Guest contribution: Pakistani and Proud?

August 30, 2008

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone.  The writer is a former Reuters Middle East correspondent who now works in documentaries for Channel 4. Here he writes about how Pakistan looks from London.

                                               By Amil Khan

It’s nice to feel wanted. If you are British-Pakistani, British of Pakistani descent, Anglo-Pakistani, or whatever, it’s a familiar and complicated state of mind. Britain is keen that you feel British – even though no one can explain what that really means. On the other hand, if you describe yourself as “British” to a born and bred Pakistani, you might as well have “traitor” stamped on your forehead.

Carrying the Pakistani flag at the Beijing Olympics/Adress LatifThis identity tug of war partly explains why I have a love-hate relationship with my father’s country, but it’s not the whole story. Pakistan – like other former colonies – has a national love-hate relationship of its own with Britain. But that’s not why I have one with Pakistan. Being born of immigrant parents always means that you have more than one part of the world claiming your loyalties. But that’s not it either. After all, many people have multiple loyalties. You can be far more content being British and Indian.

As a teenager, Pakistan provided refuge when you were made to feel as if you didn’t belong. When right-wing politicians said you weren’t British as adamantly as their successors in the same party now tell you that you can’t be anything else, it was satisfying to cheer the Pakistani cricket team – and it still is. Pakistan was the place grandparents became all misty eyed about when they spoke of “home”. I heard that Pakistan was a country born of its people’s desire for self determination and steely will. I knew Pakistan could be chaotically disorganised and fractious, but always pulled together in the end and answered adversity with guts, genius and determination. For me, the core of Pakistan’s character was a “don’t take no s**t” attitude. When I went to work as a journalist in the Middle East and saw posters of dictators adorning every wall, while in Pakistan military rulers past and present were lampooned in cartoons, I thought it was a national character I could relate to and respect.

Early disappointments with Pakistan came when I visited the country as a teenager. But I brushed away the reality of grinding poverty, corruption, deep inequality and crushing injustice by blaming British colonialism and America for its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That was enough – for a while. When I was at school, Nawaz Sherif came on an official visit to Britain as prime minister. He told the press he would turn Pakistan into an economic powerhouse and all the Pakistanis in Britain would want to return. He then went back to Pakistan and built a couple of mansions. A couple of years later, Pakistan carried out nuclear tests just to show India it could. The U.S. imposed sanctions and Sherif said; “If the nation is forced to eat daal (lentils), so will my children”. He then promptly built another mansion.

I watched all this from Britain and thought; “Come on Pakistan! What’s wrong with you? Get rid of these idiots.” I had come to think of Pakistan as a nation of immense potential, and I badly wanted it to realise some of that. I wanted to believe – as I had been led to believe – that malevolent outsiders conspired to keep Pakistan underdeveloped. It was confusing and disenchanting to realise the blame lay with Pakistanis themselves.

At about the same time, I came to think about my identity as more than a convenient cloak I could use to stick two fingers up at the world around me – which led to the question; “What does Pakistan actually do for me?” The answer was; “not much”. Nawaz Sherif’s comments in the UK before the political turmoil that led Pervez Musharaf to take power were the only time I can remember British Pakistanis were even acknowledged by the Pakistani government. For all the “always remember that you are Pakistani” from grandparents hankering back to the promise of Pakistan’s founders, its politicians were glad to see the back of us.

File photo of police telling people to move away from King’s Cross and St. Pancras Station after London bombingsIsrael, for example, arranges for young British Jews to visit the country every year. The notion that Pakistan could have the foresight to try to instill an attachment among a captive audience of millions across Europe and North America is laughable. A growing and confident India talks of British Indians as “ours” and an asset in the geo-political future the country sees for itself. After the 7/7 bombings in London, however, Musharaf said the young British men of Pakistani parentage were a British product and problem, not a Pakistani one. Instead of an asset, we became a problem that no one wanted to take the blame for.

Pakistan’s answer to the challenges of the post 9/11 world have shown it at its worst. Nawaf Sherif and Benazir Bhutto saw the rise of sectarianism and terrorism as an opportunity for personal advancement rather than as a national crisis. I saved a fair amount of my anger for the British news media, which failed to take Bhutto or Sherif to task, and instead bought into the “democracy against the dictator” news template. They failed to ask what Bhutto would do about the militants that Musharraf hadn’t already tried. Or question her about Pakistan’s arming of the Taliban during her term in office. Sherif plugged away at Musharraf for sacking Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhary, but didn’t he sack a good few judges himself when he was in power? And underpinning it all, why did no one think to question the premise that these people are in any way democrats? Most Pakistanis seem to believe – probably rightly – that elections for prime minister are settled in backrooms and hinge on who can offer the biggest bribe to feudal landlords. He who buys the landlords, buys the votes of their millions of peasant farmers.

But where British journalists can be partly excused for having a sketchy understanding of a far away place, it is Pakistanis themselves who have to shoulder the real blame. I have been in Pakistan when both Sherif and Bhutto were serving as prime ministers. Their unpopularity when in office was staggering. Everyone knew about the corruption and ineptitude. So why did Pakistanis vote for their parties in the recent elections?

“There are few choices in Pakistani politics,” was one answer I got from a friend in Pakistan. Why is that? Pakistani diplomats are always keen to point out that their country is not a run-of-the-mill dictatorship because it has a strong civil society, a free press and no leader personality cult; so why there aren’t new people and parties ready to deliver good governance. Maybe that tenacious “take no crap” attitude I always wanted to believe lay at the centre of what it meant to be Pakistani has finally been defeated.

File photo of then General Pervez Musharraf in front of a portrait of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali JinnahThat attitude, I think, was the basis of Pakistan. The promise of an independent, modern, Muslim state that Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisaged morphed into another promise – a strong, militarily capable Muslim nation ready to stand up for suffering Muslims. But after 9/11, when Pakistan lined up in America’s corner, that last promise was destroyed. Suddenly – it seemed to the children of its diaspora – Pakistan was actually happy to take a lot of crap and some British Pakistanis gravitated to another promise; the Muslim pride and action of al Qaeda.

Last summer, while researching extremism I went to a rally organised by a radical Islamist group in London. When the protestors’ coach  passed a memorial to Commonwealth soldiers, one young guy from Luton shouted out; “Look! You die for them and they give you a bit of stone with ‘Pakistan’ written on it. God forgive our grandfathers for letting themselves be divided into meaningless nations created to serve the kuffar.”

The young man’s rejection of Pakistan comes from the same place as my dysfunctional relationship with the country; its failure to live up to its promise. It’s not a modern Muslim state charting its own way in the world, it’s a feudal mess that keeps failing to live up to the potential of its people. And the final straw has been its loss of backbone.

Then again, maybe that attitude I was drawn to is still there? But it no longer resides with the government or the ordinary office workers, mechanics, traders and farmers that make up 90 percent of Pakistan. It now resides with the ultra conservatism of Tehreek e Taliban. If that’s the case, Pakistan and I are beyond therapy.


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