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Why Faisal Shahzad Bombed Times Square?

Anti-Americanism and the Far Right in Pakistan

by Pervez Hoodbhoy, 11 May 2010

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The man who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square was a Pakistani.
Why is this unsurprising? Answer: because when you hold a burning match to a gasoline tank, the laws of chemistry demand combustion. As anti-American lava spews uninterrupted from the fiery volcanoes of Pakistan’s private television channels and newspapers, a collective psychosis grips the country’s youth. Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the US is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and the world of Islam.

Faisal Shahzad, with designer sunglasses and an MBA degree from the
University of Bridgeport, acquired that murderous intent. Living his
formative years in Karachi, he typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in
the shadow of Zia-ul-Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a
retired Air Vice-Marshal, life was easy as was getting US citizenship
subsequently. But at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring
must have kicked in. There was guilt as he saw pictures of Gaza’s dead
children and related them to US support for Israel. A little internet
browsing, or perhaps the local mosque, steered him towards the idea of an
Islamic caliphate. This solution to the world’s problems would require, of
course, the US to be damaged and destroyed. Hence Shahzad’s trip to
Waziristan.

Ideas considered extreme a decade ago are now mainstream. A private survey carried out by a European embassy based in Islamabad found that only 4% of Pakistanis polled speak well of America, 96% against. Although Pakistan and the US are formal allies, in the public perception the US has ousted India as Pakistan’s number one enemy. Remarkably, anti-US sentiment rises in proportion to aid received. Say one good word about the US, and you are automatically labeled as its agent. From what popular TV anchors had to say about it, Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5 billion may well have been money that the US wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it.

Pakistan is certainly not the world’s only country where America is
unpopular. In pursuit of its self-interest, wealth and security, the US
has waged illegal wars, bribed, bullied and overthrown governments,
supported tyrants and military governments, and undermined movements for progressive change. But paradoxically the US is disliked far more in
Pakistan than in countries which have born the direct brunt of American
attacks - Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Why?

Drone strikes are a common but false explanation. Foreign minister Shah
Mahmood Qureshi implicitly justifies the Times Square bombing as
retaliation but this does not bear up. Drone attacks have killed some
innocents, but they have devastated militant operations in Waziristan
while causing far less collateral damage than Pakistani artillery or
airpower. On the other hand, the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong were
carpet-bombed by B-52 bombers and Vietnam’s jungles were defoliated with Agent Orange. Yet, Vietnam never developed deep visceral feelings like
those in Pakistan.

Finding truer reasons requires deeper digging. In part, Pakistan displays
the resentment and self-loathing of a client state for its paymaster.
US-Pakistan relations are frankly transactional today, but the
master-client relationship is old. Indeed, Pakistan chose this path
because confronting India over Kashmir demanded heavy militarization and
big defense budgets. So, in the 1960’s, Pakistan willingly entered into
the SEATO and CENTO military pacts, and was proud to be called "America’s
most allied ally". The Pakistan Army became the most powerful,
well-equipped and well-organized institution in the country. This also
put Pakistan on the external dole.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, even as it brought in windfall
profits, deepened the dependence. Paid by the US to create the anti-Soviet
jihadist apparatus, Pakistan is now being paid again to fight that war’s
blowback. Pakistan then entered George W. Bush’s war on terror to enhance
America’s security - a fact that further hurt self-esteem. It is a
separate matter that Pakistan fights that very war for its own survival,
and must call upon its army to protect the population from
throat-slitting, hand-chopping, girl-whipping fanatics.

Passing the buck is equally fundamental to Pakistan’s anti-Americanism. It
is in human nature to blame others for one’s own failures. Pakistan has
long teetered between being a failed state and a failing state. The rich
won’t pay taxes? Little electricity? Sewage-contaminated drinking water?
Kashmir unsolved? Just blame it on the Americans. This phenomenon exists
elsewhere too. For example, one recently saw the amazing spectacle of
Hamid Karzai threatening to join the Taliban and lashing out against
Americans because they (probably correctly) suggested he committed
electoral fraud.

Tragically for Pakistan, anti-Americanism plays squarely into the hands of
Islamic militants. They vigorously promote the notion of an Islam-West war
when, in fact, they actually wage armed struggle to remake society. They
will keep fighting this war even if America were to miraculously evaporate
into space. Created by poverty, a war-culture, and the macabre
manipulations of Pakistan’s intelligence services, they seek a total
transformation of society. This means eliminating music, art,
entertainment, and all manifestations of modernity. Side goals include
chasing away the few surviving native Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus.

At a time when the country needs clarity of thought to successfully fight
extremism, simple bipolar explanations are inadequate. The moralistic
question "Is America good or bad?" is futile. There is little doubt that
the US has committed acts of aggression as in Iraq, worsened the Palestine
problem, and maintains the world’s largest military machine. We also know
that it will make a deal with the Taliban if perceived to be in America’s
self-interest, and it will do so even if that means abandoning the
Afghanistan’s people to blood-thirsty fanatics.

Yet, it would be wrong to scorn the humanitarian impulse behind US
assistance in times of desperation. Shall we simply write off massive US
assistance to Pakistan at the time of the dreadful earthquake of 2005? Or
to tsunami affected countries in 2004 and to Haiti in 2010? In truth, the
US is no more selfish or altruistic than any other country of the world.
And it treats its Muslim citizens infinitely better than we treat
non-Muslims in Pakistan.

Instead of pronouncing moral judgments on everything and anything, we
Pakistanis need to reaffirm what is truly important for our people: peace,
economic justice, good governance, rule of law, accountability of rulers,
women’s rights, and rationality in human affairs. Washington must be
firmly resisted, but only when it seeks to drag Pakistan away from these
goals. More frenzied anti-Americanism will only produce more Faisal
Shahzads.

(The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.)