Rising xenophobia

Published January 15, 2019
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

XENOPHOBIA is unfounded fear of foreigners. It often results in actions against them that defy logic. It occurs globally, with both developing and developed countries experiencing it. And that seems like an incomplete list.

But there is a difference between ordinary people and the state exhibiting xenophobia. The former causes much damage too, like attacks on foreigners. But given the huge powers that states enjoy, state xenophobia can cause much greater harm to foreigners as they adopt misplaced policies to eliminate external threats. The US state xenophobia under Trump harms both foreigners and US interests.

Also read: The age of xenophobia

Xenophobia is not new to Pakistani society. But its state institutions have often adopted xenophobic policies, especially in the last few months. Pakistan clearly faces external threats and espionage, like most states globally. But it also faces major opportunities in interacting externally, including with those states from which it experiences threats. Smart states balance the threats and opportunities by basing concerns about foreigners on strong evidence and adopting calibrated responses that minimise the threats but not the opportunities. Unfortunately, such smart analysis seems missing from our responses in many cases.

Our institutions have often adopted shortsighted policies.

Only recently, Pakistan expelled 18 INGOs without assigning any specific reasons on a case-by-case basis. The backlash against INGOs originates from the 2011 allegations that one INGO supported Shakeel Afridi in conducting a vaccination campaign to track down Osama bin Laden. No proof was presented of the INGO’s role. The non-calibrated nature of the action against INGOs can be gauged by the fact that this particular INGO has not been expelled but 18 others having nothing to do with that incident have been.

Explore: Pressure on INGOs

The official press release vaguely refers to a failure to meet registration requirements and involvement in unauthorised activities. But apparently, none of the expelled INGOs were given any specific reasons about where they went wrong. Write-ups supporting the expulsion also mention vague ‘reasons’, such as their involvement in surveys and geo-tagging. These are standard development-sector practices followed globally by INGOs and even well-equipped state agencies. Expulsion is an extreme step to be taken only if there is concrete proof that an INGO was involved in illegal practices. So far, there is little proof that such a rule of law-based outlook was employed.

Finally, there is the provision that all expelled INGOs can reapply after six months. Why would the state entertain their applications just after six months if solid proof of wrongdoing by them was found? By expelling them on flimsy grounds, we have unnecessarily lost millions of dollars of funding, thousands of jobs and international repute.

Deeming dual citizens a security risk, a recent court verdict has asked the state to develop laws to restrict their hiring in the bureaucracy. Legal minds ask if it is the job of courts to identify security risks. But even if the executive makes such a review, it should be based on solid proof.

Dual nationality: a conflict of interest for bureaucrats?

Dual citizens have been working in the bureaucracy for several decades. How many incidents have there been of them facilitating foreign states at the expense of Pakistan? Foreign states can easily bribe willing ordinary Pakistani citizens to do so despite the ban. Expat Pakistanis with their wealth, education and goodwill for Pakistan are an asset. Both the executive and courts frequently appeal to them to donate funds in times of financial crunch.

Another verdict has declared Indian content on TV a cultural threat. Again, some legal minds ask whether the judiciary should be analysing cultural threats. And how would even the executive define and measure cultural threat? The frequency of objectionable scenes in Indian movies has increased with time. But that is an issue more with English movies, and simple censorship of specific offensive scenes rather than a blanket ban on all Indian content would seem a more calibrated response.

Rational states recognise that ordinary families and communities are quite capable of shielding impressionable young minds from cultural exposures they deem harmful and that the blunt use of state bans in the cultural arena is unnecessary. There is clearly a high demand for Indian stuff in Pakistan and vice versa. So, similarly, the Indian ban on Pakistani artists is highly deplorable.

State policies are expected to be based on careful analysis and facts. When states also start acting like impulsive citizens, the space for rationality and tolerance reduces fast in the country. While world powers have deplorably contributed to isolating Pakistan, our own ill-conceived reactions are making us even more isolated and paranoid.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.



Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2019



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