ON television, a couple of celebrity anchors were discussing the rising tide of conspiracy theories in Pakistan. One of the anchors complained that everyone in Pakistan is a foreign agent in the eyes of the other.

Media anchors skilfully identify a malaise but circumvent a candid prescription. Such tricks have become a vital part of the political economy of celebrity journalism, which has flourished for all the wrong reasons over the past few years.

It is not difficult to understand that conspiracy theories are the outcome of a retrogressive culture which flourishes in a controlled information regime due to the lack of public empowerment. In Pakistan, however, conspiracy theories are a vital part of national politics since they help status quo forces protect their interests.

Since the creation of the country, organised efforts have been at work to prevent power from leaving the hands of the ruling elite. The issue is not that people are not ready for change; the fact is that the state apparatus is incompatible with the changing spirit of the times.

Therefore, civilians’ empowerment has always been discouraged to enable conservative forces to maintain the status quo. The outcome of this retrogressive approach has caused irreparable damage to the country in which the militarisation of public space is notable.

Though political analysts have thus far highlighted the political aspect of the security establishment, this approach has proved deceptive and counter-productive.

By focusing on its material strength, such analysts have blurred the effects of the militarisation process. This enables the security apparatus to dominate civilian space.

From politics to educational institutions, from the confectionary business to civil institutions and from construction contracts to housing colonies, the footprint of the military juggernaut provides a material base for the supremacy of retrogressive ideas, ideals and ideology.

Centralised military policies shrouded in secrecy and ‘legitimised’ by the sacred notion of national security also grant ‘legitimacy’ to the military ideology.

The very ideal of first-class citizenship is associated with rewarding the soldierly values of patriotism, security, power, masculinity and discipline. Such concepts promote an anti-civil bias to discourage the possibility of alternatives.

This extension of the security apparatus into the public sphere has so far helped powerful elites resist any development incompatible with their cynical political beliefs. Moreover, it has created material conditions for empowering retrogressive mindsets to defend the interests of the ruling elites. Conspiracy theories are helpful in this nexus.

During the last few years, however, the issue has been further aggravated. Progressive forces such as the media, civilians’ networks, civil society groups and human rights organisations have set up new goalposts to fight conservative forces in the public domain.

This development is a threat for the militarised views of the ruling elites and their extension in the public sphere. A fight has been launched against progressive forces on two vital fronts. At the top officialdom protects its domain through exploitative institutional power, while cynical forces in the public sphere resort to conspiracy theories.

The Abbottabad Commission’s report is a case in point. The establishment’s action of constituting an inquiry into the leakage and publication of a detailed story are steps to reduce the authenticity of the leaked draft.

The move demonstrates the security apparatus-media anchors nexus, which reinforces the status quo. Therefore, what happened in Abbottabad has become less important. More vital for the security apparatus is to keep people in the dark about the Commission’s report lest they know who is who and what is what.

Public empowerment, in this way, is considered a threat to the process of militarisation which sustains the forces of status quo in the public sphere.

Of late, a sickening new wave is doing the rounds on the social media, a comparison entitled ‘Epic Pakistani Ideological Battles of History’. Two different contexts, two different events, two different personalities and two diametrically opposed ideologies are corralled into a radical conclusion — Malala Yousafzai vs Aafia Siddiqui.

It is unimportant whether one is better than the other. More vital is to note the way radicalism is fighting plurality. An intelligent young girl with years of struggle for the right to education behind her, and a bullet mark on her head, has infused new spirit into peace initiatives across the globe. But status quo forces, in their hatred for Western values, have disowned Malala to own those who kill civilians on an almost daily basis.

Whenever officialdom fears the possibility of progressive social change in society, conservative circles set about trying to cause a rupture. This symbiotic relationship between the state and its conservative assets in society is why conspiracy theories flourish.

Women are a favourite choice in the contest between retrogressive and progressive ideas. A video that emerged in 2009 showing a girl being lashed by the Taliban in Swat is another case in point: masculinity bred on militarisation has brought femininity to centre stage in a violent theatre.

As long as the power elites manage to hide behind an opaque window, citizens will be deprived of a chance to discover the method in their madness. Therefore, moving from one drop scene to another, the security apparatus will continue to guard its power through confusion.

Conspiracy theories are the outcome of this undeclared strategy, which extends military rule in the public sphere through celebrity anchors and religiously motivated ideals. This whole system of confusion deprives Pakistan of a vision and social agenda.

The writer is a journalist and PhD student at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, US.

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