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Fallout of the Davis case

Published Feb 20, 2011 09:05pm

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TO most westerners, putting Raymond Davis, Aafia Siddiqui, COIN ops in Afghanistan, and drone attacks in the same context is incoherent. But to Pakistanis and others across the Muslim world, these things are all part of the same political and emotional continuum.

It is no wonder that the Davis case is igniting the anti-American sentiment that has smouldered in the region for decades now. As the standoff between Washington and Islamabad over Davis's fate continues, any recent gains made by US public diplomacy officers to alter the Pakistani public's perception of America have been lost.

Congressmen and senior government officials are frothing at the mouth. They know that despite generous pledges of civilian aid and hopes for a long-term strategic partnership, Pakistanis will remain politically obstinate. In recent days, US lawmakers have complained that Pakistanis are 'ungrateful' and that too many US taxpayer dollars are being wasted to buy our hate. This disdainful tone stems from frustration with anti-Americanism, which is perceived as a knee-jerk reaction by the illiterate and uninformed. The Great Satan narrative is, to US policymakers, a hysterical response to complex political realities and diplomatic relations. They write off the attitude and refuse to engage it owing to its one-dimensionality and emotionalism.

In Pakistan's case, the news media is held largely responsible for proliferating this sentiment. It has been accused of kowtowing to a populist narrative and taking cheap shots at the US to boost ratings. The consensus is that the media industry has sacrificed objectivity, ethics and journalistic standards in favour of a paranoid dramatics centred on American imperialism.

Findings of a poll of Pakistani journalists published recently complicate this picture, however. In 2010 professors Lawrence Pintak of the Washington State University and Syed Javed Nazir of LUMS surveyed 395 Pakistani journalists, with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. They found that journalists' brand of anti-Americanism was nuanced, distinguishing between people and policies. Some 52 per cent viewed the US as a whole favourably, and 76 per cent had a positive opinion of Americans as a people.

But they were overwhelmingly critical of US foreign policy: more than three-quarters (77 per cent) view it unfavourably. Moreover, their grievances about US foreign policy are specific. Eighty-four per cent think the US meddles unjustly in Pakistan's politics, and 87 per cent are clear that US forces should not be allowed to operate on Pakistani soil.

Significantly, the journalists' concerns about US interventionism are balanced by rational and self-reflexive political views. Their responses indicate a willingness to engage with the rationale driving US regional policy. Seventy-two per cent approve of the US decision to provide aid after the Kashmir earthquake, whether to generate Muslim support or owing to a humanitarian impetus. And almost half the respondents (46 per cent) acknowledge that US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan stems from a sincere desire to help.

Survey respondents also reveal a thoughtful — and measured — perspective on Pakistan's domestic socio-political situation. Asked what is the greatest threat facing Pakistan today, 30 per cent responded 'terrorism', 20 per cent 'political instability', 18 per cent 'economy', 16 per cent 'US policy' and 11 per cent 'education'. These responses illustrate how apprehension about US foreign policy is a small part of a bigger picture, and that media professionals are justifiably more concerned about internal rather than external threats.

That said, some aspects of the survey require one to view the industry with a critical eye. For example, while about one-third of journalists agree that terrorism is the major national problem, their understanding of what constitutes terrorism reflects conflicted politics: 67 per cent define US drone attacks as terrorist acts, 65 per cent believe US military operations in Kandahar also count as terrorism. These figures are lower than opinions about whether the Mumbai attacks and journalist Daniel Pearl's murder are terrorist activities but reiterate strong objections to US foreign policy.

What becomes clear is that televised anti-Americanism — or, more accurately, strong reservations about US foreign policy — is not merely a media marketing strategy. Instead, it is a reflection of the position held by the 'key influencers' themselves. More research is now needed to determine whether the influencers within the media industry create and drive broader anti-US sentiment, or if they are participants in a pre-existing social phenomenon.

Here's the more vital takeaway from the poll: the US, international community and domestic media practitioners and critics should not reject or resist the hyper anti-Americanism on Pakistan's airwaves. Rather, parties on all sides should recognise the need for expressing the same ideas in an articulate, accurate and therefore more effective manner — one that can facilitate dialogue.

All stakeholders should acknowledge that media professionals and audiences are not reactionary for the sake of being so. They are amplifying concerns about genuinely problematic policies and politics. Roger Hardy, a British journalist who has written extensively about the Middle East, often refers to a 'deep well of grievances' from which many members of the global Muslim community draw.

This well gushes with the many factors that have produced tensions between the Muslim world and the West: colonial history, contemporary geopolitics, systemic inequalities of development, and ideological marginalisation — the backdrop that seamlessly links Davis to drones. And it nourishes to various degrees the frustrations of various people, whether they are vociferous journalists, political activists, enraged clerics or suicide bombers.

Before the US shuns the voices in our public sphere as rabid and 'ungrateful', it should think about hearing them. That may be the first step towards changing the content of the well, thereby learning how to progress beyond stalemates such as the Davis affair.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C. huma.yusuf@gmail.com



The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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