administration was not handled by expensive event managers and its attendees were not patriots — the locals repeatedly said that they felt the event had simply enabled them to reclaim the routineness of being citizens.
It’s strange how commonly and quietly it is accepted that corporations are naturally driven by profits, not ethics. Therefore, there is no outrage at the contradictions in terms when event managers/cultural troupes/designers/fashion show moghuls lend their talent to war machineries in the GHQ, while simultaneously arranging events for India-Pakistan peace moots.
If the commercial media elects to either ignore or fetishise themes of militancy, natural disasters or religious bigotry, it is targeted for criticism of its bias and agenda-driven partiality and even, insensitive exploitation of the human form and sentiment. Neutrality and ‘good taste’ is expected from the media. But if corporations organise, or advertising companies promote events,by peddling national identities, religion, performers and the female body form in order to benefit businesses and/or the military, their agendas are considered ‘pure’, patriotic, positive and a win-win for all Pakistanis.
Maybe the militants just need a good event manager too.