Stereotypes: Burning flags is easier than talking

Published: June 14, 2011

Stereotypical representations have potential to confound discourse between people of Pakistan and the US.

From Islamabad to Washington DC, the cacophony of jarring voices chokes reasoned discourse.

Much has been said and written about Pakistan in America after Osama Bin Laden’s death, most of it demonstrating an inherent inability to understand the country’s complexity or paradoxes. Not that journalists, wannabe pundits, some NYT columnists and Middle East experts masquerading as South Asian ones can be blamed entirely. Pakistani voices are unbelievably diverse and inherently contradictory, making representation harder.

To illustrate, Aaron Bady, a graduate student and teacher at the University of Berkeley performed an experiment in which he asked his class to produce a “Pakistan is a place where…” statement after reading stories by Pakistani authors about the country.

Responses included:

“Pakistan is a place where people want to live.”

“Pakistan is a place full of doubt and uncertainty.”

“Pakistan is a place where there seem to be no men.”

“Pakistan is a place where traditions are honored and families live together.”

“Pakistan is a place people are indifferent and do not care for their families.”

Taken together, these responses do not fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle ought to. Their collective contradictory picture resembles stereotypes of the place, but not the complex whole. The same can be said of NYT headlines such as “Pakistan is Terror,” or for that matter, of stories written by Pakistani authors. Bady correctly notes that such writings conform to an Orientalist imposed image of Pakistan as a place.

American students are not alien to such stereotypes.

Thinking back to new-student orientation and freshmen year in general brings back hilarious memories of being asked questions like,

“So, err, do you have cars in Pakistan?”

In general, I was thought of as a functionally English illiterate, Arabic speaking, camel riding, electricity deprived, technology novice from the somewhat politically incorrect euro-centric construct of the “Middle East.”

Changing these perceptions by allowing American students and intellectuals to know more about Pakistan’s location, culture, and Indus Valley Civilization heritage might create room for more reasoned foreign policy discourse. Absent that, cringe-inducing weak analysis based on fallible representation will reign.

At their core, voices screaming for knee-jerk reactions towards post-OBL Pakistan in Washington DC are as flawed as the ones baying for American blood in Pakistan. Both narratives rely on constructed stereotypes.

In the West, conflation of rogue non-state actors with Pakistani state actors, and later, with the nation of 180 million, leads to Pakistan becoming the supreme evil nation. The opposite happens in Pakistan where anger over American foreign policy causes popular conflation of American administration with American people, fueling America as shaitan’s (Satan) cultural constructs.

Both stereotypical representations have the potential to confound and silence discourse between ordinary people of both countries, leading relations to an ideational precipice’s edge. Nuanced analysis, objectivity, and a bit of empathy can help both sides.


Morial Shah

A student of International Politics and Security at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University She tweets at @MoruShah.

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