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Anti-Americanism in Pakistan: A brief history

Updated November 13, 2014

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The anti-Americanism wave today — at least in most Muslim countries — is such that the critique that comes with it is largely knee-jerk in nature. — AFP
The anti-Americanism wave today — at least in most Muslim countries — is such that the critique that comes with it is largely knee-jerk in nature. — AFP

Though anti-Americanism during the Cold War (1949-89) was mostly the ideological vocation of leftists, today — some 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union — one can safely suggest that America is undergoing a period when its reputation is loathed more than it has been before.

It is true that this is largely due to the conduct of the two George Bush administrations (2000-2008) and their utter lack of prudent diplomacy.

However, the anti-Americanism wave — at least in most Muslim countries — today is such that the critique that comes with it is largely knee-jerk in nature.

For example, the nature of anti-Americanism one often comes across TV news channels in Pakistan is primarily the animated vocation of two interlinked entities: the religious and conservative parties and certain former military men. Both felt alienated and angry after the American dollars that were dished out for the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency in the 1980s dried up.

Also read: Understanding anti-Americanism

Once upon a friend

According to a research paper authored by Dr Talukder Muniruzaman in 1971 on the politics of young Pakistanis, a majority of Pakistanis viewed America positively in the 1950s.

The paper also suggests that right up until Pakistan’s 1965 war against India, most Pakistanis saw America as a friend, especially in reaction to the Soviet Union’s close ties with India.

According to another lengthy paper (published by Chicago University in 1983) on the ideological orientation of Pakistan’s university students (by Kiren Aziz and Peter McDonough), anti-Americanism among most Pakistanis remained somewhat low even during the protest movement (in 1967-68) against the pro-US Ayub Khan dictatorship — in spite of the fact that the movement was largely being led by leftist students, activists and politicians.

 Ayub Khan rides in a car with American First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in Karachi.
Ayub Khan rides in a car with American First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in Karachi.

Some leading leftist activists of the movement also suggest that there were precious little incidents during the protests in which an American flag was torched.

The following is what Badar Hanif, a radical member of the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) in the late 1960s, wrote in a recent email to me:

"We were focused. We not only wanted to topple the US-backed Ayub dictatorship, but the whole capitalist system."

Also read: 66pc Pakistanis opposed to drone strikes: survey

When I wrote back asking him whether the US was a target as well, Badar replied:

“Some of us were pro-Soviet and some pro-China communists. Yes we were against the US, but more due to the fact that soon after Ayub’s fall (in 1969), the US and the Pakistan military began aiding and backing right-wing Islamic parties. These religious groups offered themselves to work as a bulwark against the rising leftist tide in educational institutions and on the streets.”

 A National Students Federation rally against Ayub at the Karachi University.
A National Students Federation rally against Ayub at the Karachi University.

Kiren Aziz and Peter McDonough's paper suggests that anti-Americanism in the 1970s was ripe in many Arab countries due to the United States’ single-minded support for Israel. This nature of anti-Americanism finally made its way into Pakistani society during the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1972-77), especially when Bhutto started to expand his ‘Islamic Socialism’ doctrine at the international level by consolidating relations with various radical Muslim states and Arab countries.

However, the buildup to this was the Richard Nixon administration’s failure to militarily help its staunch South Asian ally during its 1971 war with India. Nixon had otherwise been quite sympathetic towards 'Pakistan's point of view' during the 1971 conflict.

Seyyed Vali Nasr in his excellent book, ‘Vanguards of the Islamic Revolution’ writes that the religious parties (especially Jamat-i-Islami) began attributing Pakistan's defeat in the 1971 war to the ‘decadence and debauchery of men like General Yahya Khan’ and due to ‘the nation's failure to become good Muslims.’

Explore: Dollars and sense of American desis

However, before that, a large number of Pakistanis had already begun to blame the US because it had ‘refused to help Pakistan in the war.’

In his book ‘Political Dynamics of Sindh 1947-1977’, Tanvir Ahmed Tahir suggests that the post-1971 anti-Americanism in Pakistan was more a vocation of progressive and leftist political groups. This is confirmed in Hassan Abbas’ book, ‘Pakistan’s drift into extremism.'

 A leftist students rally against capitalism and
A leftist students rally against capitalism and 'US imperialism' at the Karachi University in 1973.

So, if the religious parties were still refusing to criticise the US, is it correct to assume that these parties were really being escorted by the US against the perceived threat of a take-over of pro-Soviet forces in Pakistani politics?

Progressive student leaders, activists and politicians of the era would answer in the affirmative. Many of them explain this as a consequence of the Pakistan religious parties’ strong links with oil-rich Arab monarchies, especially the Saudi Arabia, a country that was a close ally of the US.

Anjum Athar who was associated with the Liberal Students Federation (LSF) at the University of Karachi in 1974-75 once shared with me an interesting observation. He said:

“In those days (the 1970s) being socially and politically conservative did not necessarily mean being anti-West. Even the most militant Islamic student groups in the 1970s who wanted the imposition of Shariah were hardly ever seen or heard badmouthing the US. Religious groups were more threatened by the rise of communism, a threat they shared with the US and Saudi Arabia. That is why anti-Americanism was more rampant among Pakistani leftists as compared to the religious parties.”

This trend continued across the 1980s.

America remained Pakistan’s leading aid donor. According to Lubna Rafique’s 1994 paper, ‘Benazir & British Press,’ it was only in the last year of Z.A. Bhutto’s regime (1977), that he started to allude to moving out of the ‘American camp,’ calling the US a ‘white elephant.’ He also went on to accuse the Jimmy Carter administration for financing the religious parties’ agitation against him in 1977.

 ZA Bhutto raising a toast at a state dinner during his 1975 trip to the US.
ZA Bhutto raising a toast at a state dinner during his 1975 trip to the US.

Throughout the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s, anti-Americanism remained a much polarised affair in Pakistan. Most religious parties and their supporters, and the industrial/business classes that supported Zia, were either openly pro-America or ambiguous on the subject.

Zia was backed by the Ronald Regan administration with military hardware and dollars during the US proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (for which Pakistan was used) and against ‘communism in the region’. Consequently, anti-Americanism thus became more rampant among those opposing Zia.

Take a look: 66pc Pakistanis opposed to drone strikes: survey

For example, though anti-Americanism among most PPP workers and its student wing grew twofold after Z.A. Bhutto’s execution at the hands of the Zia dictatorship, the party’s new chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, advised her party to concentrate on the removal of Zia alone.

In 1986, when she returned to Pakistan from exile and was greeted by a mammoth crowd in Lahore, groups of the PPP’s student wing, the PSF, began torching a US flag at the crowded rally. Benazir is said to have stopped them from doing this, pointing out that they would not be able to fight a superpower if they weren’t even able to remove a local dictator.

Though by the late 1980s, the intensity of anti-Americanism had grown in Pakistan (compared to the preceding decades), it never became violent.

 Zia at the White House with Ronald Reagan.
Zia at the White House with Ronald Reagan.

The only violent case in this respect had taken place in 1979 in Islamabad, when the US consulate was attacked by a crowd enraged and provoked by a broadcast from Iranian state radio that had blamed the US for engineering that takeover of the Ka’aba that year by a group of Saudi fanatics.

Though the notorious takeover of the Muslims’ sacred place was masterminded by a band of armed Saudi fanatics, Iran’s new revolutionary regime under Ayatollah Khomeini used its media to claim that the attack was backed by ‘American and Zionist forces.’

According to Yaroslav Trofimov’s book, 'The siege of Mecca’, confusion about who planned and executed the attack also arose when the Saudi regime blacked out the news.

The gradual foe

In the 1990s as America largely divorced itself from the region after the end of the Afghan civil war, Pakistanis got busy tackling the bitter pitfalls of the Afghan war in the shape of bloody ethnic and sectarian strife.

However, this also meant the drying up of American patronage and funds for religious groups and parties in the country.

Anti-Americanism returned to the fore (but with far more intensity) after the tragic 9/11 episode in 2001 and not surprisingly, the religious groups now became its main purveyors.

Read on: Anti-Muslim sentiments on the rise, says US report

According to veteran defense analyst, Hassan Askari, this post-Cold-War version of anti-Americanism in the country is an emotional response of most Pakistanis to the confusion that set in (in the Muslim world) after the 9/11event.

Naushad Amrohvi - a member of the Maoist Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) in 1972 (obefore leaving for Sweden after the Zia coup) recently told me: “Anti-Americanism was more popular with leftist youth before the 1980s. It was more of an intellectual pursuit. We were more into negating the US policies by intellectually attacking capitalism and modern imperialism and for this we read and discussed a lot. We read a lot of Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, Faiz Ahmed Faiz… we even read a lot of Abul Ala Maududi so we could puncture his theories!”

However today Amrohvi laments the fact that anti-Americanism in Pakistan has become an excuse to hide one’s own failures: “We wanted to fight America with ideology and politics, and not through suicide bombers and naked hatred,” he added.

 Security outside the US Consulate in Karachi (2002).
Security outside the US Consulate in Karachi (2002).

Columnist Fasi Zaka in one of his columns suggested that the kind of anti-Americanism found these days (among the urban middle-classes of the country) is extremely ill-informed. He wrote that a lot of young Pakistanis are basing their understanding of international politics by watching low-budget straight-to-video ‘documentaries’ on Youtube!

These so-called documentaries that Zaka is talking about are squarely based on rehashed conspiracy theories that mix age-old tirades and paranoid fantasies. All these are then further mixed with flighty myths about and events recorded only in polemical literature and flimsy ‘history books.’

Thus, the post-9/11 confusion and emotionalism in Pakistan was largely given vent and an ‘intellectual tilt’ by apologists of all shapes and sizes — among them being those had once been recipients of US funds and patronage during the Cold War.

Whereas there was a prominent streak of romantic rebellion associated with the anti-Americanism of Pakistani leftists during the Cold War, nothing of the sort can be said about the widespread anti-Americanism found in Pakistan today.

 Activists set fire to American flags at a protest rally of a religious party in Lahore (2012).
Activists set fire to American flags at a protest rally of a religious party in Lahore (2012).

In fact, the present-day phenomenon in this context has become an obligatory part of populist rhetoric in which American involvement is blamed for everything — from terrorist attacks, to the energy crises, to perhaps even the outbreak of dengue fever!