First published Council on Foreign Relations website
It was November 1979. Anti-American outrage filled the streets of Pakistan. Several U.S. facilities were attacked across the country. A mob in Islamabad nearly burned the U.S. embassy to the ground. The chant “Kill the American infidels!” echoed in the air in response to the siege of Mecca’s grand mosque, Islam’s holiest site.
Pakistani crowds angered by the unprecedented events unfolding in Mecca concluded that such a plot could only be orchestrated by Americans. It turned out they were wrong. The homegrown radical group in Saudi Arabia that led the bloody siege had no link with the United States.
While the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has experienced many changes in the decades since, miscalculations of ground realities on both sides and anti-American sentiment have remained.
The majority of people in Pakistan admire the way Americans live—almost every Pakistani family has a member settled in the United States—but a glaring majority hates the impact of U.S. policies in Pakistan. The United States is considered by many to be the “great Satan.” Every U.S. political move in Pakistan is interpreted as an effort to destabilize Pakistan or to fight a war against Islam. Aggressive rhetoric on the Pakistani side—at times reflecting an unrealistic worldview and at times responding justifiably to belligerent U.S. action—molds mass perceptions.
A few months ago, I was in Kot Addu in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province filming recent flood damage in the area with a British filmmaker named Oliver. He was confronted by a local who, after pushing Oliver, scanned the sky and shouted “drone, drone” as if Oliver’s tripod and camera were the equipment that maneuvers drones. Bear in mind that south Punjab has never had a drone attack and is very far from the area where drone attacks take place.
For me, this incident highlights an important fact for U.S.-Pakistani relations. The general public in Pakistan cannot be expected to understand the complicated nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. When something goes wrong in Pakistan, the public relies on their interpretation of the events at face value. In the case of drone attacks, for example, the United States must consider this effect and act more responsibly.
Many of my American friends ask the same question: “Why do they hate us?” By way of explanation, the discourse rampant in Pakistani streets is closest to what most Muslim-majority communities feel. The invasion of Iraq, decades-long support for oppressive governments, bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the killing of thousands of innocent Muslims, recurring stories of torture and abuse of prisoners—all have combined to generate suspicion of the United States within Pakistan. When Pakistanis find evidence that the United States applies its values of democracy and human rights selectively depending on its interests (the Raymond Davis episode and “collateral damage” from drone attacks being prime examples), for many, suspicion turns to hate.
Finally, solidifying this ill will is the lack of understanding between the two countries on a human level. People-to-people, civil society-based contact and interaction is scarce, and misconceptions are aided by a U.S. media that does not propagate alternative opinions from within U.S. society. The result is the image of the United States as a monolithic society.
Disagreement is a trait of democratic society and should be considered a strength rather than a weakness. If on-the-ground dissent in the United States can be understood in Pakistan, and communication between the United States and regions that “hate” the United States is given importance in the international media, the United States’ monolithic, negative image will become less rampant in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority communities. This will not only benefit the image of the United States worldwide, but will give “conspiracy theorists” reason to look within before pointing the finger at the United States.