On the Dangers of Conspiracy Theory: Polio from the Muslim Clerics of Pakistan

The Guardian has a story on the return of polio to Pakistani children due to rumors that the vaccine was a secret American plot to sterilize Muslims. In a culture where every move from an outsider is suspect, presumed to be a trick to harm you, it’s very hard to process so “altruistic” a campaign as one that claims it’s designed to keep your children healthy. Nice bundle of anti-modernism, paranoia, anti-Americanism, and self-destructive behavior. (Hat tip: ES)

Polio cases jump in Pakistan as clerics declare vaccination an American plot

· Rumours leave thousands of children unprotected
· Aid workers increasingly targeted by tribal militants

Declan Walsh in Peshawar
Thursday February 15, 2007

The parents of 24,000 children in northern Pakistan refused to allow health workers to administer polio vaccinations last month, mostly due to rumours that the harmless vaccine was an American plot to sterilise innocent Muslim children.
The disinformation – spread by extremist clerics using mosque loudspeakers and illegal radio stations, and by word of mouth – has caused a sharp jump in polio cases in Pakistan and hit global efforts to eradicate the debilitating disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recorded 39 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2006, up from 28 in 2005. The disease is concentrated in North-West Frontier Province, where 60% of the refusals were attributed to “religious reasons”. “It was very striking. There was a lot of anti-American propaganda as well as some misconceptions about sterilisation,” said Dr Sarfaraz Afridi, a campaign manager with the WHO in Peshawar.

Interesting. So Islam has made paranoia is a “religious reason.”

The scaremongering and appeals to Islam echoed a similar campaign in the Nigerian state of Kano in 2003, where the disease then spread to 12 polio-free countries over the following 18 months. Pakistan is one of just four countries where polio remains endemic. The others are Nigeria, India and Afghanistan.


The vaccination struggle is entangled with the confrontation between the government and powerful militants in the tribal areas. Refusals were highest in areas where conservative clerics and self-styled “Pakistani Taliban” fighters hold sway, flouting government authority and making their own strict laws.

Are radical Islamists who impose a severe form of Sharia “conservative”?

Almost 2,000 children were not vaccinated in Bajaur, a tribal agency on the Afghan border where US warplanes bombed a house last year in the hope of killing al-Qaida’s No2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The jets missed their target but inflamed extremist sentiment. Recently militants ordered Bajaur’s barbers to stop shaving beards on the grounds that it was “un-Islamic”. The barbers complied.

In nearby Swat Valley, a young firebrand cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, denounced the polio campaign through a local FM radio station. His brother was killed in a Pakistani army attack on a madrasa, or Islamic school, late last year. Almost 4,000 children were not vaccinated in Swat.

Imran Khan, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: “Some people feel they are under attack here … That is clouding their attitudes.”

Nice way of describing the impact of paranoia.

Demands for “assistance” from local officials and elders was the other major factor behind the refusals. In the Mohmand tribal agency, policemen demanded their salaries before allowing vaccination to proceed. Other villagers asked for money or the release of criminals from jail.

“Demand” refusals accounted for about one-third of cases, the WHO said.

Now this is more amazing than the religious paranoia. Hold your children’s health hostage? The very logic of the move — the government so badly wants to innoculate my children, that I can use this occasion to insist on them meeting my personal demands — is breathtaking. In one breath I suspect the government of being in league with the American devil, in another, I take their devotion to my children so for granted, I try and exploit it. Unless — horrors! — the parents don’t even care what makes the government officials so eager to innoculate their children — if it’s not the proferred motive of altruism, then it must be exploitative and disguised — they just want to exploit that malevolent desire.

But some brave women were uncowed by the extortion or demagoguery. Up to 200 babies a day are vaccinated at the Khyber teaching hospital in Peshawar, where burka-clad women arrive with children in their arms. Some arrive in secret, slipping into the clinic in defiance of male relatives who oppose vaccination. “One woman told me, ‘My husband is illiterate. He has no idea how important this vaccine is,'” said Muhammad Islam, a male nurse.

Once again, we see the difference between men and women in an honor-shame society’s encounter with modernity. The women are more literate than the men, partly because they don’t experience subordination as such an unbearable humiliation. Under their male-imposed burkas, they defy their men’s ignorance. How many of them secretly admire Israel just as Soviets used to admire the United States?

Aid workers fear they are being pushed into the frontline of the struggle between the government and tribal militants, some linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida. Last weekend a grenade was lobbed into a Red Crescent compound in Peshawar, damaging vehicles but killing nobody.

Some linked the attack to a fatwa issued in Dara Adam Khel, a lawless town famous for its gunsmiths, just before Christmas. A cleric named Mufti Khalid Shah declared a fatwa on employees of the UN, WHO and all other foreign organisations. “Killing their employees is in line with the teachings of jihad in Islam,” said a notice.

“We are very worried,” said Mr Khan, of the Human Rights Commission. “You have to be very careful about admitting to working for an NGO these days.”

Recently aid workers in Bannu, near North Waziristan, were sent a letter and a 500 rupee (£4.50) note, he said. “The letter said they had a choice. They could either stop work or buy their own coffin.”

But… but… didn’t Durban’s virulent anti-Zionist rhetoric do anything for the NGOs?

Paranoia is not good for the health of a society. It poisons every relationship. Woe onto us for the growth of conspiracy theory in these days.

4 Responses to On the Dangers of Conspiracy Theory: Polio from the Muslim Clerics of Pakistan

  1. abu yussif says:

    the perfect american plot – sterilize them if they get the vaccine, or let them die/be crippled from polio. i’m surprised they don’t blame the disease itself on the americans, too.

    ok, if they don’t want to protect themselves, who is going to stop them? after all, mohammed himself didn’t take no stinkin’ vaccinations.

  2. Lynne T says:

    No doubt these geniuses found out that the vaccine was developed by an American Jew, so it’s got to be haram.

  3. […] to the area, and pilgrims have carried it to Mecca and Yemen. In January 2007, the parents of 24,000 children in Pakistan refused to let health workers vaccinate their children because radical mullahs had told them the […]

  4. You didn’t really think that Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, could become any more of an asshole, but it turns out that the intellectual architect of a reactionary band of religious fanatics

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