For many Pakistani-Americans, home is not where the hearth is

The paradox is fascinating: on November 4, as America went to mid-term polls, Pakistani-American cabbie from New York City, Mustafa Hussain, was arguing that participating in the US votes is just a waste of time. In the same breath, he proudly boasted that he had, along with his three friends, participated in a September 27 protest organised by the local Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) chapter in front of the United Nations when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was addressing the General Assembly (UNGA).

PTI supporters demonstrate against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif outside the United Nations building in New York while he addressed the UN General Assembly —Online file photo

Hussain’s case is associated with a large debate attached to the Pakistani Diaspora in the US these days, one that centres on whether they have integrated enough into their adopted country. According to different estimates, up to 500,000 Pakistani Americans live in the US, with the largest populations concentrated in New York, Houston and Chicago, followed by northern and southern California. With a near 100% increase in numbers since 2000, Pakistani-Americans are the second fastest growing Asian immigrant group in the US.

Despite their numbers, social scientists studying the Pakistani Diaspora in America believe that there exists a “myth of return” — that one day, they would leave their adopted country and go back to Pakistan. This notion is among the greatest challenges to integration and socio-cultural assimilation for the Pakistani Diaspora in the US.

“I have been working as a physician for the last 15 years and am settled with family here,” says a physician in the town of Alexandria, Virginia. “But it is also a fact that eventually we have to go back to Pakistan permanently as the US is not our country.”

M Asim Siddiqui, who works with a local Urdu newspaper for Pakistani community in Virginia, argues that after 9/11, Muslim populations in general and the Pakistani community in particular felt insecure and preferred to stay within their community. “Many Pakistani-Americans live in ghettos, mainly near the mosques or Islamic centres, and this is because of their social, cultural and religious culture,” he claims.

A section of analysts think differently.

“Those Pakistanis who are high-end professionals, such as physicians, IT engineers and scientists are easily assimilating in the American culture. But the issue is with low-income Pakistanis who are working as cab drivers or grocery store clerks, and especially with those who came to the US through illegal means or by seeking asylum,” said Pir Zubair Shah, a New York-based researcher, who had worked with the New York Times in Pakistan.

Some analysts believe that it will take time for the Pakistani community as a whole to be fully entrenched in the larger mainstream community. “Pakistanis like to live close to each other and socialise only among themselves,” declares Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, a political analyst and former president of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce USA. “This cuts them off from the mainstream, and reduces contact at the cultural and community level. Their interactions [with others] are only limited to work.”

Integration in American society

Pakistanis are still a newer community in the US. The majority of them arrived in America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those arriving were well-placed professionals, such as physicians, engineers, software workers or scientists; many either came directly because of a demand in their profession or as students who stayed back after graduating.

Along with these professionals came their less educated relatives, who were either eligible for migration under immigration visa preference for relatives or through the visa lottery scheme. This demographic is largely working blue-collar jobs.

More than 80 per cent of Pakistani households are family-based, having taken advantage of the family reunion visa option.

Nadeem Hotiana, press attaché at Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, said that Pakistanis in the US form a vibrant social community, with dozens of community, cultural, as well as university-based student events. Local chapters of Pakistani political parties also frequently organise social and cultural gatherings in different parts of the country.

“Although it is true that the Pakistani community has been unable to create a distinct place in American society, the new generation has been active and joining the country’s prestigious financial and policy-making organisations,” says Hotiana.

In 2010, as Pakistan reeled from the effects of the worst-ever floods in its history, the American Jewish Committee teamed up with the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America DC Chapter (APPNA), the Maryland Muslim Council, and the Washington Hebrew Congregation to donate 13,340 meals to flood victims.
In 2010, as Pakistan reeled from the effects of the worst-ever floods in its history, the American Jewish Committee teamed up with the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America DC Chapter (APPNA), the Maryland Muslim Council, and the Washington Hebrew Congregation to donate 13,340 meals to flood victims.

Michael Kugelman, an expert on South Asia associated with the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, argues that many Pakistanis have comfortably become part of American society — particularly the 35 per cent of Pakistani-Americans who were born in the US.

“If we want to talk about those that have struggled to integrate in American society, we’d have to draw from the 65 per cent that were not born here,” says Kugelman. “And even on this count, most of those I’ve met seem comfortable with their identity. They are well-versed in American sports and politics, but at the same time, deeply passionate about what’s going on back in Pakistan. Rare is the diaspora member who doesn’t have a view on what’s going on in Pakistan.”

Most issues faced by Pakistani-Americans are immigration-related or manifestations of bilateral relations between the two countries. “When the relationship goes sour, Pakistani-Americans tend to feel the pressure. Conversely, when relations improve, they feel that too,” says Kundi.

Pakistani politics, not US politics

Background interviews with a number of Pakistani Americans suggest that they are more interested in the politics of Pakistan and do not take an equal interest in local politics or elections in the US. This trend was also observed in the November 4 midterm elections.

By contrast, many segments of the Pakistani Diaspora actively follow Pakistani politics in terms of running and joining overseas chapters of Pakistani political parties.

“When you ask them to attend a meeting to do with local elections or with local representatives or to contribute funds, they will make lame excuses. But when leaders of Pakistani political parties visit the US, all of them would not only attend the gatherings but also help organisers financially,” explains Siddiqui.

Almost all Pakistani political parties, especially the PTI, PML-N, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), have their chapters and organisational structures in the US. However, political analysts believe that the PTI is possibly the most popular in the Diaspora.

“Most Pakistanis living in USA are from the educated middle-class, which is the constituency that supports the PTI,” says Kundi, before adding that the PTI’s inability to become an institution has also disappointed its supporters in the US.

While such political vibrancy is laudable to an extent, it compromises the Pakistani Diaspora’s position within the US.

Asad Chaudary, a Virginia chapter president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and someone who formed the Pak-American Study Circle for the purpose of lobbying in Capitol Hill, explains that because of these “divisions” within the Pakistani community, it is very hard to show strength in matters of lobbying. This affects policymaking and working relationships with congressmen and other officials. He also claims that it is “very hard” to get Pakistani-Americans to exercise their voting rights during American polls.

Hotiana too was not enthused by diaspora attitudes. He says Pakistani factional politics had also divided the Pakistani-American community.

“In a recent visit of Pakistani premier Sharif to the UNGA, we saw a divided Pakistani community, protesting in favour of as well as against the government,” he says. “On the other hand, Indian Diaspora, despite their political differences, showed their unity in welcoming Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

Hotiana argues that their active involvement in Pakistan politics deters them from taking an active part in the politics of the US, their adopted country.

But perhaps, it is somewhat unfair to compare Pakistan’s diaspora to that of India’s, which is about 3 million strong.

“Both diasporas in the US are quite similar in the sense that they are relatively well-assimilated and are well-represented in both white-collar and blue-collar professions,” says Kugelman. “Where the difference lies is how they are organised. India’s diaspora in the US, despite its large size, is quite well-organised and is capable of speaking with one voice — which may help explain why it has a large lobbying presence in Washington and has been very successful in advocating for positions on Capitol Hill.”

Islamic radicalisation

In recent years, there has been a small increase in the number of terror incidents involving Islamic radicals who are American citizens, according to counter-terrorism officials and experts in the US. A number of US citizens have also been part of high-profile international and domestic terrorism; in some cases, such as that of Faisal Shahzad, Pakistani-Americans were involved.

A Pakistan-born naturalised US citizen, Shahzad attempted to bomb New York’s Times Square in May 2010 with a parked car full of explosives. He was allegedly inspired by Pakistani militants and told US authorities during interrogation that he was a “fan and follower” of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but appears to have planned the bombing alone. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A research paper titled Muslims Americans, conducted by Pew Research Centre in 2011, finds no indication of increased alienation or anger among Muslim Americans, which includes the Pakistani Diaspora, in response to concerns about home-grown Islamic terrorists. But a majority of Muslim Americans express concerns about the possible rise of Islamic extremism, both in the US and abroad.

Arif Ansar, a security analyst associated with PoliTact, a Washington-based think-tank, is also of same view. He believes that Pakistani-Americans primarily display a liberal and peaceful outlook. However, he thinks that the danger of the lone wolf phenomenon is always there.

“People espousing religious conservatism, and even liberals, have often taken on an ambivalent posture towards world affairs,” says Ansar. “What this means is that while they may despise US and western policies towards the Islamic world privately, they do not articulate them in public, nor do they adopt political activism as a means to address their concerns.”

Ansar adds that their attitude is that their activism was unlikely to produce any result or make a difference at a larger level, and this was in marked contrast to the culture of individualism and activism in the American system.

Shah, who had covered the Shahzad case extensively in Pakistan at that time, is of the view that the situation of Islamic radicalisation is more severe in Europe than in the US. “It was a case of economic frustration, not of a case of radicalisation through any organised network within the US,” he comments.

Pakistan’s private electronic media, which is very popular among the Pakistani Diaspora in the US, is playing a key role in shaping expat sensibilities and keeps them from integrating into American politics, he claims. “The majority of Pakistani-Americans watch Pakistani TV channels, that often demonise the US and glorify Taliban militants,” says Shah.

However, while many Pakistanis may remain aloof, US security officials are certainly keeping an eye on the community. US counterterrorism officers explain that in the backdrop of terrorist attacks, they instituted a program directed at the Muslim community, especially Pakistani-Americans, to develop informants and undercover agents. US law enforcement agencies have been working on this issue in collaboration with leaders of Pakistani community and religious clerics at mosques.

“If you compare the situation with Europe, where a number of young European Muslims, especially from France, have been joining the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the situation is much better in the US,” says a law enforcement official in Washington D.C.

At the same time, PoliTact has noted how American and western policies, especially in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, will in the long run create home-grown challenges.

“If the foreign policies of western nations continue to divert too acutely from the sentiments of their Muslim citizens, which they often do not candidly express, it is bound to produce inadvertent long-term consequences,” says Ansar.

“To address this, the responsibility lies with both diaspora leaders and American public representatives. To be taken seriously, community leaders would have to generate genuine assessments of the risks and the situation as opposed to presenting recommendations based on wishful thinking, or by attempting to appease by conforming to mainstream thoughts.”

This article was first written during a six-week-long fellowship of the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), Washington. It has been re-edited for use in Pakistan. The writer tweets at @zalmayzia