Pakistan: street rage and sectarian bombings

October 10, 2010

us flagOne of the more troublesome aspects of the current situation in Pakistan is how subdued – at least relative to the scale of the deaths – are protests against suicide bombings on Pakistani cities. Travelling from Lahore to Islamabad last month, my taxi driver winced in pain when I told him I had a text message saying the city we had just left, his city, had been bombed again. Yet where was the outlet for him to express that pain, or indeed for the many grieving families who had lost relatives?

I was reminded of this reading Nadeem Paracha’s latest piece in Dawn on the outcry over Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neuroscientist  jailed in the United States after being convicted of shooting at U.S. soldiers. She has been claimed as the “daughter of the nation” who must be rescued from an American jail.

“Never have the highly vocal keepers of our women’s sanctity even superficially censured the aggravating antics of monsters like the Taliban and al Qaeda at whose hands thousands of innocent Pakistanis have lost their lives,” writes Paracha. ”None of the many women, children and men who were mercilessly slaughtered by the extremists, it seems, were good enough to also be celebrated as brothers, sisters and children of this nation.”

Saba Imtiaz made a similar point in Foreign Policy last month. “Political parties rarely call for protests after suicide bombings, but the Jamaat-e-Islami called for countrywide protests shortly after Aafia’s sentencing. Breathless condemnations of the sentencing came in almost instantly from political parties,”  Imtiaz wrote.

“The millions displaced by the floods in Pakistan, thousands languishing in jail awaiting trial and the countless women who are victims of honor killings, mistreatment in jails and discrimination will not see anyone rallying for their cause. Not acting swiftly to help them — who should also be dubbed daughters of Pakistan and supported by politicians — is the real injustice.”

Not that those comments are meant to suggest Siddiqui’s case should be ignored altogether. But it does indicate a worrying tendency in the way Pakistani society’s national narratives are constructed.  As discussed here, Manan Ahmed at Chapati Mystery has already written about how the Siddiqui case has tapped into the historical narrative about Mohammad bin Qasim, who first brought Islam to South Asia by conquering Sindh in the 8th century - allegedly after racing to the rescue of a Muslim woman who had been raped. The story of bin Qasim was specifically cited by Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.

“This particular brand of national machismo projected onto a woman’s body is neither new nor unique, yet it is a potent mixture in the oppressive, patriarchal Pakistani middle class. The mullahs can safely rage about the nation’s daughter, and the street urchins can eagerly vow to invade Manhattan,” wrote Ahmed.

What is particularly powerful in the outcry over Siddiqui is the way it fuses the historical narrative with modern-day anti-Americanism.

That there is serious anger against the United States in Pakistan is clear.

The infringement of Pakistani sovereignty through drone missile attacks and, most recently, the killing of Pakistani soldiers by NATO helicopters is seen as a bitter humiliation which the country is forced to accept in return for U.S. economic aid.

“Pakistani anti-Americanism comes from a sustained narrative in which Pakistan is the undignified and humiliated recipient of U.S. financial support — provided at the expense of Pakistani blood. This may not be reflective of the intentions of Obama’s war, but it is reflective of the outcome of this war on main street in Pakistan. And perception is reality,” wrote Pakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi.”

But it is also clear that anti-Americanism is considerably more complex than the protesters out burning the American flag would have you believe.  According to this New America Foundation survey  on opinions in Pakistan’s tribal regions, anti-Americanism there has  less to do with national humiliation and the transactional nature of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and far more to do with specific U.S. policies.

“… the intense opposition to the U.S. military and the drone program is not based on general anti-American feelings,” according to the survey. “Almost three-quarters of the people inside the tribal regions said that their opinion of the United States would improve if the U.S. increased visas for FATA (tribal region) residents and educational scholarships to America, withdrew the American military from Afghanistan or brokered a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A majority even said their opinions of the U.S. would improve a great deal. Two-thirds said that policies such as American aid for education and medical care would improve their opinions as well.

“This dramatic willingness to think better of the America demonstrates a notable lack of deep-seated hostility. For many FATA residents, opposition to the U.S. is based on current American military policy, not any intractably held anti-American beliefs.”

The point here is not to discuss the rights and wrongs of U.S. policies, but rather to show how national narratives can be over-simplified for political ends.  Serious debate becomes replaced with outrage. The pain of the individual who lost a relative in a suicide bombing, or of the family which lost its house in the floods,  is submerged amid a wave of national anger about Aafia Siddiqui and the United States. 

That in turn creates a very dangerous environment – one easily exploited by a minority with extreme views to manipulate the emotions of the majority.

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