Pakistan and America Both Need APPNA’s Leadership
By Ethan Casey
This is a very difficult time for Pakistan, for Pakistanis and other Muslims living in America, indeed for all friends of Pakistan and of humanity and peace. Drone attacks, Osama bin Laden, Raymond Davis, the long-term damage from last summer’s severe flooding – which I saw for myself in February and March in the Swat valley and in rural areas of Punjab province – there’s no rest from the litany of crises Pakistan faces.
The Pakistani-American community, led by APPNA and other organizations I admire and support, is remarkably steadfast in addressing the acute and chronic humanitarian needs of Pakistani society. Year after year, crisis after crisis, fundraiser after fundraiser, my Pakistani-American friends walk the walk. I admire you enormously for knowing and doing what needs to be done for the men, women and, above all, children of Pakistan, regardless of the constantly changing and increasingly alarming geopolitical situation. And I want you to know that I will continue walking the walk with you.
One way I think I’m positioned to help is by educating the American public about the Pakistan I’ve come to know and love, since I first went there in 1995. We all know Pakistan is far from perfect, but the point I try to get across to mainstream America is that the real Pakistan is very different, and much more interesting and likeable, than the Pakistan they see on TV. That’s an easy and enjoyable thing to do if you know and like Pakistan as I do, and it needs to be done, because the American public’s attitude toward Pakistan greatly affects our ability to support all the urgently needed humanitarian work that must be done. This is so because, as I and others have diagnosed, the Pakistani-American community suffers from chronic and worsening donor fatigue, and the wider American public represents a largely untapped source of funds for nonprofits working in Pakistan. But even prior to that, we need to elicit the positive interest and human sympathy of non-Pakistani, non-Muslim Americans, for everyone’s sake.
And more than that, I believe the very future of Pakistan itself depends on the Pakistani Diaspora’s ability and willingness to reach out assertively to mainstream America. I believe that the best defense is a good offense, and that if you want something done right – in this case, if you want Americans to have a correct impression of Pakistan and of Muslims – you’ve got to do it yourself. This is where I believe APPNA and its chapters and individual members can play a powerful leading role on behalf of the Pakistani-American community as a whole – and thus, by extension, on behalf of Pakistan.
To mainstream America, APPNA members are potentially the human faces of Pakistan and of Islam. I say potentially, because unfortunately the faces that the words “Pakistan” and “Islam” still conjure up to many Americans are those of people like Osama bin Laden and Faisal Shahzad, the disturbed young man who planted a bomb in Times Square in New York last year. This will change only if we make a concerted effort to change it – but we can change it. What’s called for is a very assertive public diplomacy initiative, to replace those faces with the faces of accomplished professionals, good neighbors, and active citizens – people like you. Each of you lives and works somewhere in America, many of you in very provincial and even remote cities and towns. And it’s exactly in those places that the need is greatest.
APPNA has the membership and institutional infrastructure to make a big difference throughout American society. What if APPNA were to do this systematically, encouraging and supporting members and chapters who take initiative locally by reaching out to churches, schools, civic groups like Rotary, and universities? And even if this were not feasible on an APPNA-wide scale, there’s no reason it can’t be done by regional or state chapters or individual members. It just takes initiative, resourcefulness, and imagination, all of which I know Pakistanis possess. Pakistanis are among the most resourceful people I know; you’ve had to be, because for 64 years your country has faced one enormous challenge after another. As author Emma Duncan pointed out more than 20 years ago, nothing is ever settled in Pakistan. That’s chronically frustrating, but it has also been good practice for our current and coming crises, both in Pakistan and in America. The Pakistani-American community, led by APPNA members, has a lot to teach other Americans about how to rise to a challenge.
I want to continue rising to our shared challenges with you, because I believe we’re all in this together. On June 1, I gave a speech at a prestigious TEDx event sponsored by the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, New Jersey. In it I pointed out, to a mostly non-Pakistani audience, that many Pakistani friends of mine – many of them physicians who volunteered their time and lifesaving skills – responded immediately and with real sympathy, concretely expressed, after the earthquake in Haiti. I also said that I felt American society had missed the opportunity to show similar human concern for Pakistanis last summer, when 20 percent of Pakistan was under water. And I quoted from a message I received from Dr. Uzma Shah of Boston, after I had published an article titled “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?” on the Huffington Post and on my website. “It’s hard to see pictures from Pakistan,” Uzma wrote, “and I can’t help but choke back tears when I see all that desperation. And amidst all the furor about all things bad and hard about Pakistan and ‘Islam,’ it’s comforting to read your article. Because at the end of the day, we are all human, living in one world, sharing the same life.”
This is the point we must keep making, as often as necessary. It’s easy to explain away America’s failure to respond adequately to the floods: Americans suffered from “compassion fatigue” after Haiti; Pakistan is farther from the US than Haiti is; a flood is a slow-moving disaster whose effects are less immediately dramatic than an earthquake. But it’s also hard to avoid facing the effects of a decade-long national climate that has made Muslims the only group in America against whom it’s considered permissible, sometimes even fashionable, to be bigoted. I believe, though, that – like all people – Americans are capable of responding to what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, if they’re invited and given the opportunity to do so. Many of you know this from your own experience. As my friend Dr. Shahnaz Khan of Zephyrhills, Florida told me, “It becomes personal. [My patients] actually tell me they think of me when they listen to the news. In fact, a lot of them probably didn’t know I was from Pakistan before 9/11, or didn’t even care. They say, ‘Be careful, Dr. Khan. Come back safely. Don’t get lost, don’t get hurt.’ It’s a good feeling, a lot of goodwill.” Just as the real Pakistan is better and more interesting than the Pakistan we see on TV, so is the real America.
So how can we effectively engage with and influence the real America? One thing I do is give away copies of my book, Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip, to students, libraries, religious and political leaders, and others in positions of influence in American society. The Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa understands what I’m trying to achieve; she says its “personal perspective … lends the book much of its charm and veracity and makes Overtaken By Events so compulsively readable.” The program’s potential is well illustrated by an email I received from Texas Christian University student Paul Jorden in January, just after I spoke to his World Religions class taught by Professor Mark Dennis. “Dear Mr. Casey,” Paul wrote,
Thank you very much for the copy of your book. I am thoroughly looking forward to learning more about life and the hardships of those in Pakistan and how terrorism shapes our (Americans’) perception of Muslims. Thank you for taking the time to speak to our class. I sincerely appreciate the importance of issues such as this, especially during times when it seems that our lives are permeated by a constant fear of terrorism via the news. Best of luck with promoting awareness.