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‘Good times’ over for Americans of Pakistani origin

September 11, 2006

IN the backdrop of the Aug 10, 2006 foiled attempt to simultaneously blow up as many as 10 jets leaving Britain for the US, where, allegedly 21 of the 24 terrorists were reported to be of either Pakistani origin or having some connection to Pakistan, the immigrant experience, for many a Pakistani-American, is turning sour.

A recent Gallup poll in the US comes up with stunning revelations: Four in every 10 Americans admit having feelings of prejudice against Muslims living in the US; they favour Muslims carrying special ID; 22 per cent do not want a Muslim neighbour; 31 per cent would be nervous of travelling with a Muslim man and 18 per cent if a Muslim woman would be on their aeroplane.

There are furtive whispers and speculations doing the rounds that it is just a matter of time before the spate of violence that has taken over Europe, and UK in particular, moves across the Atlantic.

But in all the mayhem one thing is clear, the earlier global psyche of confronting and controlling the ‘extremists’ out there now seems a bit out of place as it is the ‘home-grown’ variety that is threatening the very society that had earlier welcomed them with open arms.

Having it good for years, it seems for many, the hospitality offered by the society that US was famous for, seems to be coming to an end, with the cut-off point starting right after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. Most Pakistani immigrants will admit that there is that niggling feeling of being ‘looked’ at differently since then.

“The level of paranoia has gone up,” concedes 36-year old Sabahat Ashraf, who makes his living as a technical writer in Silicon Valley, in the San Francisco bay Area, US.

“There are definitely issues and more have come up, but the paranoia is more exaggerated than the problems they have to deal with.” He however, feels the heat. “They’ve noticed we exist.”

As time passes, being a Muslim, and in particular, a Pakistani, is getting uncomfortable. “Every time there is an alleged terrorist attack, guards go up and the vigilance intensifies,” explains Adil Najam, Associate Professor of International Negotiation & Diplomacy, The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University, and who has been in the US now for 13 years.

“It’s like how women in Pakistan feel, they can’t let their guard down,” an analogy befitting the Pakistani urban society where women are stared at all the time. And this sentiment is not without reason too. “While much of the evidence is circumstantial, somehow all fingers point to Pakistan. Words like madressa (seminaries) and training camps intuitively point towards, nowhere else but, Pakistan.”

Yet, he says: “The reaction to the earlier attacks as well as the recent ones in Europe and UK, has not been as bad as what was feared by the community,” says Adil Najam. Not denying that there have been sporadic cases where people have been pulled off planes, or their workplaces vandalised for ‘looking’ a certain way, by and large, says Najam, Pakistanis have been left alone.

However, battling this war of identities, it is the second generation of Pakistanis who face the hardest challenge. They always thought of themselves as Americans like their neighbours next door and name, colour and their religion never mattered.

Confused, short-shrifted and isolated, they are now struggling to make some sense of what has happened and to fit in with the forced identity of being a Muslim and a Pakistani at that.

“This has been particularly hard on the young high-school and college-going students. As it is, it is an age that is difficult under the best of circumstances. They are coming of age at a time when a society that was not prejudicial before is fast becoming one. Their identity is doubly challenged.”

And it is this hyphen between the Pakistani and American that is the issue, says Najam. “How do they be both? Is Muslim-American an oxymoron? Do you have to give a little of being a Pakistani and a Muslim to be more of an American? They shouldn’t have to be making these choices and turning the hyphen into a versus,” he says.

The reactions to this new-found prejudices by the community has been a mix of denial ‘everything alright and we obviously didn’t do it’ to that of enveloping themselves in the shroud of ‘victim-hood’ saying ‘everyone is against us and out to get us’ to that of besiegement. It’s the third reaction which concerns Najam who feels “this siege mentality will only help the wall they construct get higher”.

At another level they are pushed to rediscover their faith and culture. You see more and more younger Muslim women wearing the headscarf, which their mothers had given up in their adopted country; more of them opt to eat halal meat; increasingly younger Muslims are attending Islamic schools and lectures; Muslim student associations are mushrooming in colleges. Even the mosque has evolved from a place of worship to a centre for socialising, learning Arabic and the holy Quran.

While the politics of fear practiced by the Bush administration is stoking the flames of alienation and dividing Muslims and western societies, Najam finds hope in the immigrants themselves who will prove to thwart the process.

And that, says Najam, is where the difference is between the Pakistani immigrant in the US and his counterpart in Europe, in particular in the UK.

“US was always a very welcoming society and free from the inbuilt prejudices found in UK and Europe. For the immigrants in UK, the colonial past never ceased to hound them. Another big difference is in the demographics and the socio-economic conditions. The Pakistani-American is fairly affluent compared to his counterpart across the Atlantic. The Pakistanis who first came to the US came to seek higher education compared to their counterpart in the Europe and the UK who basically came as asylum seekers and as skilled workers and were not highly educated.”

Unlike UK, there are fewer pockets where you’d find actual ghettoization. Najam terms it the ‘Birmingham effect’. “That is because the knowledge worker who stayed on in the US after his education went looking for jobs, while in UK you find extended families having emigrated one after the other and living close to each other and thus being able to keep a semblance of their own identity and choosing not to integrate in their new society. As opposed to the UK immigrant, the one in US had little choice but to get assimilated in the new society.”