The Nation, Pakistan – Nov. 13, 2004
Elections: Impact on Pakistani Americans
By Syed Asif Alam
The change of face in the White House which most of the Pakistani-Americans and Muslims, and perhaps people the world over, were so eagerly hoping for has not taken place.
Various Pakistani organizations have been brainstorming on the possible outcome and were worried that voters from the “Bible Belt” will not be able to connect to Senator John Kerry’s elevated approach: United Nations, internationalism with Europe, direct talks with North Korea, and timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But the final results have revealed something deeper and more chilling.
As New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, has commented, the election was not about policies; it rather ended up becoming one about the kind of America both sides stood for. And John Kerry and Democrats have proved themselves far too liberal for the anti-abortion America that was now scared of the specter of liberal approaches towards terrorism, homosexual marriages, and stem cell research.
Internationally Bush’s victory might make it difficult to court European support for managing the mess in Iraq; this was pretty obvious from the news analysis in the European papers. Also worrying is the possible attitude this new Bush administration will take towards Iran and its implications for Pakistan and the larger Islamic world.
But they say that charity begins at home; it is the United States that demands our most immediate attention. Since 9/11, the Pakistani community has suffered in all respects, from its cultural image to civil rights to jobs to educational opportunities. For instance, the number of Pakistani students arriving for higher education, the number of doctors finding residences and graduates finding jobs in banking, insurance and information technology, have all radically gone down.
If this trend continues, it will have ominous implications for the future standing and influence of the Pakistani community. On a broader level Pakistanis share a predicament across the board with most immigrants, especially Muslims. As I rode my train for work the day after the elections, I could hear people mumbling about “Ashcroftcracy” and a week later, with the announcement of Alberto Gonzales as the new Attorney General, civil rights groups remains pessimistic. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Gonzales drew criticism after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when he wrote a memo saying Bush had the prerogative to waive anti-torture laws and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. Human rights groups later said that position helped lead to the types of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
America has been changing for quite sometime and the process of inward looking change has only accelerated after the tragedies of 9/11. It is becoming clear that the future of immigrants will be radically different from that of the earlier generations when the dream was to reach the land of the free. This new situation has thrown up new challenges; it will become ever more important for the Pakistani community to immerse itself deeper into the mainstream and to identify with the concerns of the mainstream liberals, who offer the best hope of leadership for the immigrant communities.
It may also be the time to reflect on the clear schism that appeared between the interests and perceptions of the Pakistani community in the US and the government in Islamabad. Whereas Islamabad, for understandable reasons, prayed for a Bush victory, the Pakistani diaspora, for equally potent reasons, looked for a Kerry win. Ironically, in the last four years, whereas Islamabad has been eager to court the Pakistani Americans for its own reasons, it has exercised little influence in Washington on issues that immediately concern or even threaten the interests of the Pakistani diaspora. This potential schism may become even more important in future and therefore demands our attention.
The pain and fear of an uncertain future that lies ahead for the immigrant community in the United States is
indeed alarming, but this challenge demands that we embed ourselves deeper into mainstream United States. The two critically important elements are politics and the media. Presidential elections will take place after four years but in this intervening period America will witness scores of other elections and contests at different levels: state and county, district and Supreme Courts, school boards and so on. And it becomes important for the Pakistani community to take interest and raise its voice everywhere.
The run up to the election also gave an opportunity to the Pakistani community to learn more about the dynamics of the whole process. AOPP and its various allied organizations and supporters took a leading role in opening channels of communication with political formations and the media. We as a community were able to get an interview with Senator Kerry, helped the electronic and print media with its interviews and participated in an incessant dialogue at the state and county level and with various grass root organizations. This time period has also shown the formation of the Pakistan Caucus in the US Congress, which now has 55 members. What we need is to bring around some of the ‘movers and shakers’ into this formation; and once again community leadership will play an important role.
However there is no room for complacency; our interaction with the US media remains far from adequate. This is truly a dangerous situation. We need to engage the correspondents, op-ed writers and editors of newspapers and producers of television programs in a civil but assertive manner, so that they know that we are here, we watch, we monitor and we are sensitive to what they say and are prepared to shout when mis-represented. This is an area in which AOPP has achieved success in the last two years as a watchdog for the Pakistani Americans, and the general feeling we have is that most often the adverse or malicious comments are as much a product of ignorance as of a deliberate malice. It remains upon us as American Pakistanis to raise our distinct voices to let them know that we are here and we have graduated from the state of individuals to that of a community. But talking politics all the time will not do. We clearly need to move in other areas; if we have to change our image then we need to brand ourselves as a different community by creating platforms where we can display our arts, music and literature and where we can bring forward our community leaders and professionals who have achieved prominence in different walks of life.
It remains our responsibility to educate the people in the United States about Pakistan and Pakistanis, and time demands from us to be creative so that we can leverage our relationship with other South Asian diasporas, the Muslim community and the liberals in the mainstream.
[Syed Asif Alam is the President of Association of Pakistani Professionals (AOPP).