by Pervez Hoodbhoy
As anti-US lava spews from the fiery volcanoes of Pakistan’s private television channels and newspapers, a collective psychosis grips the country’s youth. Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the US is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and the world of Islam.
Faisal Shahzad, with designer sunglasses and an MBA degree from the University of Bridgeport, acquired that murderous intent. Living his formative years in Pakistan, he typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of Ziaul Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a retired air vice-marshal, life was easy as was getting US citizenship subsequently. But at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring must have kicked in.
There was guilt as he saw pictures of Gaza’s dead children and related them to US support for Israel. Internet browsing or, perhaps, the local mosque steered him towards the idea of an Islamic caliphate. This solution to the world’s problems would require, of course, the US to be destroyed. Hence Shahzad’s self-confessed trip to Waziristan.
Ideas considered extreme a decade ago are now mainstream. A private survey carried out by a European embassy based in Islamabad found that only four per cent of Pakistanis polled speak well of America; 96 per cent against.
Although Pakistan and the US are formal allies, in the public perception the US has ousted India as Pakistan’s number one enemy. Remarkably, anti-US sentiment rises in proportion to aid received. Say a good word about the US, and you are labelled as its agent. From what TV anchors had to say about it, Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5bn may well have been money that the US wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it.
Pakistan is not the only country where America is unpopular. In pursuit of its self-interest, the US has waged illegal wars, bribed, bullied and overthrown governments, supported tyrants and undermined movements for progressive change. Paradoxically America is disliked more in Pakistan than in countries which have born the direct brunt of its attacks — Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Why?
Drone strikes are a common but false explanation. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi implicitly justifies the Times Square bombing as retaliation but this does not bear up. Drone attacks have killed some innocents but they have devastated militant operations in Waziristan while causing far less collateral damage than Pakistan Army operations.
On the other hand, the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were carpet-bombed by B-52 bombers and Vietnam’s jungles were defoliated with Agent Orange. Yet, Vietnam never developed visceral feelings like those in Pakistan.
Finding truer reasons requires deeper digging. In part, Pakistan displays the resentment of a client state for its paymaster. US-Pakistan relations are transactional today but the master-client relationship is older. Indeed, Pakistan chose this path because confronting India over Kashmir demanded big defence budgets. In the 1960s, Pakistan entered into the Seato and Cento military pacts, and was proud to be called ‘America’s most allied ally’. The Pakistan Army became the most powerful, well-equipped and well-organised institution in the country. This also put Pakistan on the external dole.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, even as it brought in profits, deepened the dependence. Paid by the US to create the anti-Soviet jihadist apparatus, Pakistan is now being paid again to fight that war’s blowback. Pakistan then entered George W. Bush’s war on terror to enhance America’s security — a fact that further hurt its self-esteem. It is a separate matter that Pakistan fights that very war for its own survival and must call upon its army to protect the population from throat-slitting fanatics.
Passing the buck is equally fundamental to Pakistan’s anti-Americanism. It is in human nature to blame others for one’s own failures. Pakistan has long teetered between being a failed state and a failing state. The rich won’t pay taxes? Little electricity? Contaminated drinking water? Kashmir unsolved? Blame it on the Americans. This phenomenon exists elsewhere too. For example, one saw Hamid Karzai threatening to join the Taliban and lashing out against Americans because they (probably correctly) suggested he committed electoral fraud.
Tragically for Pakistan, anti-Americanism plays squarely into the hands of Islamic militants. They vigorously promote the notion of an Islam-West war when, in fact, they actually wage armed struggle to remake society. They will keep fighting this war even if America were to miraculously evaporate. Created by poverty, a war culture and the macabre manipulations of Pakistan’s intelligence services, they seek a total transformation of society. This means eliminating music, art, entertainment and all manifestations of modernity. Side goals include chasing away the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs and Hindus.
At a time when the country needs clarity of thought to successfully fight extremism, simple bipolar explanations are inadequate. The moralistic question ‘Is America good or bad?’ is futile.
There is little doubt that the US has committed acts of aggression, as in Iraq, and maintains the world’s largest military machine. We know that it will make a deal with the Taliban if perceived to be in its self-interest — even if that means abandoning the Afghans to bloodthirsty fanatics. Yet, it would be wrong to scorn the humanitarian impulse behind US assistance in times of desperation. Shall we write off massive US assistance to Pakistan at the time of the earthquake of 2005? Or to tsunami-affected countries in 2004?
In truth, the US is no more selfish or altruistic than any other country. And it treats its Muslim citizens infinitely better than we treat non-Muslims in Pakistan.
Instead of pronouncing moral judgments on everything and anything, we Pakistanis need to reaffirm what is truly important for our people: peace, economic justice, good governance, rule of law, accountability of rulers, women’s rights and rationality in human affairs. Washington must be resisted, but only when it seeks to drag Pakistan away from these goals. More frenzied anti-Americanism will produce more Faisal Shahzads.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.