The South Asia Channel

Conspiracy nation

Conspiracy nation

What could make people resent a 14-year-old girl who was shot in the head?

This might seem like a strange question to ask yet resentment is exactly the way that many Pakistanis have reacted to Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl from Swat, Pakistan, who was shot by the Taliban on her way to school one morning last October. While voices have been raised in support of Malala across the globe, with world leaders and civil society figures from India to the United States hailing her as a symbol of hope in the struggle against extremism, many Pakistanis have lashed out at her in the aftermath of her speech at the United Nations on July 12, 2013. Malala has been accused of being a CIA agent, of shamelessly exploiting Pakistan’s failures and giving the country a bad name, and of symbolizing the hypocrisy of Western countries that care about the innocent victims of Taliban violence, but ignore the innocent victims of drone attacks.

Worse still, increasingly bizarre theories have started to mushroom in Pakistan to explain what happened to her. While there is no earthly reason to doubt that the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, especially since they took credit for it (Adnan Rasheed, a Taliban leader, wrote an open letter to her taking full responsibility), such facts have been conveniently ignored. Instead, a number of conspiracy theories have emerged, each one more removed from reality than the next – to the point that none of the basic elements of the story are agreed upon by a majority of people. Some have suggested that Rasheed’s letter was fabricated, and Malala was not shot by the Taliban at all – despite the fact that other Taliban spokesmen have also taken credit for the shooting. The simple statement, "Malala Yousafzai, an innocent schoolgirl," has become increasingly contested through a counter-narrative that labels her a "CIA agent." What use the CIA would have had for a 14 year-old girl in Swat is of course a complete mystery. Still others have speculated that she was not shot at all, because her head was not shaved during neurosurgery. How so many non-surgeons could make this determination from just looking at a picture of her head similarly remains mystifying.

What these arguments starkly illustrate is that the domestic debate surrounding Malala has almost completely disintegrated into hyper-exaggerations, polemical statements, and worst of all, conspiracy theories. But where does this sort of public debate leave the average Pakistani? How can Pakistanis make sense of a world where half-truths, conspiracies, and lies are seen lurking around every corner?

Such a debate over the facts of the Malala case may sound outlandish, the past-time of fringe groups, but it brings out an important facet of Pakistani politics today. On many issues, there are no longer any authoritative lines separating fact from fiction; it is almost impossible to have a public debate over contentious issues in Pakistan (specifically those involving Western powers), where all parties agree on the "facts" of a case. Pakistanis increasingly live in an topsy-turvy world where the lines between heroes and villains, fact and fiction, truth and lies have become so blurred that it is hard to determine what the way forward is. This is not the product of a culture war, which presumes circumscribed spheres in a conflict of different cultural or even ideological views. There are no clear camps here – a clash between "liberals" and "religious fundamentalists" is a reductionist view of Pakistani society. This is the product of a deeper problem: a complete disagreement over what sources of information are legitimate and reliable, as well as the failure of most avenues of communication between Pakistan and Western countries.

In the absence of contact and productive interaction with Western countries, it has become easier for many Pakistanis to attribute sinister motivations to the West, to the point that shadowy conspiracy theories start to seem reasonable. And the Pakistani state has not been able to rectify this situation by providing a credible narrative of the problems plaguing Pakistan; in fact, in many cases, state officials exacerbate the situation by giving credence to conspiracy theories, leading to an almost complete breakdown of any consensus on a version of the "truth." The secrecy and contradictory information surrounding many recent events – for example, the Raymond Davis affair in Lahore, the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, even recent reports on the Mumbai attacks – all feed into this spiralling de-legitimization of all sources of information. In some cases, foreign governments have been involved in Pakistan in ways that seem to justify the conspiracies – for example, the CIA’s use of a hepatitis B vaccination drive to gather information about bin Laden, as well as recent revelations about the British government’s secret deals with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement for intelligence gathering to limit the influence of militants in Karachi.

This growing inability to engage in reasonable debates on contentious issues, taking certain facts to be commonly accepted, has very worrying implications for Pakistan. First, by becoming entangled in murky conspiracy theories, Pakistanis are unable to engage in an informed national discussion and reflection on issues that affect everyone. This makes it increasingly difficult to build any kind of consensus on the issues facing Pakistan, whether it is terrorism, inflation, debt, the water and power crisis, or even health policy. Without such a consensus, it will be difficult to find a way forward in creating a peaceful and stable country. Second, when Pakistanis cannot agree on what constitutes a "fact," or on what future they envision for Pakistan, it becomes impossible to decide who the heroes and villains of the country are. It is ironic that, in less than a year, Malala went from being seen as a hero in Pakistan – with demonstrations of support held from Peshawar to Karachi for her fearless efforts in standing up for the right to have an education – to being seen as either a CIA agent or a hypocrite, simply because she is now associated too closely with the West.

As a step towards remedying this, it is important for Pakistanis to collectively recognize and unite behind their country’s own heroes, realising that it is not the responsibility of others to celebrate their champions, or to protect their victims. Malala is Pakistan’s to take pride in, to care for, to protect, to hold up as a symbol of courage – as are any other innocent victims of violence in Pakistan. If Pakistanis disagree with sectarian killings, with ethnic violence, with the current U.S. drone program, it is for them to raise these issues, to publicize them, to start a conversation both nationally and internationally. One injustice cannot be addressed by creating another. It is unfortunate that the innocent victims of such violence do not receive much attention internationally – but would it be any better to live in a world where even the shooting of a 14-year-old girl gains no reaction?

Fatima Mustafa is a Carnegie Fellow at the New America Foundation and a PhD candidate at Boston University’s Political Science department, writing her dissertation on the failures of state-building in Pakistan.

Sairah Yusuf is a graduate of the University of Oxford and is currently working as a researcher at the Generations For Peace Institute in Amman, Jordan.