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Monday, February 27, 2012

Food for thought: Religious people want us to be like them?

This has been something that has been on my mind for quite some time now, it was only bound to be a matter of time before I either wrote about this or discussed it in an open ended platform through engagement with other people. We growing up in Pakistan, particularly my generation which grew up in the 1990's has witnessed a dramatic shift in society and their level of religious sensitivities which has reached significantly heightened levels in the recent years. The religious sensitivity of religious people has reached levels where they are unable to show tolerance toward anything deemed even mildly possibly critical of religion, at the same time compassion has evaporated into thin air and vigilantism behavior is becoming increasingly common. Just as food for thought I would like to propose a hypothetical suggestion, I could be right or I could be wrong, no one has to take my word for it, it is intended to be just food for thought. The hypothesis I would like to propose is that one of the causes of the level of intolerance on part of religious people is because they wish to see us become just like them.

This is just food for thought, based on my life's experience as an individual, I have not conducted extensive research studies to analyze this or have tangible data to back this up. It would not be too surprising if the actual intent of religious people was that we all transform our lives into a model similar to that adopted by them, this is particularly relevant for a society like Pakistan. Contrary to popular belief that being an Asian country and an Asian culture, our society is full of values that reflect love, compassion and collectivism, but what we actually see in Pakistan is people's resistance to change, lack of tolerance for diversity and a very judgmental attitude towards other people. If we as a society had successfully managed to embrace and adopt diversity, all the different communities, cultures and sub cultures would be able to coexist in harmony with one another. If we as a nation are not tolerant of diversity, how can we expect the religious and the non religious people to tolerate one another and coexist in harmony.

From the perspective of religious people, religion acts as the perfect excuse for religious people to marginalize and discriminate their fellow human beings. They judge another person's wisdom and righteousness not based on the content of the character of that person but based on their practices with respect to symbolic rituals and practices. Those seen as not on par with them in practice of symbolic rituals and practices are seen as inferior human beings, and immediately assumed to be infidels unworthy of association. In order to please the right wing religious people, one has to be like them to the letter, even if you are some one who prays 5 times a day and fasts in Ramadan, if your point of view has signs of variation it would be fair to expect hostility coming towards us.

One of the other thoughts, that springs to one's mind we experience first hand the attitude of religious people towards us, is it possible that the overly sensitive right wing religious find it very difficult to come to terms with leaving the luxuries of the material world while others around them are living life business as usual? One thing religious whether conservative, moderate or liberal do agree on is that once you go towards religion it is a one way street and their is no going back. This adds some weight and credibility to the thought that when people turn religious and overtly adopt and display symbolic rituals and practices, since they can not go back to the way of life they left behind, maybe it is a simpler equation for them to pull others or at times push others around them to a way of life similar to theirs. Imagine, your a Haji (some one who has performed Pilgrimage), a Hafiz e Quran and you experience a sense of passion towards your religion and the teachings of Muhammad (SAW), but those that are close to you or those you associate with do not share the same sentiments, it is possible the emotion triggered could be a mild feeling of disrespect shown by others, or the emotion of missing the life left behind. Would it not even be even remotely tempting to try and use soft or hard tactics to bring people into our fold?

One final (final so as to not extend this blog too much)  thought I would like to share continuing from my previous point is, that maybe those that have turned to religion and are truly sensitive towards it want their close family and loved one's to follow in the same footsteps. In order to ensure that the same path in life is adopted by them, it is possible the initiative taken would be that their exposure to ideas and thoughts is limited, at the same time, those not religious and non practicing Muslims are demonized to the extent where they are seen not as just different human beings, but different human beings that have chosen the wrong path to life and have alienated themselves from the path of Islam. I could be wrong, all these thoughts are based on my personal experiences and is intended as just food for thought. So hows this as food for thought?

Campus Chronicles, time to maybe act?

I had to think twice before I started work on this piece of mine, well this would not be the first time that I would be thinking twice before executing a piece of writing, but like my teachers over the years have taught me when there is an idea in one's mind and the will to write, one must not stop. My initial reluctance was once again partially out of fear for my own safety and also partially due to the minor contradiction with something I believe so strongly in, which is freedom of thought, expression and belief. Normally I would not be putting forward suggestions that religious people or those representing the religious school of thought. Regardless of how right-wing their ability to express themselves should not be limited, at the same time however a big part of me feels that maybe it is time to act.  Just maybe it is high time to at the very least come up with a sustainable strategy to manage the out of control rise of the right wing religious influence and presence in Pakistan, especially in our centers of learning, our universities.

Right wing religious organizations in Pakistan have been in the news once again, no surprises the news is coming  once again from the province of Punjab which in the years has seen significant radicalization and intolerance. Pakistan's second largest city the beautiful city of Lahore which takes great pride in being the cultural capital of Pakistan now finds itself heading towards losing its status as Pakistan's cultural hot spot and being surrounded by intolerant right wing ideology. A few weeks earlier, the a lawyers lobby group which associates itself with right wing religious ideology managed to legally get products manufactured by Shezan Pakistan banned from all premises where the movement of the legal community takes place. The reason for targeting Shezan was it's Ahmadi ownership. Ahmadi's are viewed as non Muslims by Pakistan's constitution. Regardless of what the law states about the status of Ahmadi's regarding religious labels, it is inappropriate to target a business or industry based on the religious beliefs and practices of it's owners. Am the I the only one who feels that this is a silly witch hunt targeting them because of their socioeconomic status. Would it have been fair to assume back then  that it was only a matter of time before those with similar ideologies struck again, some where in that city?


Right wing religious groups have struck again, this time the venue for the latest news making venture is the campus of Pakistan's oldest university, the University of the Punjab in Lahore. The University of the Punjab is an institute which is older than the country that is located in, it once reflected the academic glory of the capital of United Punjab during colonial times. Even while the British were ruling the sub continent, people from all corners of India, from Khyber to the Bay of Bengal descended upon Lahore and the University of Punjab to seek knowledge and enlightenment. For over a century it has been a center of learning and a mixing of culture, ideas and thoughts and it seems for the first time in the history of the university it's status as an institute of tolerant enlightenment is being challenged and put at risk. A recent news story on the Pakistani newspaper the Express Tribune's online edition caught my attention with regards to the latest hooliganism activities of these right wing religious groups and stimulate countless questions in the mind of the person reading it.



Right wing religious groups are too be expected at Universities across the world unless one belongs to a highly secular society such as those in some Scandinavian countries. The reason for this is the diversity from all walks of life that institutes of higher learning attract. In the recent case of Punjab University in Lahore, following the lawyer's initiatives this right wing religious student group has managed to get Shezan products banned from campus, but that is not the only thing that they have managed to do. Even this is not a full fledged official ban, such religious right wing groups have used thuggish politics and the threat of force to keep tuck shops on campus from keeping Shezan products on their shelves. Even Pepsi Cola is not permitted on campus due to the Jewish ownership of the Pepsi Cola company in the United States, I bet Coca Cola would be super happy to hear this. Their actions on campus are not just limited to just keeping Shezan off the shelf from tuck shops on campus, they wish to impose a lot more. They have been making attempts to impose their way of life onto the students of Punjab university, and are using the religious argument rhetoric as their trump card to get away with it. Other notable actions by such groups that one hears about include segregation of canteens, harassment of students for intermixing, trying to force people up at dawn for Fajr prayers and even using their collective power to extract funds through extortion from various stakeholders associated with the university. These stake holders include shop owners and distributors of certain goods and products which supply to the University.

Now this brings me back to my original point, is it high time, the higher education board and the relevant authorities at university get together and work out a sustainable strategy by means of which such rampant and out of control religious radicalization can be managed and contained? Freedom of speech, thought, expression, worship is one thing, but a university is no place for fascist and intolerant behavior, these institutes are the beacons of light, knowledge and wisdom that shape the bright minds of today and tomorrow which take the nation forward with them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social Media ka Humsafar

The word Humsafar itself means travel companion, or to give it a more significantly richer meaning, it is commonly used to refer to a life long companion. It is indeed a sweet word with an even sweeter meaning, how wonderful are those individuals who are either our travel companions or our life long ones. Growing up in Pakistan, for me, Humsafar was also the low production quality in flight magazine found in every seat of a domestic or an international flight of the nation's flag carrier PIA (Pakistan International Airlines).However if you are a Pakistan, or a member of the South Asian diaspora living in any corner of the world, the word Humsafar carries with it an additional meaning and a reference to something in popular culture.

That alternative Humsafar which is what most Pakistanis in particular can identify or relate with is the Hum TV drama Humsafar which debut on weekend prime time television in September last year. Starring young talents such as Fawad Khan, Mahira Khan Askari and Naveen Waqar, this prime time drama has gone on to become the most successful Pakistani prime time drama of all time breaking unexpected viewing records. By sheer coincidence the evening the pilot episode aired on prime time television in Pakistan was also the evening I arrived in London to start graduate study. As I was making way out of Heathrow airport, people were tuning into what was the start of an extraordinary journey, an extraordinary tale of love, family, deceit, betrayal and our impulsive judgmental attitude, all attributes which make us human. Having been introduced to the show by a friend just close to a fortnight ago, I was astonished to see the remarkable following that this television show had managed to pull towards itself. As far as myself as an individual was concerned, I just wanted to see what the big deal was, what was the fuss all about, why are millions of people around the world absolutely crazy about a prime time drama on television back home.

The drama itself is none the less remarkable and has managed to create a new bar for quality of prime time weekend viewing and will create high expectations among those who have become fans of the young and energetic caste as well as the writer and her team behind it. For my non Asian (Indo-Pak) friends, who are unfamiliar with Humsafar, it is the story of Ashar and Khirad, who due to unfortunate circumstances find themselves find themselves married to one another. It is the story of how their love evolves and blossoms, and the unthinkable tragedy and misunderstanding that will push them apart for many years. For more details here is the Wikipedia linkhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humsafar.

 Living in the age of digital and social media such as that of today's world, I am certain that digital technology and social media played a significant role in the popular appeal of Humsafar, and assisted Humsafar in evolving from a good prime time drama to that off a revolutionary trend setter. Living abroad, my access to viewing past episodes of Humsafar was courtesy of Youtube which is currently owned by the internet giant Google. Youtube allows users with an account to upload videos and other forms of audio visual content to share with other users on the world wide web. Fan's of Humsafar, as well as the channel sanctioned Youtube users uploaded all the episodes of the show that had been aired to date. Those searching Humsafar had the option of watching each 35-40 minute episode split into ten minute video slots in a high resolution or watch a full single video of the whole episode with a slightly toned down resolution. Youtube has played a significant role in the popular growth of the Humsafar phenomenon, it has allowed fans from all corners of the globe to be able to follow the show, as well as allow current viewers a chance to catch up with their beloved show, but most importantly what reflects the fan following is the viewer count, usually found in the tens of thousands, and the hundreds if not thousands of comments that follow the episode on youtube. That is significant volumes of qualitative user generated content. My friends and cousins back home, who would otherwise not know how to use Youtube proudly tell me how they have seen each episode multiple times courtesy of Youtube. Even the title track of the show sung by Qurat-alain Baloch has become a chart topper with a very large fan base through out Pakistan.

Facebook is another very effective social media platform that has played a significant role in the growth and popularity of Humsafar. The official Humsafar fan page on Facebook has over a 170,000, who have been regularly sharing their feedback and thoughts about the show using that page as a source. The nature of comments include what the viewer response and reaction to each passing episode was, including guess work on the route that the drama would take and what to expect in the coming episodes. This user generated feedback on a personal level played a significant role in convincing me to check out the show for myself and see what is it that has captivated millions of Pakistanis. The Facebook fan page for Humsafar has also served as a very useful platform for Hum TV to introduce and market their upcoming prime time television drama's that will be airing on the channel in the months to come, including the one that will take up Humsafar's precious Saturday night 8 pm time slot. These up coming shows are introduced with fan pages of their own, which within days have tens of thousands of followers of their own. Traffic to the individual fan pages of leading cast members Fahad Khan, Mahira Khan Askari and Naveen Waqar has also multiplied in the weeks and months that followed the premier of this prime time drama. One could say that through Humsafar and its presence on social media and social networking platforms has played a great role in generating significant brand equity for its cast members as individuals, as well as for Hum TV itself which will be regarded as the premier channel for prime time television. Something marketers might want to consider if they wish to get through marketing communication across to their relevant audiences.

Finally, in social media and social networking tools, its the blogging world that has taken a significant liking for Humsafar. Even this blog is about Humsafar, to go with the thousands of blogs already written about Humsafar, analyzing the show from multiple angles and viewpoints. Through blog sites such as blogspot and wordpress, followers of Humsafar have not only discussed the show, but have gone on to discuss and write about issues relating to society, family affairs, misunderstandings, selfishness, love, deceit, u name it, people have blogged about it in the light of Humsafar. As the show heads towards its close with the finale in just a few days time, I can only hope there will be other productions of such quality that will have the power to have a significant impact on their audiences at home and beyond. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Public Relations in the Digital Age

Public relations practitioners for some time now have been able to establish the importance of an effective public relations campaign relative other forms of marketing and promotional activities. Public Relations is not only more effective than other forms of marketing communication and promotional activities but is also relatively cost effective providing users of a public relations strategy a better value. However the ever changing world around us has brought significant challenges to the way in marketing and public relations strategies are planned and how those activities are executed. The rapidly changing nature of digital technology and the level of societies involvement with online and digital technology has meant that in order to compliment offline activities, Public Relations practitioners are faced with a new challenge, which comprises of incorporating an online or digital Public Relations campaign to compliment offline activities.

Offline Public Relations initiatives such as events and activities that involve our desired target audience is not enough, as more and more people are spending time online especially on web platforms supporting social media exchange, it is important to have a strategy in place to seek out and engage our relevant audience and consumers through multiple online and digital tools and channels.

Probably the most significant of these developments in online and digital technology has been the advent of social networking tools and sources of user generated content.  The world's largest social networking platform Facebook has come a long way from its humble origins in Mark Zuckerburg's Harvard dorm room. Today this website has over 500 million users spread all across the world, allowing its users to share information and all kind of content, be it written or audio visual in nature. It was the existence of social media that allowed the revolutions of the Arab Spring to flourish and prosper across the middle east. It is social and online media that is proving to be a huge public relations blessing for some, while a public relations nightmare for others. Social media allows for a very rapid communication of information across users, while at the same time allowing flexibility for user generated feedback and comments. As more and more people around the globe are connected to the internet and have access to online content through internet enabled smart phones, the damage from a negative Public Relations campaign can be result in damage that is significant.

For many of us it will come as no surprise if celebrities or media personalities have had to endure a public relations nightmare as a result of activities taking place online. At the same time a positive and pro active Public Relations campaign online serves as a very useful tool to generate goodwill and brand equity for just not individuals but major corporations incorporating such tools. Many businesses big and small, many brands including low end and high end brands have flourished as a result of an effective online Public Relations strategy.

Another note worthy development in Online technology has been User Generated Content which includes user feedback on websites such as Amazon.com, but also includes websites that allow and facilitate sharing from user to user. Such websites include blogging websites such as Wordpress and Blogspot, and also internet giant Google's Youtube. Blogging sites allow users of online platform to share information and express their views in a relatively unregulated online environment which adds credibility to the content in circulation. Blogs that can be found online cover a wide range of topics to cater to the interests and needs of a very diverse user base online. Youtube also plays a significant role in exchange of information and communication between users as it encompasses the sharing of visual material in the online world. These online platforms and tools are not just sources of effective online public relations, but they can also be used as a source for collecting valuable marketing and business intelligence.

As more and more developments are happening in online and digital technology and more and more people around the globe are ever connected to the digital world, it is important that public relations and marketing practitioners keep up with innovations in trends and technologies so that a competitive advantage is maintained and the strategic initiatives that are executed provide the desired results, outcomes and objectives.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Religion, Business and Work ethics

It wasn't easy for myself to resist the temptation, eventually temptation got the better of mine. I was trying very hard to hold myself back from sitting in front of my laptop and writing about this, a moment came where I could no longer hold back. This is an issue that is near and dear to me, and one that affects all fellow Pakistanis, it is an often over looked issue with only the odd blink of an eye coming from the very minute liberal minority. Even as I write this, I am indeed taking a huge risk as it is, there will be those that will take personal offence to what I am about to write, there will be those that will accuse me of blasphemy and there will be some who will dismiss me as just some western educated young brat who is ignorant to things that really do matter.

Religion is a very very personal affair, yet there has been an abundance of the religious spill over into every day life in Pakistan. This spill over has spread into our daily lives, our working lives and even day to day business, and things are getting from bad to worse by the day. Just recently the Lahore Bar Association in Pakistan's second largest city of Lahore banned the availability of a particular brand of fruit juice from shops and vendors that cater to the legal community in their compounds within the city. Their reason for pushing for such a ban is that the brand in question 'Shezan' fruit juice is owned by a member of the minority religious group the 'Ahmedi's who based on Pakistani law are regarded as not only non Muslims but infidels. Shezan is a brand of yesteryear and has been a part of Pakistani life for several decades, be it their fruit juices, their bottled pickles, their table sauces or desert mixes, millions of Pakistani's have grown up using Shezan's various products. Their presence extends beyond consumer food products, their also a chain of well established bakeries in the city of Lahore and they also own a high end Pakistani restaurant in London's upmarket neighborhood of Knightsbridge.

It was an unfortunate decision and initiative to have a brand of a fruit juice banned from legal institutions, especially using the religious argument to demonize a harmless product. Just food for thought, that the right wing radical Sunni groups are advocating hatred for Ahmedi's because of their relative socio-economic prosperity in Pakistan. Kind of sounds like the German attitude towards their Jewish citizens during the third Reich. For the average Pakistani who did not get that reference, Pre World War II Germany when Hitler was in power, just Google it. Anyways what is even more tragic is the shape and direction that Pakistani society is heading towards as far as their religious sensitivity is concerned, this sensitivity has gone ahead and extended matters of business practices and workplace ethics. It seems that right wing Sunni radical groups are bent on instilling and fostering hatred towards everyone who does not commit to their school of thought or the opinions of their followers. Today, a brand of fruit juice has been banned due to Ahmadi ownership, tomorrow these right wing radicalized Sunni groups will call for ban on products and services, where the owners are Shia, and after that they will call for a ban on products and services where owners are not religious. In the case of the latter, a possible argument one can expect in the future is that these business people are not true Muslims, hence their not worthy of being business.

Internal business and work practices among Pakistani and Pakistani owned companies are already changing significantly to cater to the religious sentiments of their very religious owners. In other words, business and work practices are being shaped and determined by religious sentiments of their owners, some of whom are pro active followers of such right wing Sunni groups. Coming from a human resources background I was able to gain some access into some disturbing insights into business, particularly work place practices among both SME's and large Pakistani companies where owners happened to be very religious. These companies ranging in sizes, had policies in place which included the ban on recruitment of female staff members because according to their owners personal religious beliefs it is wrong for women to work and interact with men that they are not married to or related by blood. Also what was a widespread practice was discrimination and harassment of their staff that was not religious, and in some cases I have heard stories of termination of employment contracts because such organizations kept an attendance check during prayer times and penalized staff members for not showing up. I had managed to make contact with some of these business men and asked them about the fairness of such practices. None of them denied such practices, in fact in a very shameful manner they proudly bragged about how their employees need to keep up with company code or ship out.

All this might sound very hard to digest or believe, but the tragedy behind all this is truly hard to ignore. Where is that voice inside people's heart that communicates compassion. Where is the common sense of people, do these people not realize that they are demonizing a religion that teaches compassion, empathy, love, equality and community. These ignorant people may lack the foresight and the common sense, but those who understand the value and worth of common sense must be mentally strong enough to use it and resist the external pressures of a radicalized Pakistani society. For now, we can just hope and pray that after the storm has come and gone, there is calmness over the horizon.