Pervez Hoodbhoy on Anti-Americanism and Conspiracy Theories

The following is from an article by Pervez Hoodbhoy that was published in New Politics last summer. It is worth reading again during the present day.

The Conspiracy Industry

In a country that can boast of few achievements in improving the lot of its own people, legitimate criticisms tend to be conflated with illegitimate ones. After all, it is human nature to blame others for one’s own miseries. Today the United States is frequently held to blame for Pakistan’s ills, old and new. Absurdities abound. Surely America should not be held responsible for the sewage-contaminated water that Pakistanis must drink, the pitifully low level of taxes collected, the barbarity of the police, or the massive theft of electricity by rich and poor alike. Nor can it be blamed for the fact that Kashmir is unresolved and that Pakistan’s generals foolishly thought of winning it through covert war.

Of course, Pakistan is not the only country where America provides a rationalization for internal failures. U.S.-bashing is a structural phenomenon where, at least sometimes, it has nothing to do with what America actually does. For example, one recently saw the amazing spectacle of Hamid Karzai threatening to join the Taliban and lashing out against the Americans because they (probably correctly) suggested he had committed electoral fraud.

In the present anti-American climate, the manufacture of conspiracy theories has become Pakistanis’ single biggest industry. Various polls show that the events of 9/11 are assumed by most Pakistanis to have been a CIA-Mossad conspiracy designed to malign Muslims and a part of the West’s war on Islam. It is also believed that Osama bin Laden did not carry out these attacks and, even if he did, that he died long ago. Many think he is an American agent trained and armed by the CIA, while Blackwater is believed to be behind suicide attacks in Pakistani markets and mosques. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban are often pictured as simply freedom-loving people trying to free their country from foreign occupation. Just when one feels that the limits of absurdity have finally been crossed, some popular television anchor throws out a conspiracy story that leaves one gasping.

Example: for months one heard the theory from various popular anchorpersons that leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, were U.S. agents. But there was deafening silence when these leaders were killed by American drones. And, by the way, what happened to the khatna (circumcision) theory — that suicide bombers were uncircumcised and were either Blackwater employees or Indian agents? Now that one can check the carcasses of suicide bombers frozen in cold storage, that theory has conveniently disappeared from the market.

Pakistan’s collective psychosis is painful to behold. When a suicide bomber walked into the female cafeteria at the Islamic University in Islamabad, followed by a second bomber in the male cafeteria, one might have thought that great anger would have been expressed at the Taliban. Instead, the brainwashed students vented their anger at the university administration, government, and America instead of the perpetrators of this heinous deed. The Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious political parties flatly refused to condemn the suicide attack on students.

Ordinary Pakistanis — including the bearded and burqa’ed ones — have fully bought into America-bashing. So does the Westernized elite which yearns for a Green Card, sends its children to U.S. universities, listens to American pop music, and drives out in fancy cars to a McDonald’s. It also includes Pakistanis permanently settled in the United States, who writhe in guilt knowing they live off an anti-Muslim superpower — as they see it.

Tragically for Pakistan, anti-Americanism has played squarely into the hands of Islamic militants. They vigorously promote the notion that this is a bipolar conflict of Islam versus imperialism when, in fact, they are actually waging an armed struggle to remake society. They will keep fighting this war even if America were to miraculously evaporate into space. Created by poverty, a war-culture, and the macabre manipulations of Pakistan’s intelligence services, religious militants want a total transformation of society. This means eliminating music, art, entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity and Westernism. Side goals include chasing away the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus from the Frontier province.

There is certainly legitimate reason for countries across the world to feel negatively about America. In pursuit of its self-interest, wealth and security, it has waged illegal wars, bribed, bullied and overthrown governments, supported tyrants and military governments, and undermined movements for progressive change. But nutcase conspiracy-thinking of “foreign hands” being behind most ills is deadly for a nation’s mental health. If some “foreign hand” is imagined behind everything, then that kills self-confidence and one’s ability to control outcomes. Imagining these “extra-terrestrial” forces deadens the ability to think rationally and sharply reduces the capacity to deal with terrorism — which is here to stay in Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

Pakistanis, who desperately want someone to stand up to the Americans, have bought into the notion of the Taliban as being somehow anti-imperialist. Today, in a country that is divided on everything else, strong anti-U.S. feelings provide a rare point of consensus. Sadly, some in the Pakistani Left seek to cash in on this.

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