by Ethan Casey
Human Development Foundation Fundraiser
I’d like to have a conversation about how the world perceives Pakistan and Pakistanis, and whether and how that can be changed. We have time tonight only to begin that conversation, but I’d like to invite any of you to continue it with me in person, by email, or on LinkedIn or Facebook.
We all bemoan the fact that the American public in particular associates with Pakistan words like terrorism, fundamentalism, violence, nuclear proliferation, and assassination, and that those nouns tend to be qualified in Western discourse with the adjective “Islamic”. We all wish it were otherwise, but when it comes to changing it, we seem paralyzed and helpless, if not bitter, apathetic and resigned.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and the power to do something about it is in this room. This is a crucial historical moment, because the demonization of Pakistanis and Muslims will affect not only the current generation but generations to come. And the damage will be not only to Pakistanis and other Muslims, but to all of us and to our shared human future.
As we’re learning anew in this American political season – as recently as the past few days – the best defense is a good offense. It’s my opinion that being disgusted with the way things are is not a sufficient response, and the Pakistani community needs to take the lead in changing its own image. You have the talent, money and other resources to do this, but as a community you have no coherent, purposeful media strategy that I’ve yet been able to discern. Complaining to each other on Geo and ARY does not constitute a media strategy. HDF and several other Pakistani organizations that we support do excellent and important work not only in Pakistan but elsewhere, including here in the US. Why don’t other Americans know about it? The Pakistani community in America is an American community, after all.
Here’s what I’ve done, as a non-Pakistani friend of Pakistan: I wrote and published a sympathetic travel book about Pakistan, with the subtitle “A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time”. I conceived, launched and for a year co-hosted a podcast series called PakCast: A Weekly Audio Dialogue Between Pakistan and the West. I travel around the US speaking to both mainstream and Pakistani audiences, always emphasizing the human dimension of Pakistan, stressing our common humanity and hopes for a viable future together in this country and on this planet. My Pakistani partner, Fawad Butt, and I are making a documentary film in the same spirit as my book, currently planning to travel to Pakistan in August specifically for the purpose of shooting footage that will show Americans human stories from Pakistan, with all the politics, violence and rhetoric relegated for once to the background.
As many of you know very well, because you do such things for a living, creating and distributing media is a lot easier and less expensive than it used to be. Disseminating your community’s story, on your terms, is not a question of money but of desire and focus and vision. It should go without saying that this local Pakistani community in Silicon Valley is in a position to take a leadership role in meeting this globally important need.
Before I close, I want to stress a related point. For more than thirty years, leadership and initiative have been exercised by the first generation of immigrants – Version 1.0 of the Pakistani American community. That generation built important institutions. Version 2.0 – affluent and talented professionals now in their thirties and forties, and eager and able to meet the community’s challenges – have now come of age and bring a different perspective to the table than their parents did. As Version 2.0 accepts the mantle of community leadership – as it should be doing now and increasingly – I would caution it to keep a mindful eye on Version 2.5: the extremely bright, ambitious and energetic generation now in their twenties, who need guidance and moral and material support from their elders.
These young people, and Version 3.0 now growing up, are largely U.S.-born or even thoroughly international, and have a great deal to contribute not only to the Pakistani community but to America and the world. Please encourage them to be proud and confident in their “both/and” status – both Pakistani and American, both Muslim and Western – and to explore and develop all aspects and resources of their rich background. They should both travel to Pakistan, and contribute to America.
Allow me to suggest that you as a community have both a responsibility and a historic opportunity to ensure that their achievements are known and appreciated by the world at large. The first thing that’s necessary is for the community to decide on and unite behind a common message. Jewish, Indian and Cuban communities in the United States have been enormously successful at this, and there is a lot to learn from their examples. The second thing I urge is: please don’t make all your children become doctors. Please encourage some members of your younger generations to embrace the media as a vehicle for their aspirations.
There are already very promising examples of younger Pakistani Americans moving purposefully into this field. One of these is my friend Ambreen Ali, who recently earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and is currently working in India, of all places. Another is my friend Taimur Khan from Portland, who recently interned at Harper’s magazine in New York. HDF was founded by physicians, and medicine is a noble and important calling. But so is journalism. And perhaps today Pakistan needs one as much as it needs the other.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and is at work on a documentary film about Pakistan. He speaks often to American and Pakistani audiences. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.casey-butt.com