What Pakistanis Think About Americans

Martin is one of my American friends and has traveled frequently to Pakistan on official trips. Almost all of his trips have come in the recent days and thus have coincided with some of the most turbulent times in Pakistani history. I initially got to know Martin because he was a government consultant sent by the US government for providing technical assistance to my organization (Central Bank of Pakistan) and therefore I was required to assist him in understanding its various functions. Martin was very inquisitive about Pakistan and its people. Since I became close to him during his stays, he asked me a lot of questions and also expressed his views as they were being formed.

Martin was surprised at the contrast of the picture portrayed by media about Pakistan and what he actually witnessed. He candidly told me that before coming here he had believed the widespread media narrative about Pakistan being a radical country like Iran where almost everyone was either sporting a beard or wearing a Burqah. Moreover, he had assumed that since Pakistanis were known to possess strong anti-American sentiments therefore those would translate into some sort of personal hostility towards him also. However, he was really surprised as he came in contact with the Pakistanis. In Martin's own words which he wrote to me after he left Pakistan:

My views of Pakistan changed quite markedly after I had the chance to visit the country and work at State Bank on four different occasions. I had come to believe that there was some sort of personal animosity between American and Pakistanis, which certainly wasn't the case with the folks I worked with -- in fact, I was stunned by the level of trust my SBP were willing to place in me considering that I was a contractor for the US Treasury. There had always been rumors in other countries where I'd worked that advisors for USAID were working for the CIA (utterly ridiculous and risible in the case of bank supervision at least!), so I wasn't prepared for such a level of trust and confidence. I found it quite liberating to be rid of all the false images I'd learned of Pakistanis from the US media.

So in retrospect, I would have to rank Pakistan as one of the most interesting, surprising (in a pleasant way) and personally rewarding countries in which I've ever worked. Had it not been for the security situation in Karachi, I would have considered a residency assignment since this was in fact the original intent of the technical assistance. I sincerely hope that Pakistanis and Americans can see through the all rhetoric and political posturing and realize how much we have in common. That will show the way to reconciliation rather than conflict.

These words are coming from someone who was initially skeptical but whose opinions changed a lot as he started to mix with the Pakistanis from all walks of life. Martin of course is not the only person as so many people have come to Pakistan. Some have hated the place and its people and some have loved it. However, seldom those people have gone back claiming that they were the victims of widespread anti Americanism and that racial tinged personal animosity was shown to them. As they say that seeing is believing and their opinions underwent a radical transformation after personally witnessing Pakistan and its society. Reality at least in some aspects was not what the media narrative had portrayed.

Everything in this world is eventually seen or understood through a paradigm which in turn is influenced by some narrative. This is particularly true if you are formulating views about a society in which you are not living. Your perception about the society is not firsthand but heavily influenced (whether positively and negatively) through the media. In our lives we are heavily reliant on media for information and are views are often an outcome of the way media spins its stories. This holds true for any society whether it is Pakistan or United States.

In Pakistan, the media has often portrayed a negative picture of the US and consequently the people too have a negative perception. However, despite media's negative propaganda the negative feelings about US have not translated into hatred against American people and society. If anything the Pakistanis want to emulate the American lifestyle and have a ferocious craving for American movies and products. Yes it is a fact that Pakistanis -- whether rightly or wrongly -- are not appreciative of United States and its global policies but the assumption that they hate American citizens and society is a negative spin often perpetuated by the media. In fact if given a choice virtually half the country would be in United States to settle. You do not want to do that if you hate a country and yes while desire for economic prosperity is a chief motive but that alone does not explain that why would Pakistanis want to work in a society which they supposedly "hate".

The "mixed" opinion about America exists because of this dichotomy that Pakistanis like the American lifestyle while being critical of United States foreign policy. So many Pakistanis are settled in the US and have blended in. If there was one Faisal Shehzad who professed inhuman hatred, there are countless others who have integrated very well into the US society and have made significant contribution to the society.

It is important for the US people to know that Pakistanis may be having mistrust (whether right or wrong is a separate debate) of their government but they do not hate them or their lifestyles. And yes while it is true that Taliban originated from Pakistan and Osama Bin Laden was found hiding a few meters away from the Military Academy, Pakistan still remains a moderate country. Yes, we are passing through an unfortunate phase where we are reeling under extremism but while the state can be blamed for that, the people of Pakistan by and large cannot be. In fact in Pakistan, the democratically elected governments seldom have power and are often the weakest part of the state. The real state (dominated by military-intelligence establishment and often termed as the "deep" state) is seldom the reflection of the aspirations of the people. Ordinary men and women in Pakistan just want to make ends meet and while they may be having a negative impression of the US government, they do not endorse killing of American citizens or for that any actions of militants.

What has really happened in Pakistan is that religious extremists which had in the past been cultivated for "strategic" purposes have attained a critical mass and are in a position to put the government on the back foot though suicide bombings and other violent tactics. However, these militants may have attained a critical mass but by no means do they enjoy mass popularity. Pakistan still votes for middle of the road parties, is not a radicalized country like Iran and its populace does not hate the Americans.

We need to understand that political perceptions do not necessarily reflect judgment about people. There is at times no concrete linkage between perception about actions of a certain government and those who have elected it. This facts needs to be understood by all and particularly the people of United States. Pakistani people wish well for them and do not harbour any ill will.

And it is this fact, above anything else, which necessitates that US government, should try to only engage with the elected representatives of the people rather than shady characters of the establishment. In case if people of Pakistan are properly taken into confidence then the chances of success in fighting extremism are much greater.