Conspiracy as a cause of events is a constant in Pakistan. The theory is packaged in a paradigm that can be slapped on any situation. In other societies conspiracy theories are marginal; in Pakistan they are mainstream
Finally, somebody has worked out as to what ails Pakistanis. The Columbus of this effort is Mohammad Abdul Qadeer, professor emeritus at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’ University, Kingston, Canada. He lives in Toronto. I suppose you need to be physically at a distance from what you are observing to get its contours right. When you are close, you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Qadeer, who once wrote a book on Lahore from a sociologist’s and urban planner’s point of view, when told that Pakistan had won a hard-fought Security Council seat, beating India, observed, “What Pakistan needs is not a seat on the Security Council but more public toilets in Lahore.” He has just published a book in London on Pakistan and what our social strengths and foibles are. He has devoted a section of the work to the Pakistani mindset and he seems to have got it right.
Qadeer writes that the Pakistani way of perceiving and apprehending reality has been forged in the crucible of an agrarian economy and caste-clan relations. While being an evolving structure of many different parts, the Pakistani mindset is marked by a set of persistent assumptions. We tend to personalise the impersonal. Whether the event to be explained is a flood, poverty, a child’s truancy or marital unhappiness, it is attributed to someone else’s manipulation, malevolent intentions — and when it is something positive — to outside goodwill. The prime mover of every event is believed to be a person. Social or economic processes and even physical forces play a secondary role in the standard Pakistani narrative.
The popular explanation, Qadeer writes, for the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 is Yahya’s, Mujib’s and/or Bhutto’s treachery. A more institutional explanation ends up blaming the Bengalis, India and/or the United States. Pakistanis studying at American universities have a standard explanation if they fail a course. “My professor was prejudiced because I am a Muslim or because I was a person of colour.” And if the student scores a success, it is attributed to his unassailable intellectual and academic superiority. In Pakistan, every occurrence has to have a human agent behind it. Over time, this has been reinforced by the corruption, nepotism and capriciousness of the state. Everyday life is based on ad hoc decisions and personalised dealings. This manifests itself in blaming others and weaving conspiracy theories.
Blaming others, Qadeer argues, has been burnished into a philosophy. He offers examples. The Pakistan Engineers Association blamed foreign consultants and the WAPDA chief for the Tarbela Dam’s cracks. Zionists and Hindus were blamed for breaking up Pakistan, ‘the citadel of Islam’. Terrorism and violence when it first occurred in Karachi was seen as the work of ‘the hidden hand’. NGOs are viewed as engaged in corrupting Pakistani women. If an employee fails to get promoted, it is attributed to the stronger connections of the person who did get promoted. It can also be the boss’s ethnic prejudice.
Qadeer writes that “from blaming others to believing in active plotting by enemies, imagined or real, is a short step. The Pakistani mindset is predisposed to presume conspiracy as the driving force of many events.” The roster of conspiring agents varies with the ideological disposition of the proponent and with the political or social tenor of times. In the 1960s, it was India, the communists and the CIA who were the plotters. The Jews and Israelis were added to the list after the 1967 war. Bhutto in his waning days proclaimed that the Americans had conspired to punish him for his friendship with China and for his fathering of the ‘Islamic’ bomb.
In the 1980s with the Soviets in Afghanistan, they were seen as primarily responsible for the turmoil in Pakistan. The Afghan ‘jihad’ spun out a new strain of conspiracy theories that have morphed into the militant Islamist creed of America, “the perpetrator of the clash of civilisations” and the leader of the infidels. The Ahmadis were blamed for most of the problems in Pakistan’s early days. Rival sects of Deobandis and Barelvis have blamed each other for Pakistan’s sectarian strife.
Qadeer points out that one person’s conspirator is the victim for the other side. Conspiracy as a cause of events is a constant. The theory is packaged in a paradigm that can be slapped on any situation. In other societies conspiracy theories are marginal; in Pakistan they are mainstream. Responsible people propound them and school textbooks offer them as historical truths. Then there is the Pakistani doublethink. The West is portrayed as immoral and yet almost everyone wishes to migrate to the West.
Road traffic in Pakistan is another example of doublethink. Drivers curse others for breaking the rules, yet routinely run red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road or tailgate. The archetype of the Mard-e-Mujahid or the Holy Warrior is embedded in the Pakistani psyche. Pakistanis also believe that given the right connections, anything can be fixed. The pursuit of the ‘fix’ feeds back on the state, making it all the more arbitrary. The ‘Dubai challo’ culture is strong and underscores Pakistani enterprise and the desire to pursue success and advancement in life. The Pakistani diaspora continues to grow.
Pakistanis, Qadeer notes, are verbose. Most people make speeches rather than ask questions. He ends by quoting that superb intellectual Eqbal Ahmed who wrote on the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, “The most striking feature of our national life has been the equanimity with which our elite has experienced disasters. We are consumed by appetites of life and devoid of moral instincts.”
And it will be a bold man indeed who will speak after Eqbal Ahmed has spoken.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org