DIAGNOSING the mental health of a nation is just as tricky as diagnosing an individual with a personality disorder.

But while psychiatrists are trained and experienced in treating their patients, few venture to turn a clinical gaze towards the inner demons that trouble a state's psyche.

Breaking with this tradition, Dr Mubarik Haider has performed a valuable service by peering into the innermost recesses of the collective Pakistani mind. His diagnosis is something some of us had long suspected, but had rarely articulated so clearly. Speaking at a lecture (Pakistan — a state on the crossroads: causes and effects) organised by the Pakistan Writers Association in collaboration with two media organisations recently, the psychiatrist spelled out his thesis with an enviable lack of hyperbole.

Displaying more brutal frankness than doctors normally use when spelling out a medical condition to their patients, Dr Haider pulled no punches. According to a newspaper report on the lecture, he urged Pakistanis to escape their state of denial and face reality. He asked them to reflect on the fact that perhaps “most of the world's current revulsion towards Pakistan was based on good reasons, instead of it being the result of a vast Zionist conspiracy”.

I have long written about the state of denial most Pakistanis are in. From government ministers and officials to the public to the media, we are all convinced that everybody is out to get Pakistan. Whether it's the floods that ravaged large swathes of the country last year, or the spectre of Islamic terrorism stalking the land, it's all somebody else's fault.

When I wrote to condemn the Pakistani terrorists who had planned and carried out the Mumbai massacre in 2008, I was flooded with emails from angry readers demanding to know what proof I had to link Pakistan with the attack. For them, the confession of the sole survivor of the gang of killers was not enough. How did the armed band slip into Mumbai so easily? Why did it take the Indian authorities so long to intervene effectively? To conspiracy theorists, all these questions pointed to a secret Indian plot to malign Pakistan.

The report on the lecture summarises Dr Haider's argument thus: “Most people know at least one person who seems to suffer from a never-ending persecution complex. This individual is convinced that everybody is out to get him and declines from reconsidering his opinion despite a heap of evidence to the contrary. He dreams up wild and fantastic conspiracies that others have plotted against him and interprets every action with deep suspicion.

“To substantiate his view, he believes that there must be something about him that others are jealous of or desire or covet. Perhaps inevitably, he eventually becomes incapable of civilised dealing. Others are forced to resort to confrontation, avoidance or desertion. Vain to the last, he refuses to consider that something may be wrong with himself after all. He is simply incapable of one thing: critical self-reflection.”

Over the years, this paranoia and persecution complex have grown to dominate the public discourse. Indeed, these maladies now inform the thinking of policymakers as well. When I have asked well-educated people why the world should be against us, I get answers like “The Americans want to neutralise our nuclear arsenal”. Or, “Blackwater is behind the suicide bombings in Pakistan to destabilise the country”.

They refuse to see that a strong, stable Pakistan is in everybody's interest, or that we are largely responsible for what's happening in and around the country.

Indeed, our problems have reached such vast proportions that we find it easier to pretend they are somebody else's fault rather than dealing with them. And America, being the biggest player in the region, is the most convenient scapegoat. The subtext in blaming Washington for all our ills is this: if a superpower is against us, obviously we cannot resist. This absolves our leaders of the need to tackle our urgent problems of hunger, illiteracy, unemployment and disease.

Dr Haider is of the view that “Pakistan exhibits all the symptoms of a schizophrenic society embroiled in innumerable conflicts”. He blames state institutions, the political and religious leadership and media organisations of “further fomenting a culture of conflict and paranoia by irresponsibly perpetuating myths about the world”.

These myths are on display in Pakistan round the clock on TV where anchors and their self-important guests hold forth on a large number of conspiracy theories. In this warped worldview, everything from a defeat in cricket to a natural disaster is somebody else's fault.

Perhaps nobody is as responsible for feeding our paranoia and our state of denial than our TV channels. Our anchors invariably duck their responsibility of critically examining all the claims and charges flying around the studios. Instead, they fuel this madness by browbeating those few guests who refuse to take part in this orgy of unfounded accusations against dark forces inimical to Pakistan.

This mindset is also ever-present on the Internet where all manner of conspiracy theories multiply like malign viruses. When the devastating floods hit Pakistan last year, I received many emails accusing a new American technology known as HAARP for triggering the unusually heavy monsoon rains. These paranoid bloggers completely ignored the fact that the Americans were by far the biggest donors in the relief efforts, and sent in a large number of helicopters to take food and medicine to stranded communities, and rescue thousands of people.

So much for the diagnosis. What's the cure? The hallmark of an educated mind is the ability to analyse problems coolly and rationally. An emotional response is usually the wrong one. But our minds are conditioned by years of slogans and clichés, as well as historical baggage that is no longer relevant. The disconnect between reality and our twisted perceptions grows by the day.

We could start by asking ourselves a simple question: why should the rest of the world be against us? Who would possibly gain by Pakistan's dismemberment? Such an event would be hugely dangerous and destabilising for the entire region. Indeed, the spectre of a failed and broken Pakistan haunts security establishments the world over.

So let's open our eyes to reality and face the world as it really is, and not how our tortured dreams have made it out to be.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

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