INTERVIEW
 
Pakistan's image in the Western world
Salam Pakistan
December 2011
The United Kingdom is home to a million-strong expatriate Pakistani community, which has made its mark in British politics, economy and social life, while simultaneously retaining strong emotional bonds with Pakistan. This community constitutes a great national asset for Pakistan, but “how can we utilise its full potential?” This is especially true at a time when a deliberate attempt is seemingly underway in the West, including Britain, to defame Pakistan by questioning its credibility in the War on Terror. What Pakistan needs to do in response?

We raised these issues with Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, who is currently serving as the Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford in the UK. He teaches International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, and is known for both academic and journalistic works. Since joining the present fellowship last November, he has spoken at seminars and conferences at Oxford and several other British universities and research institutions on current issues crucial to Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Q. In the academic events you have so far participated, what perceptions do speakers, the British as well as from other Western nations, hold for Pakistan?

A. I must say that there are a lot many misperceptions about Pakistan, especially about its regional approaches, particularly towards Afghanistan and India. Some of these misperceptions are an outcome of sheer ignorance of the complex regional realities and their equally intricate historical roots. Others are deliberately propagated by vested interests in British or Western media, academic and official establishments.

Q. This deliberate campaign is quite clear on terrorism issues. Isn’t it?

A. Quite right. Let’s consider Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror as an example! While there is hardly any other country in the world than Pakistan that has suffered as much human and material loss in the last ten years, the Western discourse remains focused on Pakistan’s counter-terrorism duality. The two-part documentary, recently broadcast by the BBC, is a vivid example of such propaganda streak, whose sole purpose is to malign Pakistani state institutions and make Pakistan a scapegoat for American-led NATO’s failure in Afghanistan.

Q. How should Pakistan respond to such smear campaign, then?

A. We need to remain steadfast against such pressure tactics by the West, as it increasingly gets frustrated in Afghanistan. However, since British or Western misperceptions about Pakistan are also partly an outcome of ignorance, it is extremely important to re-double our diplomatic and scholarly efforts to reach out to Western media, academia and officialdom, and engage them in healthy discourse. For instance, even at a place like Oxford, one often, quite surprisingly, comes across known social sciences figures sketching a doomsday scenario for Pakistan.

Q. But, how can we reshape the thinking of people who have already made up their mind?

A. No, this is not the case. We need to understand that Western societies are essentially individualistic, modernistic and, therefore, quite receptive to logical argumentation. In an environment of free enquiry, it is possible to persuade or convince the misperceived lot to re-think their understanding of Pakistan by underscoring our unique attributes such as the resilience of a nation amid recurrent state crises, an expanding middle class reshaping national politics, and an extremely proactive civil society and independent media. Even on the issue of terrorism, Pakistan’s crucial role in Afghanistan, both during war and for peace, when logically explained does make a difference in the debate. We make a mistake when we adopt reactionary and emotional attitude while responding to Western criticism of our policies.

Q. In what way do you think a sizeable community of British Pakistanis have contributed to Pakistan’s cause?

A.Whenever Pakistan has faced any crisis, be it terrorism or calamities such as earthquake or floods, British Pakistanis have been at the forefront of offering generous funding for the millions of victimised and displaced Pakistanis. Their role in recent rioting in the UK was also exemplary—when Tariq Jahan, despite losing his son Haroon at the hands of a rioter in Birmingham, kept his cool, calmed the protesting mourners and urged Britons of every colour or creed to “come together” as a nation in a moment of crisis. There could be no better example of Britishness than this, a high moral standard for the rest of the UK citizenry to emulate.

Q. Point out a major shortcoming you think British Pakistanis have, one that aso indirectly affects Pakistan?

A. Despite their extraordinary charitable nature and responsible social role, they have not been able to excel in higher education and play as formidable a role in professional and business careers in the UK as, for instance, the Indian expatriate community has started to over time. This explains why British media, academia and officialdom continue to be heavily influenced by Indian narrative on Pakistan and South Asia, and its predominantly wrongful assumptions. However, just as the ground reality in Pakistan may be changing for the better—with more people gaining education and making a credible difference in various walks of life—a similar promising trend, better late than never, can also be visualised among a million Britons with their souls in Pakistan.

The interview can be accessed at salampakistan.pk