It is a terribly tragic story and one that has received relatively scant attention in Pakistan. Nazish Noorani, a 27-year-old Karachi-born woman, was shot and killed on the night of August 16 as she walked with her husband and young son on a residential street in Boonton, New Jersey, a quiet suburb of New York City. The husband, Kashif Pervaiz, was lightly wounded, while the boy was unharmed.
Pervaiz initially told police that after leaving a relative’s home, he and his wife and son were approached by three armed men. He said the assailants shouted racial epithets and called the family ‘terrorists’ before opening fire. The implication was that Noorani was the victim of a hate crime. This news broke just hours after The Express Tribune published my article about the abduction of Warren Weinstein, the American aid worker, from his residence in Lahore. The piece had underscored the tendency of Pakistanis to brand all Americans in Pakistan as CIA agents, yet now I kept thinking about what many readers described as the commentary’s chief flaw: I had neglected to mention both the similarly unfair stereotypes harboured by Americans about Pakistanis, and the travails Pakistanis face in the United States. In the aftermath of the Boonton killing, who could possibly take issue with such criticism?
Alas, it was not meant to be. In a surprising twist, Pervaiz abruptly changed his story and admitted to having planned his wife’s murder with a Boston-based woman who may have been his mistress. The three-men-screaming-‘terrorists’ scenario was a complete fabrication. Instead, Pervaiz and his accomplice arranged for Noorani to be killed and for him to be wounded harmlessly — presumably to absolve him of suspicion.
In retrospect, there was never any reason to suspect the killing was a hate crime. Numerous Boonton residents — including Pakistani-Americans, who according to census data constitute more than five per cent of the town’s 4,200-strong population — speak of the great respect exhibited towards Boonton’s Pakistani-origin inhabitants, many of whom emigrated decades ago from the town of Ghazi in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. One New Jersey newspaper observed that while these immigrants were once referred to derisively as ‘Pakrats’, this ugly term has now disappeared from the local vernacular.
All the same, the circumstances surrounding Noorani’s murder crystallise some disturbing realities about life for Pakistanis (and Muslims in general) in the United States. Pervaiz concocted his bigots-out-to-kill-Pakistanis story because he knew that in a society given to anti-Pakistani sentiment, and even to anti-Pakistani acts, many Americans would find it perfectly believable.
Make no mistake: Pakistanis are generally treated very well in the United States. However, some have undoubtedly suffered. Perhaps the most brutal case that comes to mind in recent years is that of a 46-year-old Pakistani immigrant in Texas, who was gunned down in 2001 by a white supremacist seeking to avenge the 9/11 attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent annual hate crimes statistics, which cover the year 2009, report 107 incidents of ‘anti-Islamic bias’ (the data do not identify victims by country of origin, though one assumes this classification includes some Pakistani-origin targets). This number pales in comparison to the number of incidents instigated against Jews, African-Americans and homosexuals, though hate crimes watchdog groups believe anti-Islamic acts are now on the rise amid the furore over a proposed Islamic Cultural Centre near the site of the former World Trade Centre.
More troubling, however, are the subtler, yet more widespread, forms of anti-Pakistan sentiment. Think of the excessive delays experienced by Pakistani visitors while attempting to clear immigration in US airports across the country. Consider the heavy clouds of suspicion that hang over some of America’s Pakistani-run Muslim charities and organisations. And take note of US public opinion polling, which finds anti-Pakistan sentiment registering at record-high levels.
Americans are unnecessarily maligned in Pakistan, yet so are Pakistanis in America. Unfortunately, now that the truth is out about the murder of Nazish Noorani, Pervaiz’s crime may well exacerbate the toxic American views of Pakistanis that he so deftly exploited.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 26th, 2011.