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Two countries, one purpose

By Anwar Akhtar FRSA
Published in the RSA journal

Greater involvement of the British Pakistani community in the debate about Pakistan’s future could help to challenge racial prejudice and accelerate social and economic reform

Pakistan has an old and complicated history, although the country itself is young. In the past year alone, it has contended with floods, assassinations, attacks on minority communities, the discovery that Osama Bin Laden resided there, drone attacks and the war in neighbouring Afghanistan. What is Pakistan’s future and what can the British Pakistani community do to support stability and development there?

The RSA, the Samosa and City University London recently held a series of events that attempted to answer this question, as well as to explore the relationships between Pakistan, Britain and the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. The programme looked at the historical, family, contemporary, economic, military and cultural ties between Britain and Pakistan, and the future for these relationships as part of the Commonwealth and in the context of a globalised 21st century.

Britain is home to approximately 1.2 million British citizens of Pakistani heritage. An estimated 8,000 people fly from Manchester airport to Pakistan every week, including scheduled flights and various transit routes. Yet there is a lack of direct engagement by Westminster and Whitehall with the British Pakistani diaspora, despite Britain being home to one of the world’s largest Pakistani diaspora communities.

The Department for International Development (DFID) recently announced a £650m aid programme to improve schools and development in Pakistan. While this support is welcome, DFID should do much more to engage the British Pakistani community in this process. This input serves Britain’s interest. A stable Pakistan is fundamental to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, where our forces are at constant risk because of instability in the region and a cold war between Pakistan and India. This is one – if not the main – driver of the conflict in Afghanistan, alongside the hidden war between the rival religious totalitarianisms of the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Events such as the panel talks held at the RSA are a far more fruitful and constructive way of engaging the British Pakistani community in debate than the confusion that resulted from the Prevent programme. Prevent aimed to counter terrorism and extremism, but ended up stigmatising and alienating entire communities because of the criminality of a few people. It also increased suspicion and hostility towards the British Muslim community and helped to create the mood music that the English Defence League orchestra is now so loudly playing. It is hard to think of a more counter-productive Westminster initiative.

During my recent visits to Pakistan, I have observed the work of numerous welfare, human rights, development and citizenship organisations, whose employees and volunteers include many British Pakistanis. Their work may not be as newsworthy as the behaviour of a handful of misguided – and media-friendly – extremist hooligans in the UK, but it does merit our support.

In opening up a wider debate among British Pakistanis, we must first think about how we define diaspora communities: are they made by race, religion, region, ancestry, heritage or a combination of all of these? Are they a feature of our times and of globalisation, or are they eternal?

I speak from personal experience as a Mancunian born and bred. I formed a deep bond with Pakistan during school holidays, when I was dispatched to a farm near Bahawalpur to stay with extended family. I then spent my teenage years travelling through every city and town, and many villages, of that vast and beautiful country, and I have recently returned there to work with welfare and human rights organisations. I am a Brit, but one with strong links to, and a love for, Pakistan.

What, if any, are the responsibilities of diaspora communities such as the one to which I belong? Many British Pakistanis have expressed their disgust at the treatment of minority communities, and the misogyny and sectarianism of far-right organisations that use religion to spread hate and prejudice in Pakistan. There was despair at the inability of the Pakistani military to see beyond a cold-war obsession with India, an addiction, of course, that their peers in Delhi share.

Many people have made comparisons between Pakistan and Israel. And for good reason: one nation was born in 1947, the other in 1948; both came out of British mandates at the end of empire; both were founded in the name of religion and minorities; both led to great regional conflict, population movements and expulsions; both host large refugee populations; both are nuclear powers; and both arouse great loyalty in their respective diasporas. I understand how strongly many British Israelis people feel about Israel. It is not dissimilar to how many British Pakistanis feel about Pakistan.

An unfinished conflict

There is no doubt that many wrongs have been done both to Pakistan and in Pakistan’s name. In thinking about conflict resolution and peace in the region, we must try to understand the nature of the ‘other’: that is, the sectarian tensions at work within communities. There is still great anger and hurt in both Pakistan and India at the carnage, slaughter and separation
of communities and families that came with partition. Both nations remain in a type of cold-war conflict, with the ongoing violent and blood-soaked row about the expansive and expensive garden fence in the beautiful valleys and glaciers of Kashmir.

This article is not the place to revisit partition, except briefly to say that it remains a huge issue for India, Pakistan and the diaspora communities in the UK. My mother and grandparents as Muslims were expelled as part of a human caravan that fled when their village was burnt. They fled from near Jalandhar, in the Indian Punjab, to Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Today, when you stand in the centre of the magnificent city of Lahore in Pakistan, you can sense the vacuum left by the violent expulsion of the Sikhs and Hindus from the city that they helped build.

Ask anybody who has spent time in, or understands, Afghanistan and they will probably tell you that the war in that country will carry on until the cold war between India and Pakistan comes to an end. This cold war prevents Pakistan from focusing on economic development, education and welfare. It also exposes the madness of using religious extremism, religious identity and theology as tools of foreign policy that the west so readily financed to help defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This support now seems to have led to a case of collective amnesia among many of the right-wing hawks and neoconservative think tanks that thought it such a splendid idea in the first place.

What if Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi had known in 1947 what we now know? How would they have responded to the fact that, today, the combination of climate change, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, environmental catastrophes, food shortages and a rapidly growing urbanising population could present a serious threat to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India? Perhaps we would have had a more federal arrangement between India and Pakistan.

India, after all, is named after the great river, the land of the Indus, which now flows mainly in Pakistan. Pakistan and India share soil, ancestry, heritage and family. It is time to start trading and talking, and to open up the silk roads in South Asia again.

The programme has provided a good example of how encouraging debate among the British Pakistani community can create a positive response. During her speech at the RSA (see page 48), Conservative party co-chairman Baroness Warsi spoke about the need for Pakistan to tackle corruption and religious sectarianism and to protect the rights of women, minorities and children. She emphasised Britain’s and Pakistan’s shared history and called for trade and cooperation. She highlighted the fact that, despite the multiple problems Pakistan faces, it posted a nominal GDP of US$210bn in 2011 and has a growing middle class and the potential for vast global trade routes.

Many of our speakers came with personal narratives. Zaiba Malik, author of We Are a Muslim, Please, detailed in an affectionate and intimate way the relationship between a Britain-born girl and her Pakistan-born mother. Another speaker, Jahan Mahmood, has done a great service to both Britain and Pakistan by researching archives that are full of stories of the many thousands of Indians who served in the British military in the two world wars, including many of the first Pakistani migrants to Britain. It is a fascinating, vital and hidden history that should be required reading as much for the small number of thoughtless fools who burn poppies as for media commentators who marginalise the Muslim presence in European history and remain prejudiced against them.

Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country, spoke compellingly of the urgent need for economic and social reform in Pakistan that would force the elites to relinquish power and allow a more meritocratic society to emerge. Nayha Kalia, the British Indian editor of thesamosa.co.uk, spoke about how members of a younger generation can collaborate across national boundaries in a globalised society. Saima Mohsin, a Britain-born journalist, showed how many people have both British and Pakistani identities; she herself slips effortlessly between presenting news shows and documentaries in Pakistan and co-presenting Channel 4 News.

It was important to have religious voices in the programme. Islamic relief and the Rangoonwala Foundation joined a panel discussion on philanthropy and development, alongside Michael Green, author of Philanthrocapitalism. He raised concerns about the lack of awareness among aid organisations and donors of the diverse welfare networks that already exist in Pakistan. How many donors and funders only saw the narratives of extremism and conflict, and not the extraordinary networks of civil society and charity that challenge the failed-state narrative?

I have visited numerous welfare organisations in Pakistan, such as the Citizens Foundation, the Edhi Foundation and the Simorgh Women’s project, and I have seen many of the same values at work as those that are rooted in our own British identity. Organisations such as the Salvation Army, Barnardo’s and the suffragettes were, not so long ago, dealing with challenges and social evils similar to those that Pakistan faces today.

Shared challenges

Inevitably, some of the speakers and audience members raised comparisons between Pakistan and Britain today. Here in Britain, we have all the benefits of living in a multicultural, pluralistic democracy. We still face racism, notably in the form of the English Defence League, which targets British Muslim communities. In general, however, Britain is one of the least racist, and most cohesive, societies in the world. This contrasts greatly with the treatment of minority communities in Pakistan, where we frequently witness the betrayal of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a nation founded as a homeland for minorities. British Pakistanis should be prepared to speak out much more frequently about the injustices and hate crimes in Pakistan.

Several speakers, such as the writer Dr Max Malik, spoke of the need to resist the nihilism of gang culture that has affected young people in Britain’s inner cities. He argued that more of us in the British Pakistani community should speak out and engage with national and international institutions, rather than relying on self-appointed community leaders. We have a lot to be proud of in terms of what we, our parents and grandparents have achieved in and for Britain. We need not listen to lectures on citizenship from those who have never liked us being here.

So what have our events achieved? They have helped to link social and political activists, social entrepreneurs and those working in development in Pakistan with their peers in the UK, as well as engaging larger non-governmental aid organisations, and welfare and economic development networks. We have brought religious and secular voices together and addressed significant issues related to minority rights, women’s equality and religious freedoms in Pakistan. Young British Pakistanis have spoken proudly of both their Pakistani heritage and their identity as British citizens. We have raised sensitive issues about Pakistan and our times that are of huge relevance to the British Pakistani community. Is our South Asian identity being marginalised by the vast wealth and expanding imperial influence of the Arab Gulf states?

The overall result of the event series has been to promote a much more varied and in-depth discussion about Pakistan and the wider region than the often clichéd narratives that can come out of the compelling rolling news coverage of the conflicts in the region today. Most importantly, it has brought the British Pakistani community into conversation with some of the political and cultural leadership networks in the UK. Finally, this community is being talked to, rather than talked about.

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