Beloved are men’s native lands Passions only the heart can gratify, over there. Longing for home, men tenderly recall, Even the seasons of the east winds, over there. —Jalaluddin Rumi
The Pakistani presence in the West has always been tinged with a sense of perpetual exile; it is almost an existential core of the diaspora's experiences.
With each generation gone passed, the critical questions of identity remain paradoxically ever more unresolved. It’s not that there is some doubt about the “new” identity, but there are doubts about what to do with the “old” identity? Where does the “Pakistani” fit in? Do I even need the “Pakistani” or can I just scrap it?
We start asking questions, and questions open up new vistas of contemplation. The questions start and since it’s a question of the most profound existential nature; we do not stop until we arrive at satisfactory conclusions. Grappling with ideas of Pakistaniness, Britishness, Europeaness, Westerness and Muslimness there is a struggle to reconcile and to put the various strands of our heritage into critical conversation. What does it mean to be “loyal”? Does “loyalty” mean uncritical acceptance of the word of governments or does it mean to be true to your values which can mean criticising your ancestral homeland or your own new adopted country? Does being “faithful” mean to accept inherited traditions or to question them in the light of your own ethical experience?
But there is also a sense of fear. In America and increasingly in Europe, one experiences the rhetoric of neo-conservative authors and far right politicians becoming increasingly normalised. Politicians such as Geert Wilders, movements such as the National Front in France, the BNP in England, and the Tea Party in America are promoting a discourse of division and fear. The sad thing is that such discourse is becoming more popular in the press. Europe is no longer the liberal bastion it once was; today’s Europe has taken a very hard right turn. In Pakistan, there is radical violence but there is also a dangerous form of fundamentalism. This form of fundamentalism and right wing political rhetoric in the West are both contributing to an atmosphere of mistrust. But the inviolable nature of constitutional rule and rights ensures the West retains its reputation for tolerance and pluralism.
But why this fear? It is because both in Pakistan and in Europe there is a crisis of confidence. In Europe, many feel overwhelmed by the rise of India and China, many feel threatened by the increasing power of emerging markets and disoriented by the rise of old powers such as Turkey. In Europe, there is an identity crisis. What does it mean to be British in a globalised world, and particularly in Britain it seems that without Empire many people are simply at a loss to describe Britishness effectively. When David Cameron apologised for British colonisation in his trip to Pakistan in front of students, the Daily Telegraph in Britain was outraged. The Telegraph exclaimed that the PM, “run down his own country”.
But what can the diaspora do? We can heed the advice of Immanuel Kant the European philosopher, who said, “Dare to be wise”, who in his letter, “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment”, wrote that to think for oneself, to have the courage to use your own reason and to emerge from mental immaturity is the sign of Enlightenment. We must also break what Tariq Ramadan terms as the “minority reflex” and the “victim mentality” — confidence is a sign of openness. For the diaspora, it is time to engage with the rich, literary cultural and philosophical heritage of both Europe and the Islamic world. The fact is that these two worlds are not closed isolated bubbles — throughout history they have enjoyed intercultural exchange. The relationship between medieval European philosophy and Islamic philosophy is a case in point. As Muhammad Asad wrote about himself in The Road to Mecca as a “Western Muslim” that he can, “speak both the intellectual languages of Islam and the West”. In essence Western Pakistanis should be bridge builders.
Our identity as citizens of the UK (or any other Western country) and the children of Muslim majority countries and cultures is transnational. We have a transnational vocation; we occupy a space which I believe, is the envy of the world. We occupy that shade of grey in the midst of the current kaleidoscope of conflict, that little space where our identity does not define us but our thinking and actions do.
Our identity or sense of communal loyalty becomes irrelevant to the extent a sophisticated global cosmopolitanism can take its place which is at ease with uncertainty sewing fresher narratives from the opulent cloth of ambiguity. I guess to be faithful means to be critical. There is no place for jingoistic patriotism in a globalised world of injustice. Our identities should be globalised and each person is heir to a multicultural heritage — it is our choice whether we face up to this or deny it.
The diaspora are caught between a rock and a hard place. Edward Said emphasised in his book Representations of the Intellectual that this concept of the ‘liminal intellectual’ who is at once both an insider and outsider, privy to several points of view: “Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation. Every scene or situation in the new country necessarily draws on its counterpart in the old country.”
But there is a greater event unfolding and a much deeper truth. Pakistanis are incredibly hard working and dedicated citizens. So many stories of Pakistanis immigrating and sacrificing everything so that tomorrow’s generation has a chance for a better future, so many stories of Pakistanis moving up in society and succeeding where once the doors of prosperity were shut cruelly in their face in their own motherland. It is clear that if overseas Pakistanis and even my generation of British Pakistanis were given assurances about rule of law, corruption, good governance and security then many would flock back to Pakistan to help. Provide the right conditions where Pakistanis can thrive, and governance is key.
The famous American founding father James Madison remarked that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From Madison and other liberal philosophers to Islamic philosophers such as Abdol Karim Soroush and Muhammad Abduh it is an undisputable truth that human beings are fallible and there has to be a system of rights, checks and balances and duties for a nation to succeed.
The question of what you are first — Pakistani or British is in truth, a silly one. There are multiple dimensions to the idea of identity — one can be British by nationality, Pakistani by memory and heritage and Muslim by faith. In the end, however, today there is a need for global citizenship. We are in truth never just one “being” but are many things — it would be a shame to lose this diversity in a fit of righteous rage.
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.