System in Disarray: Facts and Conspiracy Theories in Pakistan

By Misbah Azam

During the early 1990s when operation Dessert Shield was in progress, and the allied forces had not begun the campaign of heavy bombardment of Baghdad and other important places in Iraq and Kuwait, an interesting article was published in some unknown magazine in Pakistan (internet was not available then) where one unknown “defense analyst”, who probably was a retired Pakistan Army commander, came up with the theory that the United States, the (then) the Soviet Union and the Western Europe had decided to take over Pakistan and dismantle its nuclear program (nuclear tests were not conducted then), dismantle its military and  fragment Pakistan into pieces.

According to the story, freedom of Kuwait was simply an excuse which was created with the help of old American ally, Saddam Hussain.  The author used some real facts on the ground to justify his theories and in the first glance, the uninformed reader could be misled by the descriptions of the events.

Last year, a video was published on YouTube which proved that the 9/11 terrorist attack was predicted in the famous late-80’s Hollywood flick, Back to the future. Every American may have seen the conspiracy theory videos about the “hidden conspiracy” of 9/11. Those videos are widely believed not only in the US, but large parts of the world by uninformed observers.  The nature of all the cabal theses is somewhat similar. The creator collects some facts on the ground, connects those facts in predetermined ways – as per his or her bias – then creates a new picture by using stretched truths, interpretations, speculations and by conveniently ignoring those facts which cannot be stretched, re-interpreted or modified according to the creators’ will.  The next step is releasing the theory for the arguments, and as new questions are raised by nonbelievers, the theses are modified and adjusted for the different audiences.

Pakistanis are no different than others.  Every incident in Pakistan is followed by diverse stories and the media – which,  like the Judiciary and the Military, is not accountable for any of their actions and statements – comes up with their own spins depending on which side of the fence they lie.

The state agreed to surrender to right-wing extremists, who seized the capital city of Islamabad for 22 days. They were protesting on the parliamentary committee’s introduction of Election Act of 2017 in which the candidates’ declaration about their belief in the finality of Prophet-hood (Khatm-e-Nabuwat) (PBUH) was moved from point number (i) to point number (iii) and changing the wording from ‘solemnly swear’ to ‘declare’.  After the ultimate capitulation by the State of Pakistan, the state – which includes the Army that “brokered” the “negotiated” settlement – came under strong criticism.  The week before the “settlement”, the military spokesperson in a statement declared that the military is a subordinate institution of government and it would proceed as per the government’s instruction.  However, when the government launched the police operation to tackle the blockade, the military pulled the rug from beneath the feet  of the government and through the twitter message, the military spokesperson tried to draw a moral equivalence between the government (which was trying to impose its writ) and the miscreants (who were violating the writ of the state) by urging “both parties” to resolve their issues using the dialogue.  Then the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) senior official “negotiated” with the leaders of the extremists and promised the miscreants that his institution would assure that they would get “anything” they demand.  Next day, the media channels showed that a military top ranking officer was hugging and kissing, and distributing Rs. 1,000 to those who were involved in vandalizing, beating and killing policemen, attacking houses of the ruling party leaders, burning cars and destroying public property.

The day after the strong criticism on the social media, the retired Generals, who become “defense analysts” on media if they do not get any diplomatic or any other government positions, were seen on successive media channels with new spins about the state’s ignominious surrender, under the umbrella of “law and order system”.  All those spins had three common features: all contained the “bad guys” by which they meant Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and some others who question the military’s illegal interference in the civilian authority and stand up to it; the “good guys” that is the Army; and finally the “wise guys” like Shahbaz Sharif, Sheikh Rasheed and those civilians, politicians and Judges, who agree to accept the military hegemony as long as the military would provide them guarantees that they would not be removed from power.

The common story was: the “bad guys” orchestrated the event to bring the Army in the spat so that Army would get engaged in “killing civilians”. The “wise guys” tried their best to prevent such plans but “bad guys” did not listen because of their personal agendas.  Finally, the “good guys” – who already sensed the conspiracy against them and who are the custodians of political wisdom, patriotism and  the country’s national security — came out and defeated such designs of “bad guys” who are the conspirators–unpatriotic and lacking in political acumen.

If someone were to agree with such bunk, then the question would remain that if it was all done by the bad guys, then why did Sheikh Rasheed – the wise guy — also decided to join them. He is the one who virtually began the fire after the bill was approved by all the political parties. He instigated the extremists and even common people by his fierce speech in the parliament, then spitting fire in front of “head-nodding” anchors on the Pakistani electronic media.  He boasted in one of his daily “exclusive” interviews on TV that this group of people blame Nawaz Sharif for the death sentence of Mumtaz Qadri – a personal bodyguard of Governor of Punjab who murdered the Governor after his criticism on the abuse of blasphemy law – and they would not support Nawaz Sharif.

Also, why did the other “wise guy” Shahbaz Sharif create all the troubles by first blaming the law minister without any evidence then asked the 50-60 protesters to march to Islamabad to secure the law minister’s resignation.  He provided complete protection and allowed the protesters to grow in number as they marched to Islamabad.  Why did some media anchors, who are highly critical of Nawaz Sharif and find conspiracies even in Nawaz Sharif’s heart surgery and Kulsoom Nawaz’s cancer treatment, were vehemently supporting and glorifying the protesters who – according to those “analysts” – were having the sit-in at the will of Nawaz and Mariyam Sharif.

The way military pulled the rug from beneath the government’s feet and next day on TV cameras, hugging, kissing and distributing money to extremists show some very new and very dangerous trends in Pakistan politics. Pakistan’s civilian leadership must decide now whether they are going to accept such dominance of military or they have to stand up to that.  When the “negotiated agreement” with extremists was brought to the Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, he should have refused to sign and should have resigned.  Even if the new pliant leadership would be launched in 2018, the history would respect those who demonstrated their strong allegiance to principles and rule of law.  All those who are either talking about the “new contract”, want to sit with Generals, Judges, and bureaucrats, or accepting to work under the control of elected governments’ subservient institutions, would slip into the gutters of history and would never be recognized as statesmen.