Pakistan’s Leaky Nuclear Program

The Perils of Propaganda

Qadeer Kahn apologizes on Pakistani State Television
Qadeer Kahn, the "father of the Pakistani bomb," apologizes for leaking nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea on Pakistan State Television, Feb. 4, 2004 (Photo: PTV/AFP-Getty Images).

The first danger of propaganda is that it creates an unreal image of the world. All other dangers flow from this basic lie. All the wrong policies, the wrong decisions, and then the inability to change policies come from this initial mistake. The major problem is that the emotional investment of the common people in the wrong policies based upon propaganda is so great that they stand in the way of any decision-makers who want to undo the damage created by the policies.

Take the case of the nuclear scientists who are alleged to have sold secrets in order to enrich themselves. This allegation of the present government, if true, contradicts the propaganda of the all the previous governments. This means that the army spokesmen and the official media were wrong when they kept assuring us that the nuclear program was always in such good control that proliferation was not possible. The common people are either confused or clearly incredulous and suspicious. They think that the army authorities should have known, especially if air force planes were used to carry [father of the Pakistani nuclear program] Qadeer Khan’s private property to one of his hotels, as the media has revealed.

The common people also believe that the United States is pressuring [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf to abandon the nuclear program. Some have even suggested that either there was a [Pakistani] policy of proliferation to the Muslim world, or that the intelligence agencies, the army high command, the civil bureaucracy, and the highest functionaries of the state were so indifferent and casual that they did not know what was going on. If everybody was out to mint money, why are the scientists in the dock while others are not? These are questions which many people are asking. The same questions fill the newspapers and drawing rooms and teahouses across the nation.

This, however, is not the point I intended to make. It has been made by many people, and I do not want to dwell upon it any further. The reason I mentioned the perceptions of the common man is that the government indulged in such propaganda about the nuclear program that it became more than a weapon. It became the central icon of the nation, the symbol of our identity, the fount of our deepest emotions. It almost took upon a religious significance. And, of course, the person credited with this achievement was Qadeer Khan, who thus became the idol of the people, the dearest of their heroes, the greatest of their redeemers. For a nation which lives in penury and has been made to feel humiliated in most respects on the world stage, any accusation against Khan is a new humiliation and one for which they were not prepared. This is where propaganda comes in. This propaganda created such a hero of Khan that all others working in the nuclear program were overshadowed, much to their chagrin. It replaced institutions with individuals. It made Khan a giant among his colleagues and created a cult of personality that, in reality, both Islam and democratic egalitarian norms forbid.

If dissidents had been allowed to express their point of view, the people would not have seen only one side of nuclear weapons, nor would they have invested so much emotion in certain individuals. The people were never made conscious that nuclear programs may have dangers and are not considered as positively in other countries as they are in Pakistan. Here propaganda constructed a veritable cult of personality. It was probably this cult that made successive governments and regulatory bodies shy away from Khan earlier. If what is being revealed in the press today is true, it is impossible to believe that nobody knew which nuclear scientist was amassing wealth earlier. Corruption on such a large scale had to be known. Either that or the intelligence agencies were completely inefficient, the police were incredibly incompetent, and the regulatory agencies were absolutely impotent. Is this credible? Personally, I find it hard to believe.

What appears likely is that they knew, but propaganda had placed Khan and his colleagues on such a pedestal that they were above the law. Or perhaps the highest decision-makers wanted the scientists to remain corrupt as long as they did the job. Or, even worse, perhaps all highly placed people took a share in the loot. Whatever the truth, the law and our national institutions suffer: The rule of law suffered, the equality of all citizens under law suffered, the ideal primacy of institutions over individuals in national projects such as new weapon systems suffered, and the necessity of holding individuals, however great, to norms of honesty—all these things became casualties of propaganda and hero-worship.

In a country where truth, the rule of law, and humanitarian values, rather than individuals, are held in esteem, people do not deviate so much from the law as members of Pakistan’s powerful elite do. Why is it that the scientists, assuming that all that is alleged against them is true, were not questioned—politely, of course, and not in the manner they were a few days back—when it was first discovered that they were living beyond their known means? Presumably, because the pursuit of weapons was then considered more important than the rule of law, truth, and other such values. These values are more important than anything else. Without strong moral values, societies decay from the inside, placing them in as great a danger from internal decay as they are from outside enemies. Without internal values and the discipline to safeguard them, societies degenerate into anarchy and nobody is safe: not the decision-makers, not the seemingly powerful, and not even the heroes of the hour.

What else does propaganda do? It creates rigidities; it makes policies inflexible; it destroys trust; it makes governments helpless before their own people. Once people start believing in the wrong picture of society, they become inflexible and prevent their governments from adopting more constructive policies. The Nazi propaganda against the Jews made ordinary, decent Germans hard and pitiless toward them, resulting in such atrocities that the German spirit has yet to recover from it. The Israeli propaganda that Palestine was mostly uninhabited land, and therefore there was nothing wrong with Jewish settlements there, made young Israelis unaware of the callousness of their predecessors. Reversing this propaganda would be a step toward peace in the Middle East, but it will not be easy. The Israelis are not in a mood to believe recent research confirming that the Palestinians were forcibly pushed off their land.

Propaganda has hardened the positions of the Indian and Pakistani peoples on the question of Kashmir to such an extent that today, when the leaders of both nations want to bring about peace, the people oppose them. The American “neoconservatives” have fooled the Americans with their propaganda, but this has put them in the dilemma of being forced to keep militancy intact, otherwise they will find it hard to explain to their people why their boys died in the first place. In short, they will find it as hard to pull out of Iraq as Vietnam.

The truth is that while propaganda might serve short-term interests, it does not serve long-term interests, if these interests are defined as peace in the world, the preservation of humanitarian values, and trust in the government.

Pakistan is now passing through a perilous state. Those who advocate peace and liberal values welcome Musharraf’s policies of establishing peace with India and moving away from the Taliban, even if these policies are the outcomes of pressure from outside.

The episode of the scientists threatens to undo these policies because those who oppose peace will be strengthened by the present case. As it happens, the nuclear program and Khan are held in special reverence, bordering on worship, by those who support militant Islam and an aggressive posture in Kashmir. The greatest adverse effect of this propaganda, then, is that it has put wrongful pressure on the government to reverse what it gained at the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] summit [where Indian and Pakistani leaders made significant commitments to peace]. If the government succumbs to this pressure, we will face the dangers of war and nuclear holocaust. If it does not, it will have to provide very honest answers, not allow anyone to be shielded, and confess that the system has been wrong and needs to be changed. Whatever the new system is, it should ensure that it does not indulge in false propaganda. This propaganda, this hero-worship, is against both democracy and egalitarianism. It makes governments captives of public opinion—opinion they created like the scientist Frankenstein long ago created a monster. He could not control the monster, just as we cannot control the public emotion created by our own propaganda.