Why did the death of a Pakistani philanthropist—once touted as the world’s greatest humanitarian—garner such little focus in western media?
It’s a poignant question in an age when vitriolic bearded faces dominate our primetime news feeds. From the hook-handed Abu Hamza, AK 47-wielding Osama Bin Laden to the black-cloaked Islamic State group executioners—death, destruction and division have become synonymous with the muslim world.
Yet, Abdul Sattar Edhi, 88, who passed away on July 8, devoted his life to an entirely different message. The Edhi Foundation, which he founded in Karachi in 1951, has trumped the Pakistani government to become nation’s most reliable social safety net, providing ambulances, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, women’s shelters and rehabilitation centers, free-of-charge, across the country.
According to Radio Pakistan the foundation—which runs the world’s largest ambulance service—”has rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and has trained over 40,000 nurses.” The organization’s reach has also become global—including the provision of $100,000 in aid to the U.S. following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
And for a man who lived by the motto “no race, no religion, just humanity,” a desire to indiscriminately service Christians and Hindus brought enmity from islamic zealots, and with that came numerous death threats. But his fortitude was recognized by international awards, and many, including Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, have recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Edhi represented a vision of the Islamic world so far unseen by many western eyes. But his death, an opportunity to celebrate his legacy, failed to pique significant interest among news editors beyond relegated obituary pieces—and was largely ignored by broadcast media.
Instead, there seems to be an obsession with mainstream media to paint the muslim world with the brush of fanaticism, dysfunction and terrorism. And this has played a key role in fine-tuning the rise of islamophobia in the west. Polls conducted by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland showed that in June 62 percent of Americans harbored unfavorable views of muslim people, while acidic sentiments are only on the rise in Europe with growing anti-Islam rhetoric.
As our window to the world, the media plays a critical role in shaping our perceptions. But with the palpable fear of Islam at fever pitch, we must question whether we are seeing that world through a filtered lens, and judging some 1.6 billion people by their most incriminating facets.
The death of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star, at the hands of her ashamed brother—just a week after Edhi’s passing—for example, has certainly done more rounds emphasizing the struggles of the nation’s patriarchal society.
Sure, we must not denigrate the genuine ills of terrorism, instability and human rights abuses that plague some parts of the developing world, but rather call for a careful balance in our reporting. After all, with a cursory glance at the west today, xenophobic movements, police brutality, economic inequality and political turmoil would not paint the brightest of pictures, particularly when we know there are other more ennobling societal strands to highlight.
Strife, security and destitution are in the public interest and deserve media attention: in order to right wrongs, we must be informed about the problems first. But unfortunately, spiraling negative coverage has become the sole means to peddle news in a saturated market that seeks fingertip information for likewise judgements.
And this not only marginalizes muslim diaspora who carry that burden of such prejudices on their shoulders, but it also fails to empower the very people who can act to bring positive change to the darker corners of our world. Simply put, peace cannot prevail if it isn’t given a voice, and selling fear will only enhance our differences.
It seems apt that while Edhi’s body was being laid to rest in a state funeral, eye surgeons in Karachi were busy transplanting the corneas he donated to two blind patients—for it is now the responsibility of our media to make the world see clearly again.
Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. He Tweets @tejparikh90