This interview originally ran in the March 23, 2016, Ithaca Times. You can read Rumi’s account of the March 2014 assassination attempt in an essay on aeon.co entitled “On the run,” and find more of his writings on his website: razarumi.com. Photo by Diane Duthie.
Raza Rumi left Pakistan for the United States nearly two years ago. An attempt on the journalist’s life made by armed militants on March 28, 2014 left his driver, Ghulam Mustafa, dead, and him feeling unsafe in his home country.
On the evening of the attack, Rumi was leaving the Express News television studios after an Urdu-language news and commentary broadcast. He had moved to Pakistan’s second-largest news network a few months before, the latest step in an increasingly visible media career that had earned him a spot on a Taliban-authored hit list of journalists and writers for expressing reformist views.
Last September Rumi began a two-year residency hosted by Ithaca City of Asylum at Ithaca College. This semester he is teaching an honors class on the history and culture of South Asia and a class in journalism research. He published Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller in 2013.
The Ithaca Times sat down with Rumi to talk about his work—in past, present, and future—the state of Pakistan, and his impressions of the United States so far.
Ithaca Times:You took an unorthodox path into journalism. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that informs your work now.
Raza Rumi: I was a civil servant in Pakistan, and then got into international development. I was with the Asian Development Bank for nearly a decade, during which time I began to write for Pakistani papers. I was enjoying it so much, getting so much feedback, that I said, ‘Let’s give it a try and make it into a kind of career.’ In 2008 I took a leave from the Asian Development Bank and started editing the Friday Times, a liberal weekly newspaper in Lahore … My background gives me an immense edge in terms of commentaries and analysis. I write with that experience; I know which parts of government talk to each other, how transactions come into effect.
IT: What are the restrictions on freedom of expression in Pakistan?
RR: There are red lines which journalists must not cross. You can’t be critical of the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan. You need to be very careful what you say about religion and Islam, because of the power of the Islamic clerics and militant, violent groups like the Taliban and Pakistani Taliban affiliates. You can’t call for the repeal of the blasphemy law in public. You can call to change the procedures, amend it, review it. But the blasphemy law is said to uphold the sanctity of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, so even to challenge that you’re seen as a kind of heretic.
IT: What are the uses of religion for the power structure in Pakistan?
RR: A good way of maximizing political capital is to use Islam. They say, ‘I’m a good Muslim politician, for people who are faithful, practicing Muslims.’ The military has used it even more since the dictatorship [of General Zia-ul-Haq] in the ‘80s, which used Islam to strengthen their rule for a decade. He kept telling Pakistanis he was here to enforce real Islam, to turn Pakistan into a greater Islamic country, and he took it to another level. During that time Pakistan was using jihadist groups to seek influence in neighboring Afghanistan, with the U.S. and Saudis as part of that project. … The use of Islamic militant groups is part of state policy. That’s what I was trying to challenge every evening with my own show and other shows as well, every evening for hours.
IT: And you were talking about reforming the blasphemy law and the state at the time you were attacked?
RR: I was commenting a lot on that when, in 2012, I started engaging with broadcast media more. I had been writing about these issues since 2005 in English, but there’s a limited readership. On a TV channel there’s the mass media effect of millions watching and noting what was being said. Toward the end of 2013 I was getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people. I was engaging people with what I had to say, but also getting a lot of threats, particularly on social media, on views about Islamic extremism and criticizing the state. … My ideas were getting more traction. I tried to be cautious always, but I had given up all my careers for freedom of expression to get this sort of kick and engagement. I feel like journalism has to guard and stand for the public interest, and use the most powerful and important means to achieve that.
IT: How do you compare the media climates in Pakistan and the United States?
RR: TV is the same format, the same sensationalization. Generally journalists are safer in the U.S., and media has far [broader] limits to criticize religion, policy, and politicians. The one similarity I would say is on national security, in terms of policy and objectives, by and large the mainstream media follows what the Pentagon, White House, and CIA say. The Iraq war is a great example: there was hardly any criticism of that when the U.S. went to Iraq—even the New York Times supported the invasion. Almost a decade later we know it was a disastrous thing to have done. It destroyed Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and it led to the growth of groups like the Islamic State. And now the U.S. wants to fight them again. In Pakistan also, being critical of national security is taken as an act of being unpatriotic.
IT: What projects are you working on during your time in Ithaca?
RR: I’m working on a memoir about the last few years, about my work, about almost being killed, and my ideas of what it means to be a public engager. I did one third of the writing the last freezing winter locked up in this house, and I didn’t go anywhere. Now I plan to, hopefully by summer—fingers crossed—to finish a first draft. Once that’s out of the way I want to work on other book projects, including one on international development.
/endprintversion. Internet extras below, in which the interviewer drops the pretense that he actually asked those exact questions to get those exact answers.
On the feelings of the Pakistani public toward extremism and violence:
Rumi: The majority of Pakistanis don’t support violent extremists. Since 2004 they have been attacking Pakistanis and have killed more than 50,000 civilians and military personnel. When I was engaged in journalistic work, terrorism had gotten beyond control. That was why my voice was loud and heard, because I was saying this terrorism is our own doing. The Pakistani government created these proxies to control Afghanistan, to attack India. Our policy needs to change that we view national security as acting through these proxies. It’s not too much different from what the U.S. did in many parts of Latin America, setting up the Contras groups to do regime change …
So the story is the Pakistani public by a large number does not support these kinds of policies, but they are influenced and controlled through the public opinion, and the media majority echoes the line of the Pakistani military.
(The military) tells us ‘The West is going to take away our nukes. The U.S. bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan and they can come and bombard us as well. We need to be anti-American.’ Or India is our enemy. ‘They harmed us, they broke us into two parts.’
That was 1971. It’s 2016. These ideas are drummed into the heads of ordinary Pakistanis. It’s like manufactured consent, the Chomskyian construct. The majority of the media is like Fox News. The few of us talking about this are called liberals, liberal fascists, traitors, liberal extremists, unpatriotic, sellouts to the West. Now that I’ve come to the U.S. I think I’m certified as a sellout leftist in Pakistan.
On the recent history of Pakistani media:
Rumi: In Pakistan there’s a big history of censorship, media muzzling, but over time it has changed. In the early 2000s General Musharraf deregulated Pakistani media and there was the emergence of many private channels, newspapers, and magazines. Television was all state owned – newspapers were not state-owned, some were, but those that were privately owned were under tight controls. The results have been very mixed. Media played an important role against General Musharraf in 2007, ’08, when new elections were held and democracy returned, the dictatorship was over.
On how he’s continuing to work with the Friday Times using technology.
Rumi: I still commission new stories and edit them (for the Friday Times). Initially when I came here I said ‘How will I do it?’ But technology has really facilitated that. There’s all of this talk in journalism of changing frontiers and it is actually true. I use Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Twitter, countless other platforms. All day long I can be connected with my team, sources, and colleagues in the industry, so as these conversations are going on I manage to do work with the paper. I did a story on HuffPost where I interviewed a Yazidi refugee from Iraq via Skype. He took the camera into this refugee camp and showed me the camp. I walked with him, technologically speaking.