Actually, All Pakistanis Don’t Hate Malala
How social media went wild over a fraud's nasty comments, and why America's pretty cool about it.
Between its corrupt and dysfunctional government, glaring poverty, and, most recently, a precipitous rise in terrorism, Pakistan simply doesn’t have a whole lot to boast about. It’s a rare day when Pakistanis have a global honor to celebrate.
That changed last week when Malala Yousafzai, the advocate for girls’ education who in 2012 was shot in the head by Taliban thugs for her activism, received the Nobel Peace Prize. Beating the odds, she survived the attack, moved to the United Kingdom, and stuck to her mission, in defiance of the Taliban and others like them. She then surprised the world again by taking a stand for peace between Pakistan and India by inviting the prime ministers of both countries to her Nobel ceremony.
Among most prominent Pakistanis, the initial reaction to the win on social media was overwhelmingly positive. "Want 2 congratulate Malala on Nobel Peace Prize. Proud as Pakistani 4 her Nobel prize, esp 4 cause of Education which must b r nat priority," tweeted opposition politician Imran Khan, while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the man Khan hopes to unseat, called her the "pride" of Pakistan.
But conspiratorial voices from Pakistan’s social media underbelly also decided to weigh in, reacting to the news with scorn. This scabrous fringe is Pakistan’s equivalent of the Alex Jones fan base in the United States — trolls who peddle theories about Malala being a CIA plant or not having been shot at all. Consider this tweet from Muhammad Anjum Kiani, a Pakistani social media activist:
— MuhammadAnjumKiani (@AnjumKiani) October 13, 2014
Although these people hardly speak for all or even most Pakistanis, a number of British and American media outlets decided to focus on them rather than, for example, on celebrations in Swat among members of Malala’s Pashtun ethnic group as featured in Pakistan’s most popular English-daily newspaper, Dawn.
The fact is that much of the praise for Malala doesn’t fit into the West’s neat dichotomy of pro-Western, pro-Malala Pakistanis versus anti-American, conspiratorial Pakistanis. But by treating Pakistan’s fringe as mainstream, these American and British media outlets give Pakistan’s conspiracy theorists just what they want: credibility and an air of undeserved significance. The conspiracy theory narrative satisfies a vision all too common in Western outlets of Pakistan as a place where Malalas are exceptional angels in a world of savage terrorists and terrorist sympathizers.
It’s sometimes hard to trace where inaccuracies and misperceptions about Pakistan enter the Western media. In this case it isn’t. It started with the BBC’s interview with Tariq Khattak, a man who identified himself on air as the editor of Pakistan Observer, a low-circulation newspaper in Pakistan. Khattak told the BBC shortly after the Nobel committee’s announcement that Malala’s prize was "a political decision and a conspiracy…. She is a normal, useless type of a girl. Nothing in her is special at all. She’s selling what the West will buy." The BBC seized on Khattak’s comment as representative of all Pakistanis, as evidence of "the antagonism towards Malala in Pakistan."
Then we saw how the global echo chamber excels at amplifying a message, even one with a shaky foundation. A story that began in Pakistan instantly spread to London, New York, and Washington, with little fact-checking along the way. Khattak’s colorful remarks were clickbait for a number of writers, including BuzzFeed‘s Hayes Brown, who wrote an article about Khattak’s comments, positing them as evidence that "these sorts of theories have gained a lot of ground in Pakistan." The article was cited by numerous journalists and foreign-policy experts on Twitter. Here are a few examples:
— Ram Ramgopal (@RamCNN) October 10, 2014
— joshuafoust (@joshuafoust) October 10, 2014
The Daily Beast‘s Chris Allbritton also wrote about "why so many Pakistanis hate" Malala, focusing almost entirely on a handful of dubious sources, with the takeaway that the "tendency to see plots and enemies behind every tree is a common trait of the English-speaking Pakistani middle class." The post, unsurprisingly, also cited the BBC interview. ThinkProgress, a progressive U.S. politics blog where I once worked, went the furthest, citing the Khattak interview and a few social media trolls in a blog post titled, "What People In Pakistan Really Think About Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai."
As it turns out, Khattak isn’t even the editor of the Pakistan Observer, and never was: He was once its commerce reporter and was fired long ago. After he was quoted by the BBC, the Pakistan Observer, whose Twitter account boasts a mere 633 followers, put out a disclaimer saying it disowns his comments and is considering taking legal action against him for claiming to speak for the newspaper while he "tried to discredit the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai."
On Twitter, I encouraged several of the journalists who cited Khattak to correct their pieces. To his credit, BuzzFeed‘s Brown immediately did so. ThinkProgress also updated its post to include the fact that Khattak is a fraud. Finally, the BBC’s Mohammad Ilyas Khan, who wrote the original article citing Khattak, acknowledged that Khattak isn’t who he said he was:
— Mohammad Ilyas Khan (@MohammadIlyasKh) October 13, 2014
As of this writing, the Daily Beast has not corrected or updated its article.
But even after these corrections, the fundamental problem remains. In focusing on fringe figures like Khattak, these pieces ignored the positive reaction to the Nobel from across the political spectrum in Pakistan. The anchors of Geo News, the most popular independent, nongovernment television station in Pakistan, called Malala "Pakistan’s daughter," praising her for improving the country’s reputation. Since the Western press seems to be obsessed with the social media reaction to the Nobel, it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of commenters on Dawn.com, the most popular online news outlet in Pakistan, also praised her; the top-voted comment is "Great News ! Congratulations to whole nation." Chaudhry Nisar, a vocal conservative who has been issuing hawkish rhetoric against India over the current border flare-ups, said that Malala’s honor is not just for Swat but for all of Pakistan.
The various Western outlets also ignored a Pew Research Center poll released in August that found that 20 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of Malala, versus 30 percent who have a favorable view. Half of those surveyed said they do not have an opinion. Meanwhile, nearly 90 percent of Pakistanis in the same poll said that equal education for girls and boys is important.
Conspiracy theories are indeed a feature of Pakistani politics. But they are also a feature of American politics. Recall the polling that showed a third of Americans in 2006 believed that 9/11 was an inside job? Flash-forward to today, where on an independent Internet channel with hundreds of thousands of paid subscribers, Glenn Beck propagates outlandish theories that President Barack Obama’s choice to refer to the Islamic State as "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" means the president is somehow aligned with the group against Israel.
Obviously these people don’t speak for a plurality of Americans. But the megaphone afforded them by social media can sure make it seem that way at times — just do a quick search on Twitter for the hashtag #tcot, and you’ll see what I mean. If such deluded blather represented mainstream American public opinion, you could easily write an article titled "What Americans Really Think About Obama" and populate it with tweets about Obama’s Kenyan Socialism and allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, there was another angle to Pakistanis’ frustration with Malala’s Nobel win that Western outlets ignored completely, even though it was splashed all over Pakistani social media and press. Many in Pakistan have long believed that Abdul Sattar Edhi, a humanitarian worker who has devoted his life to working with street children, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. His Edhi Foundation, chronicled in the recent documentary These Birds Walk, is one of the oldest and most impactful NGOs in Pakistan. In 2012, the government officially nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Without disparaging Malala’s well-earned Nobel, many Pakistanis do have a legitimate question about why Edhi has been overlooked for decades. Is it that the Nobel committee views Pakistan primarily through the prism of the war on terrorism and that standing up to the thuggish Taliban is seen as a greater honor than standing up to other, older, and more persistent killers of Pakistanis — hunger, malnutrition, disease, homelessness? It seems the answer is yes.
We should expect American and British media, meanwhile, to be capable of viewing the Muslim world outside the prism of terrorism. But doing that may not be as fun as aggregating some conspiracy tweets and hitting publish.