May 29, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Pakistan

Looking at Pakistani public opinion from abroad is like reading a Philip Pullman novel. The picture you see resembles the reality you are accustomed to, but somewhere along the line it seems history took a different turn and you are actually looking at something similar but very different. And it's that superficial familiarity that actually make the differences so much more jarring. I haven't been in Pakistan since Faisal Shehzad's attempt to blow up Times Square but Sabrina's article in the New York Times the other day on how Pakistanis see the incident rings accurate.

"ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Americans may think that the failed Times Square bomb was planted by a man named Faisal Shahzad. But the view in the Supreme Court Bar Association here in Pakistan's capital is that the culprit was an American 'think tank.'"

Yes, you read it right, "think tank". It looks strange to me seeing that written in black and white, but I'm not really all that surprised. Like any opinion anywhere, Pakistanis' perceptions aren't plucked out of thin air, they are based on the world they see around them and the conclusions they come to in order to try and make sense of events beyond their control.

At the moment, think tanks are all the rage in Pakistan. As opposed to people in Britain and - I'm sure - most people in America, Pakistanis have heard a lot about think tanks recently. Reports published in Washington and London are quoted in Pakistani newspapers and are discussed at length in well-read columns. People understand that ideas that could seriously affect their lives are often today born in think tanks. But like most news consumers anywhere in the world, calm analysis remains for the  less-popular outlets and hysterical arm waving is most commonly order of the day's coverage. Think tanks then are "shadowy" and "powerful", which actually means that they are also mysterious and attractive. For this reason, I have heard many large and small political organisations in Pakistan talking about setting up their own think tanks. (Pakistan already has quite a few good independent ones of its own, check out PIPS for some very interesting reports). Like the furore over Blackwater and other US contractors, Pakistanis are picking up on trends that they see as impacting their lives and applying what they think they know to what they see around them. As Sabrina suggests in the article, the reluctance of US and Pakistani officials to fully communicate with the population along with a very tabloid-centric media environment is not a good mix.

I've heard the phrase "conspiracy theories are a national sport in Pakistan" more times than I looked up the history of coalition governments in the UK. The phrase goes someway to capturing the pervasive nature of this type of thinking in Pakistani society, but it also seems to belittle the seriousness of the situation. It's a phrase used by commentators abroad and in Pakistan as well as by politicians and generals inside the country. It's often accompanied by a wave of the hand and perhaps a bit of eye rolling. I think that is a serious mistake. After all, the same politicians and generals are often the first to play up to it when trying to win votes or discredit opponents. The perceptions of the Pakistani public generate a reality that needs to be responded to. I'd bet the off-the-shelf price of an drone that what Faisal Shahzad was thinking in the weeks before he attempt his attack weren't a million miles away from the opinions expressed in Sabrina's article.

The article should be viewed not as a tale of Pakistani curiousness but a timely pointer towards an under-analyised issue which underlies talk of aid, drone attacks, secure nuclear weapons and terrorism inside and outside Pakistan's borders.

I'd go further than just Pakistan and say that this issue is relevant to most of the Muslim world. My first serious engagement with Muslim conspiracy theories came when I was writing my dissertation at university. Against advice from my lecturers to stick to sensible topics like water rights in the Bekka Valley, I took the tabloid route and decided to compare public opinion in Egypt and Britain over the death of Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed. In that year or so before Sept 11, I learned that conspiracy theories in the Muslim world are built on inaccurate assumptions about the West based on perceptions of how things work at home, resentment towards perceived unfair treatment in a one sided relationship, resentment that unfair practices are not even acknowledged by the stronger party, a desire to "prove" any sort of superiority over the stronger party and many others that have now faded from my memory.

But what I took away from the exercise was the realisation that all the wild theories might sound idiotic but are built on real perceptions. The aftermatch of 9/11 made it clear that those theories create a reality that has very real effects. In the Muslim world over the past few decades, wealth disparities have grown ever wider. One of the knock-on effects of this is that the opportunities and exposure enjoyed by the haves and have nots is widely divergent. Winning over the rulers/elites no longer means gaining over-all compliance. As the have nots are in the vast majority, they set the tone of the discussion. (A good, easy-to-read overview of this process can be found in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians by economist Galal Amin) What policy makers in the West require is a willingness to recognise that public opinion in Muslim countries is important - possibly more important than the compliance of unpopular and unstable regimes - the will to learn what affects this opinion and an understanding that policy needs to take this opinion into account.

But I'm not saying that "policy should be subservient to the mad Jihadi desires of loons in turbans". Governments take all sort of considerations into account when formulating policy. Perhaps a rebalancing is in order between what is needed to bring foreign elites on board and what is needed to placate their populations. 

The situation that Sabrina describes is not inevitable and unchangeable. Over the past few months, I spent a fair amount of time in Islamabad's fashionable drawing rooms, less fashionable roadside stops and quite a few electricity-less villages, and I don't remember speaking to one person who when pressed wouldn't admit that Pakistani society had self inflicted problems that went beyond Western meddling. But there was a frustration that the US seems to want to bully Pakistan and the country's leaders are unable to stand up for its interests.

As a reporter in the Middle East, I found that bounding up to people, announcing myself as a Reuters correspondent with notebook and pen in hand and asking them pointed questions (even in their own language) in a dispasionate manner made me look like the embodiment in that moment of the West. This meant that those I was talking to felt the need to explain their "people". Most of the time, people weren't telling me what they thought, rather what they thought I should know. Having left reporting, I still find myself talking to people about their views and their lives. But as a curious and interested stranger, what I am told is often much more candid, nuanced and revealing, and fuels my optimistic belief that views aren't written in stone.

There is also a good video package to go with this article. Check it out below: