A constructed enemy?

Multiple subjectivities plague any ‘objective’ measurement of anti-American sentiments in Pakistan

Since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistani society has been a playground for political Islam; and today the latter drives and defines all discourse. Anti-Americanism appears to be embedded within political Islam’s extremist expression; it extends to some quasi-mainstream religio-political parties, to certain youth wings and radical preaching groups, to militants and terrorist organizations, some of which have clear linkages with Al Qaeda.

The recent murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer has exposed the inherent fault lines in Pakistani society. A simple murder has acquired ideological dimensions challenging the laws of the land as well as prospects of rule-based governance. In the wider context, pro-militancy and anti-militancy political coalitions are being painted as “pro-Islam” and “anti-Islam”, even when Muslims are involved on both sides. Political activity from public rallies and door-to-door politicking, to public and national legislation, has been hijacked by piety and sectarian Islamism, reminiscent of Zia era and something not witnessed anywhere in the Islamic world today (except for the Wahabbi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Again, this is a minority being trumpeted and projected as the voice of the ‘masses’, even to the ruling elite, who have been silenced by the gun of their protecting armies of security guards and policemen.

Any form of religious opinion can acquire the potential to trigger a security risk, making it naïve for the myriad sects of Islam to consider their followers safe and free to worship Allah in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Couched in this acquired discursive authority is a belligerent strain of anti-Americanism. In recent years, drone attacks have provided more fuel to this pervasive sense of antagonism in Pakistan, with the Brookings Institution estimating a dire ratio of one militant killed for every ten civilians.

It is striking how anti-Americanism has spread globally if various opinion polls are analyzed. What is the evidence that emerges in the context of Pakistan? Globally, Pakistan would adhere to the 2003 Pew Polls (undertaken by The Pew Global Attitudes Project) finding that most Muslims believe that USA unfairly sides with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. 99% of Jordanians, 96% of Palestinians and 94% of Moroccans agree. Many Europeans hold a similar view as well.

According to a July 2010 opinion poll undertaken by Pew, nearly 6 in 10 Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy, opposed the war in Afghanistan and were less concerned about the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Pakistanis along with the Turks and Egyptians, gave United States the lowest ratings of the 20 countries polled by Pew. This lack of faith in the US is partly linked to Washington’s close relationship with India (considered by 53% of respondents as Pakistan’s biggest threat).

Despite the substantial – actual and anticipated – aid flows (military and in recent times civilian), the Pew Research poll indicated that 17% of Pakistani respondents held a favorable view of America and only 11% termed it as a ‘partner’. An earlier poll held in 2010 by the BBC World Service which is viewed in various countries under U.S. influence, 9% Pakistanis held positive perceptions about the US against 52% who viewed the country negatively.

If we go by these recent surveys, anti-Americanism appears to be intense and rising. The results of these polls are well-known and commonly articulated in the national media. However, their methodology remains questionable. A common error in polls, which makes them less accurate, relates to provincial and urban-rural weight. For example, the Pew Poll sample constituted of 55% urban, even though Pakistan is only 33% urban. Opinions are hypotheses difficult to measure. It has been said that to construct a superstructure of statistics over opinions and ‘then correlating them to similar superstructures in other’, entirely different contexts, is problematic at best.

In general, polls can only be accurate when attempts have been actively made at preventing the framing of questions from being too subjective. Also, the public has the right to know the subjectivities of those conducting such polls. The way questions are framed entails the risk of creating biases and reproducing pre-conceived notions. For instance, if you ask Pakistanis whether they want a Islamic polity in Pakistan, most are likely to respond in the affirmative. Where does the evidence of anti-Americanism lead us? Quite frankly, nowhere.

Thus, the extent and spread of anti-Americanism requires serious research and unbiased surveys. Only then can we get a fair idea of where things stand. At home, the Gallup Pakistan or the Gilani Research Foundation Polls are also to be accepted with a pinch of salt due to the alleged right-wing leaning of the surveying entity.

Methodological problems aside, it is also pertinent to note that anti-Americanism is also carefully crafted and promoted in the country by the security establishment. The creation of ‘enemies’ is vital for the dominance of the national security paradigm and also for pursuing ‘strategic’ goals. The hullabaloo over the Kerry-Lugar bill (with a civilian aid package of $7.5 billion, the largest in the country’s history) in 2009 proves this point. The concomitant military aid package had a smooth sailing and there was no rumpus over it within Pakistan and its mediatised public opinion.

Opinion and beliefs are constructed and fuelled by a zealous media, which regurgitates a conspiratorial mindset and shapes public discourse in ‘paranoidistan’. This is not to say that US policy and strategy for the region is, or has been, just or wise. Far from it. The US has bungled its war on terror in Afghanistan and has perhaps unwittingly, radicalized sections of Pakistani society especially in the northwest where drone attacks are causing civilian casualties. A brief moment of respite emerged for the US during the floods of 2010, when the immediate and generous US assistance was widely acknowledged but the media played it down within weeks. And now the case of Raymond Davis and its articulation by the media has amply proved that public views and beliefs can easily be negative influenced by resort to ‘national honour’, external ‘threats’ and invaders. One newspaper has actually called Davis an ‘invader’.

In general, the urban middle classes especially in the Punjab – also dominant in the media and bureaucracy – are more anti-American than others in Pakistan. This is a segment of Pakistani society that requires to be rationally engaged by the political parties, given their consensus over a robust (some would say questionable) bilateral relationship with the US. At the end of the day, our rational self-interest – economic development, trade and technological transfers – should govern foreign relations rather than outdated strategic goals and sham ideological discourses.


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