By Dr Mohammad Taqi
May 28, 2015
The anthropologist Jack Weatherford once wrote, “Every society produces its own cultural conceits, a set of lies and delusions about itself that thrive in the face of all contrary evidence." Just as individuals deploy psychological defence mechanisms to ward off unpleasant feelings of anxiety and impending doom, societies also use such tactics to explain socio-cultural and political phenomena. An extreme and more elaborate set of delusions can take the form of a conspiracy theory, which can morph into and masquerade as political narrative. Take the US, for example, where, according to the study ‘Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style(s) of American politics’, published last fall in the American Journal of Political Science, about 50 percent of US citizens subscribe to some form of political conspiracy theory. Several individuals on the right of the political spectrum were reported to believe that “President Barack Obama was not really born in the US and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate (Birthers)” while some on the left believe that “certain US government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the US to go to war in the Middle East (Truthers)”. The study’s authors, Professors Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, define a conspiracy theory as “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim”.
While the Oliver and Thomas study does not directly deal with the government and state apparatus subscribing to and peddling conspiracy theories as the official political narrative, empirical evidence indicates that democratic states tend not to indulge consciously in such activity. Authoritarian, ideological and national security states, however, resort to untruths and myths as part of their indoctrination and control regimen, the prime example of which in the last century was Nazi Germany. In the 21st century, while states obviously use an array of propaganda techniques including nationalistic bravado and geopolitical sabre-rattling against adversarial states, few, if any, use conspiracy theories as the overarching narrative. Within a span of about a month Pakistan, however, has gone from blaming, at the highest level, the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to have orchestrated every possible terrorist activity inside Pakistan, to finding a band of killers who confessed to a slew of murders, back to blaming RAW for the terrorist disasters that have struck the country.
After at least 45 people were killed and over a dozen injured in a gun attack on a bus carrying Ismaili Shias at Safoora Chowk in Karachi, Sindh, earlier this month, the provincial Chief Minister (CM), Qaim Ali Shah and Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan both accused, within hours of the tragedy, RAW for that heinous crime. That a breakaway Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction, Jundullah, claimed responsibility for the slaughter of the Ismaili Shias, whom he called “apostates liable to murder”, was conveniently ignored. When fingers were pointed, both domestically and internationally, at elements within the security establishment after the prominent human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was killed minutes after hosting a discussion on the predicament of the Baloch missing persons at her café, The Second Floor (T2F), an even more fantastic plot was peddled. For example, a television anchor, Ahmed Qureshi, proclaimed from his electronic perch that the Baloch human rights activists, including Mama Qadeer Baloch who spoke at T2F, got Sabeen Mahmud killed at the behest of RAW as part of an elaborate scheme to stoke Baloch militancy so that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), of which India is apprehensive, could be sabotaged.
Then, last week, both the federal interior minister and Sindh’s CM announced that the authorities had arrested those who planned and mercilessly killed the Ismaili Shias. Quite conveniently, it seems, the apprehended culprits confessed to the murder of Sabeen Mahmud as well. The ubiquitous RAW suddenly disappeared from the narrative without any reasonable explanation as to why and how it was summarily first blamed and then absolved. Now the federal minister for defence, Khwaja Muhammad Asif, has made a tall claim yet again on how “the TTP was fighting as India’s proxy against Pakistan”. One may ask the honourable minister whether his government had not pushed for talks and indeed a negotiated settlement with the TTP for months on end? Was the federal interior minister virtually not bawling when the TTP chief, Hakeemullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in November 2013? And did the Pakistani civilian and military governments not ink agreements with the TTP in the past? Were they all wrong in signing treaties — and seeking to cut even more deals — with “RAW’s proxy” then or are they wrong now?
The official narrative, however, is not just conspiratorial and disingenuous but potentially deadly as well; by linking the Baloch separatists with RAW it seeks to legitimise the killings in Balochistan in which there has been a sudden rise recently. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has already raised concerns about the increasing civilian casualties in the ongoing operation in Kalat, Balochistan. On the other hand, by delinking the brutal sectarian slaughter of the Ismaili Shias from endemic rabid Jihadism, the state gets to skirt its responsibility to confront and control the latter. Conceding, on the state’s part, the bitter truth that sectarian killers such as those who perpetrated the Safoora Chowk massacre are but a subset of the rampant and increasingly virulent jihadist milieu will require soul-searching and correcting policies that have taken Pakistan from one disaster to another.
Adopting conspiracy theories effectively as the state policy and official narrative also serves to rationalise and reconcile the simultaneous pronouncements of being the “best in the world” as well as both real and perceived victimhood. On the one hand, Pakistan seeks and claims parity with India and on the other, has gargantuan domestic terrorism problems, largely of its own making. How can it be that a country with a nuclear-equipped, large, standing army is labouring against what is not more than a few thousand militants in the field? Alleging that outside powers are undermining it through intrigue enables the Pakistani leadership to concurrently assert both pre-eminence and an underdog status without actually rectifying any of the causative factors in a consequential manner. Professors Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood’s study was that “the power of conspiracy theories is not limited, however, to the politically naïve. Even highly engaged or ideological segments of the population can be swayed by the power of these narratives.” It is not difficult to fathom the exponential damage such deadly delusions inflict when adopted as the official state doctrine and functionaries parrot it ad nauseam.
Dr Mohammad Taqi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki