Conspiracy theories are making a big splash in both the domestic and international media. While we in Pakistan are often angered as to how Pakistan is portrayed in the Western media, the same people seem to be supporting various individuals and right wing parties who are also gaining much traction with foreign correspondents in Pakistan.
Recent articles in the NY Times, Times and The Guardian all highlight some of the more outlandish (outlandish for me, common sense to others) arguments to explain the various challenges that the country faces. These articles and conspiracy theorist skeptics recognize that by offering elaborate and complex explanations for Pakistan’s miseries politicians, generals, media personalities etc are trying to deflect responsibility onto un-provable external actors. Not only are they deferring any questions that may be linked to their contribution to the nations state of affairs, by making statements such as “external actors cannot be ruled out” the narrative of the Pakistani state being constantly under siege is maintained.
But is this neat explanation, often cited true? While conspiracy theorists blame acts of terrorism and the nations economic woes on foreign factors they present themselves as diagonally opposite to those who would seek to undermine the Pakistani state. They situate themselves as the enlightened patriots who have a clear understanding of the nefarious designs of foreign powers. However, a major problem with conspiracy theories is that they point to vague, external actors over whom we have little power to act against.
The rise of terrorism and economic chaos along with the conspiratorial explanations for the latter’s upsurge are not interrelated as much as they are a product of the state of society. Fundamentalism in part, has been blamed on inward looking Madrassas where rote learning acts as a tool to brain wash young children to accept an intolerant world view. In urban centres children in public schooling are likely to follow a similar path, years of rote learning and regurgitation of facts and figures with no emphasis on analysis or questioning the very foundations of knowledge an army of urban youths have been trained in skills and armed with knowledge that is increasingly irrelevant in the modern work place.
Our government has long recognized the nexus between high unemployment and the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit amongst disgruntled youth. Similarly media outlets and certain personalities have understood the frustration of young people and the need for someone to offer answers as to why Pakistan is seemingly hostage to the next act of violence or the next spike in oil prices. Both sides are able to offer answers and a sense of purpose.
General Stanley McChrystal has rightly recognized that the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is a war of perceptions. Local populations are likely to support the side which for them, at the local level seems to be winning. The overwhelming might of NATO’s firepower is unlikely to impress a local farmer in a remote village while strategic heights are controlled by a band of zealous Taliban fighters. McChrystal’s emphasis on winning over local populations via controlling information flows points to a massive gap in the government of Pakistan’s attitude towards both terrorist organizations and the media in general.
The lack of transparency and openness on the part of both the government and the military in dealings with foreign powers and local fundamentalist groups has created information vacuums. The government and the military denied predator drones were operating from Pakistan until pictures of them emerged, the presence of Blackwater in Pakistan was denied until Secretary Gates spilled the beans and the organizations role in training security forces in the NWFP and Islamabad was recognized. The Quetta Shura that until six weeks ago according to the government didn’t exist has in the last week seen half of its members arrested across the country.
These along with several other examples suggest that the government actually helps create the conditions, which are exploited by both right-wing groups hell bent on spewing hatred and fundamentalists spewing religious intolerance who are then able to dominate national conversations.
Two solutions are offered. On the one hand in the short-run the government and the military should try to treat its citizens with a certain degree of respect and encourage greater transparency and openness. In the long-run massive investment must be made to reclaim the minds of young people who are increasingly influenced by hatred and the perception of being surrounded by enemies. Through an overhaul in education coupled with greater access to information and knowledge young people must be offered a future full of hope and prosperity, rather than the spectre of a constant struggle to defend the state against foreign enemies.
Pakistan is likely to continue to face international ridicule as we seek to explain away all our problems by blaming America-India-Israel or whoever is fashionable at the time. While in several cases we may rightly point at foreign interference and failings, our inability to help ourselves seems to baffle both foreign and local observers. As policy and opinion is formulated more along the line of perceptions rather than fact it has become essential that fringe and extremist voices are challenged by an alternative narrative that does not display helplessness and political noise in the face of adversity; rather adopting a narrative that makes the most of what we as a nation can control for and alter to tackle terrorism, injustice and economic plight.