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British Pakistanis and Pakistan – 21st century citizenship and Diasporas

October 30th 2011
By Rima Saini

With an inspiring discussion that many would loathe to conclude, the second lecture in the joint series of RSA conferences organised in conjunction with the Samosa and City University explored the relationship between Britain, Pakistan, and the Pakistani Diaspora.

After an introduction of the esteemed panellists by Anwar Akhtar, it was a compelling polemic from Jahan Mahmood, a researcher and historian with expertise in Muslim military history that kicked off the discussion. He gave us a startling insight of the military relationship between Britain and Pakistan that I, who touched on the politics of Pakistan as a student, was barely aware of.

It is only necessary to look at the immense bravery and sacrifice that the British Indian army made during WWI and WWII, particularly the Muslim soldiers from areas of Punjab and the frontier provinces, to see how indebted Britain is to its former colonies.

Not only did these young men die for a country that had never seen and for a democracy that they had never experienced for themselves, but they were heavily relied on for their numbers and expertise by Britain: over six years, two and a half million men volunteered for the British Indian army, and just under a third of those were Muslim men.

The questions of the Diaspora to where they fit in with British society, amid feelings or accusations that they do not belong in here, has clearly motivated and inspired Mahmood’s current work; one could sense the frustration and the disappointment in his voice that the legacy of Pakistan and Britain’s relationship is overshadowed by the negative image in Pakistanis that dominates the news; hijacked by the few, the experience of the majority of Pakistanis has been silenced.

Anatol Lieven, author of ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ believes the Pakistani Diaspora could, and should, play a more important role in supporting Pakistan. In the Baltic States where he was stationed as a correspondent, it was the Diaspora in Britain and North America who played a critical role in building up the democratic institutions after the fall of the communism. The Pakistani Diaspora does play a crucial role, in flood relief, civil society and charities, by this is hampered by a number of factors, notably the understandable distrust of the British state, particularly British foreign and security policy.

Irrespective of the specific failures, or crimes, he added, of recent British foreign policy, it is respect for British of democratic institutions and most importantly the values that underpin them that are the key to progress in Pakistan. It is not just the failings of the state and the political system but the relative indifference by so many of the population that holds the country – that all the panellists keenly stressed is not without its potential – undeservedly back.

Producer Rubia Dar noted that it was essentially the publication of Salman Rushdie’s incendiary satanic verses in the 1980s, and political events such as the Gulf war, that propelled the British Muslim community into the spotlight. The war on terror particularly resonated with the Diaspora; however, as they saw how some British born Pakistanis were willing to blow themselves up in the name of Islam. Whereas these terror acts were carried out by a minority, they served to define the wider community, and give the false impression that these ideas are inimical to the culture.

Zachary Latif of the Pakistani International People’s Association continued along this vein of destructive misrepresentation, attacking the term ‘failed state’ that is consistently and unhelpfully applied to Pakistan, a consequence of, in part, the inescapable comparisons with India that have driven and defined its geographical neighbours.

It is this view of Pakistan, one of ethnic fragmentation and on the verge of collapse that is fed back into the British Pakistani community. Latif, Dar and PIPA are keen to reshape this narrative, and positively influence the currently pessimistic strain in the dialogue. He makes a point, one that echoes the sentiments of Baroness Warsi at the first RSA lecture in this series – Pakistan is more than a charity case, it is a country that deserved investment and optimism.

Max Malik, author of The Butterfly Hunter, ended the discussion on a thoughtful and inspiring note: demonisation and drone attacks only feed radicalisation. It is the third way of mutual respect and dialogue – infinitely tougher but ultimately sustainable and rewarding – that build civilisation.

Like Malik’s journey himself from a confused and dejected outsider to an eventual success, it will be a long, hard road for Pakistan that many both home and away may doubt is traversable, but the country’s fate is not sealed yet.

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