Friday June 09, 2023

Our perception problem

October 12, 2017

One doesn’t have to be a diplomat based in Washington to know that Pakistan is facing bit of an image problem internationally. In fact the word doing the rounds is ‘growing international isolation’.

The US is increasingly vocal about its frustration and lack of results in the Afghan theatre. The new narrative being cast is that Pakistan is the last hurdle to the elusive victory. This only means that Pakistan is going to be the whipping boy of the West yet again.

I get to travel occasionally to client sites abroad as part of my profession. At present, I am in the UK, and it’s been almost six months here. Here I have met a lot of people from different walks of life, from bus drivers, receptionists, barmen, amateur athletes, and street performers to CEOs, managers and business executives. My interest in current affairs drives me to learn what all these people think about the world, particularly Pakistan. The news from here is that the negative branding we are getting in the media as Pakistanis is adversely impacting how we are perceived here.

Our second identity as Muslims is also viewed with suspicion because of rising Islamophobia in the West. Unfortunately, a majority of the acts classified under terrorism in the international press have been linked with Muslims or those organisations which preach ultra-violence as a tool to further presumably Muslim causes; this only adds to the current atmosphere of mistrust. This is not to say that Western reporting on covering acts of terrorism has been completely impartial. In the Las Vegas terror attack a significant portion of social media users bemoaned the refrain in using the word terrorism for the incident; it was obvious that the word terrorism is used selectively for Muslims alone.

If things stay their current course we should all foresee an increased challenge in finding acceptability as individuals and as countrymen in the West. Our narrative on world affairs is not finding any traction in power centers across the world from where it can be echoed further to the rest of the world.

However, this is not to say that all our ills boil down to just external factors. We have learnt through deadly trial and error that our policies of the past need to be shunned. It is encouraging to see major stakeholders in the country appealing to the public to reject all forms of extremism. Still there is more to do in terms of reaching a consensus.

There needs to be more harmony amongst all segments of society that working with proscribed organisations is counter-productive to voicing our concerns internationally. There should be increased awareness that these organisations are mostly a tool for furthering proxy wars as we have seen in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria where the greatest victims of a proxy war are the ordinary citizens and public infrastructure. The stigma attached with a country which becomes a playground for proxy wars is hard to wash away. Vivid visuals make for vivid memories which are like stubborn stains, hard to erase, and whose ripple effect is felt for years to come.

Expat Pakistanis also have a greater responsibility in these trying times. I have found Pakistanis abroad getting into their comfort zone far too quickly by finding fellow Pakistanis and sticking with them rather than having a greater drive to meet new people and showcase our culture and what we have to offer to them. The focus of expats should be their role as positive influencers in society. Once this aspect is recognised, our narratives and our perceptions will change automatically. Encouragingly, I have met a lot of people abroad who are kind hearted and well-meaning individuals who are more than willing to accommodate Pakistanis and Muslims in their societies.

Our perception abroad should also be viewed as an extension of our domestic politics. The local media is a microcosm of the extent of political polarisation in our society at the moment. Panelists and opinion makers are driving the caustic attitudes of people towards each other. The image of a deposed prime minister running from pillar to post to plead his case amidst a trial makes for a poor showing abroad. Despite our realisation of our internal and external challenges, the way forward is murky for major stakeholders. This is a time for national unity and cohesion but the entire nation watches every news bulletin with bated breath. Need one say more?         

The writer is a professional services and IT consultant based in Islamabad.

Twitter: @raj_omer