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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The psychology behind defending the Sharifs

M. Usama Khawar |

On Friday the Supreme Court of Pakistan announced that it has reserved its judgment on the reports brought forward by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Their judgments expected soon, with experts predicting a very good chance that they may disqualify the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Read more: The real owner of Avenfield Apartments: Hussain Nawaz or Maryam Safdar?

Throughout this entire fiasco, the disapproval ratings for the Sharif family have increased, yet a lot of people continue to support them and defend them despite the Panama scandal. I think it is unfair to dismiss the stubbornness of these supporters as them being untruthful about their opinions; Instead, there is a very powerful psychological phenomenon that may explain their continued support.

Background:Evolution of the scandal 

In April 2016, a German newspaper announced the surfacing of 11.5 million confidential documents that were obtained from Mossack Fonesca, an offshore financial services firm based in Panama. These leaks were dubbed as the Panama Papers Scandal and it found many world and business leaders involved in dubious financial behavior.

“The collective impact of these failures has been a complete erosion of ethical standards, ultimately leading to a novel system we still call Capitalism, but which is tantamount to economic slavery. In this system—our system—the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters, who exist in a world apart where the intangible shackles are carefully hidden amongst reams of unreachable legalese.” the whistle-blower behind the Panama leaks

Out of the 143 politicians found involved in the scandal, twelve turned out to heads of states. British PM David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Presidents of Argentina, Ukraine and many others. The PM of Iceland, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson was also found in the list and he resigned from his position shortly after.

Closer to home, former PM Benazir Bhutto, Rehman Malik, and the children of current PM: Hussain Nawaz, Hassan Nawaz, and Maryam Nawaz were all among the many Pakistanis named in the scandal. Opposition leader Imran Khan, after months of deliberation, got the Supreme Court of Pakistan to accept his petition against Nawaz Sharif and his children.

Read more: Is Nawaz Sharif finally reaching his end?

Supreme court remains suspicious 

Fast forward to April 2017, after a very long series of hearings and uncovering of more evidence, the Supreme Court announced the creation of an ad-hoc organization with the purpose of investigating the case further. The group, titled Joint Investigation Team, was tasked with investigating the money trail and determining if the Sharif family had procured wealth apart from their disclosed sources of income.

More specifically, the JIT had the role of figuring out how the money received from the sale of the Gulf Steel Mills led to the eventual procurement of the Avenfield apartments in London. JIT had to investigate whether the numbers add up and more importantly if this was done via legal means.

Read more: JIT report: The road to a stronger Pakistan

This month, the JIT finally submitted a 275-page report to the Supreme Court. On the 17th July, the SC resumed hearings on the Panamagate case, and yesterday it declared that the judgment has been made and will be announced at a later date.

Fishy business in the steel industry

The team found that the sale of the steel mills in question had no proof behind them. The Ministry of Justice of the United Arab Emirates declared that no proof of the transactions was provided to them. So here we have the Sharif family claiming the sale of their shares in the steel mills for 12 million Dirhams, but no paperwork to prove that it occurred. The JIT found the affidavits supporting the Sharif family’s claims tampered and incorrect.

So here we have the Sharif family claiming the sale of their shares in the steel mills for 12 million Dirhams, but no paperwork to prove that it occurred.

The Sharifs claimed to have carried out the transaction through the former PM of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. The prince, however, refused to show up for testimony, and merely invited the JIT to visit him in his estate with the condition of being granted immunity. The fact that he is afraid to be held responsible for his testimony indicates a fear of being caught for lying in court.

Outed by a font

In 2006 Hussain Nawaz supposedly signed a trust deed declaring Mariam Nawaz as a trustee of the Avenfield apartments in London. The JIT found that the interrogation of the solicitor of the trust Jeremy Freeman indicated that he was attempting to save Hussain and Mariam Nawaz along with himself from justice. After a bit of questioning, he refused to respond to further questions.

Read more: Opposition buoyant as the Panama judgment is reserved

More interestingly, the documents that Mariam Nawaz provided to legitimize the trust were found by a London based forensic document examining agency to be falsified. How was that concluded? Well, that was determined because the documents provided had used the Microsoft Calibri font which was not available for use when the documents were supposedly created.

Another indicator of foul-play is that the Sharifs refused to provide the JIT with a Data Disclosure Consent, and so the team was unable to access their banking data to determine the truth.

Overall the JIT concluded that Marium had been lying about merely being a trustee of the apartments, and had rather been the owner of them along with the offshore companies.

Enough said? 

The information above is what I got from merely an hour’s overview of the JIT report. The fact is, that going through the whole thing will give a million other indicators of the Sharif family’s deception. Contradiction after contradiction and lie after lie, the PM and his family have been misleading us about their financial wrongdoings.

‘JIT found that the witnesses and Respondents failed to provide any additional document before JIT to substantiate their stated position(s) on Gulf Steel Mills. Non-Provision of asked corroborative documents/record and refusal to give data disclosure consent to JIT corroborate the fact that they were consciously veiling the evidence and possibility of its access by JIT’ Written in the JIT report

Journalists and a large part of the intellectual community of Pakistan have been raising a hue and cry about this nation-wide deceit the ruling party has enacted.

However, despite everything, the Sharif family maintains a very large following of supporters who will probably continue to support them even if the SC rules against them soon. This behavior of continued defense of the Sharif family got me thinking initially that the supporters must be intentionally ignoring the facts because the success of PML-N is in their interest. But that conclusion may just be on the edges of a sort of conspiracy theory.

Turning to Psychology 

The theory of Cognitive Dissonance (CD) is a very relevant concept that may explain this stubborn support for the Sharifs despite all that is going on. It explains the involuntary process that helps facilitate a consistency in opinions.

Read more: Chester Bennington and the epidemic of celebrity suicide

The psychologist Leon Festinger introduced the concept of Cognitive Dissonance in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957. His primary argument was that human beings when encountered with information that contradicts their preconceived ideas and beliefs, enter into a state of psychological discomfort (dissonance). In order to get rid of this dissonance and regain mental harmony (consonance), humans change their beliefs or actions.

“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point…” – Leon Festinger

An example here would be that of smoking. Smokers tend to change their beliefs about smoking in order to justify the contradiction between their belief of upholding health but engaging in unhealthy activities. They distort their beliefs by telling themselves things like ‘I probably don’t even smoke that much’ or ‘There are plenty of healthy old people who have smoked their whole lives’. In these cases, cognitive dissonance has caused them to distort their beliefs in order to justify their behavior.

The Sharifs as a case study 

Supporters of the PML-N, especially the more enthusiastic ones, have a certain belief system which favors the Sharif family. When exposed to information against the Sharifs, they have a significant unintentional bias against that very information. It causes them to make excuses to prove facts as illegitimate so that they do not have to deal with the discomfort of no longer supporting the Sharif family.

This is the reason why they refuse to accept the findings of JIT. They, instead of accepting the faults of their favored leader, rationalize in such a way which stops them from accepting the findings. This sort of behavior makes it very difficult for democratic self-correction because previous leaders are not voted against due to a subconscious refusal to see them as problematic.

It’s important here to note that we all fall victim to this cognitive dissonance, and similar patterns of behavior may be observed when looking at political scandals all over the world.

Reaction to the JIT

A very popular argument against the JIT is that it has been a conspiracy by opponents of the PML-N in order to destroy the integrity of the Prime Minister. Some supporters are blaming the military establishment and claiming that the military is backing the Supreme Court in order to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.

In response to the findings, the supporters are basing their arguments against the JIT saying that it is invalid on technical grounds. They are blaming the JIT for their lack of testimony from the Qatari prince, despite the fact that it is the prince who is not willing to give a testimony without immunity.

Other supporters have reacted by claiming that Nawaz Sharif’s family is to blame, but not himself because he was unaware of all the wrongdoings going on. That is a very hard argument to support considering the fact that Nawaz had been benefiting from all of these unethical business dealings. It is much more likely that the PM is using his children as scapegoats in order to save his position in the government and his party.

When the Calibri font blunder was revealed, supporters were quick to come up with excuses such as saying that the font was actually available before that and had received the font before it was released to the public. This claim was further weakened when the creator of that font declared that it is unlikely that the font was available.

Finally, the most recent turn of events has shown that supporters of the Sharif family have turned to attacking Imran Khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to justify their own positions. He has recently also come under scrutiny for the purchasing of his own flat in London. However, what differentiates his case from Nawaz’s is that he has provided to the courts whatever was required of him as soon as possible. Now, Pml(n) has asked him to show records of the earliest phases of his cricket career which mostly comprises of small amounts of salary that he received from his cricket club. The degree of scrutiny being applied to him is absolutely absurd but is obviously a defense mechanism on the part of the ruling party.


Every single one of these reactions, once looked at through the lens of cognitive dissonance can be understood as a method to rationalize recent turn of events. Supporters of the Sharif family, are not necessarily looking the other way intentionally to avoid the evidence. They are victim to a psychological phenomenon that most of us experience in our daily lives. Such a sudden influx of information proving wrongdoing on the part of the Sharif family has caused their supporters to unintentionally turn to these means. It is very likely that even if the verdict comes out against the Prime Minister, a lot of these supporters will continue to see the decision as invalid.

Read more: Imran Khan’s buddies in the league of the lions!

This, of course, is unintentional on the part of the supporters, but not on the part of the PML (N) leadership. The media campaigns that have been run in previous days have been specifically designed to cater to this dissonance. The reason why the Qatari Prince’s testimony is absent from the JIT is a nuanced one, but the media campaign was told to broadcast this fact more just so that it can appeal to the cognitive dissonance of the supporters.

The relevance of this is the mechanism by which we deal with these supporters. We need to stop treating them as particularly unintelligent, or morally corrupt, rather as victims of this psychological phenomenon. It is thus important that a more diplomatic and educational response must be provided by us to let them see the problems in their rationalization.

M. Usama Khawar is an undergraduate student currently pursuing a degree in the Social Sciences from The Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. His writing interests are vast, ranging from culture to philosophy to psychology.