To be or not to be a Pakistani in the US

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : Pakistanis in the US are facing an identity crisis, particularly since a Pakistani-born American Faisal Shahzad was nabbed from a plane as he was fleeing to his homeland after driving a car bomb into New York’s famous Times Square.

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Shahzad’s bomb fizzled in Times Square, but for the Pakistani community it’s a ticking time bomb. Ashamed, sad and fearful, many of them are reluctant even to acknowledge their Pakistani descent.

Resentment has been building against Muslims since the 9/11 terror attacks and many a person with a beard or a turban, including Sikhs were attacked. But people’s wrath was not particularly directed against the Pakistanis as such even as almost every other terrorist was found to have a Pakistani connection with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sternly warning Islambad of “severe consequences” if the country continued to incubate terrorists who attacked America and other countries.

Americans woke up to home grown terrorism when Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley and his Pakistani Canadia co-accused Tahawwur Hussain Rana were arrested for their alleged roles in the Mumbai terror attacks. But the Shahzad case has hit them where it hurts most – at the heart at home.

A couple of weeks ago US state department spokesman P J Crowley advised Pakistani-Americans to be more like Indian-Americans and play an affirmative role to build better relations between Islamabad and Washington.

But since the Shahzad case a few Pakistanis are taking his advice literally. Fearing a backlash some of them are even posing as Indians, their traditional rivals simply “to save their skins,” as a Pakistani journalist told IANS.

But the journalist, who did not wish to be identified, doubted if “a lot of Pakistanis … are now pretending they are Indian so they can get a job,” as some reports here suggested.

At best these are small shopkeepers, vendors or taxi drivers who were doing so with new customers lest they lose their fare, the Pakistani scribe said. “No American employer will give even an Indian a job without looking at his work permit,” he pointed out.

“I don’t have a personal experience of this (Pakistanis posing as Indians),” said Muhammad Hamza, a Pakistani human rights activist in Washington. “But the incident definitely has had a lot of effect.”

One big reason is the new image of terrorist brought to the fore by the Shahzad case. His image does not fit the kind of stereotypes observed before of terrorists bred in madrassas, he said noting the New York bomber was an educated professional who came from a well-to-do family in Pakistan.

As Shahzad’s terrorist links in Pakistan are unravelled by the ongoing investigation, “Pakistans will come under pressure and atmosphere will become more hostile for them” Hamza feared.

Wajid Ali Syed, a freelance Pakistani filmmaker, editor, who has been working in the US for the last five years, too did not have any personal experience of Pakistanis posing as Indians. But then there is so much diversity in the US and people see things from their own perspective, he said.

He for one also did not see any backlash from the Americans. People are indeed curious to know why and how did it happen, said Syed. And “Pakistanis too have their personal fears and regret also that this happened.”

But the fear within the Pakistani community is palpable. A Pakistani executive who works for a foreign bank by day and studies law in the pursuit of the American dream was reluctant to even talk about it. “I know no more than what I read in the newspapers,” he told IANS.

There are about 210,000 people of Pakistani descent living in the United States, about a tenth of the population of Indian Americans.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])