Criterion Quarterly’s bold strides against Pakistan’s religious extremism and terrorism have made a remarkable impact.
S. Iftikhar Murshed has pulled off a coup with a difference in a country inured to military takeovers. Within a short span of time, Criterion Quarterly, the magazine he launched in 2005, has become a byword among policy makers and the powers-that-be in Pakistan. With a modest circulation of 2,000 copies, it’s already being described as the finest publication of its kind in South Asia.
Murshed served as ambassador to Moscow from 2000 to 2005 and as special envoy to Afghanistan from 1996 to 2000. In 2005, he resigned from government service to publish Criterion. “I had completed my memoirs when I was as special envoy to Afghanistan and we got the Criterion project moving. We wanted a magazine against religious extremism and religious terrorism, which is Pakistan’s number one problem. It’s all very well to say religious extremism or terrorism but it is broad-based; there is a link to the economy of the country, education, history and all other aspects. They all — singly and collectively — sort of impact on the ideology of terrorism,” he says.
So he got together what he refers to as some of the best writers in Pakistan and India and some from the U.S. as well. “Shaukat Aziz, when he was Prime Minister, wrote for us. I regret publishing his piece, but there were other superb pieces. For instance, A.G. Noorani from India has been writing on practically every issue and he has enriched this magazine.” Other writers include Khalid Aziz, who wrote on the causes of rebellion in Waziristan, Khalid Ahmed, and former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan Ishrat Hussain.
With his son, Mushfiq as editor-in-chief, Criterion “goes to politicians who study it and members of the diplomatic corps, many of whom have said they send back their dispatches after reading it, which I think is unfair. It is read seriously by the Pakistan army, and most of the politicians and members of the National Assembly and in universities. The idea is to formulate public opinion,” says Murshed. It is popular among youngsters appearing for the government services examination as well.
Other magazines have a broad readership but they are not impact-based. “Ours is focused on impact, we aim at policy makers; we want to shape opinion,” he says.
While it is available at select bookstores, its distribution will be improved. Web-based subscription is on the cards, apart from a Facebook page. The magazine is also available in Urdu with all its back-issues. Each issue is priced Rs.200. Murshed says, “Our objective is not money. One coup we achieved early in its formation. During the judicial crisis after the sacking of chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, we conducted a seminar on extremism and terrorism. Justice Ramde, who was presiding over the bench that reinstated Chaudhry, took five hours off at the height of the crisis to preside over our seminar. What the government didn’t realise was, and they got into a panic afterwards, that it was televised live. Some of the views expressed were pretty wild,” he chuckles.
The magazine is sustained by overseas Pakistanis who share a desire to make an impact; they are the ones who contribute monetarily. They are there to achieve long-term goals, he adds.
In a country riven by religious extremism, the magazine with its trademark buff cover, in-depth analysis and opinion, has gone that extra mile.