Some Of My Best Friends Are Pakistanis

As I write this, the news that the man arrested for trying to blow up Times Square is a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin has only begun to sink in. What is this going to mean for other U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin – and for me, as their friend?

This article’s headline is an ironic allusion to something people used to say to disavow bigotry: “Some of my best friends are Jews.” It’s also a straight statement of fact: some of my best friends are Pakistanis. And I want the world to know that, especially in these times and at this moment, because I think it’s very important for us to remember that not all U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin blow stuff up.

Assuming we’re being told the truth about 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad of Bridgeport, Connecticut, it might be fair to ask: With friends like these, who needs enemies? But it’s precisely because of the horrific misguidedness of a dangerous few that we need to stay calm and remind ourselves and each other that we’re all in this together. I said exactly this, in fact, on Sunday when I spoke in support of The Citizens Foundation at the South Asian American Arts Festival put on by Zanbeel Art at the Santa Monica Art Studios. I’ll say it again tonight, when I speak to the Pakistani Students Association at UC-San Diego.

The Citizens Foundation is one of several well-run nonprofits supported by the largely very suburban and middle-class Pakistani-American community that are quietly doing the most urgently necessary work: providing education, and thereby hope and self-respect, to the burgeoning young generation of the Pakistani poor. Too quietly: groups like TCF-USA must start tooting their own horns more assertively to the American public. I would go so far as to say that countering the impression of Pakistanis conveyed by the likes of Faisal Shahzad is not only an opportunity for the Pakistani-American community, but an obligation.

I’m not saying that Pakistani Americans have to prove that they’re not terrorists. The rest of us must remember that there is no such thing as collective guilt, and that the presumption of innocence is a basic American principle. I am saying that the existing institutions of Pakistani America need to move – now – beyond inviting each other to the existing endless round of charity fundraisers, worthy and useful as those are. Pakistani Americans are a remarkably talented and resourceful community who pay a lot of money to the U.S. Treasury in taxes and contribute very substantially to American society as physicians, engineers, teachers and business people. For better or worse, Americans listen to people who insist on being heard, and if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

My writing and public speaking are all about emphasizing to Americans the humanity of Pakistanis, their experience of and views on contemporary history, the complexity of their political and geographical situation, and the enjoyable and interesting apects of my own experience of Pakistan, dating back to 1995. As my friend Todd Shea likes to say, Americans hear 2% of Pakistan’s story 98% of the time. I feel very fortunate to have experienced Pakistan directly at a relatively innocent time both in history and in my own life, before the country’s name became a dirty word in the West. We can’t go back to that time, but we can remember it – and we can and should take a deep breath, reach out to each other as allies, and work together to do what needs to be done.

What needs to be done? Young Pakistanis need to be given hope and self-respect by way of education and jobs. This is already being done by The Citizens Foundation, by Developments in Literacy – at whose San Diego fundraiser I’ll be speaking this Saturday, May 8 – by the Human Development Foundation, by Pakistani pop star Shehzad Roy’s Zindagi Trust, and famously by Greg Mortenson.

But why is Greg Mortenson’s the only one of these efforts that’s well known? Part of the answer, of course, is that he’s white: church ladies and Oprah watchers can relate to him as a virtual nephew or brother-in-law. This is fine. But we need to get beyond the toxic supposition that America is primarily a “white” and/or Christian country. It’s not, anymore, and that’s a good thing.

So the other thing that needs to be done is that the Pakistani community needs to ratchet up both its involvement in American society and politics and its visibility. Call up your local schools and churches, invite your neighbors to your home, all that good stuff, and by all means enlist me, Todd Shea, and Greg Mortenson as envoys. But also support Pakistani-American and other Muslim candidates for public office; insist on meetings with existing officeholders, not only but especially those you consider hostile to Muslims or Pakistan; and support and expand the lobbying work of groups like the Pakistani American Leadership Center and the Council of Pakistan American Affairs. Get in the American public’s face, as fellow Americans, and help us all begin having a more honest conversation about Pakistan, America, terrorism, and where our countries and world are headed.

And I ask two things of my fellow non-Pakistani Americans: Go to the trouble of educating yourselves about Pakistan – my books and inviting me to speak are, indeed, good places to start. And, when you see pictures of Faisal Shahzad over the coming days, keep in mind that, except for the buzz cut, Tim McVeigh looked a lot like me.

Written By Pakistanis for Peace group member ETHAN CASEY who is the author of the travel books Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010).
They are available online at http://www.aliveandwellinpakistan.com/books/ and http://www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans, and he can be emailed at ethan@ethancasey.com.

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