The Faisal Shahzad incident has again focused the spotlight on one of America’s oldest allies — Pakistan. The Shahzad story has been covered from innumerable viewpoints, but an examination of the Times Square bombing attempt in light of present happenings in Pakistan deserves more thorough attention. How does Shahzad’s action relate to the Pakistani national narrative regarding the U.S.? How does the narrative shape public opinion within this erstwhile American ally?
Shahzad’s radicalization is easier to understand alongside the ideas he absorbed while living in Pakistan.
According to the August 2009 Pew poll on Pakistani public opinion, 64% of the Pakistani public perceive the United States as an enemy. A majority of Pakistanis, 79%, were concerned about growing extremism in the country, and 70% had an unfavorable opinion of the Taliban. Yet 69% of Pakistanis saw their neighbor India as a greater threat than either the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
A November 2009 British Council report on Pakistan, “The Next Generation,” showed that 72% of young Pakistanis define themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second.
This statistic, more than any other factor, should help us understand why ostensibly pro-American Pakistani leaders — whether former President Musharraf or current President Asif Ali Zardari — have not been able to follow through on their counterterror promises to the U.S. The debate within Pakistani society on radicalism and terror has not yet crystallized. Despite having suffered the blowback of terrorism for a long time, Pakistani public opinion is less negative regarding the terrorists than the U.S.
The Pakistani narrative about the United States follows this theme: Whereas Pakistan has been a true ally, the United States has over the years used and abandoned Pakistan. The refrain, often heard in Pakistan, that the current war against extremism is an “American war” and not a war for Pakistan’s survival, arises from this narrative. The current pro-Western Pakistani civilian government, led by Asif Ali Zardari, has tried to help the Americans by fighting extremists, but residual anti-Americanism holds the nation back.
Public opinion in Pakistan is fashioned by the newly independent Pakistani media, which is often cross-owned. The media, made independent during General Musharraf’s era, has a pro-Islamist bias, which is reflected both in its vehement anti-Americanism and in its attacks on the social democratic Pakistan Peoples Party. Some analysts have recently referred to the Pakistani media as feeding national paranoia and xenophobia.
Soon after the Faisal Shahzad story broke out, leading Pakistani daily The News alleged that Shahzad met with a Western diplomat during his stay in Pakistan in February. The underlying theme? Shahzad is a Western plot against Pakistan. A well-known Pakistani television host and columnist, Kamran Khan, asserted in Urdu daily Roznama Ummat that the Shahzad incident was part of a massive “conspiracy against Pakistan.” Urdu daily Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt went one step further, alleging that the conspiracy had roots with N.Y.-based U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, a Hindu with a Jewish wife.
This assertion is in tune with what al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups assert: that the Muslim world faces conspiracies hatched by a “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” alliance.
In the past year, the Pakistani army has launched military offensives against extremists in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas. However, the Pakistani state cannot take on the entire jihadi infrastructure, which took root over decades, without public opinion on their side. With a paranoid media planting reckless conspiracy theories and feeding anti-Americanism, it is not difficult to understand why the Pakistani government has had to make sure it has all players on board before it moves ahead.
It does not appear that there is a lack of will on the part of the Pakistani government. Instead, there is a lack of support from the other domestic players. Ironically, now is likely the only time in Pakistani history that the military and security establishment appear to be on board with the civilian government in this matter. Unfortunately, the fourth estate — which should have championed the fight against extremism — is marshaling public opinion in the opposite direction.