Pakistan: A land of competing narratives

US Politics
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After an interminable 48 hours of traveling, I am at home, and looking back at my trip to Pakistan with a bit more distance and perspective. If there is a unifying theme as my thoughts crystallize it is this: There is always more than one narrative, and it is incumbent upon us to seek them out as we travel. As a journalist and an activist, I see my challenge as to always remain in the listening mode – taking a stand, yes – because “balance” can be the enemy of justice – but also remaining ready and able to adjust to the true realities on the ground.

Competing narratives: Malala and the Taliban

The global media coverage of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai continues to expand and attract major players of all stripes, including Madonna, who stripped down at a Los Angeles concert to expose a “Malala” tattoo on her back. Unfortunately, almost from the very beginning, various parties have either sought to avoid the broader challenges highlighted by the crime against her or to use it to shove a competing narrative off the public agenda.

In my last post, I noted the false choice that seemed to be emerging amidst all the outpouring of grief (and a certain amount of hoopla) surrounding the shooting of Malala: In other words, stop the U.S. drone attacks or the Taliban. Since then, that debate has now come front and center, along with a growing suspicion among sectors of the public of everyone involved. Two narratives. Two agendas. Both have merit, but instead of the parties working together for mutual good, an epic battle is shaping up.

One of the parties caught in the crosshairs is the charismatic politician Imran Khan, who hopes to become Pakistan’s next prime minister in 2013 – in part based on a campaign against the U.S. drone attacks that regularly kill civilians as well as “militants” in the border regions of his country. Although Khan has clearly come out against the shooting, he has disappointed many by avoiding any direct criticism of the Taliban faction that has reportedly claimed credit for the crime. He fears, Kahn has said, for the safety of his party’s workers in the region.

Fahd Husain, host of “Tonight with Fahd” on Pakistan’s Waqt News, eloquently expressed his feeling of betrayal at this weak response:

You are the fountain from which your followers drink their political nectar. They parrot you (often nauseatingly on social media), they regurgitate your arguments and they peddle your logic. Your party leadership pushes your line on TV and defends your rationale on public forums.

In the last week or so, they have fallen flat on their faces. The reason: your ideas are not fully fleshed out.

Is it so because, a) Pakistani Taliban are our people, who are misguided and can be reformed? b) They have killed forty thousand other Pakistanis because we are fighting America’s war and so they do, err… kind of, have a point? c) If the drones would stop, they would stop attacking Malalas and Kainats and Shazias, and stop dynamiting girls’ schools and stop demanding their version of the Sharia for the entire Pakistani society? Or Mr Khan, is it what you have said in your Economist interview, that if you condemn them who will protect your party workers from them?

The last one has left me at a loss of words. Are you saying, Mr Khan, that you will not condemn them, not out of conviction and power of logic, but because of – horror of horrors – fear?

I can be fearful. Your supporters can be fearful. Even your detractors can be fearful. But none of us, Mr Khan, are claiming the leadership of this country; a bold and courageous leadership, I may add.

Make no mistake, sir. This fight against extremism is an existential one. Think it through. Your words matter. Your ideas matter. Your thoughts matter. People believe you. And they want to believe in you. Do not let them down like you have the past week.

You may ask, why am I addressing this to you and not the others. It’s actually pretty simple: I don’t have many expectations from others. The politico-religious leaders are a write-off when it comes to this issue. They are muddled, befuddled, Extremist-Lites. Pakistanis have seen through them. The other politicians sway with the wind and lack spine. They are the reason this country is where it is. The armed forces created these extremists in the first place, and perhaps they will now atone for their sins by going after them.

But you, Mr Khan, claim to be the ‘Great Big Hope’. I, for one, hope that you are. God knows, we need hope. But hope is not a plan of action. Clear-headed thinking, leading to clear-headed action, is. Which is why, if you are confused, so are we.

Meanwhile, there is a parallel rumbling, noted today in an article in the New York Times on the “Malala Moment,” from individuals who are no longer hiding their suspicion that the Taliban might not have been the real mastermind behind the shooting. This op-ed by Dr. Shahida Wizaratin in the Frontier Post is representative:

“It is intriguing to note that after the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the casualties from drone attacks increased to 18 and 27 the day before and yesterday respectively. This precious loss of life and the crimes against humanity committed by the US against these innocents is now not drawing any attention in the international media…

It needs to be remembered that… the US will try to accelerate the killings of innocent Pakistanis both through drone attacks and by orchestrating Malala-type incidents, designed to draw attention to the seriousness of the threats from the ‘militants’ (and justify attacks against them). The hidden agenda behind the do-more admonitions is to accelerate the pace towards the predictions of the CIA report, Global Trends in 2015, which state that KPK and Balochistan (territories on the border with Afghanistan) will not be in the control of the government of Pakistan by the year 2015.”

What I know is that both the shooting of Malala (who thankfully is now reported to be standing with assistance) and the innocents killed by drones (who rarely if ever get anywhere near the publicity accorded this 14-year-old girl) are tragic, and whatever role the U.S. plays in these crimes – directly or indirectly — must be stopped. It is time to stop treating these troubled countries like an imperialist chess game.

One of the saddest outcomes of the latest events has been the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI, Khan’s political party) decision to cancel a rally outside the UN next week. “Unfortunately,” wrote Dr. Arif Alvi, PTI General Secretary, “the attack on Malala, which is very condemnable itself, has taken the anti-terror war in a different direction.” Khan’s convoy into the drone-ravaged KPK region and the participation of the Codepink delegation had generated unprecedented U.S. media analysis of American drone policy. Taking the debate to the streets outside of the UN would have kept the heat on.

Meanwhile, this news item appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 18:

The CIA is urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones, a move that would extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force, U.S. officials said.

The proposal by CIA Director David H. Petraeus would bolster the agency’s ability to sustain its campaigns of lethal strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and be able, if directed, to shift aircraft to emerging al-Qaeda threats in North Africa or other trouble spots, officials said.

If approved, the CIA could add as many as 10 drones, the officials said, to an inventory that has ranged between 30 and 35 over the past few years.

The outcome has broad implications for counterterrorism policy and whether the CIA gradually returns to an organization focused mainly on gathering intelligence, or remains a central player in the targeted killing of terrorism suspects abroad.

Competing narratives: Pakistani sovereignty vs. drones

Within the left-leaning groups opposing U.S. drone strikes, a debate is emerging.

In early October, RT (Russia Television) reported that Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik had urged the U.S. to share drone technology with his country’s government, explaining that Islamabad could put it to better, more legitimate use against terrorism.

“They have given us F-16s, and we haven’t used them against India. Instead, they were used in [the] War against Terror. Now [the] United States should provide drones to Pakistan in order to target militants in areas bordering Afghanistan,” he said. Pakistan, Malik explained, has no objection to using drones against militants; rather, anti-American hostility is fueled when the United States acts unilaterally as an imperialist power.

Where should we stand on this issue as anti-war activists, who on the one hand oppose imperialistic interference and on the other fight remote-controlled murder?

Within the Codepink delegation, two opposing points of view emerged. One side was eloquently expressed this way: “I thought one of the issues regarding drones is the impossibility to surrender, have a trial, and protect the basic rights of citizens and soldiers at war. It does not matter who is steering (a drone – the U.S. or Pakistan). It is still wrong.”

Others take a more pragmatic, opposing view adhering narrowly to international law: “If the Pakistani government is explicitly involved, then I think the question of extrajudicial killing is not so clear. There are areas of Pakistan where the Pakistani state is not exercising total authority and cannot necessarily make arrests and carry out legal functions. I don’t think you could find international law experts who would say that the Pakistani state doesn’t have authority to use force to reestablish its control over its national territory. That doesn’t make it wonderful, but wonderful and lawful are not the same thing.”

Where do I stand? I believe that returning the power to make and carry out these types of decisions and actions to Pakistani sovereignty is a good and necessary step. Beyond that, we have no say (other than deciding whether to give or sell drone technology to Pakistan). However, my personal opinion continues to be that drones pre-empt due process and kill innocents no matter who operates them.

Side notes: 1) The news we learned while in Pakistan that the U.S. is expanding its embassy there by 84 acres, while beefing up the barricades around it, does not bode well for any lessening of anti-American sentiment. Does anyone in the State Department even take that into account? 2) There is often talk of providing compensation to the families of drone victims. However, we received a clear message from those with whom we talked: You can’t compensate for loss of life! The only redress is to stop the attacks.

Competing narratives: ‘Oppressed Islamist women’ vs. strength expressed in different ways

One of the most common disconnects I encounter when I visit Gaza, Palestine, as well as other Islamic countries such as Pakistan, is between liberal/leftist Western women and the females they meet who actively practice the dictates of their religion and culture in terms of dress, separation between men and women, etc.

There is this almost automatic assumption on the part of Western women that any female who wears the hijab, stays indoors after 6 p.m. or obeys other practices that are perceived as restricting the freedom of women is oppressed and deserves our pity. However, I have continually been reminded that many of these women do not feel oppressed, and see our attitudes as just another form of orientalism.

The first such woman to eloquently express this point of view to me was Sameeha Elwan, a beautiful and highly intelligent teacher from Gaza. In her blog, “Here, I was Born,” she once wrote: “Internationals should really respect cultural differences. I’m from a different culture. If your parents allow you to go out alone after midnight, mine do not. Has this affected me in any way possible? Not in the least. That’s it. Period.”

In Pakistan, where people in the tribal regions practice “purda” – total separation of men and women – my wake-up call came from Shaista Tabussam Khan Sultanpuri, a young woman from South Waziristan who became the first female member of the Islamabad Bar Association, and now is running to be vice president of the group. “Yes, we have our own customs,” she told me with a big smile. “But you know, the women are stronger than the men!”

Competing narratives: Dangerous Pakistan vs. a place one chooses for home

Like many participants in the Codepink delegation, many people questioned my decision to travel to Pakistan, fearing that I was endangering my life by merely stepping foot into the country. In fact, the mother of one of our delegates offered to pay her $1,000 (the cost of her airfare) if she agreed to stay home.

Some of that fear was based on the anti-U.S. sentiment that is indeed widespread within the country – and understandably so. However, all of the individuals I met were very able and willing to separate Americans from U.S. policy, and were simply thrilled that we cared enough to learn more about their country for ourselves.

There is also the perception that Pakistan as a country is inhabited mostly by “militants” (however one defines that) – a stereotype common to Gaza as well. For these people, my prescription is to spend a few days in Lahore with my friend Waqas, who – after spending a year attending high school in the United States – has decided that while he may return to America to earn his master’s degree, he wants to live and work in Pakistan. “Americans live to work,” he explained. “I want to work to live.”

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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