On Pakistani Anti-Americanism

Anti-Americanism is unsurprisingly on fire these days in Pakistan. That Pakistan is amongst the most anti-American nations in the world is well known. This anti-Americanism did not, as some would lead us to believe, emerge precisely at the moment of the first drone strike in Pakistan, only to vanish the moment after the final (future) drone strike. Pakistanis have long been anti-American and will likely remain so. This column is an effort to unpack this sentiment through an analytical lens.

Anti-Americanism is typically considered to stem from two different sources: what America is (its culture, and its internal political and economic structure), and what America does (its foreign policy). This distinction is somewhat artificial in a context in which America is primarily defined internationally by its foreign policy.

A third source of anti-Americanism stems not from US actions or traits, but a strategic operationalisation of anti-American sentiment for political gain in the home country. It brokers internal unity in fractious environments. So we see the Pakistani government publicly condemning drone strikes even as it privately approves (at least some of) them. One of the reasons that the US probably cannot be more open about drone strikes is, ironically, to appease Pakistan’s government, which in turn, condemns drones to drum up anti-Americanism. Talk about a vicious (and confounding) cycle. Adapting a classification system developed by prominent political scientists Peter Katzenstein and Robert Keohane, we can think of four different types of anti-Americanism in Pakistan: radical, socio-religious, sovereign-nationalist and liberal. These categories are broadly decreasing in order of intensity from radical to liberal and increasing in order of malleability of attitudes.

The radical category does not need much elaboration: think of the likes of al Qaeda and its sympathisers. These people want destruction of the US because of what America is, what America does, and to gain global power.

Most Pakistanis are negatively predisposed to the US, with the predisposition ranging from mistrust to bias against the US and its actions.

The socio-religious category dislikes America, a powerful non-Muslim country that is also seen as doing harm to the Muslim world. This anti-Americanism has an important ‘us versus them’ dimension: the American superpower pitted against the Muslim world, with Pakistan’s identification and sympathy firmly ingrained on the side of other Muslim countries. This explains the reluctance to blame the terrorists who emerge from ‘us’, while at the same time, jumping to condemn the ‘other’s’ drones; it explains martyred canines and unmartyred soldiers. It also explains the identification with Muslim causes in other contexts (such as the Palestinian cause), while ignoring the atrocities against Christians, Shias, and Ahmadis in our own country. This category is perhaps, represented best by the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious political parties, and by individuals subscribing to their views.

The sovereign-nationalist category focuses on American policies seen as causing harm towards Pakistan itself. Perhaps, the political party that fits in most neatly into this category is the PTI, with its stance against drone strikes. This category of anti-American sentiment focuses perhaps most clearly on what America does (and not necessarily what it is); Imran Khan argued exactly this in an interview with Express News on November 11, saying: “I am not anti-US … I am against their policies.”

The fourth and final category of anti-Americanism is the liberal type, which focuses on America’s perceived hypocrisy in saying one thing and doing another, and on failing to live up to its own liberal and progressive goals and ideals. Examples are its failure to close down Guantanamo Bay and historically propping up dictators in contexts where it suits its own interests to do so. Most Pakistanis are negatively predisposed to the US, with the predisposition ranging from mistrust to bias against the US and its actions. And these attitudes also have deep historical bases, which make them more difficult to change. With the above four types or categories of anti-Americanism spanning essentially all our social and economic classes, it is little wonder that anti-Americanism is used as a constant political tool for manipulation in Pakistan, especially by our civilian government and political parties and the media. It takes various forms, but unites a divided country.