Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video Dispatch

Pakistani Americans Stand Up

Homeland concerns fuel political participation

BY Charlotte BuchenOctober 28, 2008

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Charlotte Buchen is a freelance videographer and a regular contributor to FRONTLINE/World. Her previous stories include "India: Design Like You Give a Damn" and "France: The Precarious Generation."

Riaz Haq believes next week's election will determine war or peace in Pakistan.

A business consultant and blogger based in Fremont, CA, Haq is part of a Pakistani-American community that is increasingly active in politics. Their homeland currently faces multiple threats to its stability and could not have more at stake in the American election.

Pakistan has an unpopular new president, a tanking economy, and is facing extremist suicide bombings that have spread to the nation's capital. Pakistanis are concerned about their relationship with their largest ally, the United States -- especially because this summer the Bush administration began authorizing drone aircraft bombings and ground incursions into Pakistan's border regions in pursuit of Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives.

The latest Predator bombing killed 20 people in the mountainous border region of North Waziristan, reported The New York Times this week. The policy is extremely unpopular in Pakistan and, for many Pakistani Americans, foreign policy toward Pakistan is a determining factor in their vote.

"Pakistanis are extremely sensitive now about the U.S. role there," said Haq. "The situation seems to be escalating dangerously right now. We talk about Iraq War -- I think this situation could get far worse very quickly. And it could actually become a regional war."

A registered Democrat who has never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, Haq is voting for John McCain because of his concerns about U.S. policy in his fragile homeland.

"McCain is handling the situation in Pakistan gently. He understands not to make open statements, and he has been around for a long time," Haq said. "To me, Obama is a novice like GW was back in 2000. And it's still an imperial Presidency so Obama can make mistakes as Bush has."

Riaz Haq

Pakistani American blogger and business consultant Riaz Haq.

The turning point for Haq was Obama's first major foreign policy speech, delivered in August, 2007, at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, when he stated he would be willing to unilaterally bomb Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda.

"I was surprised that he came out of nowhere and made such a strong statement. No one else on the stage was as aggressive," Haq said. "I started to have reservations."

But despite the uproar over Obama's statements, Haq has not found much Pakistani-American company in the McCain camp. Most in his community are sticking with Obama.

"The statements that Obama is making disappoint Pakistanis," said Javed Ellahie, a Bay area attorney, "but they don't think it's any different than what would follow from anybody else. What Obama is saying is reflecting what the U.S. policy is anyway, he's just saying it publicly." Ellahie says that "even if McCain pretends like he's going to respect the sovereignty of Pakistan, Pakistanis would expect him to do whatever Bush is doing, because on every other thing he's followed Bush."

For Ellahie and the bulk of Pakistani Americans, their vote is based on strong support for Obama's domestic policy, despite their ambivalence about his statements on bombing inside Pakistan.

"Even if McCain pretends like he's going to respect the sovereignty of Pakistan, Pakistanis would expect him to do whatever Bush is doing, because on every other thing he's followed Bush."

"From an American perspective, Pakistanis are looking at Obama as a better president," Ellahie said. "Pakistanis are not totally ethnocentric and they're not going to vote just because Obama is going to end up bombing Pakistan -- they're looking at the malaise in the economy in the United States, the war, everything else that has gone wrong in this country and we need a change."

"I'm a realtor, by trade, and I see people everyday losing their homes," said Shaista Aftab, who I met at a recent event at the Pakistani American Community Center in Fremont. "We need to work out [the situation] over here first before we go intervening in other people's politics."

As an ethnic community and political bloc, Pakistani Americans are not large in number, with estimates of their population in the U.S. ranging widely from 130,000 to 500,000. But, says Boston University public policy professor Adil Najam, there is a new trend in the politicization of that community since 9/11, one that has shifted priorities to domestic concerns rather than foreign policy toward Pakistan.

"Earlier, Pakistani-American politics was based on the concept of, 'What will this guy to do the country I left 30 years ago?' But now, it's about, 'What will this guy do to affect the country my children are growing up in?'" said Najam. The shift came about because of a sense of persecution and vulnerability amongst Pakistani Americans as their community came under suspicion because of their country of origin. The close scrutiny led to raids and deportations for those whose visa status was in question.

Shaista Aftab

Shaista Aftab

"Everybody knows somebody who was deported," Najam said. "There is a fear that, 'It could happen to me.'"

Dr. Rafiq Rahman, a Kentucky-based doctor and one of the founders of the Pakistani American Leadership Center, PAL-C, in Washington DC is involved in the effort to make sure that his community has the ability to speak up for those who are patriotic Americans as well as proud Pakistanis.

"A lot of deportation happened and there was no public forum to say, 'Hey! This is wrong,'" says Dr. Rahman. "Post-9/11 we found out we had to be more active. If you're not involved in the political arena, nobody will listen. Now Pakistani Americans are more involved in local elections for eldermen and state senators."

Pakistani Americans came out strongly for Bush in 2000, so they have felt particularly let down by the previous eight years.

Professor Najam, who authored a book about Pakistani-Americans entitled Portrait of a Giving Community, said that it was unsurprising that before 9/11, Pakistani Americans voted Republican. They are an affluent group compromised largely of highly trained, well-paid professionals in medicine, industry, and engineering, he said, and they were anti-taxation and socially conservative.

"The goal is to get Pakistani Americans to participate fully in the democratic process that this country is famous for, because we want to be counted as patriotic, active, enlightened Americans."

Now, Najam says, the priorities have shifted. "What has changed is that after 9/11 things have come up that are more important than taxes and social values, things like human rights and civil liberties."

Pakistani Americans still hope to see whomever is elected use soft power in Pakistan -- diplomacy, development aid, and support for the civilian and judicial powers there -- rather than continuing the attacks that they say breed hatred for America back home.

The anti-American sentiment brewing in Pakistan contrasts sharply with the context that many Pakistani Americans grew up in, when the U.S. was using Pakistan and Pakistanis as proxy fighters against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

"When I was growing up we all looked to Americans -- we all wanted to be here," said Dr. Rahman. "I'm from Peshawar, a frontier province, and we were sending men to fight Khrushchev in Afghanistan. My father told me, 'We are doing this to help protect the free world.' That sentiment is gone from Pakistan now. What happened to that idealism?"

What does bring Dr. Rahman hope is that the Pakistani-American community is standing up to be counted here in the U.S. and hopefully can help to inform foreign policy in the future.

"The goal is to get Pakistani Americans to participate fully in the democratic process that this country is famous for, because we want to be counted as patriotic, active, enlightened Americans, with strong feelings toward Pakistan," Dr. Rahman said. "We want to be equally American as any other American."

Related Links

New York Times: "Bush Said to Give Orders Allowing Raids in Pakistan"
Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times report on President Bush's secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allowed American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.

Barack Obama Foreign Policy Speech
The Council on Foreign Relations published the transcript of Barack Obama's speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in August 2007, where he first laid out his foreign policy position and his views on attacks in Pakistan.

Pakistani American Leadership Center
PAL-C is a Pakistani American advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., created to give the Pakistani American community a voice and a presence on Capitol Hill.

share your reactions

A very enlightening piece on this "ignored" group, ie moderate educated Muslim Americans. Pakistan has become so important on the global scene that it is very appropriate and timely for Frontline to look into this country's views and those of its citizens abroad.

Faheem Farooqui - Karachi, Pakistan
I hope that all Pakistani Americans go with McCain. As in Washington DC, when Obama openly stated he would be willing to unilaterally bomb Pakistan it showed his inexperience to deal with things. However McCain's views for Pakistan are much more gentle and adhere with the ground realities.
As the current roar is with Obama Non-Pakistanis viewpoint is also with Obama. I believe that most Pakistanis don't make their own decision on facts & normally go with the wind (as what the results of Pakistani Election shows where PPP got the sympathy votes by having banners all over the place with Benazir Bhutto photos) to play their part to make Obama the next US President. I hope this won't happen.