When 20 years ago PTV aired the destruction of World Trade Centre live, Pakistanis miles away sat glued to their television screens as the events of 9/11 unfolded. Little did they know that from that moment onwards, their country’s portrayal abroad would be tarnished for the years to come. They can breathe a sigh of relief now that their homeland, Pakistan, is on a quest of rediscovering itself, and in the process, take charge of the narrative surrounding it.
Al Qaeda was held responsible for the atrocities, so how did Pakistan get caught in the crossfire between ‘the West and the Rest’? Pakistan, was among three of the only countries in the world who officially recognised the rule of Afghan Taliban which came into power in 1998.
Pakistan becomes “frontline state” in the “War on Terror”
Despite being on the frontline for ‘War on Terror’ declared by Bush Administration, contributing troops in United Nations peacekeeping missions and losing as many as 80,000 lives of civilians, security personnel and militants –Pakistan struggles to regain credibility.
In a survey conducted at University of Oxford in 2016, diplomats from around the world were asked to equate Pakistan with three things. Amongst the top responses were Security, Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, Taliban and Islam. Clearly, such perceptions underscore the view of Pakistan as a militarised state indulging in practices of incongruous with 21st Century Western neoliberalism.
Pakistan: much maligned, even more misunderstood
The world set its face against Pakistan, with the country having been maligned to the extent that everything it did would be too little, too late.
“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” @realDonaldTrump rediscovering Pakistan
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
The gravity of situation is such that India accuses Pakistan of lending a hand to insurgency forces in Kashmir while Iran’s stance is that Pakistan is complicit with UAE in spurring unrest at its border and even Afghanistan expresses hostility against Pakistan for meddling in its internal affairs.
The image of Pakistan world over is bleak, to say the least.
How should the narrative be changed?
With Imran Khan at the helm, Pakistan is on its way to override narratives of ‘extremism’ with those of ‘tolerance.’ Khan recently allocated $0.6 million to kick-start construction of the first Hindu Temple in Islamabad. Since November 2019, Pakistan has also allowed visa-free crossing to Indian pilgrims for access to Kartarpur Sahib – one of the holiest gurdwaras for Sikhs.
At the same time, Pakistan’s positive image is being restored with the rise of right-wing ideologies in India: where Muslims are at the centre of a nationalist storm. In that country, the differential treatment is manifest at the institutional level as well.
To elucidate, consider how India’s Supreme Court allowed construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid, demolished in 1992, once stood. Intensifying religious tensions, Modi attended the inauguration on 3rd August which goes against his oath as Prime Minister of secular country. This “ugly dance of fascism” in India, according to journalist Rana Ayyub, is helping Pakistan project itself in a positive light as a much more progressive country.
Rediscovering Pakistan: projecting and leveraging soft-power
On counter-terrorism measures, Pakistan has launched operations like Zarb-e-Azab but to bring a sweeping change, a more persuasive approach needs to be adopted. Pakistan is not all that the world paints it to be – its populace embodies a culture that is brimming with hospitality, its terrain is marked with a history that regales tales of bravery and its heritage is enriched with art that speaks to the soul.
Mr. Khan has shown keen interest in revival of Pakistan by promoting its tourist industry. Juxtaposing a picture of Switzerland with Pakistan’s scenic beauty, he wrote:
From our beaches in the south to Fairy Meadows in the north, and the rich history of our Land, Pakistan has unlimited potential for developing eco-friendly tourism. This is a commitment we are determined to fulfill InshaAllah. pic.twitter.com/FmLiI4WkHq
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) November 26, 2018
Pakistan: rediscovering a “new” global image
While incessant brain-drain puts a strain on Pakistan’s economy, its large diaspora abroad can help eliminate negative perceptions. One can draw inspiration from Malala Yousafzai, a global figure hailing from Pakistan, who is also the youngest Nobel Laureate in history.
She was targeted by Taliban coming home from school but her resilience sent a message worldwide what it means to be a Pakistani – a pacifist combatting terrorism by using ‘education’ as a weapon. In her own words, “terrorists are afraid of the power of education.” After graduating from Oxford University, her return to Pakistan has spoken volumes about the improved security situation of the country: Yousafzai wished to return “without any fear” and that, she did.
Branding the Nation
In 2017, a campaign was initiated in London where double-decker buses displayed images of an ‘Emerging Pakistan’. This was a brainchild of High Commissioner Abbas, who stated it was to “…showcase the beauty of Pakistan, its culture, landscape and people, and will help promote tourism in Pakistan in the most effective way.” Evoking positive emotions, such measures taken by diaspora can keep the tide of negativity at bay.
Dr. Shaukat Hammed Khan, ex-physicist at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, sheds light on Pakistan’s copper assets. Using Mongolia’s mining-led development as a model, Pakistan can transition from a ‘cotton’-producing economy to a ‘copper’-producing one by increasing its natural-resource exploitation. This will not only uplift the nation’s identity as an economically flourishing country, but it will also encourage the influx of foreign-direct investment, much needed for growth.
How ordinary citizens can play their part in rediscovering Pakistan
From being home to some of the earliest civilisations – Gandhara and Indus Valley (Mohen-jo-Daro), to being a cradle of world religions, Islam and Buddhism, to possessing strategic endowments that allow trade globally – Pakistan has the assets to bridge the gap between reality of Pakistan and its rhetoric abroad.
The responsibility to put the best face of Pakistan forward to the world rests on the shoulders of students abroad who are not just representatives of their home country, but also its marketers. Direct contact with the host community gives the ‘Proud Pakistanis’ an opportunity to challenge the stereotypes of their country by exhibiting tolerance and tranquillity.
In an age of technological revolution, the potential of social media can be harnessed to communicate beauty of Pakistan through pictures, videos and articles. Individual collective efforts can reconstruct the global image of Pakistan that is in sync with our ideology.
Indeed, there are two sides to a coin. One must flip it to understand the complete picture.