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23 May 2011 International america: voices

That Faraway Hyper-Dystopia

The American street opens up on Pakistan
AP

In a quiet little corner of Kramerbooks, a bookstore in the heart of Washington’s fashionable Dupont Circle neighbourhood, Amanda Spencer sits by a stack of books on American foreign policy that she has carefully selected from the shelves towering above her. Visiting the city from Texas, the drama student is eager to learn more about Pakistan, which has been propelled into American consciousness as never before. This is, after all, the country from where America’s public enemy number 1 had been hunted and killed.

An embarrassed Spencer admits she didn’t know much about Pakistan or the ISI before the killing of Osama. “When I’d think of Pakistan, I’d think of a conservative society in which women are in veils and men carry guns. That they don’t like America,” Spencer tells Outlook, quickly glancing at her pile of books as if searching for a helpful clue.

For many Americans, Pakistan—greedily pocketing billions of dollars in US aid, while harbouring its arch enemies—isn’t unlike a modern-day eastern equivalent of the treacherous and lawless Wild West of folklore and history. Pakistan’s fragile image has taken such a battering that some Congressmen are threatening to turn off the spigot of US aid. Such misgivings about Pakistan have now started to seep deep into American society. As Eric Johnson, an online consultant in Virginia who served in Iraq with the US Marine Corps, says, “The (Pakistan) regime has helped terrorist networks, distributed the knowledge and equipment to build nuclear weapons, and has a nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it. That it’s not currently a threat on the level of Iran is of small comfort.”


“Osama being found in Pakistan undermines its government, raises questions about security measures.” Annie Nguyen , Copy editor California “Recent news didn’t change my positive opinion of Pakistan. I don’t rely on media to shape my view of other countries.” Charlos Gary, Cartoonist New York

“Pakistan feels like a country on the brink, like it could implode any time... the less tied we are with it, the better.” Lisa Hanson, Grad student Maryland “I don’t think the average American knows about the ISI, A.Q. Khan, or the danger of the bomb in radical hands.” Eric Johnson, Former marine Virginia

Earlier this month, a poll of Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press posed the question: “Is your impression that the government of Pakistan mostly helped or mostly hurt US efforts to find Osama bin Laden, or don’t you know enough?” Thirty-nine per cent said it had “mostly hurt,” compared with the mere six per cent who thought it “mostly helped”. It’s typical that for people like Lisa Hanson, a graduate student of Johns Hopkins University, Pakistan evokes two primal words—chaos and danger. “It feels like a country on the brink. As if it could implode at any moment,” she says. “It’s the single greatest threat to global security.”

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The vague negative image it had was only reinforced after Osama was found in the vicinity of the Pakistan Military Academy. Says Annie Nguyen, a newspaper designer and copy editor in California, “Given the history and tension between the United States and Pakistan, the fact that bin Laden was hiding there puts Pakistan in bad light. It undermines the Pakistani government, raises questions about its security measures.”

A majority of Americans Outlook interviewed say Pakistan triggers few positive images. “Benazir Bhutto,” Nguyen offered, adding, “Pakistan is oddly void of any imagery, maybe a few faces here and there, but nothing of the streets, the lifestyle, etc come to mind.” Adds Johnson, “I think of Pakistan as a poor, ill-governed country that is unlikely to see any improvements in its conditions.” Johnson doesn’t blame Pakistan’s plight on its people, who he describes as decent and hard-working, but on its corrupt, governing elite.

The Pakistani government is spending big bucks to repair the country’s image in America, paying the Washington law firm Locke Lord $900,000 a year for its services as a lobbyist. Its effort is led by Mark Siegel, who was a close friend of Benazir Bhutto and co-authored Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West with her. Yet negative perceptions of Pakistan persist.

To be sure, not all Americans go by these broad stereotypes. Some of them know Pakistanis personally. For instance, Charlos Gary, a New York-based cartoonist and graphic designer, considers himself fortunate enough to have had a Pakistani roommate in college, admitting this probably helped give more depth and understanding to his idea about the place. And while the discovery of Osama in Pakistan didn’t surprise him, it hasn’t changed his opinion. “No, it wasn’t a surprise. I feel that the government is very secretive, much like many around the world. I just wish there was a little openness in the whole thing,” says Gary.

Some pundits have defended Pakistan, as it is crucial to US success in Afghanistan. Many Americans don’t agree.

As elsewhere, the US media plays a significant role in shaping public opinion. Most mainstream US media outlets, says Johnson, the former Marine, have very superficial international coverage, and their reporting on the Muslim world is “paper-thin at best, incompetent at worst. I have to go directly to sources that look at the Middle East and South Asia as they are, and do not attempt to force their coverage into a Western political paradigm.” At the same time, Johnson thinks the US media has treated Pakistan fairly enough, pointing to the fact that the average American probably didn’t think of Pakistan as a potential threat until Osama was caught there. “I don’t think the average American knows what the ISI is or how it helped create the Taliban; they have never heard of A.Q. Khan, and have never thought through what might happen if Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities fall into the hands of Islamic radicals,” he says.

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There are others who disagree. Mary Vardazarian, an international development professional, says there is never substantial coverage of Pakistan, that she anyway doesn’t rely on the mainstream media to shape her opinions. “I usually assume there are more layers than are reported,” she adds. Agrees Simone Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher in Washington, “We get a very biased view of what is going on, not just in Pakistan but everywhere. That’s why when you speak to Americans they typically don’t have their facts straight.” Gary too says his opinion about Pakistan is not influenced by the mainstream media. “I try not to rely on it to fully shape my view about other countries,” he says. “I prefer to find out for myself. By talking to other people.”

A number of media commentators have rushed to defend Pakistan against the recent backlash following Osama’s killing. They see Pakistan as crucial to America’s success in Afghanistan. But many Americans are uncomfortable with this contrived relationship. “I think the less tied in we are with Pakistan, the better,” says Hanson. Wonder whether the generals are listening to people like Hanson.

READ MORE IN:
PEOPLE: Barack Obama
TAGS: Pak-USISI
SECTION: International
OUTLOOK: 23 May, 2011
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