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A history of anti-Americanism in Pakistan

Published Feb 16, 2011 12:01pm

In 2009 the monthly Herald published the results of an elaborate survey that it undertook to determine the extent of anti-Americanism in Pakistan. The findings suggest nothing that we do not already know.

Though anti-Americanism during the Cold War (1949-89) was mostly the ideological vocation of pro-Soviet leftists, today (some twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union), one can safely suggest that America is experiencing its most detested hour.

It hasn’t been hated across the board with so much fervour as it is today, mainly thanks to the bungling of the arrogant Bush administration and its utter deficiency in the art and skill of empathetic and prudent diplomacy.

However, the anti-Americanism virus — at least in most Muslim countries — today is such that the critique that comes with it is largely rhetorical and at times, rather obsessive-compulsive.

Take for example the ‘debate’ that took place on Pakistan’s electronic media over the Kerry-Lugar Bill in which it was quite clear that certain politicians, TV talk show hosts and their audiences among the country’s ever growing chattering classes, who were quick to attack the Bill, had not even read the document!

Their single cue in this respect was the Pakistan Army’s concerns about certain conditions mentioned in the aid bill, and off they went on a rampage.

This may also suggest that the nature of anti-Americanism one often comes across TV news channels in this country, is primarily the animated vocation of two interlinked entities: i.e., electorally weak religious and conservative parties and certain former military men who felt alienated after the American dollars for the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency dried up.

Couple these with a string of highly-paid TV anchors and televangelists who are ever willing to sacrifice objectivity to grab the ratings-boost that rabid anti-American rhetoric promises and you get burning, blinding hot air all around.

From a perceived friend to an imagined foe

Let’s try to trace the history and evolution of anti-Americanism in Pakistan. According to a research paper written by Dr Talukder Muniruzaman in 1971 on the politics of young Pakistanis, a majority of Pakistanis viewed America positively and admiringly in the 1950s.

The paper also suggests that right up until Pakistan’s 1965 war with India, most Pakistanis saw America as a friend, especially in the context of 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 celebrated movement (in 1967-68) against the Ayub Khan dictatorshiop – in spite of the fact that the movement was largely led by leftist students, activists and politicians.

Some leading leftist activists of the movement also suggest that there were precious little incidents 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.’

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 Marxists. Yes we were against the US, but more due to the fact that soon after Ayub’s fall, the US and the Pakistan military began aiding and backing Islamic parties like Jamat-i-Islami (JI). The JI offered themselves to them to work as a bulwark against the rising leftist tide in educational institutions and the streets.”

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

However, the build-up to this was the otherwise sympathetic Richard Nixon’s administration’s failure to militarily help its sub-continental ally during the 1971 war with India.

Seyyed Vali Nasr in his excellent book, ‘Vanguards of the Islamic Revolution’ writes that the religious parties (especially JI)  began attributing the Pakistan Army’s defeat in 1971 to the ‘decadence and debauchery of men like General Yahya Khan’ and due to ‘Pakistanis’ failure to become good Muslims.’ However before that, a large number of Pakistanis began blaming the US because it had ‘failed 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 an occupation of progressive and leftist groups. This is confirmed in Hassan Abbas’ book, ‘Pakistan’s drift into extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror’.

This brings us back to the suggestion that I would rather treat as a question: Were the religious parties 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 happening as a consequence of 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 ’70s) 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 never seen badmouthing the US.”

Athar then added, “The reason behind this was that parties like the JI and IJT and other religious groups were more threatened by the rise of communism, a threat they shared with the US and Saudi Arabia – the two countries that became their main financiers and backers. That is why anti-Americanism was more rampant among Pakistani leftists as compared to the religious parties.”

This trend continued much into the 1980s as well.

In spite of this, 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.

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

This was due to the fact that Zia was an ‘Islamist’ military dictator who was backed by the Ronald Regan administration with military hardware and dollars during the US proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and against ‘communism in the region’. Consequently, anti-Americanism became even more rampant among those opposing Zia.

For example, though anti-Americanism among most PPP workers and the student wing grew two-fold after Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘judicial murder’ at the hands of the Zia dictatorship, the party’s new chairman, 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 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. 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 take-over of the Ka’aba that year by a group of militants.

Though the notorious take-over 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 telling tale of the attack on Ka’aba vividly captured in his book,‘The siege of Mecca’, confusion about who planned and executed the attack arose when the Saudi regime blacked out the news.

Anti-US agitation in Pakistan only rolled back when it became clear that the siege was the work of a group of armed Saudi fanatics to whom even the kingdom’s puritanical Wahabi regime wasn’t puritanical enough!

The switch

In the 1990s as America largely divorced itself from the region after the end of the Afghan civil war, anti-Americanism in the country actually receded and 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.

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 after 9/11.

Naushad Amrohvi, a member of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) in 1972, before leaving for Sweden after the Zia coup said: “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 about an Islamic state and tackle the then pro-US Jamat-i-Islami!”

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

Columnist Fasi Zaka in one of his columns suggested that the kind of anti-Americanism found these days (among the 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 anti-Jewish tirades and paranoid fantasies about Zionists, Free Masons and the Illuminati. Locally, all these are then further mixed with flighty myths about certain Muslim leaders, sages and events recorded only in jihadi literature and flimsy ‘history books.’

Thus, the post-9/11 confusion and emotionalism in Pakistan was largely given vent and an ‘intellectual tilt’ by Islamist 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 individualism and 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.

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 break of dengue fever!

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.