Beyond clichés

Published September 28, 2015
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE Pakistan High Commission in London recently organised a councillors’ convention that for the first time brought together members of parliament and local government representatives of British Pakistani origin.

The event was timely: 10 British Pakistanis became MPs following the general election in May 2015, a new record. Moreover, on Sept 11, Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, was elected as the Labour Party’s candidate for London’s 2016 mayoral election.

At a time when public discourse in the UK is focused on threats from extremism among British Asians who have failed to assimilate, the gathering of British Pakistani MPs and councillors was a strong symbol of how far the community has come in terms of becoming part of British life. What can be a better signal of acceptance of a system than political participation?

Indeed, many councillors present had been elected from majority white areas with small or non-existent South Asian voting blocs, indicating that public trust in British Pakistanis is also growing, despite recent negative headlines about radicalisation and forced marriages. There are now more than 300 British Pakistani councillors throughout the country.

And yet, much of the debate at the convention focused on concerns about integration and the continuing alienation of British Pakistani communities. MPs and councillors reiterated the need for better education to close the achievement gaps between British Pakistanis and national averages.

Going beyond the usual clichés about minority communities not being ‘British’ enough, both Pakistani and white MPs made nuanced arguments about cultural misunderstandings between the British mainstream and South Asian diaspora communities that create perceptions of the failure to assimilate.

For example, the role of kinship networks in British Pakistani communities was recognised as admirable but also as a factor that made the community seem inward-looking.

British Pakistanis are active in UK politics.

Discussions between panellists and participants threw up stories of amazing success, the sons of imams and daughters of women who cannot speak English now being elected to public office in the UK. Pakistani identity was repeatedly equated with strong values such as family, loyalty, and entrepreneurship.

But MPs and councillors were insightful enough to question why inspirational narratives about the British Pakistani experience have not triumphed over negative ones.

The media with its penchant for scaremongering was cited as a major challenge. But participants were also honest about their own shortcomings in terms of engaging with the media and changing the conversation about British Pakistanis to focus on their contribution to society, whether in the fields of medicine, sport, arts, media, business and more.

Optimism about the political trajectory of British Pakistanis was tempered by some caution about the future. The British Pakistani population is set to increase from 1.1 million today to 2.6m by 2030. Political representation, though increasing, will struggle to keep pace.

MP Rehman Chishti, for example, pointed out that parliamentary representation is not proportionate to the community’s size and warned there are not enough councillors today to ensure strong parliamentary representation in the future.

Other panellists pointed to low female participation rates and shifting trends within the diaspora causing more young people to turn away from civic participation for reasons ranging from lack of awareness about the British political sys­tem to low educational attainment and growing disillusionment.

Festering internal divisions also threaten the success of British Pakistanis, who are split along party, ethnic, linguistic, religious and ‘north-south’ lines.

These differences enable representative politics but they also impede networking and unified representation of British Pakistani and black, minority and ethnic voter interests more broadly. A focus on community should be prioritised over differences until the British Pakistani community is more empowered.

One way for British Pakistani representatives to smooth over divides is to focus on governance issues rather than identity politics. Khan is a mayoral candidate because of his articulate stance on London’s housing crisis and plans for increasing access to low-income housing.

He will not become mayor just for being of Pakistani origin. By focusing on the discourse of service delivery, British Pakis­tanis will continue to demonstrate they stand for the collective rights of British citizenry.

As Pakistan heads into LG elections, it can take a lesson from British Pakistanis. Partici­pation at the local level can lead to stronger political representation and better politics at the provincial and national levels.

Local government elections should enable participation from those who care about public service and are connected with communities and issues, not just political puppets and proxies.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 28th , 2015

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