Using Your Power For Good

The Abbottabad raid on Sunday night had a surprisingly unintended outcome – apart from the usual debate on Pakistan’s ‘problems’ and the moral right (or lack thereof) of the US government’s actions in the last 10 years – the raid also served to pique the world’s interest in Pakistan and it’s people.

No where was this more evident than in the lives of Pakistani Internet entreprenuers who experienced a surge in people from the world over asking them questions about Pakistan, the political situation in the country, about Abbottabad, and a hundred other things.

It drove home an important point – the proliferation of social media and blogging gives people a wide variety of options from which to get their news and insights from, and in the aftermath of the raid many people turned to Pakistani bloggers (and Tweeters) for their information fix on Pakistan.

To paraphrase what one of these new followers (susannyc) said, we need to find the positives in each situation, and building on that, each event in our lives provides us with an opportunity and it’s up to us how we choose to use that opportunity.

In the case of current events, the spotlight has been fixed on Pakistan as the world digests one man’s death and what it means for global geopolitical relations (diddly-squat, if you must know).

Regardless of whether you have tribal affiliations or you see yourself as a nationalist or a socialist hippie, regardless of whether you believe in borders or not, whether you believe in God or not, whether you believe in external and internal threats to Pakistan or not, you still have the same opportunity as every other Pakistani that is caught in even the most outside beam of this spotlight.

You have the opportunity to change the world’s opinions about us. Please don’t waste this by using valuable time to bicker about the government, or the military, or the corrupt landlords, or US hypocrisy, or the despicable politicians, or the opportunistic religious influences, or whatever else itch you’ve got to scratch.

I want the truth as much as anyone else, just as I want electricity 24/7, a revised education policy with a completely revamped curriculum, intelligent use of natural resources, 100% literacy, poverty alleviation, etc etc. Actually, scratch that, at this point most of us would accept just two things – an end to corruption and substantial investment in the country’s infrastructure (with or without foreign aid) with the private sector brought in to efficiently manage and deliver projects.

But back to the truth – and yes, it would be good to know, but it would also be good to be able to raise our heads and look at the whole playing field. 10,000 of us could pester the government for 1 year to tell us the truth, and the outcome would be, at best, extreme frustration and political destabilisation, which will only enable a regime change and not much else (it’s happened before). It will not bring about progress in this country, and it will only perpetuate the common Pakistani affliction – blaming every problem on external factors while taking zero responsibility for what happens in their own lives.

Or the same 10,000 journalists and pundits who have been bleating themselves hoarse and blue on TV, on radio, on Twitter and in print for the last 5 days, these people could take out time to write one article, do one radio / tv segment, and talk about what’s great in Pakistan. Maybe you could mention the cuisine that’s to die for, the jaw-dropping beauty of our landscapes, the tremendous growth potential for investors looking for long-term value, the warmth and hospitality of our people.

This is not a time to accept lies, but neither is this the time to engage in mass protest and point scoring. The world is watching, let’s change their perspective about Pakistan. We can complain, or we can take active steps, using the resources we have available to us right now, to change our world, one step at a time, starting right away.

Any article mentioning Abbottabad these days would be incomplete without mentioning Sohaib Athar. I’ve made more than my share of jokes about him being caught up in a highly improbable situation (one of which got turned into a video about him), but as I said in an interview given on Monday, he’s also the best person this could have happened to.

Here’s a guy who hasn’t used the event or the new found fame for pointing out the country’s problems or cribbing about what’s wrong. At 105k Twitter followers and counting his reach and impact dwarfs anything that the Pakistani online community is saying and doing. Yet you won’t even see him promoting his own business or otherwise selling his story for money.

On the contrary, he has given the world first-hand confirmation that a Pakistani on the street is not much different from an American or an Englishman or any other common citizen around the world. He has put a human face to Pakistan that people around the world (watching TV or following him on Twitter can empathise with). He bought a kitten for his son. He moved away to a city in the mountains to get away from the daily hub-bub of big cities and to raise his family in peace. He works hard and has little faith in global media bullshit that we’re fed 24/7.

He’s got people thinking – hang on, these are real people over there that we’re pinning all the world’s faults on, people who have nothing to contribute to the world’s problems, people who are just like us, trying to live their lives the best way they can.

Contrast this with the output of the journalists you follow online, in print and on TV, and look at what impact they’ve had versus the impact one man has had. They’ve only served to confirm the viewpoints of those people who point at Pakistan and call it a schizophrenic nuclear state, people who blindly associate Pakistan (and Pakistanis) with terrorism and corruption, people whose first opinion about Pakistanis is that they can’t be trusted.

One person showing the world how similar we are and that differences are manufactured, and the whole establishments showing the world that yes, those manufactured differences are in fact real, and you’re right not to trust us.

Note to journalists who might be offended by this:

You’re doing a great job telling the world about Pakistan’s problems. It’s similar to 20 reporters covering a fire ravaging a neighbourhood while there is no one there help those dying. There is no fire-fighting crew, no rescue team coming to save us – the last 60-odd years would have taught you that.

When you’ve got the world at your fingertips, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. You can be the firefighting heroes, the life-saving heroes, or you can be the messenger that narrated the end of the world. Your choice.

To everyone else:

You may not have a hundred thousand people watching you with interest or dozens of TV channels trying to catch a quote, but if you’re like myself and you’re working online or have friends outside Pakistan, you have an audience (even if it’s an audience of one or ten people) who are interested in learning more about Pakistan.

The events in Abbottabad have turned the whole world’s head this way. They’re listening. Your friends are listening. It’s up to you what they hear. Please make it good.

Update: I didn’t intend to criticise journalists for their profession – after all, I’m a sports journalist myself and big news stories are the life blood of our careers. But precisely because I’ve been doing this for over 5 years, I feel that I’m qualified to ask fellow professionals to look at the opportunity they’ve been given, and understand that if they continue doing what they’re doing right now, there’s a significant opportunity cost involved.

You will still increase your standing, following and reputation by acting as a positive lens for the world to see Pakistan from. You’re already that lens, you already have the growing fame as long as you are talking. But the key question is: what are you talking about?

Leave a Reply