My Photo

« Pogrom | Main | Bill Ayers: Please Go Away »

December 06, 2008


It's puzzled me for a while that the received narrative about Pakistan doesn't include the ethnic tensions resulting from its cobbled-together nature. It's as if the assumption is that Pakistan is homogeneous because the common ethnicity is "Muslim".

I think the assumption is really, "If we covered complicated stuff, our readers' heads would explode."

Is it fair to compare this with the Mumbai coverage, or can we assume the latter got more covered because the form of the attack was unusual ? (riots : yawn, tons of simultaneous hostage takings in upscale hotels : wtf ?)

Actually, I saw some coverage on PBS ... Frontline World, I think.

Endemic rioting in Pakistan, especially sectional rioting, is probably not good.

"It's as if the assumption is that Pakistan is homogeneous because the common ethnicity is 'Muslim'."

Now substitute the word America/American in there, and you have the common assumption you see on most news shows.

Caravelle: I don't think so. The Mumbai bombings killed a lot more people, for one thing; for another, they're part of a broader story that has some relevance to us (terrorism).

Yes, news bias by omission is especially pernicious. The minute by minute coverage of the Indian violence can be attributed, I guess, to the fact that there were some western victims. The fact that instability within these two countries, and animosity between them, which may or may not be related, implicate the safety of the entire world. Yet, no coverage = no longterm effort to make sense of it.

Gotta agree with Brett, here (@ 07:25) - although the accounts of the Karachi riots don't really sound all that complicated.

@ Fraud Guy (09:08):

I agree with your point as well, but somehow, I have the feeling that if there were days-long ethnic rioting featuring "...murder, arson, turning over cars and setting them on fire, the works." in say, Cleveland, Atlanta or Boston, that "assumption" might not be so easily accepted.

Semi-OT: I just saw this story Pakistan put on alert after hoax phone call (also here). Now I imagine it may turn out when the details emerge that these stories are wrong or misleading.

Still, it made me wonder - how is it that Pakistan and India don't have a system of secure encrypted communications (i.e. like the Cold War hotline between the US and Russia) between their respective civilian and military leaders so this sort of thing can't happen.

I'm not happy about the idea of WW3 being started by the South Asian equivalent of Canadian DJ's. Not cool.

Did you try searching for Muttonhead Quail?

Now substitute the word America/American in there, and you have the common assumption you see on most news shows.

Really? During the election, I heard an awful lot about the black vote, the Latino vote, the Catholic vote, the Jewish vote, the white ethnic vote, etc.

Now substitute the word America/American in there, and you have the common assumption you see on most news shows.

What news are you watching? The news sources I use love to describe Americans by their ethnicity: African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Italian Americans, etc. When they're not using ethnic descriptions, they're using religious, class, and regional ones. I think your observation is a sign that you're so used to those distinctions that you don't even think about them anymore.

Hi Hilzoy,

Relatively long-time reader, first-time commenter. I'm from Pakistan, and I second your bemusement at the lack of coverage. Maybe some of your readers are not quite familiar with all the players involved, so I thought I would give you a brief primer.

Basically Karachi is the only cosmopolitan city in Pakistan. It features cross-cutting cleavages, such as those based on ethnicity (Sindhis, Pasthuns, Balochis, Mohajirs, Punjabis), sect (Shias, Sunnis, Bohris, Ahmedis), class (massive slums, massive mansions) and godknowswhatelse. This makes it a powder keg akin to the Balkans pre-WWI: any little thing can set it off.

This latest episode was born out of simmering tensions between the Pashtuns and Mohajirs. The Mohajirs are almost wholly represented by the MQM, which is a secular and moderate party on religious issues and a relatively violent-approaching-fascist party based on ethnic issues. Its leader, Altaf Hussain, resides in London for fear of his life. The MQM has a long and sordid history with respect to ethnic violence in Pakistan and Karachi particularly, and has featured both as its victim and perpetrator over many years.

Basically Altaf Hussain has taken to lumping in all Pashtuns with the Taliban and has said that they (Pasthuns in general) represent a menace to Karachi, which has historically (if history only goes back 55 years) been a city dominated by the Mohajirs. He has even encouraged people to arm themselves as sort of citizen vigilantes, which if you know anything about the MQM, is fairly redundant.

Tensions have been simmering for a while, and my understanding is this latest episode was sparked by rumors which were pretty much unfounded (some were saying Pashtun men were going around raping Mohajir women, and that Mohajirs were slicing off the ears of Pashtuns, neither of which turned out to be true). But rumors can be very powerful in our part of the world.

Anyway, don't want to bore you any more. Just wanted to say that I appreciate your attention on this issue.

Ahsan: thanks a lot for the background, and for commenting. I love Karachi, and I hate that this happened. (Not that it's without precedent, but still.)


Have you been there? It's my hometown.

I knew there was something fishy about that Washington Post story. The reporting of Islamic militants torching more than 160 vehicles received several lengthy paragraphs, with only this curiously terse and brief addendum "fighting between rival political and ethnic gangs continued in parts of Karachi, raising the death toll to 32 in three days of violence said city police chief Waseem Ahmed."

Raging battles between 'political and ethnic gangs' seemed to be the real story, but this is Karachi we're talking about, not Kansas. Had no Western vehicles been destroyed, the story may not have been picked up by any majors at all.Eurocentrism in the media is too cliche to even bother discussing anymore, but that doesn't mean it's gone away.

""...murder, arson, turning over cars and setting them on fire, the works."

This is always big news when it happens in a Country We Look Down On - like France. (ok, there was no murder, except for the kid killed by the cops). Or maybe Venezuela. But not Columbia.

Seriously, the media seem well-trained to follow the neocon/Bush lead and scrupulously ignore signs of trouble in our "ally" Pakistan. The media already have a list of Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Issues. If the facts support the narrative, if they don't, well....

Ahsan: yes, three times. I help teach classes in bioethics at AKU (I do the background in Western Philosophy.) Part of an effort to start up their Bioethics Masters Program.

This is also the reason I almost never write about Pakistan: no one has ever said anything the least bit controversial to me, and anything I wrote would be my own opinion anyways, but I don't want to write something taking one side of any contentious issue and have anyone think that I'm reflecting the views of anyone I met over there.

Hahaha. Small world, man. Small world.

The comments to this entry are closed.