In defence of Pakistanis

I usually avoid getting drawn into arguments with people on the internet, because there’s really no point. I even try to avoid reading the comments on online newspaper articles, because I know I’m more likely just to make myself angry than actually to learn or reconsider anything. But when a particularly poisonous commenter on Huffington Post started arguing that the 138 Pakistanis who are now almost certainly dead after being buried by an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier last Saturday are undeserving of our sympathy and compassion – I couldn’t help but rise to the bait.

The article, and all its comments, can be read here.

And here is a slightly extended version of the indignant screed I ended up writing in response. (To give you some context, I took objection to this gentleman’s comments about Pakistanis, whereupon he called me naive for being “enamored with their attempts at hospitality”, claimed that living in the UK qualifies him to understand Pakistanis far better than me, and reminded me that “[t]hese people are our enemies and enemies deserve no compassion. “)

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Sir, you are the naive one.

Naive to think that living in the same country as a large number of Pakistanis make you an expert on what kind of people they are. It would be possible to live in the UK for decades without meeting a single Pakistani – I know, because I’ve lived there for 30 years myself. If you were able to explain your relationships and encounters with these people in more detail (are they friends? family members? clients? colleagues? neighbours?), then I might be more inclined to take you seriously.

You are naive to let your opinion be mediated by the government and the media. You know how this stuff works, yes? A story will only be published or broadcast if it is considered ‘newsworthy’. (As it happens, I am currently staying with a British-Pakistani journalist in Islamabad, so I’ve witnessed this first-hand – not all of the stories he pitches are accepted by his channel, depending on factors as varied as how much airtime they have, how slow news is in the rest of the world, and what sort of image they want to convey of Pakistan.) If, for example, a poll showed most Pakistanis think the UK and the US are pretty much OK really, but are much more interested in paying the bills on time and making sure their kids do their homework, do you think it would make headlines? Of course it wouldn’t.

You are naive to conflate ordinary people with their government, and even more naive if you actually believe that the domestic and foreign policy of a country accurately represents the interests and opinions of its people. Just look at what’s been going on in the UK for the past two years.

You are naive – and rude – to dismiss the hospitality I have received throughout Pakistan (including no-go areas like Balochistan) as “sweet nothings” and “polite platitudes”. I have spent over two months in the country, spoken with hundreds of Pakistanis, and not spent a single night in a hotel or guesthouse. People have shared their food with me, given me presents, introduced me to their families, invited me to their weddings and thrown parties in my honour. (I asked myself time and time again – “would this happen to a Pakistani travelling in the UK?”) My hosts in Quetta were so embarrassingly generous that I ended up leaving the city with more money than I arrived. When I was ill in Chichawatni my host made sure I wanted for nothing, and my previous and future hosts all phoned up every couple of hours to check I was OK. My hosts in Lahore went to considerable trouble and expense to source me a new cycling jersey from London, after my old one was torn by their dog. A man I’d never met happily offered to lend my father a bike when he visited, and when I went round to collect it he fed me lunch, gave me a lift back to my hosts’ house, and invited me to a family wedding taking place that evening. When I am cycling between cities, the highway police regularly stop me to ask if everything is OK, and are unfailingly polite and friendly. Between Jhelum and Rawalpindi, some of them even insisted on buying me a bag of drinks and snacks.

I have had long discussions with a whole range of Pakistanis – Muslim, Christian, atheist, secular, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, middle-class, military, civilian, educated and illiterate. Almost all of them show a far more nuanced appreciation of international affairs than their counterparts in the UK. They recognize the flaws and strengths of their country, and are passionate about improving it. They criticize their government. They condemn the Taliban. Many of them have lived, worked or studied abroad, speak several languages, and have a cosmopolitan outlook that makes me feel positively parochial in comparison. They are highly aware of how they are perceived by the rest of the world – much more so that I, as a Briton, am. They accept that I am not a Muslim, and do not attempt to criticize or convert me. Some of them – Christian and Muslim – have told me they are now praying for my health and happiness, and that of my family.

Suggesting that all of this warmth and generosity amounts to “polite platitudes” is just ludicrous. It seems rather unlikely that every single Pakistani I’ve met (and some of them I’ve become very close to) has set out to pull the wool over my eyes, and to deceive me about their true nature. If they saw me as ‘the enemy’, surely at least one or two of them would have expressed hostility? It seems far more likely, sir, that you are mistaken than that I am.

Finally, you are especially naive to think that saying “enemies deserve no compassion” makes you substantially different from the equally deluded Pakistanis who, as you say, celebrated the deaths of innocent people on 9/11.

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After digging around among this gentleman’s other posts, I discovered that he’s a bit of a troll – someone who makes inflammatory or offensive comments with the express purpose of winding people up and starting arguments. But I stand by my response. And the reason I’ve reproduced it here is that I think people should hear a bit more of this righteous anger, and a bit less of the blind hatred spouted by him – and regrettably quite a few of his (and my) compatriots.

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