The South Asia Channel

Pakistan, in need of a makeover?

Pakistan’s Deputy Attorney General Khurshid Khan has made news and not everyone is happy about it. DAG Khurshid Khan became embroiled in controversy when, deeply shaken by the beheading of a Sikh man by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2010, he decided to seek atonement for the sins of the Taliban by cleaning the shoes ...

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan’s Deputy Attorney General Khurshid Khan has made news and not everyone is happy about it.

DAG Khurshid Khan became embroiled in controversy when, deeply shaken by the beheading of a Sikh man by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2010, he decided to seek atonement for the sins of the Taliban by cleaning the shoes of Sikh worshippers outside shrines in India and Pakistan. While Sikh leaders and organizations have praised DAG Khan for his actions, Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association did not take such a kindly view of the situation, and issued DAG Khan a show-cause notice asking him to explain his actions. The Bar Association has argued that DAG Khan’s actions "defamed" the country, while DAG Khan insists that his actions were only meant to present his religion and country in a positive light, by showing that the Taliban do not represent the views of the whole country. 

This is not the first time that Pakistani officials, worried about the country’s image in the world, have taken measures to protect that image. One stark example of this was then-President Pervez Musharraf’s treatment of Mukhtar Mai, a woman gang-raped in her village Meerwala and subsequently prevented from leaving the country for fear that she would publicize stories of her rape and damage Pakistan’s image abroad. Echoing government claims, some journalists at the time also termed Mai’s heart-wrenching accounts of her rape as "propaganda against Pakistan." General Musharraf eventually allowed Mai to travel abroad, but only after intense domestic and international pressure.   

While Mukhtar Mai’s case is an extreme example of an incredibly misguided attempt to protect Pakistan’s image abroad, it aptly illustrates how censuring its citizens may not be Pakistan’s best shot at protecting its image. DAG Khurshid Khan’s case may raise valid questions about the code of conduct appropriate for government officials, but it remains questionable whether the SCBA is doing the country’s image any good by taking action against someone who did, at the end of the day, want to show that Pakistanis stand against terrorism, and empathize with the sufferings of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Through his service to the Sikh community, DAG Khan only sought to encourage a form of communication between Pakistan’s majority Muslim population and other religious communities, an effort that the Bar Association has attempted to halt.

Most strikingly, such efforts to protect Pakistan’s image seem bizarre in light of the glaring fact that much of the negative opinion about Pakistan around the world stems from some very real challenges that Pakistan faces: international and domestic terrorism, corruption, poor governance, and human rights violations. Government officials not only unwittingly reinforced these negative perceptions about Pakistan in both the cases of Mukhtar Mai and of DAG Khan, but also completely failed to acknowledge the larger, more significant reasons for the country’s negative perception in the world.

If the first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem, Pakistan has yet to really take that step. Pakistani officials and media frequently blame outside forces for Pakistan’s misfortunes. Yet, it is crucial for Pakistan to acknowledge the faults and mistakes that have led it to its current quagmire if it is to improve its image. The slow response of the international community to the 2010 floods in Pakistan, partly attributed to Pakistan’s negative image in the world, was a tragic reminder that a country’s image matters immensely. Recognizing the importance of the way the world sees a nation, Pakistan spends a $100,000 dollars per month, a total of about $1.2 million dollars a year, on American lobbying firms to help improve its image in the United States. Yet, according to a recent BBC poll, it remains one of the most negatively viewed countries in the world, second only to Iran.

Pakistan’s failure to improve its image does not only lie in its inability to accept responsibility for and address its problems. Pakistan has also failed to effectively use channels of communication with the outside world, such as movies, literature, art and music, to show a perspective on Pakistan that more closely reflects the way in which Pakistani citizens experience their country. Experiences of painful uncertainty and horror in the face of terrorism, violence, corruption, and state incompetence comingle with very "normal" day-to-day experiences to form a nuanced image of Pakistan in the minds of its citizens. These complicated experiences can best and most eloquently be portrayed through movies, art, literature and music, providing a window into Pakistan to outsiders who may see the country only through a security lens.

Yet the arts are not the only means through which Pakistan can challenge the narrow, security-focused narrative about the country. Allowing Pakistani citizens the freedom to broadcast their experiences to the world, even negative ones, is important in not only encouraging the process of self-reflection but also in allowing outsiders to understand the range of different life-experiences that shape the human landscape of Pakistan. At the very least, a greater understanding of the region will allow the international community to move past black and white generalizations about the "Pakistan problem" and to appreciate the nuances that underpin issues confronting the region. In the long run, this will translate into a more empathetic view of Pakistan, and might help the country’s image in the world.

In fact, Pakistan’s neighbor, India, has done an excellent job of exploiting such channels of communication to give the world a glimpse into the various facets of life in India. The Indian film industry produces the largest number of movies in the world, with export revenues increasing drastically over the years. The Economist points out the wide influence of Indian movies which are popular not only in countries like the United States, but also in other parts of the world, such as Japan. Anyone who has seen Bollywood films knows how impressive a job it does of portraying different "Indias" – the romanticized India of dancing and singing locals, but also the more somber and serious India of movies like "Rang de Basanti" that explore India’s past. India’s effective use of these modes of communication is undoubtedly one of the reasons it has maintained a positive image in the world.

Clearly, there are also other reasons for India’s pleasant appearance. India has more going for it than Pakistan does, given that India is the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic power. On top of that, India is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with hundreds of different languages spoken across the country. Moreover, unlike Pakistan, India’s domestic problems have not also posed a threat to countries around the world. All these factors allow India to maintain a positive image, despite the fact that India also shares many of the problems of other developing countries, such as corruption, poor governance, massive poverty and domestic terrorism in the form of a Naxalite-Maoist insurgency. India not only has achievements, it has also managed to capitalize on these achievements through the use of various modes of communication with the rest of the world.

While a country’s real problems and achievements essentially define its image in the world, to some extent, image is also a product of what the world even knows about a country. The censorship of both DAG Khan and Mukhtar Mai, although misguided and counter-productive, illustrates Pakistan’s attempts to control what the world knows about it. Instead of censuring DAG Khan, Pakistani officials could have used DAG Khan’s case as a way to show their stance against terrorism and their empathy for the sufferings of Pakistan’s minorities. There is hardly a Pakistani, however removed from Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas, who has not felt the consequences in some shape or form of Pakistan’s battle against terrorism, and there are many who have suffered the direct destruction and pain that terrorism has brought on the country. It is this pain and sense of loss that DAG Khan sought to express through his service to a religious community that has also suffered at the hands of terrorism. Pakistani officials should celebrate such actions, and see them as a means through which to open channels of communication with other communities and countries. Ultimately, it is the DAG Khans of Pakistan that will help its image.

Fatima Mustafa is a PhD candidate at Boston University researching issues of state-building in the developing world.

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