On the evening of Aug. 22, I had a public conversation with three Muslim journalists, two from Pakistan and one from Bangladesh, at the Los Angeles Press Club. All three were in the United States as Daniel Pearl Journalism Fellows, a program to introduce Muslim journalists to American practices, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation and Alfred Friendly Press Partners. Here are the three most chilling things they said:
1. The majority of Pakistanis hate America.
2. The vast majority of Pakistanis believe the United States and Israel, not al-Qaeda, were behind the 9/11 attacks. Their “proof”: 3,000 Jews who work in the World Trade Center didn’t show up for work that day.
3. Most Pakistanis agree that the chaos in Syria and Egypt is the result of manipulation by Jews, Israel and/or the United States.
And keep in mind, Pakistan is officially our ally.
Not only have our two countries cooperated to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States has given Pakistan more than $21 billion in foreign aid since 2002.
Still, they seem to hate us.
“We have a saying in our country,” said Khalid Khattak, a staff reporter for the News International in Lahore. “India is the bastard child of Israel, and Israel is the bastard child of the United States.”
Why the hate? A few reasons.
The aid we give is, in fact, part of the problem.
“There is a lot of corruption,” Khattak said. “It is meant to be spent to help people, but, unfortunately, a lot of it goes into the pockets of those who take it from the United States.”
“The billions of dollars of aid are being wasted,” said Emran Hossain, a staff reporter at Bangladesh’s first online newspaper, bdnews24.com, in Dhaka. “It is being spent on the military and police, or on education that makes people more religious.”
A good part of the blame for the failure of U.S. aid lies with corrupt and inefficient Pakistani bureaucracy charged with spending it — but we are the ones who write the checks. And that just makes many Pakistanis angrier.
Another reason for the anger: drones.
Since 2006, America has launched a carte blanche drone war against targets in parts of Pakistan. While terrorists have been decimated, many innocents have also been killed in collateral damage, and America answers to no one.
“You start the drone strikes now, but the reaction will continue in the years to come,” Khattak said. “There is a saying in the Pashtun language that if a Pashtun takes revenge after 100 years, it’s not too late.”
Vaqaz Banoori, an editor at the Independent Press Network in Islamabad, put it even more bluntly. “If you continue the drone strikes,” Banoori told us, “you are losing the moderates and the liberals. You are giving Pakistanis the message, ‘You are no one.’ ”
The final reason for the antipathy: ignorance. Pakistan has a de facto illiteracy rate of 30 percent, and only 19 percent of its population has access to the Internet. Journalists are freer than in years past to report on corrupt politicians, but intelligence and defense matters remain off limits, as are affronts to the country’s many religious extremist groups.
“They blame mainly America, and mainly Jews,” Banoori said of his fellow Pakistanis. There are, of course, no Jews in Pakistan. But whether the issue is Kashmir or Palestine, 9/11 or drones, Jews, America and Israel are the go-to scapegoats — just as they are in Syria and Egypt.
I asked Banoori why literate Pakistanis couldn’t just read Wikipedia to get their facts more or less correct.
“They would say Wikipedia is just run by Jews,” he said.
This would all be deeply depressing were it not for this additional fact: As much as the Pakistanis despise America, they deeply want to come to America.
“There are so many Pakistanis trying to get visas to the United States every day,” Banoori said. “These people want to have a good life, educational opportunities, economic opportunities.”
The negative ideas about America — from our wasted aid, our drone strikes, extremist claptrap — compete with the images everyone sees in popular movies and on TV shows. “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are their favorites. They don’t get “Seinfeld.”
In fact, Pakistanis will pay $10,000 for a $160 visa, just to come to the Great Satan.
As I spoke to the journalists, I noticed a tall, thin gray-haired man in the front row of the audience, looking positively unhappy; turned out it was Cameron Munter, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
What the journalists said was painful to hear, but largely true, Munter confirmed. Since leaving the foreign service, he has gone on record calling for replacing official U.S. foreign aid to Pakistan with people-to-people initiatives, from academic and business exchanges to the kind of initiatives that brought the journalists to us last week.
I think he is onto something.
It stands to reason that we should be doing less of what’s not working and more of what is. Pakistan is ours to lose, but only if we really want to. And the biggest mistake we can make is to outsource the job of winning Pakistani hearts and minds to the government of the United States of America, which has completely bollixed it up.