How the world changes when you leave the borders of North America! Watching Obama from Canada and then from Pakistan is quite surreal!
Part I – view from across the border
Watching Obama win the election last November in Canada I felt emotional, hopeful, excited to see a black American become the next resident of the White House. Given the importance of race in Canada and North America, it was significant to see a black man run for office and win. And yes race is important! It is important if you are Aboriginal, it is important if you are an immigrant of colour, it is important if you are in any way identified as a "visible minority." I should know I have lived it for the past 20 years in Canada.
It doesn’t always have to be a negative experience; after all, I am a success story. But Canada is also not always the land of milk and honey for every racialized immigrant or refugee that lands on its rather inaccessible shores!
For example, more racialized people live in poverty today than non-racialized ones at least in the GTA (see studies done by Prof. Michael Ornstein, Prof. Grace-Edward Galabuzzi, United Way Of Greater Toronto) and this poverty is growing. Research shows that second generation racialized kids identify racism as their number one issue (see Prof. Jeffrey Reitz). Research also shows that the GTA is geographically becoming segregated in terms of income and race disparity — majority of the population lives in declining and decaying inner suburbs and is immigrant, racialized and poor, while the rich non-racialized minority congregates in the center of the City (see David Hulchanski).
Equally, race is important in terms of some of the experiences of people of colour, for example, being racially profiled by authorities, victimized by hate crimes, subject of discrimination in employment, disproportionate numbers of suspension in schools and a normalizing public discourse that portrays whole communities as security threats and talks of curtailing civil liberties of some of our citizens as if it were okay. Don’t believe me? Ask African Canadians, Muslims, Aboriginals to mention a few.
And believe it or not — race is also important in our foreign policy especially if you view it from immigrant eyes. When Canada changes from being a peace-maker/keeper to being an apparent occupier/invader either by tacit acceptance or by explicit intervention in lands from which our new immigrants are arriving and where their families and friends still reside — Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. — it is a problem that needs attention. Or when we adopt a partisan policy stance towards conflicts that are unresolved like Palestine and Israel when both Arabs/Muslims and Jews are Canadian citizens and deserve our ‘equal’ consideration, it is hard to be grateful or indeed hopeful. No! Immigrants do not owe their loyalty to Canada unquestioningly — Canada needs to earn that loyalty just as immigrants earn their Canadian citizenship. Obama ushered in a new discourse!
No amount of Bush-lites (Blair, Sarkozy, Harper et al) — what I call the Axis of the Unmentionables — can convince me otherwise no matter how Orwellian their rhetoric maybe (double speak like: state imposed restrictions on dress (hijab) are to protect our freedoms; or that youth rioting to demand equal democratic rights are a threat to society; or that invasion of countries is to liberate them for democracy; or that faith based societies are dangerous because God has given us a mission for freedom and secularism). So yes! Obama election, his message of hope and change, his policy of negotiation, his promise of more government and social assistance and his accountability of the private sector did elate us all! At last the unbridled Bushmare was over and perhaps we could call a lie a lie and not a weapon of mass obfuscation!
Part II – view from across the ocean
Then in December I travelled to Pakistan — a usual pilgrimage all immigrants make to their land of origin as often as their limited resources allow. I was in Pakistan for several months — long enough to view the world from Pakistani eyes as Obama became a reality in the White House.
While in the West including Canada we see Pakistan as a source of all modern ills — a sort of head-office of Terrorism Inc. — in Pakistan, they see the world pitted against them unjustly. Through undemocratic regimes, political violence, corrupt politicians, feudal excesses, limited resources, bludgeoning population, environmental degradation, Pakistan chugs along. There are some moments of joy, few stories of heroism, occasional instances of brilliance and an undying belief in faith and hope. But this hope is different from Obama’s tag line.
Mumbai attacks were seen by everyone inside and outside of Pakistan to be horrible and condemnable. But while the world quickly blamed Pakistan, including Obama, in Pakistan people hoped now others will understand what they go through — having recently lost their own populist leader, namely, Benazir Bhutto, to such acts of wanton violence. In fact, more people died in Karachi & Peshawar within days of the Mumbai incident than in the Mumbai attacks but this did not get reported in international press. Sympathy for India and statements by President Obama that everyone has a right to defend itself seemed justified in India and the West but in Pakistan it appeared a bit irresponsible. After all without any evidence of direct correlation between the terrorists and Pakistani government’s willing involvement in it, an unnecessary carte blanche was being offered to India to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty in the same manner as U.S.A did against Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 — an act condemned by President Obama as being wrong in his campaign speeches.
His statements may inspire hope in North America but in Pakistan they sound ominous and suspiciously similar to Bush rhetoric. Obama’s claims to take troops out of Iraq and reinforce them in Afghanistan, is seen as dangerous since it merely flushes out the so-called extremists over the porous border into Pakistan. Continuing American drone attacks in the northern territory of Pakistan (supposedly to fight terrorism) against the wishes of Pakistani authorities that kill civilians daily, sounds like a continuation of US belligerence in the region and not a dramatic departure from the past. In fact, Pakistani government seems to have little control over rogue elements inside Pakistan. The fact that a U.S. sponsored democratically elected government in Pakistan cannot rein in its friend, U.S., and protect its own civilians merely undermines that government’s ability to check the extreme elements. Then to blame it for failing to stop extremism is a Cheyney-ism we have heard before.
In the West, Pakistan is seen as an unstable and violent state exporting terrorism. In Pakistan they see the state being destabilized by foreign intervention, undeclared wars on Pakistani borders that are making the country vulnerable and violent incursions by Americans sowing the seeds of disaffection and further violence. Every day talk show hosts and their guests are at pains to point out that extremism in Pakistan (Taliban, Al Qaeda, local militants) was fostered, nourished and financially supported by America during Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (all through the 1980s) and now the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. It is Pakistanis who are paying the harshest price for this not Americans! Today’s attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team saw only Pakistani casualties.
Then came Israeli attack on Gaza! As over a thousand Palestinians lay dead, the West and especially President Obama condemned Hamas extremism not Israeli excesses. Guess what — in Pakistan it was not seen as a statement of hope or change or indeed something new — it was American hypocrisy as usual!
Obama was reported to say if someone attacked my daughters in their home, I would retaliate too. Ironically this was said at a time when more than 300 Palestinian children lay dead. This sounded obscene and vulgar in the streets of Karachi and Peshawar! Pakistanis can’t help believing that no matter who resides in the Oval Office, white or black, they always treat them like children of a lesser god! If this is a new beginning with the Muslim world then the Muslim world is finding it hard to distinguish it from the ending of the old one!
And then came the inauguration. In the streets of Washington, Toronto, Paris, London and Berlin it was a great example of democracy and liberalism and the triumph of secularism. But in the streets of Karachi, Cairo, Algiers, Kulalumpur they watched a Christian leader crowned with Christian blessings. With every prayer, every benediction and every sermon, whether they called him Barack H. Obama or Barack Hussain Obama, Muslims wondered why they are reviled for being religious? After all Israelis invade, occupy and wage wars in the name of defending a Jewish homeland and Americans continue to defend their policies of aggression in the name of a state that is firmly grounded in Christianity? So why should Muslims be singled out for being extreme and labeled terrorist when they raise their voices and arms to protect their fellow Muslims?
Oh yes — as I rave and rant about all that does not work in Pakistan and how inept and corrupt the government and the ruling class is — I cannot help but look over my shoulder and wonder if anyone else in Canada has seen that the Emperor may have no clothes or is it just an optical illusion?