Over the past five years, I’ve spoken at many fundraisers for non-profit organisations that address chronic and urgent human needs in Pakistan. These groups are supported by well-meaning and highly competent members of the Pakistani community in the United States, and I think very highly of all of them. That’s why I speak at their fundraisers and recommend them every chance I get, to Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike. I won’t name these groups here, but their names are familiar to many readers of Dawn, and anyone who wants to support them is free to do so, and should.
But I want to challenge the Pakistani-American community to do more. If, by doing so, I provoke some spirited debate and even annoy some people, so much the better. Some might ask how they could possibly do more; I know firsthand that, in the wake of two monsoon seasons’ severe flooding and everything else Pakistan has been through in recent years, there’s great “donor fatigue” around Pakistani America. But what I’m asking my Pakistani-American friends to do is not necessarily (or not only) more of what they already do, but something that’s equally important, albeit outside the comfort zone of a community that is socially and politically ill at ease in America, despite being materially very comfortable indeed. The only way any community commands respect in America is by tooting its own horn – even sometimes, when called for, making a nuisance of itself. This is what black Americans did in the successful and nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and Pakistani-Americans are no less American than black or white or any other Americans.
I think it’s important to speak candidly about the challenges and opportunities that face the Pakistani community in the United States, because its awkward and arm’s-length relationship with mainstream America directly affects what it’s able to accomplish for the people of Pakistan. Pakistani-Americans are in a position to achieve a lot more for both Pakistan and America, if only they would engage more assertively and systematically with mainstream American society. We can choose to feel frustrated about this, or we can see it as an opportunity to expand greatly the base of material and moral support for suffering Pakistanis in Pakistan.
The challenge – the task at hand – is to change the story that the American public hears about Pakistan. Two weeks ago in the US city of Indianapolis, I was on a panel that was asked to address the question “Is Pakistan a problem that needs to be solved?” The question is deliberately provocative, of course. The short version of my answer is: “No, Pakistan is a country of 180 million human beings who have immense and urgent needs.” The other panelist, fellow Dawn contributor Rafia Zakaria, spoke of the need to “change the narrative” about Pakistan: to tell stories to Americans that show Pakistanis – accurately – as victims: victims of terrorism, victims of natural disasters, victims of the normal range of human afflictions. Nobody wants to be seen as a victim, of course, but I think Rafia has a point. What we need to do is to humanise Pakistanis for Americans.
I’m convinced that we cannot and will not achieve that by trying to work through the dysfunctional and compromised mainstream media in the US. But there are other things that we can do. I’m doing some of those things with my two books that show the human side of Pakistan, with my blog, and with my public speaking. Last week I did something that, in partnership with allies in the Pakistani-American community, I’m preparing to start doing on a bigger scale: I gave away 300 sponsored copies of my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. I was the keynote speaker at a regional conference in Oklahoma City of NAFSA, the leading professional group for people who work with international students and study-abroad programs at American universities and colleges. In other words, people who are in a position to influence students, other educators, and local communities, in parts of America where fear and ignorance of Pakistan and of Muslims are greatest.
I don’t have space here to tell you much more, but suffice it to say that the educators I met in Oklahoma City were very grateful for the free book and for the gesture, and very receptive to hearing a different story about Pakistan than the one they and their students hear in the media. Several have already invited me to visit their campuses and speak to their students. I’ll be very happy to share more ideas and results in future writings, and in correspondence with anyone who contacts me.
I’m doing what I’m in a position to do, but we need a much more systematic initiative. We need to be talking about Pakistani society to American society – and we need to be doing it outside and beyond the usual official and media channels. We need to get away from the tedious and demoralising debates about what the Pakistani state and the American state should or will do, with or to each other. We need instead to go straight to the American people and enlist their sympathy and support for Pakistani people. We need to make it so that when Americans think about Pakistan, they think not about terrorists, but about children who need education and innocent adult civilians who need health care.
When Americans’ human interest in Pakistanis is piqued, they’ll begin telling themselves a different story about Pakistan – and they will, I believe, open not only their hearts but their wallets, to support NGOs that bring better health care and education to poor Pakistanis. That’s the best cure for Pakistani-American donor fatigue. But it’s not going to happen spontaneously, and we can’t make it happen by standing around complaining about each other or about the media. This is why I feel so strongly about the importance of the role Pakistani-Americans are in a position to play.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.