Did you know that 700,000 Americans sent $1.86 billion to Pakistan last year? That’s in addition to the billions of dollars provided by US taxpayers in the form of civilian aid over the past 10 years. These Americans, as you may have guessed, are like me – Americans of Pakistani descent. And just as I do, they also send money back to their ancestral country to help family and friends pay tuition, build businesses, and improve their daily lives. Many, if not most, of these people were born in Pakistan, and many still have deep roots there. But while each of these people is very much Pakistani, they are also very much American.
Most of the middle or upper middle class people in Pakistan have at least one relative that lives in America and sends money back or brings back gifts or presents when visiting Pakistan, and can play an important role in countering myths and conspiracy theories that are running rampant in Pakistan.
On a recent visit to my motherland, I heard frightening stories about America cracking down on Pakistanis and Muslims. Others told me that the US is corrupting Pakistani values and that they worry about future generations if we don’t cut ties with the US. I tried to explain that it’s not the Americans who threaten Pakistan’s future, but the militant extremists who are bombing mosques and schools. An old friend shook his head and said to me, “sheir ki aik din ki zindagi geedar ki sou din ki zindagi say behtar hai”. All this while we were sitting and enjoying an air-conditioned meal in Hardee’s.
Another common misconception that I came across was that I was treated as a second class citizen in America, deprived of my rights to practice my religion and a victim of prejudice at every instant of my life. People would approach me with great sympathy to tell me how bad my life in America was.
At first I was confused, and then I began to laugh. I explained to each and every one of them that their impression could not be further from the truth, that I actually took pride in the fact that I am a Muslim Pakistani-American. I was never deprived of my rights in the US, and I almost never thought about what others thought of my religious beliefs and practices – definitely far less often than when I was living in Pakistan.
Did they know, I asked, that when a Pakistani-American woman running for political office was smeared as an extremist, she was defended in the media by both the Mayor and a Judge? Did they know that when a Muslim judge was criticized for defending 9/11 detainees, that the Governor of New Jersey came to his defense in a public speech, calling the man’s accusers “crazy”?
When I asked them if a Christian safai wala or an Ahmedi carpenter or a Hindu jeweler could say the same thing in Pakistan, my friends had nothing to say. When I asked what happens to a Governor when he defends a religious minority in Pakistan, my friend lowered his eyes and muttered, “Astaghfirulah”.
I understand, though, because when I first came to America I too expected a much different place. I was always a bit shocked everywhere I went. There were white people, black people, and brown people. There were Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Atheists. And all of them went about their lives as if there were no differences between them.
I believe that living with such a varied and diverse population creates tolerance. Growing up in Pakistan, almost everyone that I came across was a Muslim who practiced the same religion as I did. There was, of course, a great degree of diversity in the practice of those beliefs, but even these differences were downplayed so as to avoid confrontation. Because we are not used to different cultures and religions being practiced, we are often quick to see difference as a threat.
My question to my fellow Pakistani-Americans is this: Don’t you think it is time to stop this anti-Americanism brewing in Pakistan? How many of us have enjoyed successful businesses here? How many of our children will have better lives because we brought them to the US? How many of our grandchildren will be healthier and safer than we were?
According to Dr. Mehtab Karim, a visiting senior research fellow at Pew Research Center, more Pakistani-Americans (29.5 percent) completed four years of college than other Americans (17.6 percent). Likewise, Pakistani-Americans did better (22.5 percent) than other Americans (20.0 per cent) in terms of completing a Master’s degree, while 1.6 per cent of Pakistani-Americans obtained a doctorate degree compared to 1.1 percent of all Americans.
We enjoy perks and privileges available in the US, and yet we stand mute when our friends and family in Pakistan express anti-American sentiments. Even if we have felt some prejudice, some suspicion because of our names or our motherland, there has always been someone who stood up for us regardless of his or her skin color, race or faith. And if we feel that we are being wronged, we can depend upon our rights being protected by a court of law. I have dealt with the justice system in both the US and Pakistan, and let me tell you there is no comparison. How ironic that a political party back in Pakistan names itself after “justice”, but concentrates all its energy on exploiting anti-American sentiments.
Too many of us will speak out when we hear someone say something against Pakistan, but we sit silent when our friends and family repeat anti-American conspiracy theories. Our silence affirms their misconceptions. In trying to avoid confrontation, we are actually making things worse.
We who have the privilege of knowing both Pakistan and America have a responsibility to tell the truth about both our motherland and our adopted homeland. When someone unjustly defames Pakistan, we should come to her defense. When someone unjustly defames America, we should defend her also. We are proud Pakistanis. We are also proud Americans. There are 700,000 of us, and standing together, we can put an end to misperceptions of both Pakistan and America.
The writer is a Pakistani-American businessman living in Texas, USA. His favourite food is pizza with a side of mango chutni. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org