Watching America from within

Published: May 29, 2018
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Watching America from within, as I do, can be very dispiriting. The loss of comfort is considerable for those who, like me, belong to the Muslim faith. For those of us who have come from Pakistan, the burden is twice as heavy. There can be no doubt what Donald Trump feels about Pakistan. That is so even though he knows very little about the country of my origin. Not too long ago, I met a retired lieutenant general who knew well some of the senior former American military men who occupy important positions in the Trump administration. The encounter was at a reception in Washington. “If you put a map of Asia with countries not identified by their names and ask the president to point to Pakistan — even Afghanistan — he is likely to put his finger on Nepal or Laos,” he said. Trump’s anger at Pakistan is based on the assumption that his country is not succeeding in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s perceived treachery. He has been quite vocal about his distaste for Pakistan. It was apparent on August 21st, 2017 when he announced his administration’s approach towards Afghanistan. His first tweet of the year 2018 was a sharp rebuke of Pakistan, brought about by no particular development.

“Pakistan,” wrote the president has “given us nothing but lies and deceit,” and accused it of providing safe havens to the terrorists “we hunt in Afghanistan.” Three days later, the United States government announced that it was suspending nearly all of the $13 billion in annual security aid to Pakistan. In putting Pakistan down, Trump has expressed a strong preference for strengthening relations with India. Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that her government has asked “India to keep and eye on Pakistan.”

Trump and his administration have gone beyond expressing anti-Pakistan sentiment and suspending financial aid. On May 11th, the United States’ State Department barred diplomats working at the Pakistani embassy in Washington from travelling outside a 25-mile radius around the city without approval. Pakistan retaliated on the same day. While the United States’ restrictions apply only to the diplomats assigned to the embassy and their families, the Pakistani move was more far-reaching. It banned the Americans from using tinted glass windows or using diplomatic licence plates on private cars.

Affecting the Pakistanis living in the United States is also the sharp shift in the attitudes and worldview of a large segment of the population who are now to the extreme right of the American political spectrum. This is has happened as a result of the political rise of Donald Trump. His political rhetoric encouraged these groups. The extreme right is peopled mostly by angry white men. As Amanda Taub wrote in an analysis for The New York Times, “Two of modern society’s most disruptive forces — anger amongst many men over social changes they see as a threat, and the rise of social media upending how ideas spread and communicate. The alt-right wing populism, men’s rights groups and a renewed white supremacist movement have capitalised on many white men’s feelings of loss in recent years. The groups vary in who they blame, but they provide a sense of meaning and place for their followers.”

I ran into this kind of sentiment in a chance encounter with a young American at the airport in Istanbul. This happened a few days after Trump had unexpectedly won the US presidency. I was returning from Astana, Kazakhstan, after attending the annual meeting of a think tank called the Astana Club. I changed planes at Istanbul and was waiting at the business class gate for boarding the Turkish Airlines flight to Washington. I was the only person at the gate when a young, lightly bearded white man walked up to me and asked if I was travelling business class. I thought the question was a bit strange since I was waiting at the business class gate. He then volunteered some information about himself. He had just returned from some Central Asian country after signing a large, lucrative oil-exploration deal. But he had missed the flight to Denver, Colorado, where he lived. He was re-routed through Washington.

It was not clear to me why he offered all that information about himself. He then asked me where I was headed, something that would have been obvious to him since I was standing at the gate for a flight to Washington. I said I was also going to Washington. “Why are you going there?” he asked. I said I lived there. “Oh come on; that’s not what I am asking.” Now I understood what he was getting at. “Young man, I have lived in the United States longer than you have. I moved to America before you were born. But that is not what you are interested in. You want to know where I am originally from. I am from Pakistan and I am very proud of my Muslim heritage. Is there anything more I could tell you about myself?”

He said I spoke very well; I must be highly educated. I said I was. “You are probably holding a multi-million dollar job in an American corporation working out of Washington. It is people like you who are blocking the advance of people like me, the original Americans.” He then said that I was the sort of a person who must have voted for “that criminal” in the November elections. He was obviously referring to Hillary Clinton. I said I did and then walked away. This encounter was a good indication of where America was headed in terms of the expressed views of some of its citizens towards the non-white segment of the population. This anger was all there but Trump and his rhetoric made his followers less inhibited towards expressing it.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th, 2018.

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