SUNDAY will be the 10th anniversary of 9/11 which turned out to be a watershed event in contemporary politics. It also changed the lives of millions across the globe.
In the United States, which was the main victim of the vicious attacks on the twin towers, and to some extent in neighbouring Canada, there are programmes afoot in the media and in public places as a token of remembrance for those who lost their lives on that fateful day of September 2001.
In the US there is a lot of hype especially about Islamic militancy that comes from the extremists on the right, the pity being that there are too many of them. Canada is more rational and civil.
A talk with Teenaz Javat, who migrated from Pakistan nearly 15 years ago and lives in Mississauga, provided me an insight into 9/11’s impact on Canadian Muslims. Javat is an award-winning journalist — a former colleague from my Dawn days — and has made her mark at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She is also a part-time instructor at the Sheridan College, Oakville and writes for several leading newspapers. As a media person, Javat is well-placed to have a good overview of the scene in the country she has made her home.
Although Americans have been overshadowed by the fallout of 9/11, the fact is that nothing is the same for Pakistanis either, whether at home or abroad. In some places, Muslims are actually experiencing racial profiling and, as someone put it, they are expected to prove their non-terrorist credentials. It can be called the ‘My name is Khan but I am not a terrorist’ syndrome.
Javat has another interesting perspective. She points out that Pakistan appeared on the Canadian consciousness only after 9/11 when the war in Afghanistan saw the induction of Canadian troops in that country. Now there is greater awareness of Pakistan which is today more than just another neighbour of India. Pakistan now matters and occupies a prominent place in the mainstream media, especially when tragedy strikes.
Since Canadians choose to be discreet about their opinions and prefer not to express them publicly, Javat says it “would be safe to say that most Canadians do not hold any opinion of Pakistan” — at least publicly. Others are “pretty neutral”. What is certain is that Pakistanis are not stereotyped. Javat is right, for the Canadian government so far does not demand biometrics for issuing visas in Islamabad.
Javat believes that personal interactions of individuals more than anything else actually define the average Canadian’s perception of Pakistanis. No one holds the entire community responsible for the acts of a few, even if in some quarters and on some issues a subtle racial differentiation has been reported. But for that Javat, acting as the ‘devil’s advocate’, holds the media responsible.
Unlike in neighbouring US where Muslims at times are under tremendous pressure in the post 9/11 age, life is more relaxed for Muslims in Canada. But what is of concern to Javat is the propensity of many Pakistanis — she brackets together all immigrants from Third World countries in the same category — to abuse their entitlements or find loopholes in the law to draw illegal benefits or break road rules on the sly as they did back home. “It is important that they live by the law of the land. They must not seek to create a mini-Punjab, or a mini-Jaffna here.”
Javat speaks about the cultural aspect that at times gives rise to hot controversies. She says there is very little inter-community socialising which she feels can be attributed to the multicultural policy that encourages every community to preserve its identity. There is no assimilation as multiculturalism and diversity lean more towards a mosaic than a melting pot.
This has been a much-debated public issue. While Pakistanis find acceptance professionally, in their personal lives most of them prefer to stay aloof. An article in Calgary Herald exhorting immigrants to ‘Live in Rome as the Romans do’ questioned the wisdom of encouraging multiculturalism, a feature of Canadian life that has been proudly cherished for long by Ottawa. I can see it is now becoming unpopular with Pakistanis who are liberal in their outlook. It is not difficult to understand why.
Previously, an inclusive approach to the diverse communities that inhabit Canada did not envisage anything more than welcoming the richness of cultural, linguistic, culinary and sartorial diversity.
One effect of 9/11 has been to propel religion, especially Islam, onto the centre stage of public life. This has happened all over the West, resulting in public controversies. Without mentioning this, Javat says it is time for the government to revisit its multicultural approach.
Standing for a secular state back home, I myself feel such unnecessary vituperative controversies raised by Muslim communities are destructive and should be kept out of public discourse. Many of these issues could negate some of the values we have appreciated in the Canadians which have attracted so many immigrants to this country.
There are after all a number of features of Pakistani culture that Javat identifies as having given the country a positive image. She is praise for the Pakistani diplomatic mission which does its best to bring Canadians of subcontinental origin on a common platform as it did in the Asian Heritage Month when programmes on Ghalib brought Indian and Pakistani singers and artistes together. These won wide acclaim. Similarly, places like the Lahore Tikka House (that Javat describes as iconic) on Gerard Street in Toronto has popularised the country’s cuisines no end.