Edward Said’s work Orientalism (1978) unpacks how the West has a tainted, centuries-old legacy of creating representations and stereotypes about non-Western societies in order to legitimize its various colonial and imperial projects. Said’s argument, while written decades ago, is still entirely relevant today if not more so; throughout the early 2000s, we repeatedly saw how stereotypical images about Islam and Muslims were used to justify American imperialism in the Middle East and the “War on Terror.” In today’s context, we often like to tell ourselves how we are better informed now and have left behind these tainted legacies of Orientalism. Yet a quick Google search of a non-Western, predominantly-Islamic society like Pakistan, where I was born and raised, would perhaps tell us a different story.
Sitting in Vancouver today, if you Google “Pakistan,” the top stories section, which appears right at the top of the web page, shows us only a certain kind of news about Pakistan, related to the Taliban, terrorist attacks, bomb blasts and so on. Why does the top stories section choose to report only a particular kind of news about Pakistan, which focuses almost explicitly on incidents of violence? And let us not deny the powerful impact a Google search carries; Google has become the most commonly used and convenient source of information about anything in today’s world. Similarly, most of these headlines are from major international newspapers like the New York Times, the Guardian, and BBC, which have a wide readership across the world. The images section of the same Google search mostly shows photos of armies with guns and protestors waving flags. Similarly, Canada.ca, the official website of the government, advises us to “exercise a high degree of caution in Pakistan” due to the “unpredictable security situation,” given the “threat of terrorism, civil unrest, sectarian violence, and kidnapping.” What such a particular online representation of Pakistan, as a country full of violence, armies, and guns, fails to take into account is the human diversity and complexity of its lived realities.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the most commonly asked question about Pakistan which appears after the top stories section on the Google search page is if it is a “safe country.” It is a question many people must have asked on Google, or at least has been made the most important question to be asked about Pakistan by Google. An American friend recently told me how he had heard stories of gun violence in Karachi, a city in Pakistan. Google’s search page – a modern, online perpetuation of the centuries-old tradition of Orientalism – helps explain how and why the only stories he, and many others here in Canada, hear about Pakistan and Karachi are of violence.
Here, I do not mean to deny the existence of such issues. Having spent the first 24 years of my life in Pakistan, I am aware of some of these problems the country is facing. And there must be other, manifold, day-to-day issues faced by women, non-Muslim minorities, and other marginalized groups which were shielded from me because of my identity as a Muslim male. What I am contending with here is not the facticity of these problems, whether they exist or not. What I am arguing against, instead, is the representational power these problems come to occupy for a Western society that has a history of producing harmful and inaccurate stereotypes for its imperial agenda. Such a politically motivated representation effaces the complex and human realities of a non-Western society like Pakistan.
Growing up in Pakistan, I had been socialized to see Canada as some sort of dreamland. It was a place everyone around me aspired to go; the rich for spending their summer vacations, the middle-class for making big fortunes, and women for escaping their patriarchal families and society. There is a stock character in several blockbuster Punjabi movies whose sole aim and desire in life is to land in Canada. When I first came to Canada, therefore, I was shocked to see the streets of East Hastings and to learn about the history of residential schools and the ongoing discrimination and violence against Indigenous communities here. It was not difficult for me to tease out similar trends of violence and discrimination against minorities that I had observed in Pakistan.
Here, again I am not disputing the facticity; Canada is in fact a safe haven for a lot of marginalized communities from around the world. Gender, ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities from Pakistan often migrate to Canada in the pursuit of a better, safer life. What I am cautioning against instead is again the power of representation, yielded by historical practices of Orientalism. The Canadian government and media have managed to hide Canada’s issues from the outside world – or at least push them far enough out of sight that they do not make up Canada’s public national identity. None of them come up at the top of a Google search as they do for a search on Pakistan. Instead, we are told how cities like Vancouver and Toronto are some of the most livable places in the world – a claim which obscures the reality of extreme wealth inequality, outrageous housing prices, and drug abuse in these two cities. Canada presents yet another example of how the Google search continues to distort the lived realities of each society to fit them into Orientalist and imperial patterns.
Having spent parts of my life in both Pakistan and Canada, I have realized how each country can have its own specific problems and issues to contend with, but the problems of one country are made representative of the whole society while those of the others are swept under the rug. There is much more to each society than what gets to be popularly told about it by Google search. Such critical, complex engagements with online representations are especially important in an otherwise diverse country like Canada where people usually know very little about any society, culture, or country outside of North America and Europe. Such a lack of knowledge can so easily be filled in by Orientalist representations and stereotypes and carry real-life consequences for those around us who come from diverse places around the world.
Edited by Carla Rizk