The people of Muslim countries are relatively more prone to conspiracy theories and Pakistan is no exception. If this tendency is not arrested it could seriously impair our ability to think rationally. Major international and national events or policy issues are viewed not on the basis of facts but in most cases through the prism of a conspiracy theory. This aberration is not confined to the general public but has permeated professionals, the business community, bureaucrats, the media and even academia. The majority of Pakistanis are not prepared to believe that Arabs carried out 9/11. They refuse to accept that Muslims were responsible for the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament, in Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai and even Marriot Islamabad. What really is most disturbing that you come across educated people and those who have been in high positions resting their entire arguments and advocating policy prescriptions on the basis of these ludicrous assumptions. An ex-governor even went to the extent of stating in a television interview that no Pakistani or Muslim is involved in the South Waziristan insurgency and whatever is happening is the doing of “Hindu Taliban.”
This, however, does not imply that major powers are benign and do not pursue inimical goals.
What are the factors that have given rise to this type of thinking and what are its implications in the short and longer term? How can we come out of this warped and highly self-destructive syndrome?
The most obvious reason is a mindset of self-denial and escapism. Surely this is not a rational way of solving problems.
The trust deficit between the people and the leaders and between institutions is another contributing factor in giving rise to conspiracy theories. No one seems to trust anyone. Leaders lack credibility because of their performance and reputation. Very few are prepared to believe what they say or take them on their face value. Institutions are looked down upon in terms of professional competence, standards of integrity and few would accept the version presented by them unless it is woven around with fantasies.
Lack of scientific and technical education, absence of research and a culture that does not promote rational thinking makes people vulnerable to conspiracies.
Overzealous fundamentalist and nationalist tend to place blame on other cultures, religion or sects and on their opponents. Domestically we have a situation where diehard Sunnis blame Shias, and vice versa, and civilians transfer blames on the army and the army feels all the problems emanate from the civilians. At the external level targets are the US and India. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Pakistan. The US conveniently scapegoats Pakistan for all its failures in Afghanistan and India for its misdeeds in Kashmir passes the buck to Pakistan.
The policies of the US and other major powers also shatters confidence among Pakistanis. Bush’s policy of deceiving his own people and the rest of the world about the WMDs in Iraq and using the CIA to destabilise Iran or pressure Cuba and some Latin American countries has lead to doubts about US motives. In fact, some consider US foreign policy a greater danger to Pakistan than the threat posed by Taliban and other militant groups. Similarly, India’s intransigence on Kashmir and its inflexible attitude on other bilateral issues reinforces possibilities of its clandestine conduct. Pakistan’s turbulent past and disturbed neighbourhood are also responsible for breeding insecurities.
Despite Obama’s very forthright approach and sincere desire to assist Pakistan there are still many who doubt his intentions and weave conspiracies in Washington’s policies. It may not be easy to remove this impression in the light of our recent past when successive US administrations trumped Pakistan’s national interests by supporting dictators and imposing their will for political expediency.
Jacob Bronsther, a Fulbright scholar at New York University, has attributed conspiracy syndrome a consequence of “cognitive dissonance – the mental disturbance caused by the collision of contradictory ideas, stemming from the Muslim world’s lack of prosperity and power.” There may be some truth in this observation as it is difficult for a Muslim to reconcile to the painful reality that he is weak and the rest of the world has progressed rapidly and gone past him.
It is not that Pakistan alone is awash with conspiracies. Other nations too have their own stories to tell but these are not that overwhelming to cloud reality and not as self-destructive. The danger is that by subscribing to conspiracy theories we undermine our ability to examine a problem or formulate a policy on a rational basis. This is equally true for issues related to security, economics, politics or relations with foreign countries. For instance, we blame the IMF and World Bank for our economic ills and some perceive it as a part of a larger conspiracy. This line of thinking frees us as individuals, groups or nations from accepting responsibility for the failure, which is very dangerous. What we need most is to face internal and external problems squarely, accept the reality of growing insurgency and other challenges and formulate policies and take decisions on the basis of facts and not live in fantasy.