January 01, 2010

Pakistan Dispatch: The distorted lens

As militant violence continues to claim lives throughout Pakistan, the job of finding answers is made impossible by the near-total inability of public opinion to arrive at some common understanding of its root causes. 

In recent weeks, suicide bombs and attacks have claimed between a couple and dozens of lives nearly everyday. The smaller death tolls hardly make it onto the front pages of the local newspapers let alone the international press. The ones most people hear about are the audacious Rawalpindi mosque style suicide-commando attacks or the large bombs like the one today near Waziristan that is reported to have killed nearly 90 people watching a local sporting event.

If the first step to finding a solution to any given problem involves understanding what you face, Pakistan is no where near figuring out how to deal with the spiraling conflict inside the country. This blog has visited the issue of conspiracy theories before. But Londonstani found himself reading a Guardian article on the same issue in Iran that he felt made points that are even more salient in the context of Pakistan. If conspiracy theories cripple Iranians' ability to unravel their politics, in Pakistan they cripple the country's ability to deal with the forces tearing it apart.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that follows Pakistani affairs to hear that popular perception holds India/the United States/Israel ultimately responsible for extremist violence. Some even claim the army and the government carry out attacks to further their own political aims. The Guardian article makes the point that although Iranians have historical reasons for suspecting foreign interference

in their affairs, those interventions could not have taken place without a certain level of support or approval from large sections of Iranian society. Basically, foreign intelligence services were not making facts on the ground out of thin air, they were manipulating factors which already existed to try to affect an outcome that was desirable to their own policy aims.

Just as Iranians weren't purely passive bystanders in their history, Pakistan is home to very real factors that feed into what is happening in the country. The conspiracy theories running rampent in Iran and Pakistan, have one thing in common, they allow the audience to believe they have no say, no effect and ultimately no responsibility for what happens to them.

Pakistan has an extremism problem. This is not just limited to the estimated few thousand fighters in FATA (whether they are foreign or Pakistani). The language of extremism is slowly permeating society. This was starkly illustrated to Londonstani when he had dinner with a middle class professional Pakistani friend who told him while drinking a beer that his relatives who observed full veiling and had thrown out their televisions, computers and hi-fi systems were the kind of people who had the strength and moral authority to "fix Pakistan".

However, there are people from all walks of life who recognise that what's happening is a problem.

"The common belief in Pakistan is that Islamic radicalism is a problem only in FATA, and that madrassas are the only institutions serving as jihad factories. This is a serious misconception. Extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities," said writer and academic Pervez Hoodbhoy in an article from last year.

The problem is that the immense mistrust of Western motives means anyone expressing such views risks being labelled a traitor and becoming a target. Even religious leaders are not immune from being singled out.

The authorities say that today's attack was probably motivated by the stand locals took against militants in their area. Londonstani suspects though that this was more about the effect militants were having on local political structures rather than a difference in ideology. In a country beset by economic and political catastrophe, the extremist narrative and world view provides easy answers. It asks people who have little control over their surroundings to amend the only thing they still have the power to change - their personal behaviour. By doing this, they earn the intervention of the only actor with the power to improve their reality - God.

Conspiracy theories are born when people have little knowledge of the workings of the powers that control their lives. In Pakistan, anyone looking to enact change - a foreign actor or the government itself - has to overcome conspiracy theories. Without this, money and effort spent by government and organisations will be wasted and probably counterproductive. The answer will involve improving transparency in political processes and persuading politicians and army officers not to stoke the conspiracy pot for short term political expediency... which is, of course, easy to say.