By now it is clear who attacked Mumbai on 26/11. Contrary to general opinion, it was a wily plot by India itself to malign the good name of Pakistan. 9/11: it was a Jewish conspiracy, didn’t you know? Use the Roman principle of cui bono who benefits and the truth is self-evident.
Didn’t the Americans use 9/11 to invade Israel’s enemies, control oil-rich lands and encircle Pakistan? The attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi: aircraft meant to fight the Indian Navy were destroyed, so it must be the Indians. Cui bono.
I have spent the past week conducting an interesting and revealing experiment of only watching the Pakistani news channels and these are some of the overwhelming narratives I have come away with. Channel after channel is full of talk shows where expert after expert comes in spinning these loony theories.
Sure, there is always the token lone liberal voice in each discussion speaking hesitantly about how the nation must seriously introspect within but the overwhelming narrative is one of an injured and humiliated Pakistan, an embattled Pakistan, a Pakistan under siege, a Pakistan at war.
A month after the Abbottabad attack, the ghost of Osama still rules the Pakistani airwaves. It hovers like a poisonous presence on every TV debate and what comes through is a deep sense of crisis and lingering anger. Not because he was found in a prestigious military cantonment, but because American commandoes could get in and fly away with impunity. The moot question of what was Osama doing in the heart of the Pakistani establishment has been conveniently airbrushed away from this storyline entirely.
Perhaps conspiracy theories are the “ultimate refuge of the powerless” as one analyst argued in talking of a similar epidemic of conspiracies in the Arab world. It is comforting to blame others if the reality is too painful and you are too powerless to change it.
Perhaps the talking heads, almost always defence experts and former generals, are a form of psychological spin by the “deep state” as Pakistanis call the Army and the ISI. Yet, the striking thing is that their loony conspiracies are hardly ever challenged by anchors and on these TV debates at least, they seem to have already passed into received wisdom.
Now there is a clear distinction between the narrative on TV and that in the English-language Pakistani print press. The newspapers have been full of honest soul-searching and hard questioning by anguished columnists of the priorities driving the military-ISI complex. But if television is the window into a society’s consciousness, then there is cause to be seriously worried indeed.
Only three years ago, Pakistan’s boisterous TV channels were at the forefront of a Pakistani spring, when they heroically led the charge against General Musharraf and mid-wifed the return to democracy. Yet, listen to their television now and it is rare to even hear a mention of the fundamental imbalance at the heart of the Army’s security strategy: the distinguishing between ‘good’ jihadis, the ones who attack India, and the ‘bad’ jihadis, the ones who attack Pakistanis.
These are the kind of issues that Nawaz Sharif has raised, about his country reaping the fallout of a narrow-focused Army-centric worldview and a permanent complex about India, to the detriment of everything else. But if the TV discourse is any indication of the national mood then the “deep state” is in a state of deep denial and living in a parallel reality.
So on one talk show for instance, the journalist Hamid Mir virtually lumps the Americans and the anti-Pakistan Taliban elements in the same category. In this view, the American drone attacks are clear examples of ‘state-led terrorism’ against Pakistan and it is being squeezed between this and regular terrorism by ‘non-state’ actors.
On another talk show, a retired general talks with disgust about the weakness of Pakistan’s current rulers. If he had been Corps Commander in Peshawar, he says, he would have immediately taught the Americans a lesson by closing the supply routes to NATO troops in Afghanistan. “Why are we so scared when we have our foot on the Americans’ necks?” he asks rhetorically.
From talk show to talk show, the villain is the civilian government led by Zardari. It is too weak, if only the Army had a free hand, if only there was martial law, everything would be fine, goes the refrain. And everybody nods.
There is the helplessness of a proud people seeing their country breaking apart, their most cherished ideals being blown away, the longing for a strong hand and a return to grandeur, but virtually no critical questioning on their most powerful mass media.
It is all very Wiemar Republic, Germany in the 1920s. And we know what a shared sense of acute victimhood led to there, don’t we. Or maybe I am giving too much importance to television. After all, what would the Pakistanis think if they saw our Hindi news channels regularly? Now there is a thought.