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Article, The Other View

Hitchens on Pakistan – on the frontier of poor polemics

When during the Raymond Davis case in February this year, Christopher Hitchens briefly elaborated his opinion on the matter as an example for the “dysfunctional[ity of] our relationship with Pakistan”, I understood his piece like many other of the issue – he rightly accused the Pakistani government and judical system of handling the case arbitrarily, but could only do so by evoking an “us versus them” scenery, making use of poor comparisons and connotations. The term “Punjabi Court” supposedly stands for a general abysmal handling of a case (what exactly is the Punjabi’s fault in the fact that the Lahore High Court is definitely known for poor and biased judgments, recent examples the Facebook and Blasphemy cases?), and why does the American example Abu Ghraib need to become trivial to explain the Pakistani prison situation? It does point at his flawed reasoning. In his eyes the problem in “US-relationship-Pakistan” does not lie with the middle term – it’s all going wrong on the Pakistan side.

When in July he came forth with an even worse piece, From Abbotabad to Worse, he troded along the same lines I wondered where his anti-Pakistan sentiment came from – and was surprised to see that he is cultivating his (for me unarguably poorly wrought) polemic narrative since a decade. And it all commences with the poorest, most polemic but most detailed of the 7 part series in Slate and Vanity Fair. His later articles are mere repetitions, aptly underlined by the fact that he basically has one source he quotes – himself. Hence to understand Hitchens’s writing on Pakistan (or simply to marvel at it), it suffices to read this first piece of polemics.

Apparently before he wrote his first article on Pakistan (I am not aware of earlier accounts) he “used to love the city of Peshawar” – but from this very first sentence it all goes down. And all seemingly based on a situation set up by himself.

I chose this devotional moment, one choking evening at dusk, to get out of my car in an Afghan bazaar and approach a vendor of Osama bin Laden T-shirts. I wanted half a dozen for friends, and though I normally will pay rather than haggle, I was not going to part with the 200 rupees that the startled tradesman demanded for each item. Fifty was my limit, and I was prepared to be British about it. I have never been so swiftly and completely surrounded. It was as if, in this formerly cosmopolitan city, they had never seen a foreigner before. “Why you want these?” Faces right in mine, fingers and hands prodding and pushing me. “You like Osama?” “Of course. He is my brother.” “He is your brother?” “All men are my brothers.” Much jeering and sneering, and then: “Why you not scared? Why you show money here?” “Why should I be scared? Muslims do not steal from guests.”

To buy Osama-paraphernalia is pretty awkward, to set some guys up by such feigned statements and portray them as the general population and sentiment is pretty poor. His shock over the fact that such T-Shirts are freely available is laughable (they are sold, because tourists – be they international, or national – like him buy them for ridiculous prices!) and his naive assumption all Pakistanis who have no access to the English writing of “brave Pakistani dissidents and secularists” (only those writing in English are?, only those secular are?) are from the America-hating side is simply stupid.

Foreigner’s, especially women, who have been on the Hippie Trail in the 70s now looking back, but also some who travelled there today may come up with such a story – I can hardly blame them. The staring male crowd has left unconsolable traces in many people I know, it is indeed an awkward feeling and, combined with ignorance of the country and poor media coverage abroad, leaves a negative Stigma on the country. But even such a person hardly ever goes on to imply that this unpleasant crowd equates with an untrustworthy and failed society.

He goes on to mention the only positive Pakistani appearance in his writing, his “old friend Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan’s best and bravest reporter” (Rashid’s last book, Descent into Chaos, features this connotation as a front cover praise – combined with the fact, that he (Rashid) is among the ones who praises Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, leaves me with the impression, that he has quite poor judgement when it comes to other writers). From here, he moves on to history. And just like his perception of the Pakistani society is based on a highly flawed observation, his historical understanding of the place is based on an outright ridiculous argument (to which I think one does not have to add any remarks).

Unlike India, which fought tenaciously for independence for many decades (until 1947), Pakistan cannot claim any glorious history of struggle as its birthright. It is the product of a carve-up, against the wishes of a majority of the subcontinent’s population.

During this piece he also consolidates his use of Islam in the failure narrative, an issue that I think has been dealt with in Hitchen’s writing. He also introduces his idea that Pakistan could also be called “Kapistan” or “Akpistan” – a “theory” he later uses,  solely in combination with a comment by the expert on that issue Bernard Henry Levi and by consulting a map, to prove that Kashmir and not Palestine is the world’s problem (Look at any atlas and you can see that Kashmir is the keystone in the arch of Indo-Pakistani confrontation. – really, it’s just that easy). The fact that Rawalpindi is close to Islamabad the Marriot’s bar is a “rip-off”, Gul rymes with ghoul (actually it doesn’t, it sounds the same) holds more potential for interesting conclusions. In the end he goes intellectual and introuces his only two literature sources of which he will use the earlier in later articles to elaborate – Salman Rushdie and, not being able to help himself, Rudyard Kipling. What the first holds for Pakistan, Ahmed has elaborated on brilliantly here. It’s important to note, since Hitchens, in his to date last article on the issue, uses Rushdies’ Shame and the narrative concept of his Midnight’s Children, to transfer the appaling misconceptions he has so far introduced for the rather impersonal country (with it’s elite as a concept, not so much a Pakistani person) to the Pakistani as a person, or in a wider sense as a society. Like Rushdie let’s Saleem be the Subcontinent, Hitchens turns his Pakistan into a person (supported by a matching caricature), stuffing in all concepts he has introduced in the first article. And from the stories he has wrought so far about the country’s society, he means it.

Again to quote myself from 2001, if Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred. That last triptych of vices is intimately connected. The self-righteousness comes from the claim to represent a religion: the very name “Pakistan” is an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so forth, the resulting word in the Urdu language meaning “Land of the Pure.” The self-pity derives from the sad fact that the country has almost nothing else to be proud of: virtually barren of achievements and historically based on the amputation and mutilation of India in 1947 and its own self-mutilation in Bangladesh. The self-hatred is the consequence of being pathetically, permanently mendicant: an abject begging-bowl country that is nonetheless run by a super-rich and hyper-corrupt Punjabi elite. As for paranoia: This not so hypothetical Pakistani would also be a hardened anti-Semite, moaning with pleasure at the butchery of Daniel Pearl and addicted to blaming his self-inflicted woes on the all-powerful Jews.

While to this point all his articles were simply based on very flawed arguments and distorted, even outright wrong, facts, by turning on the Pakistani as a person, blaming him for all the wrongs Hitchens percieves and has elaborated on, his writing becomes unacceptable. As Fair puts it in her otherwise clumsy critique of Hitchens last article, “many other commentators [and then presents Hitchens as the prime example on the US side] have taken the recent events in Pakistan as an opportunity to stoke further anger and mistrust between the wary governments and their peoples.”


All articles by Hitchens on Pakistan so far:

On the frontier of Apocalypse – Vanity Fair – January 2002: Introducing all his ever recurring concepts (which are: blaming Islam, twisting History, his name-theory, Salman Rushdie’s Shame, the military top-brass, nuclear weapons, Pakistan owing the US something and for some weird reason Rawalpindi’s Flashman hotel)

Inside the Islamic Mafia – Slate – September 2003: On Bernard Henry Levi, Daniel Pearl and Kashmir

Daughter of Destiny – Slate – December 2007: On Benazir Bhutto (and her death)

Pakistan is the Problem – Slate – September 2008: On the missing focus on Pakistan in the AfPak war

Why does Pakistan hate the United States – Slate – December 2009: On Pakistan being deeply indebted to the US

Our Man in Pakistan – Slate – February 2011: On Raymond Davis

From Abottabad to Worse – Vanity Fair – July 2011: To sum it all up

UPDATE: Pakistan is the Enemy – Slate – September 2011: Just to keep going

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


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July 2011


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