Clearly it’s a nonsensical headline.
But a quick glance across news headlines on Tuesday May 4 reveals the two top stories are both about young Pakistani men, one a resident of Lahore, the other with a background similar to mine, a Western citizen of Pakistani descent.
The first has been convicted with terrorism offences in India, the second arrested in connection with the Times Square foiled bomb attempt.
Now, I have no idea whether the chap arrested in connection with New York offence is a terrorist or not. But it almost does not matter.
Form of racism
Pakistanis and those of Pakistani descent are once again under the spotlight. It’s a form of racism and anger building because of it. I travel a lot. In the last eight months I have visited the US a number of times. Each time I have been pulled into secondary immigration, a sort of holding pen whilst your validity to enter the US is checked out. It takes at least three hours and after a 14-hour flight is not a welcome proposition.
The questions are always the same: Why are you here? Who are you visiting? My answers inevitably are always the same. No matter, each time I had to go through the process. A visa application of mine to a country I won’t name has been put through a much more stringent process because I am of Pakistani descent. In 2005, I travelled to Israel, where yet again I was stopped and asked several questions about my family background. It was just after the 7/7 bombings in London. A crime committed by, as you probably recall, British men of Pakistani descent.
I arrived having travelled through Jordan. I was carrying a British passport, holding $10,000 in cash (for our bureaux, not personal funds, I might add). My full Name is Mohammed Imran Khan and I work for Al Jazeera. Oh, and I was carrying a rucksack, the favoured delivery method of the 7/7 bombers. It took me five hours to clear customs. I was never told why.
How things are
Trifling, I know, when compared to the Palestinian experience, but indicative of how things are. In the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, I bumped in to fairly well known BBC reporter and former colleague of mine. I told him the story of my crossing.
“What do you expect,” he said. “You are Pakistani.”
Except I am not. I am British. In the UK, where I was born and have lived the vast majority of my life, I was stopped and searched. Once, when I was working for that most British of Institutions, the BBC, I was stopped filming when a nosey policeman ran my name through the system. It was clearly red flagged. His response was terse when I requested to get on with my job. “You are in our system” he said. The BBC to their credit took up the matter with the police, but I have no idea whether it made any difference.
It is frustrating. But I have got used to my status of being of Pakistani descent not being a plus point. For others, though, it breeds anger and resentment.
Subject of Pakistan
Three weeks ago I was staying in New York, just few blocks away from Times Square. I was sitting with a friend, just talking about everything and nothing as one does. The subject of Pakistan came up and I shared my thoughts. The bartender overheard our conversation and said something startling to me: “Do you know where Bin Laden is?”
I was shocked, but not surprised. My American friend, however, carefully picked up his vodka and cranberry juice, took a small sip and then poured the rest of it on the floor. He then opened his wallet, left a large tip and walked silently out of the bar. He later told me that he felt it was simple racism that he would not tolerate.
My Pakistani friends across the West often complain of racism. Pakistan has become terror central and it’s most public export is terrorism, it would seem.
Plurality of Pakistan
I have long given up trying to explain to people about the plurality of Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora. I have long given up on trying to talk about how Pakistan’s biggest export into India is pop music, how Pakistani fashion designers produce beautiful collections that sell for thousands of dollars all over the world, of how Pakistani artists are producing some incredible and very modern work.
No, I listen as people rail against my background, accuse me of being a terrorist or the very least a terrorist sympathiser. But here is the rub. Ancient cultures are littered with references to something called a “self-fulfilling prophecy’. Call someone something and they eventually become that thing. Call Pakistanis terrorist and guess what? You will have Pakistani terrorists.
It’s a simplistic argument, but when faced with visa delays, when asked personal questions about my background from Po-faced border guards, when stopped and searched by police officers, an anger does build. My protestations about being British don’t count. They see my skin colour and my name and they see one thing. A threat. I smile and hope common sense prevails, and to be fair it often does.
But as Pakistani terror fills the headlines, I wonder how long it will be before this kind of racism becomes normal.