Is Pakistan an anti-American country?
The answer to the above depends on how to interpret a new Pew poll which shows only 12% people in Pakistan have a positive view of the United States. What does this tell us?
The media narrative of Pakistan is of a country where the US is largely resented – if not hated – by the ordinary people. The news coverage in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing last month presented starkly contrasting scenes. On the one hand jubilation in the streets of Washington and New York, and on the other anger in Abbottabad and Islamabad. A good example of this was the Economist which ran images of hard-line Islamist groups holding “anti-American” protests and burning the US flag. One photo showed a man with a long beard standing with his family outside the residence of Bin Laden for a picture as if it was a tourist attraction.
The Economist wasn’t alone in doing this. The picture being painted by certain media outlets was of a country infatuated with the former al-Qaeda leader.
And yet Bin Laden was always more popular in the minds of Americans then in the hearts of Pakistanis. A journalist at the Karachi based Express Tribune, Naureen Aqeel, lamented: “Many of us were baffled by the coverage of reactions to the killing. They were completely misrepresenting the general viewpoint of Pakistanis. Pakistani newspapers welcomed the death in op-eds and editorials, but news reports showed that the general population was idolising Bin Laden and were angered by his death.”
That is not to say people were not angry. According to this recent Pew poll two-thirds (or 63%) of people in Pakistan disapproved of the US operation which killed Bin Laden. But this should largely be seen as a result of resentment at US violation of the country’s sovereignty rather than any sort of public love-affair with the al-Qaeda leader.
It is worth keeping in mind ordinary people in Pakistan never voted in a general election for the Saudi-born terrorist to represent them. The best reaction I read to his killing came from the British comedian Omid Djalili who said in an interview: “For me, the killing is an outrage, and I'd rather have seen him on trial. I'd love to see the Pakistanis going into America demanding to kill their terrorist and the Americans saying, ‘Bush, he's in Texas, you're welcome to him.’” Certainly more level headed pundits would say if Bin Laden had been placed on trial it would have provided a greater sense of closure to families of the innocent people who died on 9/11. Instead by killing the man un-armed he has been turned into a martyr and a poster boy for crazy jihadists around the world –adding fuel to the fire.
Yet in so many ways Pakistan is a state which is quite the opposite of being anti-American. For decades during the cold war it was a staunch ally of the US in the region. At times its pro-US stance has bordered on the embarrassing. On the death of Michael Jackson the country’s provincial assembly held a one minute silence to show its respect. Among the elite English has often been promoted at the expense of the national language Urdu. Even those from poorer background with no formal education often take pride in learning to speak a few broken words in English. By comparison a lot fewer people understand Arabic – the language Bin Laden communicated in. This is despite the geographic proximity to the Middle East. The idea he had any kind of a huge following in the country would be a joke. Certainly the jihadi groups would like the media to believe they are popular among the masses – as a result the threat from them gets significantly magnified by unwitting foreign correspondents.
The silent majority of Pakistanis don’t have the time or inclination to attend nonsensical gatherings where flag of the US, or any other foreign country, is burned. It would be as representative of Pakistan as a protest by the English Defence League would be of contemporary Britain.
With the billions of dollars in US aid being used to prop-up Pakistan’s deeply unpopular government – and no lessons learnt from Egypt and Tunisia – Hillary Clinton remarked on a trip to the country last month: "Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make the problem disappear." She was talking of a country where bootlegged copies of the latest Hollywood flicks are readily available in the bazaars, and where people wait in long queues to get a US visa. Anti-Americanism is as much a reality in Pakistan as WMD were in Iraq.
Too often opposition to US foreign policy gets labelled as anti-American. The fact is it is far easier to wage war against a people who are perceived to hate you. For one there is less guilt when any kind of “collateral damage” takes place in a drone strike, of which estimates suggest 10 civilians die for every militant killed.
So where there isn’t an enemy, it is the media’s job to create one.