Conspiracy Theories in Pakistan

All cultures usually have different groups of people who believe in grand conspiracy theories. One cursory internet search on the topic would lead you to numerous websites dedicated to one or the other form of conspiracy theory about secret orders and powerful underground organizations. Pakistan is no exception. At any time in Pakistan there are always some conspiracy theories in circulation. What concerns me is how Pakistani media sometimes perpetuate these theories and how even the most educated sometimes fall victim to their lure. I will briefly touch upon two different examples.

A few years ago during my visit to Pakistan quite a few highly educated people kept asking me about my opinion about the “Blood Borders.” Obviously, in the beginning I was clueless as what this term meant. Eventually, I was told that America believes that the borders in the South Asia regions should be redrawn so that they truly represent the natural ethnic and blood ties amongst the people of this region. According to this theory, offered as truth, the US policy in the region was geared toward achieving this end and pretty soon, it seemed, the US was likely attempt to restructure Pakistan according to this vision of the region.

Finally, when more than three of my learned friends in Pakistan invoked the term “blood borders” I got curious and asked them about the source of the term itself. They informed me that blood borders was accepted US policy and as a proof they offered me a copy of an article published in the US Armed Forces Journal. This brief article by Ralph Peters is basically a speculative piece offering realigning of borders in the Middle East to solve the ethnic or regional conflicts (Article available here: http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/2006/06/1833899).

It seems this article had been circulating in Pakistan, but not as a speculative article by a scholar but as document that, somehow, represented US policy. Obviously, the problem was not with the article—one can find thousands of speculative policy articles on any topic published in hundreds of journals—but with the modes of reading applied to it. The readers obviously could not differentiate between the opinion of one scholar and his nation and thus his ideas were assigned the same degree of legitimacy and acceptance as would have been assigned to a policy paper written by someone in the US administration. And since the story made sense within the logic of US war in Afghanistan, it became accepted as truth. No amount of discussion or explanation on my part, it seemed, could dissuade my friends from reading this article as absolutely true statement of US intent in the region. Part of the reason for easy acceptance of such bizarre theories is the extreme lack of critical education in Pakistan. Most of our schools are content oriented and rely heavily on learning the content and then reproducing it. Thinking critically about the issues or about the texts is encouraged neither in the public school system nor in the private sector. As a result we are producing millions of uncritical citizens who either learn the very basic narratives of nations—of which a dangerous other is always a presence—or just learn the surface values of material aspects of capitalism. In both cases the students are neither trained nor learn the methods of looking at the sources critically in order to decide whether or not the sources are reliable or not. Our media pundits—some of them who have bought their PhDs from for-profit universities in the US—also perpetuate varied conspiracies through their frequent appearances on TV shows.

Some conspiracy theories, however, have nothing to do with the grave threats to Pakistan but rather rely on popular desires and dreams to perpetuate themselves. I had one such experience a couple of years back when one of my old friends contacted me to talk about a famous Pakistani scientist.

My friend, a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Corps of Engineers, informed me that he had recently come into contact with a famous Pakistani scientist, Dr. Aurangzeb Hafi and wanted me to read the said scientist’s poetry. Naturally, as someone who edits a journal on Pakistan I was deeply interested and I informed him that we would also like to publish an interview with this person in the next issue of our journal. Things took a different turn after I did my simple research about this famous scientist.

According to my research, not only were all the claims about his two doctoral degrees false, but I also could not find a single refereed article in any database that the said scientist had published: his website claimed that he had published over three bundled scientific articles.

Furthermore, the scientist had already been interviewed by a local TV network, had been written about in the Urdu press, and the Pakistani blogs had also reported about the singular honor that this scientist had brought to Pakistan. Troubled by what my research revealed to me I contacted my friend and informed him that according to my research this scientist was fake. My friend informed me that the news of Hafi’s accomplishments had been published by Yahoo news and thus his claims could not be false.

Now, Yahoo News is an aggregating service, which means that their webcrawler harvests different sources and then simply reposts them without any editorial oversight. In case of Dr. Hafi, he himself or someone on his behalf had published a press release with PR web (a service that would publish any news if you pay the fees) stating that Mr. Hafi had been declared the man of the year. This press release later showed up in the yahoo feed.

Needless to say, all my efforts to convince my friend that the scientist was really not a scientist failed. My efforts failed because my friend and so many others had built an entire edifice of hope and pride around the accomplishments of this particular person and any attempt at undoing that was also a direct threat to their hopes and aspirations.

In both kinds of conspiracy theories, the one about dangerous beings and dangerous enemies and the other about great leaders, scientist, etc., the users find these theories to fit their own matrix of desire. In other words, the conspiracy theory becomes a sort of ideology through which the users can make sense of the world or ascribe specific meanings to their lives and the world around them. In most cases these people are harmless, but when conspiracy theories start underwriting our worldview to an extent where we decide whether or not someone is our enemy, then the consequences can be dangerous.

In any nation it is the long-term goal of the educational system to produce critically aware citizens so that they do not fall prey to such conspiracy theories. In the short term, the Pakistani press can also act as a useful didactic tool by challenging all conspiracy theories instead of perpetuating them.

(Also published in Viewpoint Online)

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