President Arif Alvi has presidential humour, and he freely admits it can get him into trouble. On Tuesday, for his inaugural speech at Pakistan’s first international conference on conflict and the media, he managed to pack in a few wry jokes—and sobering religion-tinged lessons—about Indian aggression, war and fake news.
“I don’t know how the organisers of the international conference on conflict and the media got the timing correct because there is a conflict around,” he said as he opened his speech. “We need to rationalise the situation and come into safer waters.” Indeed, the timing could not have been odder as just in the night before there was news from the ISPR that Indian aircraft had intruded across the LoC and dropped a payload presumably as a reaction to the Pulwama terrorist attack.
The president then went on to talk about his understanding of conflict. “It has been my lifelong study to understand conflict,” he said. But he takes it from a more sociological and personal perspective: by first understanding it at the interpersonal, then family, then social and then nation levels. He chooses to give his own example by way of explaining, and his candid approach can perhaps allow one to overlook his delivery.
“What was surprising to me in my younger days was that people would interpret the same situation in different ways,” he admitted. “The first struggle in my life was to understand why this happens.” What he has concluded over his lifetime, then is that, different perspectives are unavoidable. But the tragedy of human experience is that different tellings of stories or interpretations of reality can lead to conflict. In your lifetime you may realise the pitfalls, as parents do he said, but this does not necessitate that your children or the next generation will understand and avoid these conflicts or pitfalls.
He learnt way mistakes are repeated when he received his first rude shock while studying in the US in the 1970s. He saw that generation learn from the Vietnam War but a subsequent generation repeat that mistake and enter into the conflict of the Iraq war. “I found that that generation had learnt but the next had to learn the same lesson in the same way,” he said. “Nations, like people, make mistakes.”
The president then went on to link misinterpretation of information, bias and the media to conflict and war. He was honest about himself as an emotional and rational being with biases. “I put people in compartments, pigeonholes myself, apply labels. Rude, not rude, good looking, bad looking. Based on my experience.” The only trouble is when bias leads to mass pain and suffering.
He was educated by a book Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by David Corn and Michael Isikoff which identified that: people worked with a bias, misinformed the world and a war happened. The leaks for the Iraq war were carried forward by the media. Millions of people suffered.
“The hysteria of war is easy. It can build up. But the dynamics of war go beyond,” said the president. And then, as if speaking to the Pakistani media, he went on to say that imagine that international media made this mistake. “This happened in democracies, in states that claimed that they could overcome it,” he said. “And all this was not a sazish. It was people falling into bias and falling for misinformation.”
What is at risk, now, is immense. The president again referred to India’s response to Pulwama and the role the media is expected to play. “If you have weapons, the weapons will find expression,” he said. “If you have big armies they will find expression. And that seems to be true today. They will look for an outlet. They will look for reason to create hysteria.”
He was disappointed in the warmongering of Indian political parties. “It’s brinkmanship that can lead to war,” he said. “Pakistan wants peace. Every expression with the new government has been for peace. No leadership in the history of Pakistan has asked for anything other than peace.”
And thus, the media and social media have to be wary about their job, he argued. Much of the Iraq war fiasco and developments since have led him to the conclusion that the media can be an observer or a player. He remember being horrified while once on a talk show. A live shooter called Sikander in Islamabad was taken on a live call by the talk show host. That, for Mr Alvi, was an example of the way the media could become a participant in the news.
He then dwelled on what he deemed to be reliable media and gave a very interesting example from Islamic history. He said that when the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) came with his message, one of the first things he said to the people was: If I tell you that there is an army behind this hill, would you believe me? Like the press today, he had to establish credibility that what he was saying, the Message, was beyond doubt. He was the source of information. “Why did they believe him?” said the president. “Because he was ameen. Because all his life he had never lied. That is the credibility we expect from the media.”
Further references to Islam were in the offing as Mr Alvi wove in discouragement of gheebat or backbiting and linked it to social media and things being said in the media that were not honest or truthful or factual. “Social media is like a chai khana; people will make a statement and walk away. At a higher level when you are blaming countries and leaders…” Of course much damage can be done.
He then went on to give the example of how gheebat is discouraged in Islam because a narrative is built on what someone has heard. They are communicated behind someone’s back. Words do not convey what has actually happened. “Very frequently, in my life, people would tell me, Aap ko maloom he, I’ve recorded [someone] and will play it for you.” This would disgust Mr Alvi as he knew that the person recorded often did not know they were being recorded. He quipped: “I’m really careful now because my humour is taken in a different context.”
But there is a sobering lesson from this. “If someone is not present, I can speak with carelessness,” the president said. “Gheebat spoils relationships. And therefore, in your personal lives, I insist you forgive people; that is what the Prophet Muhammad taught. Let it go. Kaha ho ga.” And so, when we retweet and share information that is about other people, we are in a way, doing gheebat, his argument seemed to go. Often when we do this, we are doing it behind the person’s back. These hurtful words ruin relationships. And on a grander scale, when the media takes on misinformation or fake news or a bias about nations, and it spreads, as the Iraq war demonstrates, people can pay with their lives.