Orientalizing Pakistan in Cricket Commentaries


By now, every Pakistani and Indian knows about the epic Pakistan vs. India Cricket World Cup semi-final that will kick off Wednesday in Mohali, India.  Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has already accepted an invitation to join Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match and discuss India-Pakistan relations, while 5,000 visas have been authorized by the Indian home ministry for Pakistani fans to enter the country and cheer on their team (though a recent report claims that Pakistanis are having a hard time getting tickets for the match). Despite the friendly gestures from politicians and the peace messages I’ve seen Indians and Pakistanis alike post on their Facebook walls, a disturbingly popular and growing acceptability of anti-Pakistani rhetoric plagues online cricket commentaries.

Trash-talking, fierce debates, and impassioned displays of nationalism are expected, especially in the case of a Pakistan vs. India semi-final.  It isn’t unusual for Pakistani Captain Shahid Afridi to make competitive remarks about how Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century “will have to wait until after the World Cup to reach the landmark,” nor should it be of any surprise when Indian commentators say Tendulkar “sends shivers down Pakistani spines till date.”  Competition is an essential element of sport and from past cricket matches (which I will mention later in the post) we have seen how the sport can bring people together, regardless of the boasting heard on either side, but there’s a fine line between competitive spirit and super-patriotism fueled by jingoism and sheer bigotry.  The harmful anti-Pakistani rhetoric that I’ve found in some of the cricket commentaries are unsettling for a number of reasons.  For one, the articles seem to exploit tragedies in Pakistan to make it s0und as if the nation is undeserving of a World Cup victory.  Secondly, the anti-Pakistani commentaries fit very neatly into the narrative used by the Obama administration to justify its Orientalist war in Afghanistan and deadly drone attacks in Pakistan.

Consider Soutik Biswas’ piece for BBC News where he took harsh, one-sided shots at the way Pakistanis reacted to cricket losses in the past.  What’s astonishing is how Biswas essentially tries to present Indian and Pakistani fans as polar opposites, i.e. the former are respectful, while the latter are violent and take the sport too seriously.  After expressing his hope for Indian fans to be generous to Pakistani fans, Biswas writes:

Who can forget the time when Pakistan lost to India during the 1996 World Cup? Fans in Pakistan smashed TV sets, a college student fired a hail of bullets from a Kalashnikov into his TV set and then on himself, another fan died of a heart attack, captain Wasim Akram received death threats, a fan filed a petition in the court against the “disappointing performance” and a cleric said Pakistan would never win at cricket so long as a woman – Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister – ruled the country.

While Biswas tries to sound unbiased and respectful by later saying, “surely such passions have abated with the passage of time,” the punch at Pakistan was clearly thrown. In fact, earlier in the article, Biswas oddly cited some random Indian scholar (oh snap, a scholar!) who stated the following: “Indians don’t take failure as national humiliation. Perhaps they consoled themselves that the country surpassed Pakistan in all spheres. It had better scientists, better writers, a more vigorous film industry, and was a democracy besides.”  Biswas’ point is clear: Indians have never overreacted to cricket losses in the same way Pakistanis have, therefore Indians must be better than Pakistanis!

No.  Fail.

Any honest cricket fan knows when Sri Lanka played India in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, sections of the Indian crowd was so furious over the loss of the 8th Indian wicket that they set fire to the stands and threw water-bottles on the field.  The outburst from the crowd prompted referee Clive Lloyd to stop the match and award Sri Lanka with an automatic victory.  If Biswas is going to mention the Pakistanis that smashed televisions after a 1996 World Cup loss, he should also mention how an Indian mob attacked Indian wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s house and burned effigies of Rahul Dravid in the streets after a loss against Bangladesh.  If Biswas wants to mention a Pakistani college student who shot himself, he should also tell us about the 25-year-old Indian farmer who committed suicide after India’s loss to Sri Lanka in 2007.  What about recent reports regarding Shiv Sena, an extremist Indian Hindu nationalist political party, making threats against the Pakistani cricket team and declaring that it “gets to decide if Pakistan can play in the final” ?  One could also point out that Shiv Sena killed a parrot that predicted Pakistan would win the World Cup.  Poor parrot. Killed for making a prediction.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Surely we belong to God, and to God we shall return).

Commentaries like Biswas’ are more than just one-sided jabs at Pakistan, they are part of an Orientalist depiction of Pakistan that has become increasingly and widely acceptable.  The Orientalist description of Pakistan is as follows: Pakistan is a country that “harbors terrorists;” Pakistanis are violent, backward, and uncivilized people; Pakistani women are veiled and oppressed; Pakistanis suffer from all of the above because of the religion of Islam.  Because Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country, it is often perceived as a Middle Eastern nation, not a South Asian one.  Furthermore, all of the virulent Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric that continues to spread at rapid rates, particularly in the west, also runs parallel with the Orientalist attitude and perception of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

A good example of how the above plays out can be found in a post titled “Why India-Pakistan World Cup Semifinal Will Belie the Hype.” The author, Sajid Huq, starts with usual trash-talking and says “India will school Pakistan” on Wednesday (interestingly, the author seems to have deleted the remark today).  I don’t have a problem with Huq’s opinion nor am I offended by it.  However, the commentary suffers from the same anti-Pakistani rhetoric found in Biswas’ piece.  I must say that it is interesting how Huq lists Edward Said as one of his favorite authors and yet presents Pakistan through the dirty lens of Orientalism.  Huq paints a glorified image of India while depicting Pakistan as a country “housing terrorists.”  No historical or political context is given on how turmoil and violence has escalated in Pakistan nor is there any mentioning of how US invasion, and occupation in Afghanistan continues to have a disastrous impact on Pakistan.  Huq goes on to boast about India’s scientific and artistic achievements:

India is perhaps at a stage when the international community is more bullish about its markets, more excited about its culture, and generally more pro-Indian than at any stage of the nation’s history. And of course, this has not been a result of plain luck. Indian businessmen have distinguished themselves at an international stage, and noticeably so in the last decade. Indian engineers, doctors, scientists, and even investment bankers have made news and brought tremendous glory to the nation. Bollywood is increasingly an industry that has caught international imagination, as have Indian philosophies, literature, music, and last but not least, the fortune of the cricket team, which has successfully held on to top rankings in most forms of the game.

In sharp contrast, this is all Huq has to say about Pakistan:

Pakistan, as has been said so often, is an embattled cricketing nation. More pertinently perhaps, it is an embattled nation, dealing with perhaps its most troubled phase in history, at a time when brand Pakistan has been muddied, sullied, and then some more – through domestic turmoil, political unrest, and visceral anger from the international community for housing terrorists that then spawn and attack nations near and far.

Ah ha, I get it, India = happy, friendly, advanced, mystical; Pakistan = gloomy, hostile, backwards, dangerous.  This very narrow and unfair representation of Pakistan not only polarizes Indians and Pakistanis, but also plays into the hands of a hurtful narrative that vilifies Pakistan for imperialist purposes (after all, vilifying Pakistan as a “haven” for terrorists makes it easy for US war crimes to go unchallenged).  If we choose to talk about India’s Bollywood industry, then why not also include the Pakistani musicians that are not only popular among Pakistanis, but also among Indians because of their contributions to Bollywood songs?  Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nouman Javaid, Kamran Ahmed, and other Pakistanis have produced popular Bollywood songs.  I would take it a little further and acknowledge Pakistanis in the west who have made creative and artistic contributions, such as Pakistani-Canadian filmmakers like Zarqa Nawaz, Pakistani-Canadian actors like Zaib Shaikh, or Pakistani-American singers like Nadia Ali. Canadian actress Sitara Hewitt and British lead singer of “Bat for Lashes,” Natasha Khan, are of Pakistani descent as well.  Surely anyone who has seen the Pakistan-based Coke Studio sessions would recognize the immense amount of talent in Pakistan.

The point is not to gloss over the serious problems that confront Pakistan.  Indeed, it is important to address the country’s struggles on so many issues. However, presenting a singular and Orientalist image of Pakistan as dark, violent, and brutal in contrast to a bright and blooming India, almost to taunt Pakistanis, does very little to help us recognize Pakistan’s diversity, as well as its very complex history and contemporary challenges.  It also overlooks India’s struggles and makes it very easy for us to lose sight of the Pakistani activists, leaders, and organizations that are making strong efforts on so many levels by speaking out against injustices, standing up for human rights, improving education, helping those in need, etc.

Instead of hearing about these Pakistanis, mainstream western media depicts Pakistan solely as the aggressor and India as the victim.  Most of the cricket commentaries I’ve read, including the two I critiqued above, have mentioned the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and point out that the upcoming match is the first time the two teams have met since the attacks.  Other articles argue 26/11 is still the “biggest hurdle” for India and Pakistan talks, characterizing Pakistan as suspicious and untrustworthy.  As horrible as the attacks were in Mumbai, what continues to alarm me is how mainstream discourse on India and Pakistan seem to forget that Pakistanis suffer from terrorists attacks, too.  The bombing of the Islamabad hotel, the bombing of Sufi shrines, the bombing of girls’ schools, sporadic bombings in Lahore and other parts of the country – all of these attacks were made against Pakistanis by militants and extremists.  However, where are the dates for these events and why aren’t we expected to remember them?

26/11, like the 9/11 attacks, is treated as an epoch-making event.  The Indian government’s former Secretary of Security Shyam Mehra stated in October, “The events of 9/11 in the U.S. and 26/11 in India mark defining moments with epoch-making consequences. Implicit in these attacks is an assault on the larger idea and essence of free societies. Both countries need to work in a common endeavor to meet these challenges.”  Establishing this link with the US has significant strategic and political purposes.  Not only is 26/11 considered “India’s 9/11,” but it also identifies a common enemy for the US and India and strengthens their alliance.  Even though it was reported last year by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) that a total of 3,021 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2009, a 48% increase from 2008, media coverage on these attacks have never characterized them as “Pakistan’s 9/11.”

One must ask why the US, England, and India use calendar dates to commemorate the attacks on their nations and then expect these events to be universally known throughout the world.  What about the millions of murdered Iraqis and Afghans?  What about the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002?  What about Israel’s bombing of over 1,400 Palestinians in December-January 2008-2009?  What about the drone attacks in Pakistan?   What about the violence, oppression, and Indian military occupation in Kashmir?  What are the dates of these events, what are the casualties, what are the names of the victims, what are their stories?  Why aren’t these attacks expected to be universally known as attacks on non-Muslim majority countries like America, England, India, and Israel?  If we’re taught that all human life has value, then why these double standards?  Excluding the atrocities in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority nations only perpetuates the construction of Muslims as antithetical “others” and “enemies” of “the free world.”

Cricket commentaries shouldn’t participate in continuing the vilification and misrepresentation of Pakistan and Pakistanis.  As mentioned earlier, cricket matches between Pakistan and India have shown us inspiring displays of friendship and respect for both nation. One article makes note of how Indian journalist and author M.J. Akbar recalled:  “one of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship.”  I also remember watching those matches and seeing Pakistanis give standing ovations to the Indian players, Indians and Pakistanis holding signs that read “India-Pakistan friendship” and wearing face-paintings with the flags of both nations.

No doubt that Pakistanis and Indians will be cheering on their cricket teams on Wednesday.  Cricket has a way of boosting the morale of the general public.  As my cousin pointed out in an online discussion, amidst the political turmoil, the stereotypes, the exclusion from IPL and hosting in the World Cup, and being so “broken and dejected over the country’s pathetic state of affairs,” a victory for Pakistan would give the people something to smile about.  Perhaps it could also help break the Orientalist stereotypes that continue to tarnish the nation’s image and fuel western imperialist projects.

Congratulations Pakistan!

afridi celebrate 2

I will never forget this day, Sunday, June 21st of 2009 when the Pakistani cricket team defeated Sri Lanka to win the world cup in Twenty20 cricket.  Throughout the tournament, teams like South Africa, Sri Lanka, and India were favored to be this year’s champions, but no one expected Pakistan — led by an unstoppable Shahid Afridi — to power their way through.

This morning, as I sat tensely and cheered Pakistan on, I was reminded when Pakistan went to the Cricket world cup final in 1999 and lost miserably to Australia.  I remembered 2007’s Twenty20 tournament when India defeated Pakistan.  This year, Pakistan had to win.  A country that has been bombed, invaded, threatened, exploited, vilified, misgoverned, ignored, among many other things, can only take so much before the spirit of the people pull them out of the dark.  Indeed, it is a cricket team that has lifted the hopes of so many Pakistanis all across the globe, giving them something to smile, cheer, and even cry in joy about.  The exceptional teamwork and passion of their cricket team proved to the world that Pakistan deserved it.

I didn’t mention this in my previous post, but it bothers me when I see Pakistan and Pakistani people being so openly trashed and insulted around the blogosphere (one friend of mine reading this knows what I’m referring to *wink*).   It hurts me that there are millions of displaced Pakistanis as result of the Taliban invasion of Swat.  Recently, my parents and I watched some old footage that I video-taped in Swat when we visited in 2000.  It isn’t easy for those who make a mockery out of places like Swat (simply to support their Islamophobic views) to understand what it’s like to watch old footage of a beautiful place that you once visited before and realize that there’s a strong chance you’ll never see it again.  I was reminded of Swat while watching this cricket match and it wasn’t hard to tell that the team was winning it for them, as well as for all of Pakistan.

When I went out today, I looked at my Pakistani key chain and smiled at it.  I let it dangle freely when I walked into the mall; I rolled down my windows and popped in a CD of Pakistani music and sang along.  I smiled because I knew, today, my fellow Pakistanis were all happy.  We called our relatives and said “Mubarak (congratulations)” like it was Eid, we posted ecstatic status messages on our Facebook (and Twitter, I’m sure) accounts, and we all knew how important this was for our country, whether we were cricket fans or not.  Something also must be said about Sri Lanka, another country that has been facing challenges and difficulty.  They had a terrific run in the tournament and their country should be proud of them.  I especially liked the sportsmanship that both teams showed throughout the match, especially at the end.

Pakistan world cup champions

I found a great article published on Pakistan Daily this morning almost immediately after Pakistan won the match.  Very similar to my previous post here on Muslim Reverie, the author talks about how this victory was not just a win, but rather a reminder that there is hope.  Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the article:  “It is crucial to remember why Pakistan’s win is so important. This win is not about winning at all. It is about showing the world that once again, Pakistan has performed in the face of difficulty; death of their coach, attack on their country, bombing of their cities, exploitation of their money. A nation who the whole world had given up on has turned around to come out with a lot more than they expected. But they earned it. These players were working under the pressure of not only the game, but the political games being played with their loved ones in their hometowns. Sometimes, Allah sends motivation from unusual sources.”

As they say, Allah — God — works in mysterious ways.  There are still immense problems in Pakistan, but this win was something that the people needed a lot.  It was beautiful to see the Pakistani players to make sajdah after the victory and then hear the commentators point out how important and special this world cup is to the people of Pakistan.  When I look at the players of this wonderful team and then at the horrible images we see on CNN and Fox News, I see a mismatch.  This is no surprise to me, as a Pakistani and Muslim, but I’m sure that there a lot of non-Muslims and non-Pakistanis in the west who are not familiar with these images.  Surely, these images of remarkably talented and passionate cricketers don’t represent all of Pakistan.  They just represent one incredible snapshot!

Here’s a clip of the winning moment!  Watch it before they take it down (hopefully they won’t!):

This Isn’t Just About Cricket

Afridi South+Africa+v+Pakistan+ICC+Twenty20+World+MxS19XTx9ztl

Scoring 51 runs from 34 balls and taking two important wickets, Shahid Afridi (pictured above) led Pakistan into their second-consecutive Twenty20 World Cup final after a marvelous all-around performance against the favored South Africa team on Thursday, June 18th.  Cricket commentators and analysts are calling this a “fairy tale” story for Pakistan, a country that has been facing immense adversity from the Taliban invasion, U.S. drone attacks, and negative media coverage.  The stunning performance and incredible display of teamwork from the Pakistani cricket team has shone a positive light in the hearts of millions of Pakistanis worldwide, showing the world that there is more to their country than just politics and turmoil.

After the victory, former test captain Moin Khan told Reuters, “Cricket has always been a big binding force in our country and the team’s success in the World Cup has helped lift the spirits of the people.  The last few months have been very hard for the people and many of us carry psychological scars of the innocent lives lost in these terrorist attacks. But for now we have something to celebrate and look forward to.”

Indeed, the last few months have been very difficult for Pakistan, and many Pakistanis who live outside of the country, like myself, feel heartbroken not only because of the Taliban invasion or the bombings in Lahore and Peshawar, but also because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Pakistan and its people.  It’s wonderful when people are able to share and celebrate their culture, but lately, it’s been difficult to speak about my culture without having to deal with questions about terrorism, the Taliban, or even Osama bin Laden.  Being Muslim, the “Islam and terrorism” association is something I’ve been dealing with since 9/11, but now, since I feel more connected with Pakistan, the negative perceptions have worsened.

Unfortunately, most non-Pakistanis, especially in the west, have a very vague and limited understanding of what the country is actually going through.  The general impression seems to be that Pakistan is unstable and that a war is brewing between radical militants (like the Taliban) and the Pakistani government.  The Pakistani public, however, are left out of the picture.  Rather than pointing out that the majority of Pakistanis are very anti-Taliban, most of mainstream media is filled with Islamophobic rhetoric and a lot of misinformation, especially regarding whether or not the Pakistani government has been cooperating militarily with the United States (the fact that Pakistan has lost more civilians and soldiers than the United States in fighting insurgents doesn’t ever seem to be mentioned by the mainstream media or even the Obama administration).  Neglecting the voice that represents the majority of Pakistan is really irresponsible journalism and it’s one of the reasons why so many western stereotypes and misconceptions persist about Pakistanis.

The reason why the latest news about Pakistan’s cricket team is so significant is because cricket receives a lot of media attention in Europe, Africa, South Asia, and Australia, and the fact that Pakistan has reached the final during a time when its country is enduring so many struggles is remarkable alone.  It not only breaks stereotypes, but also helps restore some dignity and respect to Pakistan’s tarnished image.  It’s unfortunate that cricket hardly receives any media attention in the United States (since it doesn’t have a team), but perhaps a victory for Pakistan in the final would inspire (at least some) media coverage of it, considering that the Pakistani athletes have promised to donate their earnings to displaced people in the North West Frontier Province.

As many Pakistanis know, cricket is not just another sport.  It’s almost like the country’s second religion.  When I watched Pakistan defeat South Africa yesterday, I saw Pakistanis rejoicing in the crowd, young boys and girls with Pakistani flags painted on their cheeks and waving their green banners, people of all ages dancing and cheering into video cameras more jubilantly than I’ve probably ever seen them before  — these are the images of Pakistanis that I am familiar with.  Although most of the Pakistanis in the crowd were British citizens, I believe that all Pakistanis, no matter where in the world, knew exactly why they were cheering.  It wasn’t just about cricket.  It was about something more than that.  It was about inspiring hope, answering to the critics who said Pakistan’s reputation was destroyed after the attacks on the Sri Lanka cricket team, and showing the world that Pakistan has a place in the world where the majority of its citizens want stability and peace in their country.

I don’t think I’ve ever been this emotional while watching a cricket game.  Whether it’s Shahid Afridi’s gritty and competitive attitude on the pitch, or Pakistanis marching in the streets to reinstate the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, or even large demonstrations against the Taliban, it all reveals that despite the problems that confront the country, the Pakistani people have heart and are not the “enemies” as western media often depicts them.  It is something they deserve appreciation and respect for.  May Allah keep Pakistan safe from both internal and external forces that only want to destroy it.  Ameen.

Good luck on Sunday, Pakistan!  In the meantime, enjoy the clip below from Pakistan’s recent victory over South Africa: