The Rise and Fall of Pollywood

Recent flooding across Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region and the provinces of Punjab and Sindh has wreaked havoc on an already downtrodden and terrorized Pakistani citizenry. The floods serve as a stark reminder of how vulnerable the people of Pakistan are, especially those in the KP region. In July I had the unique and rewarding opportunity to visit Pakistan’s KP province. For four days, I visited Peshawar and the surrounding villages alongside members of Pakistan’s Pashtun film industry, which has steadily declined since 2001. Today, the Pakistani Pashtun film industry is reduced to a risky and largely underground operation.  With Australian filmmaker and artist, George Gittoes as my guide as well as members of the Pashtun film industry, I was able to gain an appreciation for the hardships this community faces at the hands of extremists, or miscreants as they are called in KP. The Taliban and religious extremist parties like the Muttahdia-Majilis-e-Amal (MMA) have have declared these films haram, or against the laws of Islam. As a result, theaters in Peshawar and across KP have been forcibly closed, DVD sellers killed and their shops razed, and the actors and actresses that are the mainstay of the industry forced underground.

The Miscreants of Taliwood Poster

George Gittoes Poses with Taliwood film stars for the 'Miscreants' Movie Poster

I witnessed the second and third order effects of this clampdown on creative expression firsthand on a visit to the village of a famous Pashtun actor.

Three hours north of Peshawar, in the heart of KP, I received a warm welcome into the modest village and home of one of the industry’s great actors, Javid Muzavi. With more than 300 movies under his belt (both as an actor and a director), this star of BBC radio programs has name and face recognition that would make George Clooney blush.

During the 1990s Javid and his fellow Pollywood stars made more than enough money to support their large extended families. More importantly perhaps, they made films that entertained and resonated with the broader Pashtun community. Today the situation has changed dramatically. The remnants of Pashtun film industry have split; core talent like Javid and his colleagues are now making low budget action/drama tele-movies as a seedier faux-Pashtun cinema emerges out of Pakistan’s Punjab province. It is the Punjabi variety of Pashtun cinema, predominantly funded by criminal elements with ties to the Afghan poppy industry that include storylines which run counter to Pashtun values, that is currently masquerading as true Pashtun cinema. The real Pashtun film industry and its stars remain, in large part, in hiding and out of the limelight. There is, however, room for hope. The MMA party was thrown out of office in the last election and a progressive and educated class of citizens in Peshawar and across KP and the Swat valley are organizing against the miscreants to promote the rebirth of Pashtun arts and culture. While the United States remains deeply unpopular in KP and the tribal regions, the Taliban and other insurgent groups’ popularity and the support from the general population is waning.

When I sat down to dinner one evening in Peshawar with faculty from Peshawar University, local businessmen, and other individuals from the community, it was heartening to hear the hope and optimism they had regarding the future of their region and that of the Pashtun community. At the cornerstone of this resurgence of moderate Pashtun culture is the film industry that at one time so accurately reflected the values and mores of Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With support from local and international NGOs, the Pashtun film industry is slowly being put back to work, distributing their work through established vendors across the region. While the revival of this industry will not signal the defeat of the extremist and miscreants, it will surely provide a sense of hope and semblance of normalcy to a population that has suffered enormously over the past decade.

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Lebanese Journalist Examines, Challenges Violent Extremists

If you asked Osama bin Laden to compile a list of Al-Qaeda’s greatest enemies, most of the names on that list would probably come as no surprise.  The United States would probably top that list, followed by selections such as Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Western Europe, the government of Saudi Arabia, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Christianity, Zionism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Iran – no real surprises there, as bin Laden and other radical Salafist-jihadists rail against the evils of these individuals, countries, institutions, and movements on a regular basis.  But you might also find an unfamiliar name on that list:  Rima Salha, a young female Lebanese journalist who is challenging Arab and Muslim television audiences to take a hard look at extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and the violence that they commit in what those groups say is the defense of Islam.

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Rima Salha, the host of Al-Arabiya TV’s Death Industry program

Salha is the host of “Sina’at al Mowt” (Death Industry), a weekly program appearing on Al-Arabiya TV, a pan-Arab satellite TV news and entertainment channel that is one of the most prominent TV channels in the Middle East.  Death Industry typically focuses on people who join violent extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Somalia-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, and the consequences that joining such groups has on those individuals and the people close to them.  The program provides insights from experts and scholars in order to examine the phenomenon of violent extremism from political, religious, social, and economic perspectives.  But the program also places a major emphasis on personal perspectives by interviewing people who are former, or even current, members of violent extremist groups, or friends and family members of people who join such groups.  For example, she has interviewed family members of the late founder and leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and also Kamal Habib, who was one of the organizers of the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat but has since renounced violence.  The recent May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry focused on former Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi[1] and featured interviews with his father, the mother of his second wife, and former friends from his childhood. To feature these kinds of guests, Death Industry travels to dangerous places – refugee camps, insurgent strongholds, Iraq, Yemen.  Al-Arabiya TV general manager Abdul Rahman al-Rashed said, “There are a lot of programs debating the issue of terrorism, a lot of debating. But this is the only program with field trips, with special footage, with a lot of revelations in it.”[2]

al-zawi

Dawood al-Zawi, the father of slain Islamic State of Iraq leader Omar al-Baghdadi, from the May 8, 2010 episode of Death Industry

Salha’s motivation for hosting this program is to discourage people from embracing violence as a means for achieving political and social change, as she indicates in a statement given to Fox News“As we know, there are lots of Muslims who are brainwashed so they believe in terrorism but there are also big sections of Muslims who sympathize with terrorists,” says Salha. “We are targeting those people and trying to explain to them that terrorism is not a good thing.” She also seeks to counter the assertion frequently made by Salafist-jihadist groups that violence acts are necessary to defend.  In much the same way that the United States has grown increasingly aware of the importance of its image in the non-Western world, Salha stresses that these Islamist assertions in fact tarnish the image of Islam held by many non-Muslims: “Terrorism is illegal violence, as it targets innocent people to achieve a political objective. Terrorists who are acting under the name of Islam are killing civilians without thinking.”  Extremists engaging in terrorism, she argues, defame the image of Islam and Arabs who reject and criminalize these inhuman actions. “There is what we call now ‘Islamophobia’ worldwide. But in reality, terrorism knows no religion, sect or nationality.”[3]

Al-Arabiya TV was founded in 2004 to be a direct competitor to Al-Jazeera TV.  At the time, Al-Jazeera was a target of significant criticism in some circles for not providing objective coverage of violent extremist groups in Iraq and for its clear hostility to the U.S. military’s presence in the country.  At that time, the station had a tendency to portray Iraqi insurgent groups with some degree of sympathy (because of their opposition to the U.S. military presence in the country) while tending to overlook some insurgent groups’ attacks against civilian targets.  Al-Arabiya TV now generally offers more balanced views of such topics and has instituted a number of practices to reinforce this balance in coverage, some of which have been adopted by other Arab media outlets.  For example, it is now much more common for Arab media outlets to refer to Iraqi insurgents by the term musulaheen, or armed men, instead of muqaawama, or resistance, which was a common practice in the early days of the war in Iraq.  The Death Industry program seems to fit in with Al-Arabiya TV’s approach of providing a more objective and balanced coverage of major issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds by providing a much more in-depth look at violent extremist groups and the people who join them than most other Arabic-language media outlets.

A program like Death Industry has the potential to be a great complement to U.S. efforts to combat violent extremism because it emphasizes messages similar to those that the U.S. frequently emphasizes in strategic communications efforts targeted at Arab and Islamic audiences, and because it can reach a huge viewership thanks to the extensive reach of Al-Arabiya TV.  The fact that the program comes from an Arab media source rather than a Western one, as well as the fact that the program often features actual former members of violent extremist groups speaking in their own words about their own experiences, lends considerable credibility to the program.  The program’s emphasis on the impact of family members makes the program’s messages particularly effective, given the importance of family in Arab and Islamic societies.

How do we know that the Death Industry program is having an impact?  Because unfortunately, Salha has received death threats from jihadists who have called her derogatory names such as “Christian Crusader” and “sister of the Jews,” and have declared her “fair game for the mujahideen” for her criticism of extremist groups for conducting violence against civilians.  Even Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayyman al-Zawahiri has reportedly singled out Death Industry and Al-Arabiya TV for criticism in one of his video diatribes.  But Salha seems undeterred by such criticisms and threats:  “They accuse me of fighting jihad, they accuse me of destroying the image of Islam. This is not true. We are not distorting the image of Islam,” says Salha. “The program is just trying to show some facts about terrorism and these so-called jihadists. Of course I receive threats on a regular basis, but that does not prevent me from doing my mission.”[4]


[1] The Islamic State of Iraq is an AQI front organization; it basically serves as the public face of AQI in an attempt to give the organization more of an Iraqi character and to downplay the group’s links to foreign organizations and leaders (namely Osama bin Laden and his global Al-Qaeda network).  Al-Baghdadi was killed, along with AQI leader Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), in Iraq during a joint U.S.-Iraqi security operation on April 18, 2010.

[2] This excerpt is taken from the Fox News story on Death Industry titled “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda” which is available at http://www.foxnews.com/world/2009/09/02/popular-arab-tv-program-exposes-real-al-qaeda (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[3] Excerpt from http://pibillwarner.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/rima-salha-host-of-death-industry-in-dubai-exposes-al-qaeda-and-receives-death-threats-christian-rima-salha-must-be-decapitated (accessed on 14 May 2010).

[4] Excerpt from “Popular Arab TV Program Exposes the Real Al-Qaeda”.

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