Resisting a xenophobic response

The worst form of our inherent xenophobia is reserved for Afghans

Muhammad Hamid Zaman September 20, 2022
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

A few years ago, a family member commented that Karachi was no longer a city they wanted to live in. When inquired, they were direct in their response. “Too many Sindhis buying property in their neighborhood,” they said. Pushed further, they presented a long list of grievances, none of which had anything to do with their neighbours, but were a result of racist, ill-informed and xenophobic perceptions about the community as a whole. I remember similar conversations in 2009 with similar sentiments about the internally displaced persons coming to Islamabad. A family friend had commented how Islamabad would soon be unlivable because of all these people coming from “outside” and bringing their problems to the pristine capital.

The worst form of our inherent xenophobia, of course, is reserved for Afghans. An altercation on a cricket pitch and the stadium (as happened just a few weeks ago), leads people from all walks of life (including those who have enjoyed a media platform) to label the entire community as ungrateful and worthy of putting in guarded camps. Even people, who I thought were otherwise reasonable and inclusive, were freely using racist and xenophobic slurs in their analysis to paint an entire society. The irony is that it is the same group that cries foul when others resort to the same evil and paint Muslims or Pakistanis in broad brush strokes, and expect the entire community to preemptively apologise for all future misdemeanors of an individual.

The hostility towards others, and imagining them to be beneath us in morality, decency, values and character is not simply driven by race, it is also heavily influenced by our disdain towards the poor. It is the same poisonous cocktail that seems to intoxicate people the world over — from Donald Trump to Ron DeSantis, from Priti Patel to Marine Le Pen. Yet, it would be a mistake to imagine that this cocktail is only a favourite drink of the political elite, there are plenty within our own families and our so-called intelligentsia who have a deep fondness for it.

While xenophobia is never quite out of the picture in Pakistan (or many other countries, including the US), there is yet another strong reason to collectively resist the urge. Some newspapers (and social media) have reported a rise in the local versus anti-local (muqami vs ghair muqami) sentiment regarding the displacement of the flood victims. There are people in large urban areas who have put aside their thin veneer of humanity, and have suggested that the poor people displaced from interior Sindh are going to bring crime and misery to the large cities. Thus, they should not be allowed to come, or as one person put it “sent elsewhere”.

It goes without saying that it takes a certain kind of a diseased mind to actively stop others from helping those who have lost everything due to no fault of their own. Yet, few of us would be really surprised to see this sentiment present among the people we know. In jokes and in serious discussions, in conversations private and increasingly in public, we automatically associate crime, drugs, gangs and all kinds of illegal activities with ethnicities we do not like, and especially with poor persons of those communities. But this does not have to be this way — what needs to happen is leadership, from political leaders, religious scholars, opinion-makers and TV anchors to tackle it head-on. This sentiment may be among a few, but history in our country and elsewhere tells us that in the absence of moral clarity, and ethical leadership from all quarters, proliferation of such sentiments does not take long. So many people have lost so much, we should be offering them hope and support, not taking away their faith in human decency.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2022.

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