Pride and the Pakistani Diaspora

14 Feb 2009


A group of South Asian expatriates at the Hyderabad House Restaurant in Chicago.
A group of South Asian expatriates at the Hyderabad House Restaurant in Chicago. - AP Photo

Ali Eteraz discusses the Pakistani diaspora as part of Dawn.coms launch special Flash Forward Pakistan Where do we go from here?

The Pakistani diaspora is significant, around 7 million people, and contributed almost US$8 billion into the economy last year. It is composed by and large of people who only retain a connection to Pakistan via their families. Once the recipients of the remittances pass away, or as is more often the case, themselves leave Pakistan, the financial connection is severed. At this point, the Pakistani migrant takes his place in the new country, even if it means being a second-class citizen. If he is in the West, he usually defines himself as a 'Muslim' or 'South Asian' or sometimes even an 'Indian.' He then ceases to have a meaningful relationship with Pakistan. This depressing state of affairs is due to the identity struggle within Pakistan itself. Pakistanis abroad dont know who they are or how they should relate to Pakistan because they dont know what it means to be Pakistani.

One of the principal identity-markers that Pakistanis abroad have turned to is to re-define themselves as 'Muslim'. This has been especially true after 9/11, but pre-dates that event as well. It has been disturbing to watch and experience because no other diaspora from a Muslim majority country makes their national identity subservient to their religion - not even the stateless Palestinians. While everyone else seems to take pride in their particular national histories - even when there isnt much to be proud of - people in the Pakistani diaspora seem to run away from being associated with their countrys past. As a result, Pakistanis exceed all others in becoming attracted to romanticist readings of the past -  the sort extremist religious teachers are more than happy to offer up.


Another popular trend among second-generation Pakistanis in the West is the denouncing of Partition as a mistake. These people live in a fantasy world where 60 years of conflict with another state can be overcome in a singular moment of sublimation. Whats illuminating is that Bangladeshis never talk about re-joining India or West Pakistan in such a manner. Obviously, Partition was a mistake - it killed millions of people - but the solution to a mistake is to reconcile with it, not to try and wish it away.


Indeed, the Pakistani diaspora is in a difficult place. It cannot actively participate in the discussion about Pakistani identity, but it also cannot progress until this issue is resolved. Guidance must come from Pakistan itself. There are some signs that this has started. Recently a federal minister began rolling out all sorts of incentives for Pakistanis in the diaspora. These include an overseas pension trust, a plan to protect expat properties back home, waivers of service charges and custom duties, special treatment in housing and college admissions, and finally, honorary seats in the various legislative houses. The aim would be, in the words of the minister, to "grant VIP status" to the expats.


This ministers attempt to include the diaspora is worthwhile, however, the entire scheme is built upon preferential treatment, which only further enhances class differences and hierarchy between Pakistanis. It also assumes, wrongly, that simply because they have money, Pakistanis in the diaspora have a good idea about how to improve Pakistan.


A political or legislative solution is neither sufficient, nor, given rampant cronyism, ideal. It also creates the danger of politicizing the overseas communities and splintering them based on political preferences.


The focus at the moment has to be on culture and identity. The promotion of Pakistani arts, music, literature, cinema, poetry, and fashion is of the essence. And the answer does not lie with the venal fashion shows that are put on at sumptuous diplomatic residences, inviting only a few elite expats. Outreach has to be done within expat communities -  Dubai, Bradford, Brooklyn. Scholarships should be given to traveling street-theatre artists. Films should be subsidized. Poetry, especially translations, should be promoted and put on popular websites.


Instead of becoming a censor-state, Pakistan should promote freedom of expression. Engagement with Pakistans culture will give adrift Pakistanis around the world a sense of belonging. Effort has to be made to connect Pakistani expats to Pakistan, not via their families, but via the idea of Pakistan itself - via Pakistaniat. It is this sense of confidence that will make Pakistanis want to invest in Pakistan perhaps even return and engage in nation-building.


The few successful diaspora activists that I have met have either been motivated through national emergencies such as the earthquake, or they have emerged from a cultural awareness group that was ready to do more. The first time I met Bilaal Ahmed, the founder of IMPAK USA, a service group that sends volunteers to Pakistan, was at the Philadelphia screening of the Pakistani film Khamosh Pani. Further, as I have previously documented elsewhere, the only meaningful political lobbying group ever formed to lobby the US government, namely Pakistani-American Public Affairs Committee (PakPAC), grew out of a fun-loving social organization for Pakistani doctors, who initially came together to invite poets and singers from Pakistan. There are lessons to be drawn from this.


Most people think 'diaspora' only when they run into a Pakistani on foreign soil and want to ask about the nearest place to find chicken tikka. Diaspora is, actually, the barometer by which one can judge the health of a nation. The feeble state of the Pakistani diaspora speaks volumes.


Ali Eteraz is a writer and freelance journalist. He has studied philosophy and practiced law in the United States. His website is