Pakistan’s Urdu Columnists Live in the La-La Land of Conspiracy Theories

I was most amused in a strange, tragic way as to what nonsense is churned out as ‘opinion’ and ‘analysis in Pakistan’s mainstream vernacular media. I had once written about it as well here. True to his incisive reputation, CM Naim’s piece is extraordinarily well written and revealing. Raza Rumi

By: C.M. Naim – For the past five or six months I’ve been reading fairly regularly the web pages of three Urdu newspapers from Pakistan: Jang, Nawa-i-Waqt and the Express. I glance at the headlines cursorily then immediately turn to the columnists. Most days, each of the three carries a minimum of six columnists. Some of them are big names; they frequently appear on TV shows, get regularly invited to the President’s residence, and travel with the Prime Minister on important trips. These gentlemen never let you forget all that. One or two even give details of the food served on such occasions—there is always plenty of food served, not just a cup of tea, when they visit with any dignitary.

Some of them repeatedly tell us how uniquely they know the “history” of everything—how things actually happened, be it in Pakistan of here and now or any country in the past. They also inform us that had their advice been properly understood or taken, the disaster that followed in many cases could have been avoided. None of the sages has ever made a serious error of judgment. And if one of them ever makes a rare acknowledgment of that nature, it is always as a charge of betrayal on the part of some other party.

Conspiracy theories naturally abound in these columns, with three dependable conspirators: America, India (i.e. Bharat in Urdu; never Hindustan), and Israel. The labels may change and become CIA, RAW, and Mossad, or Nasara (the Christians), Hunud (the Hindus), and Yahud (the Jews), but their axis of evil remains unchanged. The alliteration of the last two—hunud and yahud—makes them a favourite and indivisible pair; they generate an assertion that no one questions in Urdu in Pakistan.

In these columns one discovers that M. A. Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal were never correctly understood by except the particular columnist. They also offer amazing bits of ‘history’—often with a grand flourish. You can be sure to face something remarkable soon if the paragraph begins with the words: “Tarikh gavaah hai” “History is My Witness.” Fairly often a column might appear to have been written, not to communicate some idea or information, but for the sheer joy of writing those pretty words that, for plenty of Urduwalas, make it the “sweetest” language in the world.

Urdu newspapers—or for that matter, the English language ones—do not seem to employ fact checkers or copy editors for their columnists; they seldom carry any correction except of the most minor kind. One, in fact, wonders if their editors read them. One can be quite certain that the English newspaper editors and columnists in Pakistan don’t read them, not even if these Urdu columns appear in a sister publication brought out by their own publisher. In my limited experience of reading the columns in the Daily Times and the News fairly regularly—and inDawn, infrequently—I have not come across any column in English that commented in any fashion on some Urdu column or columnist. But the Urdu columnists are certainly read by a huge number of people, who save them and treat them as gospel truth. Recently one of them published a call for people to send him their saved cuttings of his column so that he could put together a book; in no time he had more than enough.

I must now offer some illustrations. But first I must hasten to add that not all Urdu columnists in Pakistan write in that manner. Quite a few—Hameed Akhtar, Zaheda Hena, Munno Bhai, Tanwir Qaisar Shahid, Asghar Nadeem Sayyad, Abdullah Tariq Suhail, Kishwar Naheed, Rafeeq Dogar, to name my own favourites—consistently write with clarity, sober reasoning, and in a manner that is both eloquent and passionate. As for the others—the majority—meet a few below.

Hamid Mir writes a regular column in Jang; he writes with passion but is usually quite careful.  I was taken aback when I read his column on April 27. He gave it the title “Children, True of Heart.” In it he described a meeting he addressed where school children were present, and where one child stood up and told him something that he had not known before. The child pointed out, Mir wrote, that America was such a sworn enemy of Pakistan that when Pakistan was born in 1947, the United States refused to recognize it for two years. The U.S. did so, according to the child, because it expected Pakistan to collapse and disappear any day. Mr. Mir was so moved by the child’s fervour and knowledge about Pakistan that he decided to write a column and acknowledge his ignorance of the truth that even a child knew. (In fact the U.S.A. recognized Pakistan on August 15, 1947, and opened an embassy the same day. The first American ambassador arrived six months later.)

Dr. A Q Khan of Kahuta fame writes regularly in both Jang and its sister English journal, The News. In his Urdu column on April 29, Dr. Khan claimed that President Obama had no authority of his own, that he was in fact totally controlled by the white men who stood to his right and left in photographs. He then asserted, without naming his sources, that President Obama had once asked that the Ka’ba should be destroyed, for that would put an end to all the conflicts the world was faced with. When I checked the English version I found it contained no mention of the Ka’aba. On inquiry, an editor at The News informed me that it had been deleted because it was based on hearsay. Apparently, hearsay was all right so long it was in Urdu.

Safir Ahmad Siddiqui, not a regular columnist, wrote a piece in Jang on May 17, denouncing any possible attempt on the part of the government to allow transit facilities to India in its trade with Afghanistan. Mr. Siddiqui reminded the readers: “what the Indians did to the Pakistanis POWs after the war of 1971-2 was of such cruel nature that historians forgot what Hitler and Mussolini had done in their prison camps.” He then presented an analogy whose logic, not to mention factual accuracy, was mind-boggling. According to him Pakistan should learn something or other from Hitler and Poland. According to Mr. Siddiqui, Hitler wanted back his two lost seaports Alsace and Lorraine from Poland—no, I’m not making it up—and resorted to force only when Poland refused him even transit facilities.  Therefore, Mr. Siddiqui concluded, Pakistan should also refuse India any transit facility.

The difference between the Urdu and English sister papers nurtured by the same family of publishers also stood out in stark contrast with reference to the reporting on a fatwa issued by some convention of Sunni ‘Ulema on May 17. According to Jang, the learned men of God had declared that it was haraam to commit suicide bombings, or cut the throats of Muslims. According to The News, however, the Sunni scholars had “termed the suicide attacks and beheadings as haraam.” The sages most likely meant what was said in English, but the Urdu version carried its own slant recklessly and never made it clear that the fatwa covered the necks of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Abdul Qadir Hasan is a top-slot columnist in The Express—despite the name the paper is in Urdu. On May 17, he wrote:

“In 1948, 1965, and 1971, and now again in 2009 we are fighting a fourth war with India. In this war we fight not only India but also its two patrons, USA and Israel. This triad is bent on destroying us. And this war is much more dangerous than the first three wars. In those wars, armies faced and fought armies, but this time it is a clandestine war, in which one side consists of Bharat-trained and armed guerrillas, i.e. Taliban, and facing them on the other side stands the regular soldiers of Pakistan.”

This theme, common to so many columnists, was given its most perfervid interpretation five days later (May 22) by Dr. Ajmal Niazi, who is a top-slot columnist in Nawa-i-Waqt. He entitled his column: ”Pakistan will be the battlefield of the Third World War.” He made three powerful assertions—he did not use the word mubayyana (“alleged”) anywhere. (The word is rarely, if at all, used in Urdu columns.).

Seymour Hersh, Dr. Niazi claimed, had disclosed that Benazir Bhutto was killed at the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney, and by a death squad commanded by Gen. Stanley C Crystal. He further claimed that Z.A. Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto were all killed by the Americans. Finally, Dr. Niazi claimed that Benazir Bhutto had given an interview to Al-Jazira on Nov. 2, 2007, in which she had said that Osama bin Laden was already dead, and that he had been killed at the orders of Shaikh Umar Sa’id.  But the Americans ordered [whom?] to have the remark deleted, because if bin Laden were already dead they—the Americans—would have had no reason to do what they did in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having thus established to his own and his readers’ satisfaction a chain of reasoning, Dr. Niazi concluded his column with a scary flourish.

“The Western and American media are in an uproar over Pakistan’s nuclear bombs, but they should also listen to me. I’m telling them that if the nuclear weapons of Pakistan were put in any danger the third world war will immediately start. Then both India and Israel will cease to exist. What will the United States do then? The battlefield of ‘World War III’ will be Pakistan.”

Then there are the wonderful “insider’s exclusives” about the great ones. Here is Mr. Majeed Nizami, the chief editor and owner of Nawa-i-Waqt and The Nation, in a letter to his main rival Jang (May 23), explaining a remark he reportedly had made.

“The bomb-exploder prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif had called a meeting of some 60 or 70 journalists and editors to seek their advice before deciding to have the nuclear tests.  Many people of I.A. Haqqani’s ilk opposed the idea, and tried to frighten him by warning of America’s wrath. He clearly seemed to waver. At that time I was indeed forced to speak to him firmly. ‘Miyan Sahib,’ I said to him, ‘explode the bomb otherwise the nation will explode you. We will explode you.’ And Almighty Allah gave him the ability to explode the bomb. But before that could happen President Clinton phoned him five times, offered millions in bribe, and [finally even] threatened him [personally].”

And here is a charming vignette from one of Mr. Mahmud Sham’s columns—I regret my failure to note the date; it was sometime in May—that contained excerpts from his book of interviews.

“Dr Fahmida Mirza has vacated her seat for me and taken another chair. Now I’m seated on the chair next to the Daughter of the East, the first Muslim woman Prime Minister in the Muslim World, the Life Chairperson of P.P.P., Honourable Benazir Bhutto. Also present are other senior journalists, TV anchorpersons, newspaper proprietors, and her party’s senior leaders.  She wants to know if she should take part in the elections… It’s a good thing that she is seeking advice from people who are outside her party. Most of us want her to take part in the elections. She is asking each person individually. The tea has come, together with Chaat. She herself enjoys Chaat. Her dupatta keeps slipping, but she never lets it fall. I’m seeing her after many years and so my feelings are intense.”

In this la-la land of column writing in Urdu in Pakistan three names stand out in my view: Irfan Siddiqui, Dr. Aamir Liaquat Husain, and Haroon-al-Rashid. All three are regular columnists forJang. The first two surpass everyone in finding ‘facts’ where facts may not exist; they also write with great verve in an Urdu that has all the flourishes and graces required in a ghazal. The third, Mr Haroon-al-Rashid, is in a class by himself. I cannot put into English his pyrotechnical Urdu and his riffs of free-association. He must be read in the original. But here is one sample each of Mr. Siddiqui’s and Dr. Husain’s insightful writings.

In a column in May—I apologize again for not noting the date—Dr Husain first defended himself against the charges of faking his doctorate degree, then wrote:

“Those who invoke the name of the Qaid-e-Azam should first show they have the samenafs [“lower self” in mystical thought]. He was educated in England, grew up surrounded by Western culture, and started his political life from the platform of a secular party. But when he became the leader of ‘those who were his own’ he never took removed his cap from his head or took off sherwani; he did not let his nafs rule over him for a moment; he did not use the broom of greed to sweep the yard of his desires (sic). He knew he was the leader of the Muslims, and so he always looked like them among them. He knew how to wear a suit much better than many who wear suits; he knew how to cross his legs and smoke cigars. He had seen such scenes many times in the durbar of the British, but he also understood that millions of people oppressed by the Hindus had whole-heartedly claimed him as their own. And so he gave all his wishes and desires the name of Pakistan, and never looked back to that Muhammad Ali who perhaps had some personal desires too.”

And here is Mr Irfan Siddiqui on a topic that was hot for a couple of days in May. He wrote in his column in Jang (May 23):

“President Zardari was in Washington. A schoolmistress named Hilary Clinton had him and the Clown of Kabul sit on her either side, and then lectured them. In every gathering, every meeting, and every function it was specially arranged that Hamid Karzai should be on the right hand [of the American dignitary] and President Zardari on the left. I do not recall any occasion in the past when an American Secretary of State conducted a meeting of two presidents in such a fashion.”

Finally, since I come from India, I must point out that Urdu newspapers in India are in no way better. Their columns and editorials carry similar feats of conspiratorial thinking and convoluted reasoning. And in rhetorical passion they can match any Pakistani columnist. I have written about them in the past, most recently in 2007 in a note concerning the treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen at Hyderabad.

C. M. NAIMis Professor Emeritus of Urdu at the University of Chicago. Besides being an acclaimed columnist, he has written extensively on Urdu language and literature and has translated widely from Urdu fiction and poetry.

32 Comments

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32 responses to “Pakistan’s Urdu Columnists Live in the La-La Land of Conspiracy Theories

  1. These are typical signs of a people undergoing rot. By the way, what you should have also mentioned is that this stream of conspiracy theories, especially regarding hunud and yahud are an integral part of our religious discourse as well, at least in Pakistan. Since the Pakistanis currently feel completely helpless in the face of difficulties they are facing hence this tirade of conspiratorial thoughts. This way of thinking is the easiest to vent your anger at forces which you do not want to counter or cannot counter on your own. The other way, of course, is to stand up and admit our own wrongs and start making amends, but then that is the path less travelled by.

    Just my 2 cents

  2. Junaid

    Very well written Naeem Sahab.

    The reason for these conspiracy theories having a grip over Pakistanis is two fold

    1. The villainous role of Yahud and Hanud in the Islamic Urdu literature of the sub-continent. The two words are never mentioned positively in the entire Islamic or Urdu literature.

    2. There is a bit of substance to the conspiracy theories as well. For example what else should a Pakistani gather from the events of 1971 when the US was in an alliance with Pakistan; the events of Afghan war and the US abandoning Pakistan to deal with the after math of the Afghan war; support of dictators in Pakistan while fiddling the flute of demo-crazy else where; indiscriminate massacre of Pakistani civilians using drone attacks and justifying the murders as collateral damage.

    Ya knaaw, the yanks r na gud eitha

  3. yasserlatifhamdani

    Please do visit the columns of one new kalmnist (“columnist”) who is a champion of such bloopers as well… Mr. Kashif Hafeez Siddiqui.

    TFT’s Urdu Nuggets should follow him closely.

  4. yasserlatifhamdani

    “never once removed the topi from his head. never once removed the sherwani”

    All one needs to do is produce countless photographs from 1940-1948… in suits, smoking, sitting crossed legged and holding his dog in his lap..

    The Urdu columnists invent their own stories.

  5. Bloody Civilian

    “entire Islamic or Urdu literature”

    surely you meant to write ‘entire Islamic Urdu literature’. that would have been relatively less inaccurate.

  6. Bloody Civilian

    btw, my post above is supposed to have been addressed to Junaid.

  7. Anwar

    This phenomenon is not unique to Urdu press or desi columnists… here in the land of the enlightened, there are numerous conspiracy theorists who are a lot more assertive than their desi counterparts. Some sites, like the Urdu press, claim Jews are responsible for all troubles in the world and so on. Some themes are common among the right wing and the left wing sites.. Check Alex Jones, Rense, David Duke etc… and enjoy the circus.
    Paranoiac skepticism is a part of human nature – some just get carried away. The only dangerous part is the naive readership…

  8. Ummi

    @yasserlatif: I think one of the reason of your illness would be Kashifiat phobia. It seems you will be turning into graves as well.

    The slave mentality which exist among us in form of Raza and Yasir will never understand that their unreal dream about Secular Pakistan will not come true even after their death..even after death of their future generations because it’s as fake as believing in that Asif Zardari is an honest man. The reality is that “3rd class” urdu papers are read more than crap like Dawn and The News. You might curse Pakistanis by calling them jahil since they can not understand English but ground realities are different.

    You guys might like to create a virtual Pakistan on Internet where you can impose your secular laws.

  9. Ummi

    @Junaid: Irony is that Yahud and Hanud also did not mention their “infidels” positively in their holy text books. Atleast Quran embrace Jews and Christians who did not leave the path and continued to follow the orders of Allah

  10. Ummi

    Israr Ahmad the secular version of Jinnah and how local farangi used Jinnah for their own filthy agenda.

    Part-1
    http://www.jang.com.pk/jang/aug2009-daily/20-08-2009/col6.htm

    Part-2
    http://www.jang.com.pk/jang/aug2009-daily/21-08-2009/col6.htm

  11. Umar aka Ummi
    You are obviously an ill informed person. Are you telling us that a bigot like Dr Israr Ahmad is more credible than Jinnah’s own words. It is because of people like Dr Israr that we are suffering from many of the ills – religious intolerance and extremism being at the top of the list.

  12. YLH

    Ummi mian,

    Dr. Israr has not quoted Jinnah. Dr. Israr has lied out of his teeth. Dr. Israr is a crook and a crank on the same level as that Maududi fella.

    Our next generations will whoop the rear ends of your next generations.

  13. Ummi
    Your latest foul comment has been moderated.
    I would suggest that you please stay away from PTH..
    No Dr Israr fans here.
    cheers
    RR

  14. Ummi

    lol at foul language. Thanks Raza for showing your extreme attitude. People like Talibans are perfect for morons like you, YLH and his wife. May your kids become part of madrassahs you despise.Ameen.

    Don’t worry. I am not interested to be part of a place where potty mouth guys like YLH are worshiped by idiots like you. Your site is a secular version of Alqaeda site.

    ps: Listen idiot I am not fan of Asrar Ahmad either. You acted like a jerk and responded without even reading the article. No wonder extremist like you can hardly listen others.

    Keep dancing on your floor. You guys are really funny for entertainment.

  15. Bloody Civilian

    in the two columns from jang, referred to above, dr israr claims that:

    1. jinnah was afraid to show his islamic agenda lest “world powers under jewish influence” should eliminate pakistan.

    2. liaquat ali khan was killed by “zionist forces” for introducing the Objectives’ Resolution.

    and this joker gets all that air time and print space!

  16. I guess the comment from this madman needs to be printed here for it curses, abuses, spews venom and ***t.
    Wow – what fun!!

  17. bonobashi

    @Raza Rumi

    In the interests of equity, I wish you would print the comment by ‘this madman’. As you know, many of us have been chafing at Yasser’s wicked policy of allowing stupid Indian posts to remain visible, sometimes it seems like aeons, although it must actually be days in reality, before expunging them. Some are even left alone altogether.

    This is not fair.

    Please display your own idiots in the stocks at least as often as you display ours. It’s getting too one-sided.

  18. YLH

    bloody civilian,

    Yes I read that and couldn’t stop laughing…

    BTW if the Zionist forces really wanted to destroy Pakistan, they would consider Objectives Resolution an important first step to the destruction of Pakistan.
    It would entail perhaps the highest state honor from Israel to Liaqat Ali Khan.

  19. YLH

    BTW… the most amazing part of Dr. Israr’s argument is that Pakistan is now secular.

    Even he admits that Jinnah’s 11th August speech speaks of religion as a personal matter and Islam has no place for it. His second claim that religious freedom for minorities is guaranteed in Islam and therefore Jinnah is not talking of a secular state is just a shameless argument which makes no sense.

    Jinnah is talking of:

    1. Complete impartiality of the state to religion and other distinguishing features. This is to be “no business of the state”.

    2. Evolution to a point where Religion becomes a personal faith… by working together as citizens of one country. It is no negation of the existing reality but a direction and a goal for the future. This was his view through out. Even when Jinnah gave his famous 14 points (which were not his but Delhi Muslim Conference’s), the fifth point incorporated Jinnah’s own view that separate electorates should be given up for joint electorates at a future date.

    3. “No bars against any citizen.” That means that the office of the president for example should be open to Non-Muslims as well.

    How ironic that Jinnah did not mention the word “Islam” even once in this most important policy speech given to the constituent assembly of Pakistan?

    How ironic indeed.

  20. Ummi

    madman? are you referring YLH’s here? Raza, you are trying to defend something Indefensible. Being a devil’s advocate is just ruining your “soft image” in cyber world.

    @bloody: when idiots like YLH and Co can dance in cyber world then why not Asrar? calm down.

  21. Ummi

    YLH, how ironic is that fake Jinnah experts like you are using Jinnah’s shoulder for your own filthy Agenda?

    Asrar is quite clear that Jinnh was liberal and pretty much religious ignorant(like you) in the early days of the movement but it does not mean Jinnah;s view did not change later. Asrar is pretty clear how Muhammad Iqbal played the role to change the mindset of Jinnah. Don’t pollute the history for your own sake. Pakistan was created for sake of a religion and there is no doubt about that. There is no other reason beside that! . According to your lame theory, all Muslims of first generation(the sahabas) should be condemned and cursed because they used to be infidels in past Jinnah just did not deliver 11th August speech. Jinnah;s vision about Pakistan and Shariah implementation was far superior than than the person like you whose IQ is not more than shoe size.

  22. Bloody Civilian

    jinnah says ‘muslims would cease to be muslims’, so how does that apply to minorities alone as dr israr claims?jinnah is clearly stating that religion is no business of the state. not just religions other than islam.

  23. YLH

    Ummi mian,

    11th August speech was made in 1947… not in his early days.

    Pakistan was not founded for any religion… explaining the League’s stance Jinnah said on 7th February 1935 in the central legislative assembly:

    Religion should not enter politics. This is a question of minorities and it is a political issue. It may be that a minority has a different religion from the other citizens of a country. Their language may be different. Theur race may be different, their culture may be different and the combination of all these elements- religion, culture, race, art, muic and so forth makes the minority a separate entity in the state and that separate entity wants safeguards. Surely therefore we must face this question as a political problem. We must solve it. We must not evade it.

    This was the bottomline … this was it. And even when Jinnah claimed that Muslims were a nation, he did not claim it on the basis of religion alone but art, culture, history etc.

    One can agree or disagree with his proposition but one cannot deduce that Pakistan was formed on religion… no reasonable person can ever claim that even at the height of the Pakistan Movement.

    Now off you go.

  24. D_a_n

    Ummi spaketh:

    “According to your lame theory, all Muslims of first generation(the sahabas) should be condemned and cursed because they used to be infidels in past”

    now I’ve heard everything ..apparently it seems the triumph of idiocy is now complete .. To an extent that it deserves it’s own arc somewhere..

    @ bonobashi

    I hope you have no more complaints sir…

  25. YLH
    Please stop responding to this name-calling self righteous man. It’s a waste of time and our space..
    Dan: what a cool comment that was..

  26. PMA

    “C. M. NAIM is Professor Emeritus of Urdu at the University of Chicago. Besides being an acclaimed columnist, he has written extensively on Urdu language and literature and has translated widely from Urdu fiction and poetry”.

    Above introduction of Professor C. M. Naim leaves much out! The Professor Emeritus may be an authority on Urdu, but is he an authority on Pakistan? Some of his own writings, both in Urdu and English speak very disparagingly about Pakistan. He has an elitist view of Indian Urdu writers; something he does not extend to Pakistani Urdu language writers.

  27. YLH

    CM Naim is very much an authority on Pakistan. Didn’t he hold that famous symposium on idea of Pakistan in 1980 ?

    I was surprised to find out here that he is an Indian because he argued like a Pakistani.

  28. PMA

    C. M. Naim, a renowned Professor of Urdu, retired in June 2001 after teaching forty years in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. He originally hails from Bara Banki, India. In his 1999 book, “Ambiguities of Heritage: Fictions and Polemics” he describes his work as “collection of short fictional pieces and assorted essays” resulting from his “various struggles-some willed, and other forced-to gain some understanding of myself both as a Muslim in post-1947 India and as an Indian Muslim in the United States where I have lived since 1957, initially by chance but finally by choice”.

  29. Kareem

    PMA, here are the people who are conspiring against Pakistani public along with evidence; [www].jang.com.pk/jang/aug2009-daily/26-08-2009/updates/8-26-2009_3523_1.gif

    btw I did reply to your posts but thanks to your friend Raza you are spared the embarrassment to provide evidence of your baseless claims.

  30. sarah

    @CM Naim

    You have left out nuts like zaid hamid and also english speaking conspiracy theorists like mubashir lucman🙂

  31. bonobashi@bangalore

    @D_a_n

    I have to admit that the posts you have mentioned are balm to the heart. Let’s face it: your loony fringe is better than our loony fringe.

  32. D_a_n

    @Bonobashi…

    I wouldnt be so sure of that Sir…they have but just begun to fight😉