The News on Sunday: Your favourite three conspiracy theories that have made rounds in the country?
Nadeem F. Paracha: The attack on Malala was a ploy by the powers that be to initiate a military operation in North Waziristan; Modi and MQM were behind the recent attack by militants on the Karachi Airport; Polio drops are a way to stop Pakistanis from making babies.
TNS: Your newspaper article that satirised Malala’s killing — the schoolgirl was shot by CIA, the shooting was staged and the triggerman was one Italian-American Robert — was taken quite literally in Pakistan. Why do people in this country fall for such outrageous stories?
NFP: Our education system produces literalists who have little or no idea about what notions like irony, symbolism and, consequently, satire mean. Everything, from politics to faith, are all comprehended in a literalist and cemented manner. Intellectual laziness is also a culprit here. Illusions, allusions, perceptions, and abstractions are too tiring to follow. Let the sky remain blue. Why say it has turned red and pouring down Chinese ketchup.
TNS: Do educational curriculums, security establishment, religious leaders, and popular private television channels propagate conspiracy theories to hide their own shortcomings, to feel important, ego satisfaction?
NFP: To begin with, like other theories, conspiracy theories, too, are built around certain truths or facts. But such truths and facts are highly elusive and not fully understood, or there is precious little information about them. A scientific approach or an objective journalistic disposition would spend a lot of time digging out this information to substantiate the theory with convincing evidence. But conspiracy theorists take the easy and more sensationalist route by building upon these elusive facts certain fantastical and diabolic scenarios that may seem very creative and imaginative but are not very sound. They usually do not hold up well to a systematic and rational inquiry.
Conspiracy theories are rampant in societies where the flow of information is curbed by the state and government or where the state and government want to control this information and proliferate certain nationalistic, religious, and political narratives. In such societies, all kinds of historical myths and urban legends begin to inform a person’s understanding of his or her country’s politics, leaving him to apply the same ideas in his understanding of global politics.
This may make large sections of a society see enemies where there are none and no enemies where there are many. Certainly, in Pakistan the educational curriculum and the establishment have played a questionable role to proliferate narratives built upon certain myths to control how Pakistanis think about things like religion, ethnicity, patriotism, etc.
But this project is not the prime domain of the establishment anymore. Over the decades, it has trickled down and is used by political parties, religious outfits, and the electronic media to meet their own goals. After all, it is not concrete and well substantiated facts that a majority of Pakistanis are now interested in. They are more willing to lap-up immediate answers and explanations to all the ills that are plaguing Pakistan. The media, the politicians, and religious leaders are ever-willing to churn out these answers using myths, perceptions, and half-baked truths that are already deeply ingrained in our psyches.
TNS: Muslims think the entire non-Muslim world is conspiring against them. What do you think is the rationale for this attitude?
NFP: It took the British quite some time to realise that Britain was no more the giant colonial power that it once was. But once they got over this painful realisation, they got on with life as any other nation-state. The mighty Muslim empires of yore began to crumble from the 18th century onwards. The intellectual postmortem done by the 19th century Muslim scholars squarely blamed the decadence, complacency, and stagnation that had crept in Muslim societies as the main culprits behind the collapse of imperial Muslim power.
Early on, it was suggested that Muslim societies should be regenerated by adopting modern education and the sciences, but eventually, with the rise of European imperialism, such regenerative projects branched out to become attempts to restore the political and imperial supremacy of the Muslims.
It was a noble idea, but one that had to begin by first initiating a renaissance in the Muslim world by reviving the Muslim tradition of assimilating into its cultural ethos various distinct, diverse, and constructive ideas and knowledge.
But the idea of a political revival mutated into becoming empty chest-thumping and anarchic action and ideologies that were bare and antagonistic to the ways of a rapidly changing world. Self-reflection and the much-needed introspection were eventually replaced by projecting one’s frustrations and ills as conspiracies by outsiders. These outsiders were first Western powers and then they became fellow Muslims who were suspected of aiding the anti-Muslims. Today, our long list of enemies include differing Muslim sects and even sub-sects as well. The enemy behind our ills is still the other and he or she can be a non-Muslim or a Muslim that we do not agree with.
TNS: Would you agree that popular media and, more recently, social media that has the potential to liberate is actually keeping the minds in dark. Is it deliberately done due to the market pressure or is it lack of professionalism and investigative journalism?
NFP: All of the above, really. Post-modernists believed that diverse narratives and ethos emerging from various pockets in a society would liberate people from the tyranny of the modernist idea of the meta-narrative that strips people of their individualism and undermines localised cultures. But so far, the post-modernist ideals, in this respect, have only managed to replace the concrete and the supposedly non-individualistic strains of modernism with a diversity of ideas that may strike passionate poses but are really cynical and reactive sound bytes for a social and electronic media market that, too, is filled with cynical and reactive postures.
Conspiracy theories thrive in such conditions. Post-modernist ideals have simply managed to bring into the mainstream what were once obscure figments on the fringes of society.
TNS: Hamid Mir was not shot, nor was Malala, killing of OBL was a hoax… Do you think there has been any effort to dismiss such figments of imagination as irrational?
NFP: Such bizarre proclamations are inherently irrational and, thus, quite easy to rebuke and debunk. But they do well in the post-modernist market of airy sound bytes. A market that is now full of men and women who once upon a time had no clue or idea about politics and the histories attached to it but now, since they can easily get space to air their views on the social and electronic media, they spout whatever little they know, and that is basically the conspiratorial claptrap that they come across on social media and on certain websites. Their claims may sound like unintentional self-parodies or satire, but the real satire in this all is that to them the nonsense is quite real. One is not quite sure anymore whether to laugh or cry at this dilemma.