May 01, 2016
On Saturday, it was reported that the Central Board of Film Censors had decided to ban the documentary ‘Among the Believers’. Directed by Mohammad Ali Naqvi, the film focuses on the Lal Masjid and its activities, and has already been screened in twenty countries around the world. When explaining the rationale behind the ban, the Censor Board declared that the film was unacceptable because it, ‘projects [a] negative image of Pakistan in the context of [the] ongoing fight against extremism’.
News of the ban on ‘Among the Believers’ was submerged beneath blanket coverage in the press of the decision taken by the US Congress to withhold funding that had been allocated to help Pakistan purchase of eight F-16 jets. News reports spoke of the ‘humiliation’ Pakistan had to endure at the hands of US legislators who expressed skepticism about the sale of the fighter jets, pointing out how they might be used against India and how Pakistan had failed to do enough to fight terror, and the tenor of the reporting made it clear that in this particular case, Pakistan was little more than a hapless victim being unfairly punished. On TV screens and in the print media, it was repeatedly pointed out that the US administration itself supported the sale of the jets, and that opposition to the disbursement of the promised aid emanated from individual congressmen who were misguided, misinformed and, at least according to some of the reactions on social media, probably on the payroll of the pro-India lobby.
What both of these incidents have in common is the construction of a narrative in which Pakistan is seen as being wrongfully portrayed as some kind of irredeemable pariah state characterised by religious bigotry, violence, and the export of terrorism. Following from this, it is often argued that there is much more going on in Pakistan, a lot of which is positive, and that a single-minded focus on what is bad is both disingenuous and symptomatic of a broader conspiracy to malign and the undermine the country at the behest of hostile, largely foreign interests.
At the outset, it is important to clarify that there is a kernel of truth to this viewpoint; Western reporting on Pakistan has often tended to reproduce and reinforce Orientalist tropes about tradition and alleged backwardness, and there has been a tendency, post 9-11, to view the country through an exclusively religious lens. It should be taken as a given that Pakistan, with a population of almost 200 million people, harbours diversity and contradictions that defy generalisation. Indeed, it is difficult to find anything more unintentionally entertaining than breathless, wide-eyed accounts of how people in Pakistan have parties, attend cultural events, host fashion shows, and manage to go about their lives without bombing someone or being bombed themselves – just like the vast majority of people around the world.
That being said, it would also be a mistake to assume that all negative depictions of life in Pakistan are either incorrect or representative of more nefarious designs. After all, legitimate protests against superficial coverage of life in the Land of the Pure often serve as cover for a more insidious ideological agenda that actively seeks to fuel paranoia and suspicion about Pakistan’s external foes – both real and imagined – that tends to obviate the need for much needed introspection.
Consider, for example, the case of ‘Among the Believers’, or the two Oscar-winning documentaries by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy which tackled the issue of violence against women, or ‘Pakistan’s Hidden Shame’, a documentary which highlighted the rampant sexual abuse of children in this country. In each of these cases, detractors were quick to pillory the films for promoting a negative image of Pakistan, with it often being explicitly stated that the people behind them were pursuing foreign agendas inimical to Pakistan’s interests. What these bouts of righteous fury neglect to consider, however, is the fact that religious extremism, honour killing, and child abuse are very real issues in Pakistan that need to be urgently addressed. Maulana Abdul Aziz and his supporters in the Lal Masjid continue to operate unimpeded despite their unrepentant support for militancy and terror. Earlier this week, a young man in Karachi murdered his sister with a kitchen knife for the ‘crime’ of speaking to a male neighbour. The Kasur abuse scandal last year demonstrated how children are often victims of sexual exploitation. These are facts, not illusions constructed by anti-Pakistan elements seeking to defame the country and the sooner that is acknowledged, the easier it will be to start dealing with these issues.
A similar dynamic is at play with regards to Pakistan’s desire to procure F-16s from the USA at subsidised rates. The entire argument here has been that these planes are instrumental in the fight against terror, and that withholding them from Pakistan hampers the country’s battle against the Taliban and other militants. This is all when and good except for the fact that, since 2001, Pakistan has received almost $30 billion in aid from the United States, two-thirds of which has taken the form of military assistance. Operation Zarb-i-Azb and the National Action Plan notwithstanding, it could be argued that Pakistan actually has very little to show for all the money it has spent on fighting extremism. Terrorists continue to strike Pakistan’s citizens with disturbing regularity, and many would argue that levels of bigotry and religious intolerance have risen in the past few years.
Imagine an alternate reality in which the billions Pakistan has spent on weapons had, instead, been spent on building schools, roads, and hospitals in the country’s most deprived regions, and had also been utilised to drive a strong, concerted ideological offensive aimed at delegitimising religious extremism and violence. It would not be unreasonable to assume that such a strategy would have probably met with more success in defeating terrorism than what has been done so far. Yet, the fact that this is not even part of the debate, and purely military solutions continue to dominate the discourse on counter-terrorism in Pakistan, indicates the continued existence of a strategic and ideological mindset in the state and security establishment that has yet to come to terms with the gravity of Pakistan’s situation.
Those who cry conspiracy and complain about negative portrayals of Pakistan often tend to be the same people who believe the Taliban and other organisations are also products of foreign machinations designed to destabilise this country. Yet, as is the case with honour killings, pretending that an internal problem does not exist is nothing more than self-destructive denialism. Arguing that the enemies of Pakistan are preventing it from getting much-needed F-16s may or may not be correct, but it also misses the point; regardless of what some US congressmen have to say, Pakistan does have to do more to fight terror, not because the US says so but because it continues to be a significant home-grown problem that has, thus far, been dealt with inadequately.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS