Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Welcome to the security state

November 19, 2011

IT'S odd how quickly two adversaries begin resembling each other after a period of conflict. Not physically, of course, but in terms of attitudes and values.

In the name of national security, both limit personal freedom. If anybody complains, he is denounced as a traitor.

Propaganda takes over the public discourse, and reasoned debate is replaced by shrill rhetoric. Both sides denounce and caricaturise the 'other' in word and imagery. History is distorted, myths created and the most blatant lies told to demonise the enemy.

If truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war, then freedom to travel must be the second. Passports, the universal documents needed to move across borders, have a relatively recent history. Until less than a century ago, they consisted of letters, embossed with the issuing country's emblems. These documents urged foreign officials to permit free and unimpeded passage to their bearers.

In its original form, the 'laissez-passer' was a request, and did not have any legal authority. Each was tailored to the needs and status of a particular traveller, and its acceptance depended on the power and prestige of the issuing state. The passport in its present shape did not exist until the League of Nations standardised it in 1920. The visa soon followed. As far as we Pakistanis are concerned, we could have done without this innovation. Some years ago, Karachi rickshaws bore the sign ' dalar ki talash' (in search of the dollar). I suppose its current version is ' visa ki talash '.

As things continue on their downward trajectory in Pakistan, millions would prefer to be elsewhere. Millions have already voted with their feet and moved to where they thought the grass was greener. Many others wait and pray for the magical stamp on their passports that would allow them to reach the promised land. Hardier and more impatient emigrants have managed to enter developed countries illegally where they eke out a miserable existence.

Of course, Pakistanis are not alone: millions from across the developing world (a politically correct term for dysfunctional nations that offer little to the poor) are trying to make a better life abroad. I once wrote that instead of dropping bombs on Iraqi soldiers in the first Gulf War, if the United States had dropped green cards, there would have been little need to kill anybody.

Despite the widely reported anti-Americanism that prevails in much of the Muslim world, the reality is that many of us, given half a chance, would make a beeline for the US. Why else would some Pakistani officials retain their dual nationality despite the clear conflict of interests this status causes? They want an exit strategy, or would like to join their kids on retirement.

Of course, even a visa is no guarantee of entry into another country. When I arrived at Boston's Logan airport recently, I had expected some questioning by immigration officials. And sure enough, I was taken to another area, made to wait and finally grilled about the purpose of my visit, what my book was about, who my publisher was, what cities I was visiting and when I was leaving.

While these officials were not overtly rude, they weren't very polite either. Perhaps I have got too used to the constant 'please' and 'thank you' I hear in Britain. There were no welcoming smiles in the bleak surroundings of Logan airport, no 'have a nice stay'. I thought these guys had been watching too many movies featuring tough, unsmiling FBI agents.

But the security syndrome created by the homeland security laws following 9/11 has produced a bureaucracy modelled more on a caricature of Soviet harshness during the Cold War than on America's own tradition of welcoming visitors.

Supporters of these tough new regulations will argue that their hospitality had been abused by Muslim terrorists, and now they did not want to take any chances. But surely, it should be possible to put security checks in place without tossing normal American values out of the window.

My wait for a US visa (' visa ka intizar ') brought me right to the wire, and until I was notified that it had been approved a week before I was scheduled to fly, my publisher and I weren't sure the book tour was on or not. In my innocence, I had assumed that the facts that I had visited the United States many times in the past, and had a UK resident visa, would somehow fast-track my application. Forget about it, as New Yorkers say.

It seems the American security databases grind just as slowly for everybody, especially if the applicant's name has 'Husain' in it. This raises an interesting question: would Barack Hussein Obama get a US visa today if he were to apply, say, from Kenya? Sadly, we'll never know.

In all fairness, I can understand why the US — and most western countries — are making it progressively more difficult for Muslims and non-Muslims from developing nations to enter. In Europe, there are between 17 and 20 million Muslims today where scarcely any lived there immediately after the Second World War.

Given that most Muslim immigrants tend to live separate lives, retaining their own culture and seldom participating in mainstream activities, they are not very popular among host communities. Add to this the many terrorist plots that have been hatched among Muslim groups, and one can understand why travel restrictions are being toughened constantly.

The problem is that visas are not required by Muslim nationals of western countries, and they constitute a far greater threat to security than do tourists, businessmen or students. But apart from security concerns, immigration has now become a huge political issue, especially with rising unemployment in much of the western world.

With the world's population now over seven billion, and with the resulting shortage of natural resources like water and land, coupled with collapsing law and order in many dysfunctional countries, the impulse to migrate will only grow. Rich countries will see no other choice but to raise the barriers ever higher.

Years from now, when Osama bin Laden is a dim memory, the perceived need to hang on to what you have and keep the hungry hordes out will continue to drive the world apart.

And hard-eyed, granite-jawed immigration officials at airports will go on manning the barriers.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.