Malala Yousafzai was given the Tipperary International Peace award this week in Ireland. The Pakistani teenager had been writing an anonymous blog for the BBC chronicling the difficulties of being a girl and trying to get an education under the Taliban. When her identity was revealed, the Taliban boarded her school bus and shot her point blank in the head. Miraculously, she survived. You may think winning an international peace prize, being nominated for the Nobel peace prize and giving a speech at the United Nations would be a cause for celebration. It was nearly universally so. Except in Pakistan of course.
When Malala’s story broke world news back in October 2012 after the Taliban’s attempt on her life, she initially received enthusiastic support from Pakistan’s establishment. She even got a visit from President Asif Ali Zardari himself. Imran Khan, cricketing hero of the nation and leader of Pakistan’s most popular opposition party tweeted of her courage. However, things took an awry turn when the schoolgirl was held up as a heroine by those dreaded enemies of your average Pakistani: the West.
It didn’t take long for social media, news sites, religious leaders and even the head of Pakistan’s largest Islamist party to unleash a torrent of conspiracy theories about the young schoolgirl. It was obvious, according to these conspiracy theorists, that Malala was either a CIA agent or the entire shooting was staged by the United States as an excuse to continue drone strikes. Despite the fact that the Taliban themselves claimed the attempt on Malala’s life on several occasions, the conspiracy theorists blundered on. The letter written by the Taliban leader Adnan Rashid was obviously a fabrication by the Americans. Because Malala was making a name for herself abroad, the venom with which she was attacked by everyday Pakistanis was ruthless and unforgiving. It was also both sad and sobering in the way it showed how far the conspiracy theory rot had infected the Pakistani psyche. Because she had been hailed as a hero by the West, Pakistan treated her as an enemy.
The reaction from Pakistanis to Malala is indicative of a larger problem within Pakistan: the conspiracy theory. The problem is that Pakistan is a young country and faces a much larger and better off rival in India. Pakistani leaders over the decades have resorted to the most base of human instincts to galvanise the population and to shore up their own power through those great refuges of the scoundrel: patriotism and religion. The result has been a Pakistan that has slowly abandoned the secular, pluralist vision of its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Since then, the country has drifted further and further towards Islamism with the result being a Pakistani identity shaped by its opposition to all things non-Muslim, non-Western and most of all: non-Pakistani. Combined with poor literacy rates, a tightly controlled media and a disillusionment with Pakistan’s faltering position in its rivalry with her large neighbour to the East, Pakistanis don’t understand how the world around them works. A retreat into jingoistic Pakistani nationalism or Islamism becomes comforting and appealing.
However, it is this retreat that is further undermining Pakistan’s ability to recover from its malaise. Pakistanis not only continue to ignore the threat of Islamism, but support it wholeheartedly as the only legitimate protest against US drone strikes and a perceived encroachment of Western values and freedoms. Meanwhile, these very Islamists commit daily acts of terrorism not only at home, but abroad. Never mind that that domestic terrorism has killed close to 50,000 Pakistanis since 2001. Pakistani US drone strike kill estimates don’t even approach a tenth of that. Bomb blasts by Islamist militants that kill Pakistanis erode confidence in the country’s ability to protect the fruits of any foreign investors looking to put their money into Pakistan. Why invest in a country where your customers or your investment might get blown up?
Attacks by Pakistani Islamist militants abroad strain relations with potential trade partners. India should be Pakistan’s largest trade partner but total trade with her larger neighbour sits at a poorly 2.9% of Pakistan’s total trade due to years of bad relations. This is partly caused by Pakistan’s support of Islamist militants in India. This includes Lashkar-e-Taiba who carried out the 2008 Islamist attacks in Mumbai, thus further robbing Pakistanis of jobs and investment. All of this destabilises the country further, harms economic growth and creates an even better climate for the Islamists to further their cause. They create more conspiracy theories, which in turn provides more support for the Islamists, leaving the country seemingly constantly on the verge of economic collapse, balkanisation or Islamist takeover.
Pakistanis reject notions of secularism, freedom, democracy, tolerance, pluralism and universal education as Western plots or the work of unseen CIA agents and not as the basis of a healthy, functioning society. So long as this is the case, the country will never emerge from its current quagmire. Currently, Pakistan is known for little more than as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, an exporter of terrorism, a really bad place to be a woman and finally, a place where girls cannot get an education. So long as Pakistanis look for answers to their problems in conspiracy theories and not the real culprits of their fall, the Islamists, their lot will not improve.
If Pakistan is to become a globally respected, vibrant, functioning democracy, Pakistanis must first stop resorting to conspiracy theories to explain the ills that have befallen them and face the real enemy. Islamist parties preach an ultraconservative brand of Islam and threaten to plunge the country back into the 7th century. In the 70 or so days that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in office, Pakistan has suffered just as many terrorist attacks. Either Islamism will end Pakistan, or Pakistanis will choose to end Islamism.