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Tuesday February 27, 2024

Conspiracy theories, slogans, myths

October 05, 2023

Nations and communities need narratives, but they cannot progress with narratives alone. They also need practical ideas about education, healthcare, innovation, external relations, and economic growth.

Unfortunately, for far too long, Pakistan’s politics has revolved around slogans, myths, and conspiracy theories. The media shows little interest in serious discourse about policy ideas. Most drawing room conversations are about who is in and who is out, who did what to whom, and various real or imaginary schemes to steal from the people or acquire power.

There is an old adage, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Applying it to Pakistan’s general media discourse, one would be compelled to believe that much of it is conducted by average or small minds. The public has access to little that can be described as serious ideas. Few people question catchphrases that are repeated without examination or evidence.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a slogan as “a word or phrase that is easy to remember, used for example by a political party, or in advertising, to attract people’s attention or to suggest an idea.” But Pakistanis seem to embrace slogans without much thought and are swayed by them without asking simple, logical questions. For instance, what does it really mean when Pakistani leaders describe their country as ‘a citadel of Islam’ or promise to create ‘Madina ki Riyasat?’ Islam has been the faith of billions in its more than 1400 year history. Did Islam not need or have a citadel until the creation of the state of Pakistan in 1947?

Similarly, do the hordes that are motivated to commit violence in the name of protecting the Prophet’s (pbuh) honour or Islam’s dignity ever think if their actions actually fulfil their stated objective? Are speeches about ‘dushman ko naist o nabood kar dein ge’ (we will reduce the enemy to rubble) ever considered in the light of reality? Sticking it to the Americans or Israelis or Indians gets applause at home, but does it even stir powerful governments or countries?

Why has there been no UN resolution on Kashmir since 1957 and, given that the UN’s membership has gone from 82 in 1957 to 193 since then, would a similar resolution pass today? Is ‘iron brother’ when applied to China anything more than verbiage, given that China (or any country for that matter) makes policies on the basis of its interests not on some verbal bond of brotherhood.

Empty slogans are often backed by myths, defined in the Dictionary as “a widely held but false belief or idea.” From stories denigrating those we dislike to ones that extol the virtues of those we admire, there are hundreds of myths under discussion in Pakistan at any given time. The advent of social media has increased the speed at which myths can spread and those who believe them often cite their WhatsApp messages, Twitter/X, or Facebook as a reliable source of information.

A little research, which at least the media and national leaders should engage in, would show that some of the founding arguments of elaborate theories about Pakistan’s history, foreign relations, and economy are just plain fabrications. Research shows that Liaquat Ali Khan never got an invitation to the Soviet Union in 1949, let alone turned it down; there were no secret clauses in the 1966 Tashkent agreement or the 1972 Simla Accord; the Americans never promised to send their fleet to save erstwhile East Pakistan from becoming Bangladesh; no Pakistani leader sold out Kashmir, it just became internationally less contentious; and Gwadar was never going to be a bigger port than Dubai or HongKong.

While myths are just made up stories that make people feel better about their circumstances or explain away difficulties and setbacks, conspiracy theories are the staple of many narratives in Pakistan. In 1991, Washington Post reporter Steve Coll had written from Islamabad about Pakistan’s ‘political culture of shadow games’. Almost twenty years later, in 2010, New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise observed that “Conspiracy is a national sport in Pakistan”. Sadly, another 13 years have passed, and little has changed.

Conspiracism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the belief that major historical and political events are brought about as the result of a conspiracy between interested parties or are manipulated by or on behalf of an unknown group of influential people”. Conspiracy theories are the dominant mode for explaining the country’s often sorry state of affairs.

Officially sanctioned deception, including projection of embellished Pakistani accomplishments and tailoring of history to conceal failings and failures, has altered the psyche of Pakistani citizens, making them see conspiracy in every corner. Conspiracism has bred an aversion to dispassionate examination of facts and precluded realism in policymaking. That, in turn, makes it difficult to reduce or manage the country’s myriad problems with alternative prescriptions that might not conform to conspiracist assumptions.

Scholars who have studied the reasons for a society’s propensity to conspiracism point out that they are often rooted in a desire to explain away hardship. Experts also maintain that isolation and groupthink are important parts of convincing people that they are victims of a conspiracy.

Conspiracy theory promoters keep their supporters happy with nationalist rhetoric, while ignoring tough questions. We never hear a discussion about why the per hectare yield of Pakistan’s major crops is almost half of most other countries, why Pakistanis consume 34 per cent less calories on average than the rest of the world, or why the value of Pakistan’s cotton textiles exports is less than that of Bangladesh while Pakistan is the world’s fourth largest cotton producer and Bangladesh produces negligible amount of cotton. But addressing those hard questions, not sloganeering or conspiracism, is how Pakistan problems are likely to be solved.

The writer, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.