Some Pakistani Americans Torn By Bin Laden News

Guest

Wajahat Ali, writer and researcher, Center for American Progress

While many have felt a sense of relief since Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, some Pakistani Americans have mixed feelings — some fear being stereotyped, while others are concerned the event will hurt U.S.-Pakistan relations.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

For many Pakistani-Americans, reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden was a little complicated - elation and relief combined with concern over the future of U.S. relations with Pakistan, and about heightened security, which may make life harder for all Muslims in the United States in general, and Pakistani-Americans in particular.

We'd like to hear from the Pakistani-Americans in our audience. What's changed for you since the killing of Osama bin Laden? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Wajahat Ali focuses on Islamophobia at the Center for American Progress and joins us from a studio in Berkeley, California. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. WAJAHAT ALI (Center for American Progress): Thanks for inviting me. Appreciate it.

CONAN: And I wondered, where were you when you when you heard the news about Osama?

Mr. ALI: You know, it's interesting, I was actually attending a dinner at the Bay Area Muslim American lawyers' annual dinner. So it was a whole bunch of Muslim American attorneys sitting in a room, and a lot of them were, you know, Pakistani-Americans or children of Pakistani immigrants.

And, of course, because I'm a child of the 21st century, I was attached to my Twitter on my smartphone. And I found out about it on the tweets. And then, of course, I became glued.

CONAN: And what happened in that room? What was the response?

Mr. ALI: The response was, you know, once the speaker had finished speaking and all of us, you know, gave him an applause, there was - the word spread and there was a sense of, if you will, of relief, a kind of a catharsis, which was shared by, I think, most Americans. At the same time, this was a somewhat savvy crowd of attorneys and civil rights attorneys, and there were a realization of OK, you got Osama bin Laden, but now what, or so what, in the sense that the war on extremism and the war in ignorance still continues.

And also, there was this minority prayer. I always say the minority prayer that we didn't really know he was found in Pakistan at that time, it was in breaking news. And the minority prayer goes something like this: Anytime there's sensationalist news or there's a suspect, like Faisal Shahzad, the New York - the failed New York Times bomber - before we find out, you know, the identity of the suspect, we - every minority group prays to God that it's not one of us.

And then lo and behold, we found out it was in - found in Pakistan, in Abbottabad, 800 yards away from an elite military training camp. And all of a sudden, we said, oh, God: Pakistan, of course.

CONAN: Pakistan, of course.

Mr. ALI: And so, as a multi-hyphenated identity of a Pakistani-American-Muslim, I'm like, OK, this is going to be interesting.

CONAN: Yeah. You misspoke there you didnt mean the New York's Times' bomber, the New York Times Square bomber.

Mr. ALI: New York Times Square bomber, of course, yes. Thank you. Thank you for protecting me.

CONAN: And it was interesting, you wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, and you called it the "Post-Osama Muslim American," where you describe that post-9/11 moment when you suddenly became one of them, as you put it. Is this another defining moment like that, do you think?

Mr. ALI: I don't necessarily think it's as defining. I think it's a continuation of this lumping effect that's - happens specifically post, you know, the "post", quote, unquote, "9/11." As I said, there has been a permanent fork in the timeline of the Muslim American narrative, I would say the global narrative of a pre-9/11 and a post-9/11. And Pakistan, specifically, came into play with a 7/7/2005 London subway bombing in England.

And since then, the past six years, unfortunately, the news regarding Pakistan has been one of, you know, the narrative has been painted with only one or two colors: Extremism, violence, anti-Americanism, which is, of course, not a reflection of the immense diversity of the Pakistani-American experience and Pakistani's experience of themselves. You know, that's a country of 170 million people.

But unfortunately, you know, these moments of sensationalist violence have come to, if you will, define the narrative in the eyes of many of what it means to be either Pakistani or Muslim. And there's a lumping effect, where even, you know, individuals here who are born and raised in America but happen to have a certain last name or that is, quote-unquote, "Muslim" or "ethnic" or look a certain way - even the Sikh Americans, for example, last month in Elk Grove in California. And, you know, they say it was a hate crime against two Sikh gentlemen, and they were shot because the people who shot them thought that they were Muslim. And I like to liken it to this. It's like being Daffy Duck. The anvil always drops on your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALI: You know? And here we are, you know, Pakistani-Americans, we haven't done anything, but the anvil will still drop on our head due to the perverse criminal actions of a misguided few.

CONAN: I'm glad you used that analogy. I might have gotten into trouble if I had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALI: Good. That's why you invited me. I get to say the controversial (unintelligible).

CONAN: Politically incorrect things.

Mr. ALI: Of course.

CONAN: In the meantime, there are a lot of people in Pakistan upset with the United States for the continued drone attacks on terrorist targets in the tribal areas. And a lot of people are angry at the United States, including the prime minister for violation of Pakistan's sovereignty by sending a team of Navy SEALs across the border and silenced helicopters to attack someone who is, well, turned out to be Osama bin Laden. But nevertheless, there is resentment over that sort of nationalist strain. Is there part of that reaction that reaction too?

Mr. ALI: Well, I mean, I think it's a great opportunity to explain the difference between Pakistanis and the Pakistani (unintelligible) government. You know, and secondly, this episode cannot be seen in a cultural temporal vacuum. This goes back three decades, you know, this kind of volatile relationship between Pakistani and the U.S.

The main reason why there is such low favorability rating towards the U.S. in Pakistan is not due to a hatred of U.S. values or U.S. culture, or even Americans. It's completely the opposite. It's because of, exactly what you said, a sense of what is perceived as insincerity - and this goes both ways - duplicity - and this goes both ways - and abandonment. And specifically for Pakistanis, you mentioned that there's the drone attacks.

There seems to be a tremendous amount of apathy and anger of Pakistanis towards their own government in the fact that either, A, they're seen as Concord doormats of U.S. policy or, B, they're thoroughly corrupt and incompetent and they knew bin Laden was there and they didn't, you know, pursue him. Three, that they are lining their pockets and putting themselves, preserving their power at the expense of the interest of the Pakistani people.

And specifically when it comes to U.S., we have to realize there was a period in the '80s where, you know, the U.S. supported financially and militarily the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. After the dictatorship had ended, there was a great moment where U.S., I think, could've really helped, if you will, bolster a sense of a Pakistani democracy, but U.S. walked away. And that sort of resentment is felt not only by the people but also the military.

And, of course, here in America, there's tremendous amount of resentment towards the Pakistani government because it's, like, OK. With the Kerry-Lugar Bill, you know, we've given you billions of dollars of aid in the past 10, 11 years. And here we have one part of your government saying, oh, we're chasing after the Taliban extremists and Osama bin laden and, lo and behold, Osama bin Laden is found 800 yards away from a military training camp in Abbottabad.

So this is a volatile relationship. I, kind of, see it this way. Both of them see each other as a volatile mistress, who they court and bed once in a while. And then instead of taking out for a long-term dinner, just kind of ditch by the side of the road.

CONAN: We're going to have you on regularly. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We want to hear from Pakistani-Americans in our audience. Maybe they're all that funny. Sanju(ph) joins us from Nashville.

SAHJID (Caller): Sahjid(ph).

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SAHJID: Yes. Basically, my comments were: there is a backlash. And backlash is more for people's ignorance towards the Pakistani-American. They don't see that this death of Osama was more for - better for Muslims in Pakistan and in America because he is the one who's killing more Muslims than Americans or any other nation's people. So the backlash here is because of the ignorance, and all they hear, the headlines, well, Osama was found in Pakistan and that's it. They don't see what the causes of his acts on the Muslims are and in Muslim countries and in America because the Muslims have suffered more because of what Osama has done to us.

CONAN: I accept that. But I wanted to ask you about what Wajahat Ali and others have pointed out; that either the Pakistani government was complicit and elements knew that Osama was there and were helping them or they were incompetent and didn't know that he was there.

SAHJID: Well, I can tell you there are elements of ISI that I definitely had information about it. And, yes, Pakistan is struggling with, right now, between the maybe 50-50 population that's more towards - going towards more modernized country versus some of the people who want to go back to the stone ages.

CONAN: Well, ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, a very powerful part of the military government, the military and government -you know, sort of - in Pakistan. And as somebody described it in the news the other day, a house with many mansions. And some parts of it may have known and other parts of it may have not. We don't really know about that.

SAHJID: That is - OK. That's another thing I am trying to describe people here that that is so common. If you have lived in Pakistan, you will not that homes - yes, there are different classes of homes there. But the homes, bigger homes have boundaries, and that's how people like to live. It is surrounded by a wall and then the house in the middle. So that...

CONAN: So the Osama compound, not that unusual in (unintelligible).

SAHJID: Not that unusual. Especially in the part of the country that was located, totally not unusual.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

SAHJID: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And Wajahat Ali, I just wanted to ask you about his response. Do you think that's typical?

Mr. ALI: I mean, his response, I think, is a typical response in the sense that mainly that people want, you know, people need to realize that many of the victims of extremism in Central Asia have been Muslims and Pakistanis. Thirty thousand Pakistanis have died in the last, I say, 10 years.

And even this point needs to be made that, you know, I think it is fair to say that not all the civilian government or military government or military aspects of the government probably knew about it, but definitely we assume that some of them did, and, you know, specifically this complicated relationship between the ISI and the military and certain extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and whatnot. So to assume that, you know, everyone in the government knew about it, I think that would be too overbroad.

And secondly, again, I need to make a divide here between the Pakistani people and its (unintelligible) government. And the victims, again, of this incompetence, of this complicity, of this extremism, whatever you want to call it, have been the people.

For example, you know, in the news, if you hear about Pakistan and suicide bombing, and I could tell you that this is a new phenomenon in Pakistan. You know, in the '90s and '80s, we've said, hey, there will be, you know, suicide bombings wracking the country, in different parts every month. People would say, oh, you're talking about the Middle East, not Pakistan.

CONAN: Not Pakistan.

Mr. ALI: So, you know, this is a changing landscape.

CONAN: Wahajit Ali, a playwright, attorney and journalist, who wrote the piece "The Post-Osama Muslim World" for The Huffington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Nadine(ph) on the air, and Nadine with us from Dayton.

NADINE (Caller): Yeah. Hi. This is Nadine. I'm calling from Dayton, as you mentioned. I have a couple of comments. First of all, I am not a U.S. citizen as yet. I've been in this country for the last 14 years. I came in 1997 when my daughter was 2 months old, my eldest son was 4 years old.

And we have gone through the process of immigration and so on and so forth, and, you know, at this juncture when all this is happening where we've sacrificed our homeland to get a new life, the American dream, I feel that now everything looks - seems to be so uncertain, in jeopardy while my son who's just gone to college, my daughter in high school.

And we still, well, travel on Pakistani passports, and each time we go to any area before this happened, we were looked always with some kind of suspicion, only it was not spoken, but we know what's going on.

But at this stage when all of this is happening and there so much element of mistrust developing on the suicide becomes very difficult to foresee how the future is going to play out of people who are in my situation, who are trying to make a life, that is trying to create a new life for their families in this country and yet have the label of being Pakistanis who are not too honest about U.S. policies and so on and so forth. That's one aspect of it.

CONAN: Yeah. And...

NADINE: And the second...

CONAN: Well, very quickly if you would, yeah.

NADINE: And the second aspect, I think a lot have to do with the perception on common man's mind in Pakistan. U.S. aid and U.S. government help and everything might be all appropriate unless and until it trickles down to the ground level, change will not come. The common man's mind have to be affected with all the efforts that the U.S. is doing.

CONAN: And, of course...

NADINE: If that doesn't get affected, then we will not going to change the perception that is there in the Pakistani people.

CONAN: And the Pakistani government says, no, you need to give that money to us, so we can give it to the people. We don't want you to give it directly because...

NADINE: And we know from experience that's never going to happen because...

CONAN: Because it's going to stop in somebody's pocket. Wahajit Ali, that first part, though, there have to be a lot of people like Nadine who now are going to wonder if, A, it's going to be more difficult to travel in this country on a Pakistani passport and, B, if it's going to be more difficult to finally win that green Card.

Mr. ALI: Well, I mean, he definitely makes a valid point in the sense we've already witnessed this significant amount of detentions, significant amount of harassment, significant amount of racial profiling against not only just Pakistanis but those who are, let's say, a browner hue.

But specifically targeting Pakistani passports, of course, there was specific screening done of Pakistanis entering the United States, and, you know, the TSA was supposed to look for, you know, rope burns and, you know, all these other identifying markers because, again, like you mentioned, there's a moment of uncertainty, fear and ignorance.

And going back to the first point I was making, the lumping effect that, you know, 170 million people who claim Pakistan to be their home are now lumped with this iconic image of terror - Osama bin Laden - even though he wasn't even Pakistani, and it's just one big lumping effect where we have an enemy now that has a brown face and a foreign ethnic name and now for - right now in this moment in history, he - there's geographic location of Pakistan or a multi-hyphenated identity of Pakistani-American or Pakistani-British citizen and so forth which then makes all these, you know, regular Joes, these regular citizens, like these people who have called in the last 20 minutes, suspects instead of neighbors, instead of partners.

CONAN: And we just have...

Mr. ALI: And this type of mistrust needs to, you know, it needs to be eliminated. It's going to be poisonous.

CONAN: We just have a minute left, and I wanted to ask you, though, a lot of people are worried that there will be an attempt at revenge, and again, there will be another moment if there's another terrorist attack when you and your fellow Pakistanis will sit there and say, please, God, he's not Pakistani.

Mr. ALI: Yeah. And this is the uncertain, you know, this is the uncertainty that we all have to live with in this, you know, globalized world where there's cause and effect unfortunately. But we pray and we hope that that doesn't happen, and what we have to do is to take instead of reactive steps, we have to respond proactively, and specifically, you know, not abandon Pakistan as an ally and think about empowering the Pakistanis.

And, of course, the point is how do you empower the Pakistanis by making sure that the government complies and, of course, is also an ally in this. And, of course, it's our job as Muslim-Americans or Pakistani-Americans now, again, to be proactive, tell our side of the story, grab the microphone, you know, share our narrative and make sure people learn and understand.

CONAN: Wahajit Ali, a researcher and writer with a focus on Islamophobia at the Center for American Progress.

Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. ALI: Thanks so much for inviting me. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Tomorrow, a look at assisted living. An investigation in Florida raises questions about how facilities are regulated and whether residents there are safe. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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