Pakistan’s conspiracy cottage industry

Mustafa Qadri’s post on The Guardian’s Comment Only blog appeared on September 15, 2009 and presents an excellent analysis of the current situation with media.

Although the Taliban have openly claimed responsibility for the recent epidemic of suicide bombings against civilian targets in Peshawar and Islamabad, many Pakistanis appear convinced that the real culprits are India or the United States.

“These are India’s agents,” an anti-narcotics bureaucrat tells me in Islamabad with a confident grin. With its operatives active in a string of Indian consulates along the Pak-Afghan border, so goes the popular claim, they direct New Delhi’s latest attempt to topple the Islamic Republic. It is a common refrain in Pakistan. In fact, so common, that almost everyone I venture to ask blames the Indians, or Americans, or foreigners for the terrorism.

The country has faced many crises over the years, but these are particularly unsettling days. In the past, violence tended to be unilateral: avoid the angry mob on days of protest, neighbourhoods patrolled by gangs, or criticising vocal mullahs and life was generally quiet. But today’s enemy moves with stealth and could be anywhere.

Already poor migrants from Afghanistan and the central Asian republics have been evicted from the slums of Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Karachi on the suspicion that someone among their numbers is responsible for the violence. But these are just the small fry, and even the media and the government claim there is good intelligence implicating foreign powers.

So where, one has to ask, do these rumours come from?

There are three broad explanations. First, this is a traumatised country that is justifiably in shock over the extent to which violence has become an everyday reality. The images of fellow Pakistani men, women and children being martyred on our television screens has a deep impact too. It is only human to look at outside forces to explain this chaos – surely we couldn’t be doing this to ourselves? There must be a foreign conspiracy against our country.

Linked to this is a powerful denial complex that is not unique to Pakistan. Much as most Americans refuse to reflect on their own government’s past support for Osama bin Laden, there is widespread incredulity over the radicalisation of organised Islam in Pakistan. Because the state itself has historically encouraged client jihadi organisations there is limited public discourse on the militarisation of Islamic doctrine in Pakistan. When these groups kill ordinary Pakistanis, as a consequence, few are willing to accept people from their own towns and provinces are responsible.

A third factor that influences conspiracy theories is that there is occasionally evidence to suggest foreign involvement in the violence. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia exported Islamist militancy to their Pakistani co-religionists in a petty confrontation of regional empires that sowed the seeds for today’s brutal Shia-Sunni violence.

The United States has a long history of clandestinely supporting Islamist militancy in Pakistan. When Iran blamed the US for the audacious murder of high profile Iranian Revolutionary Guard members last month, many in Pakistan saw this is as further proof of American involvement in terrorism in the region, including their own country. Added to the intrigue is the fact that for years the US mysteriously refused to kill former Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud via remote drone despite being offered his precise location by Pakistani intelligence authorities.

Influence of the Israel lobby on American foreign policy in the Middle East is another source of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. When in April Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said Pakistan was a greater threat to his country than Iran, many saw it as confirmation of the most strident conspiracy theory here, namely that Israel is clandestinely orchestrating the present mayhem.

Of course none of this proves the conspiracy theories to be correct. Rather, they suggest a false reading of history and social dynamics by many Pakistanis. In the world of the conspiracy, powerful actors are not merely mortals with influence but rather god-like beings who direct geopolitics like an opera, and that is just how the powerful often appear to be in this country.

By marshalling conspiracy theories many people, not just in Pakistan, abdicate responsibility for confronting the ills their societies face. If you are playing cards with a cheat, is there any point in trying to get a better hand?

“But what is the common man to do?” retorts science tutor Imran during a random encounter outside my uncle’s house. It is a valid point. With so much out of the ordinary citizen’s hands, it is easy to believe Pakistan’s problems are all down to hidden designs.

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