We are starting a series of blogs authored by Asad Rahman – young scholar – on the aspirations, and concerns of young Pakistanis. These writings capture the reality of life as a young 20-something in a country misrepresented in the world due to the debates on global terrorism. PTH
Part 1: How do Pakistan’s youth relate to terrorism?
Over the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of interviewing young people from across Pakistan as part of my UCL MSc Dissertation project. The study aimed to map the consciousness of my country’s youth – their anxieties, hopes and beliefs – and compare it to external literature and perceptions of Pakistan.
Over the course of 4 articles all published here, I hope to share the fruits of this labour. The first article looks at perhaps the most common perceived association of Pakistan: violent, religious terrorism. This association exists with some good reason; the 2015 Fragile States Index scored Pakistan 10/10 for Group Grievance, including ethnic, communal, sectarian and religious violence – a score we sadly share with only South Sudan, Syria and Iraq.
How does this perceived “reality” of violent terrorism as an existential threat match up to the anxieties, beliefs and experiences of Pakistan’s youth? One 23-year old told me:
Pakistan has so many bomb blasts. Thankfully I have never seen this happen to me, but I hear about it every day.
Nobody feels safe, but you hear about it, that it’s happening all around you, so much that you think this could happen to me.
These snippets are variations on a theme I heard over and over again that summer. References to terrorism were almost always followed by an emphasis on how the threat of religious violence was heard about. Not experienced; not witnessed; not personally affected by. One women summed it up well:
It’s just that… you hear so much, that in an alley even a dog appears as a lion.
Beyond rumour and hearsay, a big chunk of the people I spoke to introduced another culprit into the mix: Pakistan’s media.
Stories about blasts are always exaggerated. They always show pictures of dead bodies as soon as something happens on TV.
Media coverage is very aggressive – ‘this guy did that! this many people died!’
I heard many reflections about the media’s business interest compromising their duty to provide fair, objective news. Everyone I spoke to had ‘heard about’ terrorism from society – be it their uncle/auntie, friends or the news. ‘Word spreading’ was almost always the sole access point to the threat of terrorism.
Why is this important? In his seminal book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), Jean Baudrillard argued that “reality” is qualitatively different from its “informational coating” (provided by society and the media). Pakistan’s insecurity to the terrorist threat is partly an objective reality, but much more significantly an informational coating socialised into the collective conscience of Pakistani society. Unpicking this was a summer’s labour for me; reversing it will be a lifetime’s responsibility that falls on anyone who disseminates (or oversees the dissemination of) information regarding terrorism in Pakistan.
We (often rightly) criticise international media for a one-dimensional portrayal of Pakistan. But while we do this, we must also look within and wear away at the ‘informational coating’ our own society is creating. It is in no-one’s interest and a cause of great collective insecurity for the threat of terrorism to be amplified.
Part 2 of this series of articles asks the logical follow-up question to the above: if not terrorism, then what anxieties do young people feel as objective realities?