Pakistan’s conspiracy theories

November 17, 2009

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then … anyone who tells you it is a duck must be hiding something. So goes the logic of conspiracy theories which are gaining increasing currency in Pakistan because of the wave of gun and bomb attacks in its towns and cities.

As reported in the New York Times, India, Israel and the United States are frequently blamed for the violence, as is the U.S. security company formerly known as Blackwater. 

The Pakistani Taliban, according to al Jazeera, appear to have capitalised on that by blaming Blackwater for two attacks that most shocked Pakistanis — one a suicide bombing on a market crowded with women and children in Peshawar which killed more than 100 people and the other an attack on the Islamic University in Islamabad.

“Surprisingly enough, this whole India-US-Israel theory has a lot of popular currency these days in Pakistan,” writes Asif Akhtar in a blog for Dawn newspaper. ”The myriad of television talk-shows on every news channel are heavily relying on this theory of a triangulated axis of evil out to destroy Islam and Pakistan with one nifty stone’s throw of insurgent terror.”

“If the present reasoning of global evils out to destroy Islam and Pakistan continues, then the only answer is the apocalyptic war which is talked about in fringe mythologies related to the arrival of the Antichrist. The last thing we want is for this to be a self-fulfilling prophecy!”

Foreign journalists have not escaped, being accused of working variously for the CIA, Mossad, and India’s R&AW spy agency, and of course, Blackwater, according to Marie-France Calle in her French-language blog for Le Figaro newspaper.

Conspiracy theories are not new to South Asia, and are usually driven by the assumption that some much more powerful nation must be pulling the strings behind the scenes. 

They gained momentum during the 1980s when intelligence agencies ran the covert war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after its withdrawal from Afghanistan underpinned a view of all-powerful intelligence agencies who could redraw the world map – no matter that many historians argue that the collapse was due to many other factors which were quite independent of its Afghan defeat.

“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,” writes Mustafa Qadri in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “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?”

There is a fine line between conspiracy theories and a healthy scepticism about what those in power are saying. And there is always room for sensible discussion both about the agendas of intelligence agencies, and about the role of private security firms like Blackwater.

But in a country trying to re-establish itself as a democracy, and where economic development is seen as one of the better ways of draining support for the Taliban, how do you develop a strong civil society if voters are constantly being told they have no hope of change since everything is being run by a Hidden Hand?

(Photos: Lahore and Peshawar after the market bombing)

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