Wednesday, July 27, 2011

U.S.- Pakistan Relations: A Hyphenated Perspective

By Samreen Hooda    
It was the morning after the big announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death. I was sitting at work when my Google Chat icon pinged and a co-worker said, “I’m sorry.” “ What for?” I asked, unaware of a comment he had typed a few minutes earlier. With quick hesitation he filled me in. “I was just saying that they should bomb everyone in Pakistan for hiding bin Laden, but it was just a joke. I didn’t mean sane people like you, just the crazies.”

I assured him I wasn’t offended and brushed off the comment, choosing not to make a big deal out of an ignorant quip tinged with a bit of workplace humor.

Yet as the day went on the thought remained with me. What did my co-worker mean? What exactly made me different than the “crazies?” I am an American, but I am also Pakistani, part of the “other” that so many of my fellow Americans believe can’t be trusted. I remained cordial as my coworker tiptoed around me for the rest of the day, being extra nice, lest I call in my forces from abroad. Of course, I have no Pakistani extremist friends that I could have summoned. I’ve lived in Texas for nearly my entire life. But if I did have such connections, you can bet that they would have been funded and backed by American taxpayer money.

America has had a long and complex relationship with Pakistan. Although initially closer to India, the United States began aligning itself more closely to Pakistan after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC, when the two countries became partners in the so-called “war on terror.” Before 9/11, US interest in Pakistan was more or less focused on playing the “nuclear arms cop,” making sure Pakistanis would not employ the dangerous technology the US had already employed ... twice. After 9/11, the US-Pakistan relationship transformed from “intermediary diplomacy” to “military alliance.”

I wasn’t even born when the alliance between these two countries was first forged back in 1947. In fact most of my friends had never heard of the country of my birth. “The one next to India,” I would explain, receiving nods of understanding and less furrowed eyebrows. As a growing democracy, India was much better known in the United States before 9/11.

In those days, I never realized that a person’s identity could be hyphenated — that I could be Pakistani-American, or Muslim-American, rather than just American. Yet, even as the relationship between the US and Pakistan flourished, it was clear that neither side fully trusted the other. People like me - Pakistani-Americans - seemed caught in the middle of the mistrust. I often saw the suspicious glance in the eyes of acquaintances when they first heard I was born in Pakistan. No one seemed concerned that I was an American citizen or that I didn’t even remember what Pakistan looked like. What stuck out was that my parents were immigrants from a country too close to bin Laden’s homeland.

Now that the tenuous relationship between these two countries has hit a new low, things are getting even more tense for people like me. The location and killing of Osama bin Laden, precariously close to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, raised difficult questions on both sides. Was Pakistan secretly harboring bin Laden the entire time? Was it acceptable for the United States to violate the sovereignty of another country, even if it was to apprehend a powerfully dangerous terrorist? There are no clear answers to these questions. But what is clear is that the previously warm relationship between the two countries has entered its winter season.

Regardless of how this latest row between the erstwhile allies ends, things look bleak for in the US for Americans of Pakistani descent. With the understanding of Islam already in decline, Pakistani-Muslim-Americans have a real struggle facing them at home. In order to deal with this tension, many have given up their historical identity, choosing to become completely enveloped with the culture of the United States and thus losing part of their own heritage. Others adopt a bitter view of the United States, dissociating themselves from the ideal image of America as a safe haven for all people.

For the United States, Pakistan’s stability is of utmost importance. But, without understanding the needs of everyday Pakistani citizens, their commitment to their neighbors, to their faith, and their tradition of doing without the most basic necessities, the United States cannot become a true ally of Pakistan. At the same time, without clarifying it’s own internal motives, Pakistan will not be able to stabilize its own borders much less help weaken Al-Qaeda. Eradicating the terrorist group that resides within its frontier is the only way for Pakistan to truly move forward as an independent, functioning democracy on the global stage.

As a native born Pakistani brought up with the culture of the deep Texan south, I’d rather not choose any side as I’ve gained much from this dual heritage. Why should I have to sacrifice either side of my dual identity? Practically every American has a hyphenated identity. Whether one is an Irish-American, Hispanic-American, or African-American, we have all come from somewhere else. Here, we can set aside the hyphen and truly live our full identities. Yet, this aspect of American life seems to be dissipating as fear of the other lurks on every border.

Not for me. The commitment to community and family, the concern for the good of the whole, and the notion of sacrifice and service are embedded within me from both cultures. There are values and traditions that each side can learn from the other to make their own culture even better. As a country of immigrants, herein lies a tool that we could also implement to understand our fellow Americans, no matter where they come from.

Samreen Hooda is an American-Muslim freelance writer born in Pakistan

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