Today in Pakistan, we face a number of growing problems. From the skyrocketing of preventable diseases to poverty and corruption to the spread of violence fueled by religious extremism, Pakistan has become engulfed in crisis. Instead of working to fix the problems, however, too many of our ‘best and brightest’ are expending their energy to cover them up in a well intentioned but misguided effort to improve Pakistan’s image.
One way this effort appears is the near constant reporting of some Pakistani child becoming world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional or holding the most A levels of anyone in the world or some other obscure record. I don’t want to belittle their accomplishments…but so what? What does it matter if a Pakistani boy earns the most A levels in the world if the literacy rate is under 40 per cent? Will a 6-year-old Microsoft Certified Professional start a business that hires any of the countless unemployed?
Another time is when something negative about Pakistan appears in the media and people jump to point out that everything in Pakistan is not terrible. Take as an example the recent reactions to Malala’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The hateful comments that she received surprised nobody in Pakistan. After all, she can’t even come home unless she will be killed. But when the international media noticed, op-eds by overseas Pakistanis started popping up everywhere claiming that the Western media was highlighting a very small minority.
Zaid Jilani, a Pakistani-American blogger, wrote a piece for the website ‘Foreign Policy’ titled, “Actually, All Pakistanis Don’t Hate Malala” in which he says that Western media treats Pakistan’s fringe as mainstream. Of course all Pakistan’s don’t hate Malala, but the truth is that a lot do. A disturbing number, actually. This isn’t a conspiracy by the Western media to artificially inflate the number of Malala haters, our own media has been reporting on the problem for over a year.
A similar response was given to the TV show ‘Homeland’ which takes place in Pakistan. A prominent Pakistani author complained about the way Pakistan was portrayed by Hollywood on the pages of the New York Times. Another Pakistani wrote a scathing review for an American magazine that included carefully picked photographs of Islamabad that made it look like a European
Yes, Hollywood makes a lot of mistakes about Pakistan. Characters in a TV drama speak Urdu when they should be speaking Pashto. Actresses don’t know when or how to wear hijab. However, this is nit picking to the ultimate degree. Most Americans can’t tell the difference between Urdu and Swahili, but nobody thinks Pakistan is in Africa. Ironically, in her criticism of Homeland, the novelist unintentionally touches on what I believe is the real issue:
Whenever a Western movie contains a connection to Pakistan, we watch it in a sadomasochistic way, eager and nervous to see how the West observes us. We look to see if we come across to you as monsters, and then to see what our new, monstrous face looks like. Again and again, we see a refracted, distorted image of our homeland staring back at us. We know we have monsters among us, but this isn’t what we look like to ourselves.
The ‘Pak Positive’ brigade tend to be highly educated, English speaking, upper class Pakistanis who live and work in or among Westerners. They watch the news and read reports about target killings, religious extremism, poverty, disease, and corruption and they think, “this isn’t what we look like to ourselves”.
Pakistan’s many problems do not represent the self-image of the educated upper class. This is easily dismissed so long as remains in Pakistan, but once reports of these embarrassing issues make their way into the mainstream media, no expense is spared in the effort to erect a curtain around the dirty laundry, hiding it from site.
Imran Khan is the perfect embodiment of this damaged psychology. In his autobiography, he admits that when he was in London, he was ashamed of being Pakistani. All he wanted was to be English, which he knew he never could be. In response, he has become obsessed with defending Pakistan’s honour. He wants to “stand up to” the West and project an image of a strong, self-reliant Pakistan. He trashes anyone who points out the problems in our society as “scum” and “self-hating Muslims” who are “Westoxified”. “Westoxification,” however, cuts both ways.
At the beginning of Imran Khan’s recent protest, PTI circulated a “behind the scenes” photo that was meant to show the real Imran Khan: A simple man who packed his own bags. What spoke even greater volumes, however, was that the bag Imran Khan was holding came from Selfridges – an expensive London department store unheard of by the vast majority of Pakistanis.
For all the publicity shots of the PTI leader sleeping under open sky at political rallies, he’s still the same Imran Khan that enjoy’s hobnobbing with the world’s elite at exclusive UK parties. What those people think about Pakistan matters to him because he wants to be seen as an equal, but he still feels insecure about being Pakistani.
Similarly, much of the anger and hatred towards Malala is due to what is perceived as her ‘airing dirty laundry’ in public. In other words, she has embarrassed Pakistanis who don’t want to project an image that includes the possibility that they come from a place where a teenage girl would be shot in the head by a grown man just because she wanted to go to school. Instead of dealing with that very real problem, though, these Pakistanis choose to invent all manner of conspiracies in order to pacify their own insecurities.
These are people who are, ultimately, embarrassed of Pakistan. They are embarrassed because they live and move in privileged Western circles, but they fear that their Western friends and colleagues are looking down their noses at them for being Pakistani. They want to make sure that their friends know that they are not beggars. They are not jihadi sympathisers. They are not crippled by polio.
But pretending that these problems don’t exist does not make them disappear. Facing them will. Admitting that Pakistan is suffering won’t hurt book sales, but it will help us find ways to alleviate that suffering faster. And once we finally do that, we can stop living with constant anxiety about whether the media will portray Pakistan in a bad light. We won’t have to suffer the sinking feeling every time a terrorist is arrested, praying that it won’t be another Pakistani. We won’t have to wonder if the airport security are looking at us with suspicion. Our friends in the West will not think any less of us for trying to improve things back home – they might actually think more of us. Isn’t it more likely they will think negatively about us if we are smiling and pretending that nothing is wrong while our house is on fire?
All of us are not terrorists. All of us are not extremists. All of us are not uneducated. Pakistan is a wonderful, beautiful place. We know this better than anyone. There’s nothing wrong with making sure everyone knows all the good things about our country, but pretending like these problems are lies or part of a Western media conspiracy to humiliate Pakistan only allows the problems to grow worse. And there’s nothing ‘positive’ about that.