October 18, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In Pakistan, often described as our most important partner in the war on terror, anti-American sentiment has never been greater, and this month's elections suggest that growing anger against the United States is changing the political complexion of that nation. Pakistan's Islamic religious parties which usually occupy a handful of seats in the National Assembly captured 50, becoming the third largest party and a force to reckon with. Anti-Americanism has deep roots in Pakistan, but steadily fanning the flames is the Pakistani press with fuel provided in part by leaders of the American Christian right -- for instance when the Reverend Jerry Falwell called Mohammed a "terrorist" on the CBS Program 60 Minutes. Professor Akbar Ahmed teaches Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC, and he joins us now. Professor Ahmed, welcome back to the show.
AKBAR AHMED: Thank you. Nice to be back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How widely covered were the remarks of Jerry Falwell and similar remarks by the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy and, and also the Reverend Jerry Vines, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who called Mohammed a "demon-possessed pedophile." Did you see these all over the front pages of all the papers?
AKBAR AHMED: Yes. They were being reported both in the English press and in the Urdu press -- that is the main Pakistani language, Urdu. And Pakistanis are feeling that their prophet was under attack, Islam was under attack, and both these attacks were coming from the United States and these are supposed to be men of God. Pakistanis in particular tend to be very, very sensitive, and if you remember the agitation against Salman Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses, actually started in Pakistan and people were killed in Islamabad. So the reaction was we must then give the vote to those people who will defend Islam, and the people who are going to defend Islam are the religious parties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you're saying is that the remarks of a small though very vocal minority have become identified with America as a whole.
AKBAR AHMED:Yes, that is what I am saying. What I am saying is that in Pakistan, very few people would make the distinction of what, say, Falwell is saying and what President Bush is saying. Remember they don't make too much of a difference between an official position and an individual position, because many of these countries are run by military strongmen so that the official position and the private position are more or less intertwined.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Falwell did issue a kind of qualified apology; was that reported anywhere in the Pakistani press?
AKBAR AHMED:Yes, that was reported, but remember that number one the damage had already been done. Number two that he is one of the several people who've made some very offensive remarks about the Prophet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We know that at least parts of the Pakistani press are prone to pick up conspiracy theories. They did after September 11th. Have there been any conspiracy theories with relation to the attacks in Bali?
AKBAR AHMED: Yes, conspiracy theories are very popular in that part of the world; not so much in the English press but certainly in the local press. In Bali the conspiracy theory is that it was all a CIA plot to involve the Muslim world and to show the Muslim world in a very poor light.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The English language paper Dawn is probably the most influential in Pakistan, or so we've heard, and it's been traditionally a moderating influence, and it has pretty much reflected the views of the upper classes. How has that reporting changed?
AKBAR AHMED: I always think The Dawn is a kind of yardstick because it's quite a sober paper and carries some excellent articles, and at the same time reflects the senior levels of government, and I've been reading columns in The Dawn over the last one year since the last September and it had begun with a clear cut position of supporting America or being aligned with America and sympathizing with America and then over the months its position shifted and an increasing criticism began to appear. And recently of course there's been scathing criticism both of Musharraf and American foreign policy -- even in The Dawn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think that the Pakistani press is merely reflecting the public opinion there?
AKBAR AHMED:I think it's a good yardstick to gauge what public opinion is. If you want to know what the elite is thinking, read the English press; if you want to know what the real feeling is of the population of Pakistan, read the Urdu press. This is a rough and ready method understanding Pakistan's society, but that is how I would do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And what about the U.S. media? What responsibility do the U.S. media have for public opinion and political outcomes in Pakistan?
AKBAR AHMED: I think that the U.S. media has been working on a hit or miss method which means that, for instance, its reporting about the Prophet, I don't even think they were aware of the impact this would make in the Muslim world or in Pakistan. There's a far greater reaction or sensitivity to anything coming from the United States in terms of Islam. That's going to make it much more difficult when America decides to go into Iraq; that'll make it much more difficult when it decides to take action, say, against even the Al Qaeda in that part of that world; and therefore the American media -- the American press -- needs to be aware that it is no longer a neutral spectator or observer. It is a participant in the drama, and I'm afraid with lack of understanding, it's sometimes scoring goals against its own team.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Akbar Ahmed. Thank you very much.
AKBAR AHMED: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Akbar Ahmed is a professor of Islamic Studies at American University and the author of many prize-winning books on Islam. His latest is called Islam Today.