Pakistan’s psyche after 9/11

Published: September 8, 2011
The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

The writer is professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont, US. He can be followed on Twitter: saleem_ali

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, much will be written and said about how this dreadful event changed Pakistan’s development path. No doubt the country was literally made acutely aware of its strategic place between ‘a rock and a hard place’. In addition to foreign intervention, Pakistan was forced to confront its own follies on the western frontier. Our army had managed to tactfully channel extremism into Afghanistan for a decade. Once the Nato forces’ war began there, those troubles came back to haunt us.

For me, the most troubling change in Pakistani society following 9/11 was a collective neurosis that the country developed around conspiratorial thinking. Even educated individuals in Pakistan refuse to think rationally about the causality of international events any more. To be fair, Pakistan is not the only place where 9/11 conspiracy theories have taken traction. There is an entire subculture which has developed around these theories and specious accuracy is provided all too often to mislead the public through hours of internet documentaries. Of course, conspiracy accounts have always been a feature of human societies. From the lunar landing to the “X-Files”, we humans like to believe alternative accounts and revel in suspicion.

The conspiratorial mindset is also one of the most insidious legacies of the Cold War — when many conspiracy theorists were actually proven correct. Pervasive secrecy in those dark days incubated these conspiracy theories, but now increased transparency and media scrutiny has made governments more aware of the risk of conspiratorial strategies. In conflict situations, nevertheless, such theories are common — most Serbs, for example, are still in denial about the Srebrenica massacre and the Japanese still obfuscate their atrocities in Korea and China.

However, denial in the Muslim world is far more consequential because it can very easily translate into hatred and violence through misinterpretation of theological tenets. The denial in the Muslim world emanates from three key sources: a) pre-existing distrust of the West; b) the ease with which misinformation is accepted by public media sources in Muslim countries; c) a reluctance on the part of western authorities to confront the conspiracy theories. All three aspects of this syndrome must be addressed. In my research on madrassas in Pakistan, the issue of civilian casualties during combat came across as the most common cause for distrusting America and for anger towards US policy. The reluctance of the US to directly tackle this issue or keep detailed and transparent count of actual civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to the most irate conspiracy accounts.

Furthermore, there is reflexive disdain in US policy circles when links are made between regional conflicts in the Middle East, Kashmir or Chechnya and Muslim anger. The US government also appears to be in denial about linkages between regional conflicts and Muslim anger, which in turn fuels Muslim denial about extremism.

Denial of extremism among Muslims is a serious challenge that must be confronted both internally and externally. Muslim organisations must be more scrupulous before publishing unsubstantiated accounts and internet rumours. Deconstructing erroneous conspiracy theories is essential. Indeed, in Islamic theology there are strict injunctions against blanket suspicion (termed ‘zan’ in Arabic) against fellow human beings. Religious Muslims will thus find that Islamic theology itself repudiates conspiratorial thinking.

The silver lining to this denial syndrome is that it reflects a general repugnance for terrorist acts among the Muslim population — they consider such acts abhorrent and hence wish to believe that someone else must be responsible. Yet, this reluctance to accept responsibility is now becoming a challenge for even those Muslim leaders who are willing to, occasionally, accept responsibility. Many are being labelled ‘sell-outs’ and splinter groups are forming within numerous Muslim organisations in the West. If we are to have acceptable reforms, a joint effort by Muslim organisations and the international community is essential to combat the onslaught of misinformation that is paralysing our psyche in a post-9/11 world.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th,  2011.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (24)

  • Ben
    Sep 8, 2011 - 8:41PM

    The attack on the icons of America’s economic and military powers, twin towers and Pentagon, changed the world instantly. The change did not take place due to the terrorist attacks; the world was changed by the massive reaction and fury of the sole super power. Within a period of one month, an attack was launched on Afghanistan which toppled the government of Taliban but which caused the terrorists to be grateful. By the hindsight, it has now been revealed that this was what al Qaeda was asking for. It had successfully provoked the US to enter the land where two earlier super powers, Britain and USSR, had lost their pride and glory. After ten years, one trillion dollar and thousands of lives, al Qaeda is many times stronger and formidable. The US has gained nothing except for taking OBL, who was only a figurehead. The COO of al Qaeda is alive and kicking and so is his ideology of conquering the world.


  • Ali
    Sep 8, 2011 - 9:49PM

    My God… Its sad that our media is also a mouth piece of others. and yes call me a conspiracy theorist believer but sorry. They told us about WMD’s in Iraq and they were none. Even america has accepted their false intelligence.

    When ppl opposed the WMD’s they called us conspiracy theorists…now its prove..what will you call us now???

    Very dissappointed to see such articles.


  • Mir Agha
    Sep 8, 2011 - 9:59PM

    Apologist for the neocons.


  • N
    Sep 8, 2011 - 10:36PM

    We are the best
    We are the most peaceful
    We won all wars – never started any
    We are superior to others
    We discovered basic sciences – the West stole them
    We don’t fight with fellow Muslims – it is Hindus, Jews and West that divide us
    We do not allow any debate because our word is final and pure.
    We have facts and don’t need to present them
    We know what really happened.
    We are right.


  • GW
    Sep 8, 2011 - 10:48PM

    The US counts on the short memories of Muslims. Look at Iraq – the anger against the US is completely absent. After looting all their resources (oil and minerals) of Iraq and setting up a political system that ensures that USA will never be blamed for anything. All the anger is directed/conducted/orchestrated against Saddam Hussein and the Sunni club. The US is now trying for an encore in Afghanistan. Thus Education of the Muslims is priority one despite the calls form the west that this is “fanning hatred”.


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 8, 2011 - 11:56PM

    For the longest time, even Pakistani Americans who had seen the charred site of the World Trade Center first hand or thru the repeated images on television preferred to believe the conspiracy theories. It was after several years when the US had already taken the war on terror to the areas where the conspirators were holed up, did the disbelief start to change when these non state actors including the video version of OBL brashfully gloating over the destruction and killings start to accept that these terrorists may have actually committed these acts against a cvilian population, while the destruction caused at the Pentagon an acceptable military operation.

    Military overreach may have caused long term economic damage to the US, but this can be overcome if handled right. The question is, can the moral damage that came with the military outreach be overcome for a society that prided itself in not ever engaging in unaccepteble international behaviour during war?


  • yaseen
    Sep 9, 2011 - 1:53AM

    conspiracy lol……a well orchestrated american drama, a very well pre planed thing to savage the Muslim world specially Iraq, wher sadam was getting stronger and could have got his hands on nukes. in Afghanistan talibans were getting Established and acceptable at grass root level at the same time they were more stronger than ever before, with Alqaida providing them with economical support…this could have lead to the calipht and was already threatning west….very obvious they cant let this happend….meanwhile they find so many lame excuses to attack these countries…even a recent intreview on chanel 4 radio one of the Uk army general has admitted that they wage a war on Afghanistan coz to stop caliphate…..


  • Spud
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:13AM

    @N: This what is wrong with Pakistan and the Muslim world. It is in your dream you think that you are most powerful. You say you do not fight fellow Muslims then why are suicide bombings in such places as Karachi, Quetta etc. Sunnis are at war with Shia. Islam is supposedly a religion of peace then why everywhere Muslims at war with themselves and others. Until Islam starts to coexist with others Muslims will remain poor and starving.


  • Plal
    Sep 9, 2011 - 8:28AM

    After 9/11, I have found many Muslims in USA eulogizing the terrorist intellect that how they planned the attack following the river course to reach From Boston to New York,the idea that whole structure will crumble with the heat generated by the fuel of aircraft melting the steel inside the building structure,that the terrorist were able to disguise and beat the mighty US intelligence without getting caught. And finally an alternative scoop that it was a plot of Jews and 4000 jews absented themselves from going to twin tower on that fateful day.


  • Abhi
    Sep 9, 2011 - 12:14PM

    This is called wishful thinking. It is time stop making poor afghan people a sacrificial goat. Let them live peacfully rather than making tall claims like graveyard of Empire.


  • Abhi
    Sep 9, 2011 - 12:18PM

    If Al Qaeda did the 9/11 to provoke USA in invading Afghanistan then they are responsible for numerous afghan lives lost during the war, this actually show the real face of al qaeda. They have no hestiation in getting innocents killed just to achieve their political aim.


  • Sep 9, 2011 - 12:54PM


    I am pretty sure N was being sarcastic (I hope!),


  • Umair
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:07PM

    “Muslims are not terrorist & Terrorist are not Muslims…….”

    I believe, 9/11 was a Jewish plotted dram which played on the peaceful land of US.


  • Jawad
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:25PM

    interesting one…


  • Sadia
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:53PM

    i hope this is meant sarcastically. if not, then a reality check is highly recommended.


  • malik
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:53PM

    Only if we were not so full of ourselves.


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 9, 2011 - 3:57PM


    Why not focus on RAW as well. The question is why a Jewish conspiracy?

    Agreed the narrative about Islamist terrorism had been played upon increasingly by Israeli administrations of every political hue approaching the turn of events of 9/11. And 9/11 may have temporarily made American public opinion terrified of extremism emanating from the region and even increased empathy towards Israel. The American military over reaction in Afghanistan immediately afterwards did little to benifit Israeli interests and its long term interests in the region. The Baathists and Saddam in Iraq may be a different story, based on Baathist ideology and Saddam’s political use of anti Jewish and anti Israeli rhetoric to perpetuate his rule over the Iraqi people. But the Israelis have a deeper knowledge and understanding of its neighbours then the American overreaction of stepping into the Iraqi minefield did. And there was enough discussion in the Jerusalem Post and the Haaretz to express doubts about the possible outcome. Even the most astute American political analyist of the region Juan Cole has commented about Maliki’s increasingly anti Israeli stance as a result of the changes that have taken place. The net effect of 9/11 in fact has been negative for Israel. As the benificiary of this suggested conspiracy is in effect Iranian ideological interests. From an Israeli perspective the other long term dominant power in the region to fear will always be Iran. So how would a Jewish conspiracy help further Iranian interests?


  • Ali Tanoli
    Sep 9, 2011 - 6:43PM

    @ N
    you need some nice mullah doctor.


  • Cautious
    Sep 9, 2011 - 7:23PM

    Conspiracy theorist are amusing – they latch onto one supposed “fact” while going to extra ordinary lengths to avoid boatloads of evidence. They never let evidence or even common sense get in the way of a good bias.
    911 is a classic example of conspiracy theorist gone wild. No amt of evidence will change there belief that there was a conspiracy – whether it was CIA, Mossad, or other non Muslim nefarious group. They ignore video of OBL admitting the crime – the ignore public testimony of people who have been arrested and confessed to there part in 911 – they ignore the 911 commission report – and they ignore the fact that not a single engineering college in the World (including the Muslim World) disputes the commission report. No evidence that conflicts with their bias is relevant.
    One of the common conspiracy theories goes something like this: 911 was a plot against Muslims and one of the goals was to invade Iraq and take all their oil The USA lied about WMD which is proof of the conspiracy. Of course they conveniently forget that the entire World believed that Iraq had WMD (and that includes France, Russia, China and Pakistan). They don’t bother to explain why the USA, who went through all the trouble of engineering 911, didn’t bother to plant false WMD evidence after they took control of Iraq. Nor do they bother to explain why the USA didn’t take any Iraqi oil or why most of the oil rights that were auctioned off after the invasion were bought by Russia, France etc – not the USA.


  • Abbas from the US
    Sep 9, 2011 - 8:10PM


    The only possible conspiracy that can be concluded from all the web of conspiracies that have been was written about is that the American overreaction may have been driven by a close knit group of neo-conservatives and other hawks who seized control of Bush’s foreign policy even before the fires were put out at the World Trade Center and set it on a radical course designed to consolidate Washington’s dominance of the region and shock and awe any aspiring global or regional rival powers into accepting a unipolar world dominated by America without giving due consideration to the bait that had been set by these non state actors.

    The events were driven by the fear factor, Dick Chenney the man elected as a calming father figure turned out to be the most terrified of them all and the fear that 9/11 was a dummy run for an actual strike with WMD’s provided by a dictator in Iraq who had suffered the most losses at the end of the first Gulf War and at least this was the version spelt out by America’s leadership which definately sounded sincere at that time.


  • Pankaj
    Sep 9, 2011 - 8:23PM

    Dear N

    Many many thanks for your EXACT diagnosis of what is wrong with Pakistanis

    I have been reading Pakistani Newpapers and blogs for some time now .I had noticed ALL these characteristics .But I COULD NOT put them down in writing SO precisely
    I am writing down your post for future ready reference and FOR quoting somewhere in future


  • N
    Sep 9, 2011 - 9:25PM

    Some of you commented on what I wrote above. If you don’t believe it, you can consult with the laal topi brigade led by Hamid Gul and zaid Hamid.


  • mind control
    Sep 10, 2011 - 11:19AM


    Some of you commented on what I wrote above. If you don’t believe it, you can consult with the laal topi brigade led by Hamid Gul and zaid Hamid.


    Don’t be a misogynist. How can you ignore the sterling services of the likes of Meher Bokhari and the redoubtable Shireen Mazari.


  • Rehman Iqbal
    Sep 11, 2011 - 7:39PM

    This is precisely the reason that our country is in a deep s*. We are the only nation in the world which blames foreigners for our own mess


More in Pakistan