The Changing Pakistani Identity
The recent outburst of homegrown terrorists from the Pakistani-American community is an alarming development, especially considering the tenuous relationship between Islamabad and Washington. The central issue seems to be why Pakistani-Americans are turning to such violent organizations. The answer is not so simple, and while many point to the xenophobia of American society that alienates these individuals, I believe the problem started in Pakistan. The national identity of Pakistan has been replaced by a religious one; and this identity crisis has siphoned down not only to Pakistanis, but also their children who were born abroad.
Zahid Ibrahim wrote this week in Express Tribune that the New York Times Square bomber, Faisal Shazad, turned to terrorism because the apparent hostility of American society towards Muslims. Mr. Ibrahim claims that if these young people like Shazad could espouse their extremist Islamic rhetoric in the public sphere openly, they would not turn to violent terrorist groups. While I agree with Mr. Ibrahim that American culture must open itself up to its immigrant populations, the question still remains as to WHY these individuals espouse such religiously extreme ideals.
For many who move to America or were born here of Pakistani descent, they experience an identity crisis as they want to assimilate into society, yet are seen as representatives of Pakistan. But, what happens when the country you are supposed to represent lacks any national or cultural characteristic? Indian-Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, represent Indian culture with its music, literature, and films Yet, Pakistanis, have turned to the Muslim identity and the concept of Ummah rather than explore their own cultural identity.
This paradigm has affected me, as I would have arguments with my father about how Pakistan is in the same category as other Muslim nations across the world. My ideal of Pakistan being merely a part of the Ummah was emblematic of Pakistan losing its own cultural identity for that of the “Muslim World”. Individuals from my father’s generation are infuriated at the thought of Pakistan forgoing its own identity because it delineates from the vibrant social and political life they experienced growing up in Pakistan.
One should not confuse my distinction between Ummah and Pakistan’s national identity, as an attack on the concept of Ummah. I believe there are several examples of how this Ummah has helped Pakistan as well as other nations in times of poverty or war. However, we see the violent effects of this concept being the ONLY one learned by individuals, without an understanding of the tradition and culture they belong to as Pakistanis.
The misperception of national identity was no more apparent to me than when reports surfaced of a group of American-born Pakistanis being arrested in Pakistan for conspiring to commit terrorist acts. The most striking part of the report was that young men did not even speak their parent’s language of Urdu and were joining the jihadi movement. This raised a red flag in my mind considering these young men did not have any idea of their cultural heritage, but followed a modern religious trend towards extremism and violence.
The solution to me is not allowing these confused individuals space in our public sphere to discuss extremist rhetoric, but to look to each and every immigrant home. The conversations occurring within these homes are where this seed is sown for these young individuals to understand their roles not only as Americans, but as Pakistanis. If all they hear on the news and all they are told by their parents is that Pakistan is part of the Ummah and they only owe duties as a religious follower: they will fall in the trap of extremism more easily.
However, if one discusses the ideals of secular governance by Jinnah, or talks about the poetry of Iqbal, or mentions the history of Suffism in Pakistan- they fully understand their own identity and Pakistan’s. These discussions would remind Pakistanis of their vibrant national history and could bring new creativity to the nation. More significantly for immigrants and their children, understanding modern philosophical and artistic movements helps them adjust to American society, which has also experienced similar movements of freedom. Thus, the understanding of Pakistan’s identity as part of the Ummah denies a true understanding of the complexity of the culture and can lead to a rise in extremist thought.