Pakistanis in America fret about their country's image

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 28, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The mounting tensions between the United States and Pakistan are resonating uncomfortably for Pakistanis living in America, who worry about a growing perception that their native country is a failing state and a hotbed of terrorism.

"I am thousands of miles away from home and the war on terror is the last thing I want to read about here. It's everywhere," said Ameer Ali, 42, a taxi driver in Sterling, Va., who's lived in the United States since 1990.

The allegations last week by Adm. Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the insurgent Haqqani network operating in Afghanistan was a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency have refocused media attention on the deeply troubled U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

That has meant a steady drumbeat of negative stories about a country that — unlike its rival, India, for example — has a relatively low profile in the United States, many Pakistanis said.

"Since most Americans don't know about Pakistan they form their opinion on the basis of whatever they read or see in media," Ali said.

That view was shared by John R. Schmidt, who served as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad from 1998 to 2001. Relatively few Americans have visited Pakistan, and the country remains poorly understood here even though it long has been a U.S. ally, especially after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Schmidt said.

Mostly poor, with turbulent and often violent politics, Pakistan has failed to sell itself as a tourist destination, he added.

"It's up to the Pakistanis to advertise the many positive sides of the society," Schmidt said. But as the author of a new book called "The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad," he acknowledged that it would be difficult to direct interest away from extremists as long as they're running around Pakistan.

The United States recognized Pakistan on Aug. 15, 1947, the day after its founding. The first Pakistani prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, visited the United States in 1950, and Pakistan was seen as a U.S. ally throughout the Cold War.

The United States sends Pakistan's government billions of dollars annually in aid, but many Pakistanis have come to view the United States with suspicion, in part because of the U.S. military campaign of drone strikes against terrorist targets in northwestern Pakistan that have reportedly killed civilians. Many Pakistanis were also angered by the unilateral U.S. raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Osama bin Laden in May.

With tensions rising, the Pakistani American Leadership Center, an advocacy group in Washington, issued a statement Wednesday arguing that "the most important takeaway from Mullen's Senate testimony was not the heightened level of accusations against Pakistan but his assessment that 'a failed and strained engagement with Pakistan is better than disengagement.'"

The group critiqued the calls by some in Washington, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to designate the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization, arguing that such a move would implicate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism — "isolating Pakistan from others in the international community while precipitating another crisis between the U.S. and the international Muslim community."

Syed Shah, an information-technology specialist with Sprint in Springfield, Va., said that Pakistan suffers from an image problem because only the negative aspects of the country get featured in the press.

"I have always admired the United States, but I do feel at times that my country of origin, Pakistan, should get space in newspapers for things other than the war on terror and women's rights violations," said Shah, 32. "But I am positive. I believe that some day people will think about Pakistan in a positive light."

Imran Amin, 19, a student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Pakistan's image suffers by comparison to India, whose population is several times larger and which has sent more people to live in the United States. The general perception about Indians in the U.S. is that they are highly educated and readily integrate into American culture, Amin said, while many Pakistanis prefer to stay within their community.

"They prefer to have their own identity that revolves around their culture and religion," Imran said.

Aziz Jan, 34, of Alexandria, Va., said that every Pakistani in the United States struggled to make sense of the negative portrayal of Pakistan in the mainstream U.S. media.

"Some of us have started to accept it as a new normal, but it really hurts when you compare yourself as a Pakistani to an Indian or other South Asian nations in the region," said Jan, who works at a ground transportation company.

Jan said that Pakistan's contributions to the war on terrorism — including apprehending suspected militant leaders — were overlooked "because the Western media always viewed it as a close ally of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," dating to Islamabad's support for Islamic extremists there in the 1990s.

"I would like Pakistan's rich ... physical and cultural diversity portrayed in the U.S. media. I would like them to seek and translate the views of the progressive segment of our society," Aziz said.

Asked whether the recent strains had affected his relationships with Americans, he said that for those "who know us personally, their attitudes have not changed."

(McClatchy special correspondent Raza is an editor at Dawn, a leading independent newspaper in Pakistan. He's working in McClatchy's Washington Bureau as part of an exchange program by the International Center for Journalists.)

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