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.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ani

    This is making the simple complicated. This is a language of denial couched in fancy words. The world and most thinking Pakistanis have it right about what ails Pakistan and what Pakistan needs to do – not anyone else.

    Reform and change start at home and with self first. Take responsibility for your actions. Stop looking at everything through the prism of “Islam”; stop the bigotry and hate that is taught in your history books and preached everyday. Stop conspiracy theories (9/11 is a Jewish plot; the world is out to get our nukes; PNS Mehran attack was an Indian plot; Taliban are Indian agents etc…!!!!). Stop suicide bombings – the ultimate act of hating life and expression of self importance. Stop denying that your leaders created the infrastructure of terror as state policy. Stop bullying and killing minorities, this includes courageous muslims who dare to speak up.

    Empathy – to set the record straight. Just focus on the last few years only. It is the US that sent aid, equipment and personnel to help the common Pakistani during the most recent earthquake and floods. There were no Chinese or Saudis putting their lives at risk. Worst there was no thanks expressed by your leaders.

    Please stop painting yourself as victims. Take your destiny in your hands and build dreams for your children. Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    I think this approx 470 word blog sums up the key issue of discontent brilliantly, unbiasly. We unfortunately on both side look of the empty portion of a glass. Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    I don’t believe Pakistani voices are diverse at all. On the internet, the voices of secularists and rationalists seem to prevail (perhaps because that’s the only place where they can speak out openly), the weltanschauung of the general public is clear:

    “Israel is satan…USA is Satan’s guardian, and everything it tells you is a lie…USA must keep sending us aid, but should not intervene in our affairs at all.”Recommend

  • Guru

    Indus valley Civilization heritage ? You must be kidding or naive. Apart from the geographic location, what does Indus Valley Civilization got to do with Pakistan which came into being as a nation state in 1947 AD ? On the otherhand, since you appear to be a citizen of the country located there at present, if you invite the people from around the world to come and see the places where once a great civilization existed and tell them that you are the proud guardian of that civilizational history, then it would make absolute sense. To a Hindhu-Buddhist background person such as myself, I would very much love to visit those places. Apart from history books, I have read about those places as described in elaborate detail and beauty, in Vedic and Sanskrit literature.

    Unfortunately, things as they are in that part of the world, I am simply frightened and it appears that I will never be able to go there. So, my appeal to you is, use your knowledge and influence to let things improve there and we can all enjoy visiting your country and those locations. Remember, every person counts in this Universe and you should do your part. Recommend

  • Arslan

    What a lame comment. This article was about a clash of stereotypes (by both actors), and you come saying ‘yeah, USA helped you, contrarily to x & y’ -> but x & y didn’t imposed a war which gifted us 35000 deaths, and who now are ‘negotiating’ with the main culprits.
    And I love the ‘stop suicide bombing, minorities head-cutting, …) -> you’re one of the peoples described by the blog, like 180 millions Pakistanis were ontologically into these things.
    So: Just stop commenting, for the sake of intelligence. Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    I absolutely agree with Ani.

    It’s become too convenient an excuse to blame it all on USA and India. India did not impose our famous anti-minority laws upon us and USA was not the one who who blew the terrorism problem out of proportion (you may blame or for originating this plague, but that too could not have been accomplished without Zia-ul-Haq’s direct help)Recommend

  • Awais Khan

    Blaming the U.S. will achieve nothing, but making matters worse. We will have to clear our mindset of this confrontational policy, before the entire world turns against us.Recommend

  • Frank

    This is a great blog, Morial. You should be writing articles too for the Express Tribune.Recommend

  • Frank


    To a Hindhu-Buddhist background person
    such as myself, I would very much love
    to visit those places. Apart from
    history books, I have read about those
    places as described in elaborate
    detail and beauty, in Vedic and
    Sanskrit literature

    Not much is known about the Indus Valley civilization but one of the few things that is known for certain is that it is a pre-Vedic civilization. It follows therefore that is impossible for Vedic and Sanskrit literature to describe it ‘elaborate detail and beauty’, as you claim. You just made this up. You should be ashamed of yourself.Recommend