Are the Kalash being converted to Islam?

Maureen Lines reveals how some Western journalists get disappointed when the truth they wanted doesn

“All wars are fought in the name of religion”, so said my grandfather. I can’t remember if that were during the doodle bug years, when we lived in the dugout at the bottom of the garden, or when I was going to the pukka school nearby, where my classmates were nearly all Jews.

The Kalasha people of the North-Western Frontier province of Pakistan have forever been exploited. Timber mafia, tourism mafia, development mafia, and so forth. Now the federal and provincial governments, as well as the local district council, are working hard to relieve poverty, implement good projects and protect the rights of the Kalasha, as well as their culture and heritage.

The Kalasha did not reckon on foreign editors wishing to use them for their own interests. True, I have seen false statements about the Kalasha in the Pakistan press, but that is usually due to ignorance rather than any nefarious motives. Usually, these stories are by young eager reporters, who do not check their facts, or by writers who do a story but do not actually travel to the area.

Recently, I experienced two incidents that were evidence of dishonest behavior on the part of editors of the foreign press. Two American journalists emailed me. They wanted to come to the Kalash valleys. They had logged on to our NGO website. They were keen to get a story. Would I help them? Of course. Delighted. Then slowly the questions came. At first they did not get to the point, it was circled around, but I began to get the gist of what was going on in their minds. They wanted to do a story of the Kalash surrounded by Islam. When I told them conversions were only two or three a year, the emails began to drop off. Suddenly these two American journalists were no longer interested in the Kalash valleys.

This was followed by a call and email from a journalist on a British newspaper. He would love to do a story on the Kalash. After a moment or two, he blurted out, “And what about the conversions?”

Oh, about two to three a year, I suppose, I answered.

His voice lost its enthusiasm. Would another story on the Kalash be of interest? I could facilitate his journey. His voice faltered. Well, his editor would probably not be interested. Obviously, preconceived ideas are not the basis of honest journalism.

Maureen Lines was born in North London and has worked with the Kalash people in Pakistan for many years. She is the author of The Kalasha people of South Western Pakistan.
Photo: Getty
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.