Better than the image
I am always impressed by how inclusive Pakistanis are in everyday situations, welcoming everyone. If a surprise visitor comes and the family has a cup of tea or a meal, and certainly if it is a party, the doors and arms are open. To invite in the unexpected guest is more than a curtsy, it comes from the heart. It is the right thing to do in the Pakistani cultures, not only in the villages and towns, but even in the big cities and metropolis. Western societies have lost some of this, although I have a feeling that it is coming back, and that politeness and good manners are seen as more important than it was some decades ago. But it should be more than manners, and real inclusiveness is always more that politeness. Pakistanis know that, regardless of where it is in the land or what class and creed people come from. Foreigners are often given more respect than others. Afghan refugees are also included, even in earlier years, when many millions had sought refuge in Pakistan, and sometimes they were so many that the livelihood and life for the hosts became more difficult.
This stands in contrast to what foreign news media usually focus on. Even local media gives more attention to negative news. That is part of the journalists’ trade and role, but it doesn’t give the full picture. As a matter of fact, it often gives a wrong picture. Pakistan’s image abroad is often negative. Yet, there is so much positive to tell, too.
A few days ago, I met a delegation of French parliamentarians visiting Pakistan, and before that I had the opportunity to listen to a speech by the European Union ambassador, Jean-Francois Cautain, a Frenchmen himself, who spoke at the English Speaking Union Pakistan. He said he likes Pakistan, but then he said that when he was appointed to his Islamabad post, colleagues at the EU headquarters in Brussels thought he must have done a poor job in previous appointments otherwise he would not be sent to Pakistan. Well, those colleagues would not have visited Pakistan, and they would also probably be quite ignorant about the country in general, and Afghanistan, too, where Cautain had also served earlier. Yet, what the Brussels bureaucrats thought tells us something about the image Pakistan has abroad, in organizations, foreign offices, civil society organizations and the minds of people who read and watch international news. It tells us about the lack of success in the efforts of presenting a truer picture of the land abroad, and indeed the great people of Pakistan.
Even in European countries with high Pakistani immigrant and foreign worker populations, the image of the home country is often distorted and far from the reality. True, there are negative and wrong things that happen in Pakistan, and there is a lot that could have been better as for policies and practices, indeed during the ‘war on terror’, which is a major reason for Pakistan’s distorted image abroad. Pakistan was in many ways forced by USA and the West into playing a significant role after 9/11 in 2001. It cost Pakistan many human lives, it drained its resources, and it often created wrong images of the country and people. Now, Pakistan is in need of rebuilding its truer image, showing the diverse cultures and traditions of the land, with conservative and liberal people, with modern poor people, and globalized people, and more. All, or most, would be struggling to do their best. I am one among many, I believe, who is impressed by the kindness and energy of the Pakistani people, and how well they do for themselves and their loved ones, often against many odds.
However, foreigners, and locals, too, have a responsibility to put on the right glasses when learning about a country, and presenting the country at home and abroad. If we come with prejudiced attitudes and negative images, we may not be able to see reality. All visitors, indeed diplomats and staff in international organizations, have a responsibility to make a fair judgement of Pakistan, and if we are not certain of something, if we lack information and understanding, we must say that, too. After all, we don’t get to understand ‘everything’ in the course of short visits, or even stays of some duration. As a matter of fact, when we stay for long, we realize that there is much we don’t know, especially if we have little time to read books and discuss issues more academically. Also, much of the literature on contemporary Pakistani issues is often too negative, with less than neutral selection of topics and angles of analysis. Unfortunately, foreigners may feel they should have qualified opinions about the country they serve in much sooner than they realistically can have; many also lack the foundation and tools for broader analysis. This is typically human, and I remember it from my time as a young student, international civil servant and diplomat in East Africa, we felt forced to draw quick conclusions. Interestingly, if we were researchers in the social sciences, we would be more cautious than in we were short term visitors or spouses, or diplomats with preconceived, official opinions, made at home.
I believe that the many security restrictions that are put on diplomats and other staff in embassies and international organizations, and also in private companies, are beyond what is needed. Some are needed, of course, and the recent tragic event in Quetta is evidence of serious problems. Some restrictions that foreigners are advised to observe may be by advice, or order, by the Pakistani authorities, while others would be restrictions that the foreign employers place on their staff. It has become common to have foreign security personnel in many foreign organizations, and they may sometimes even inflate the possible risks, perhaps even to feel more important themselves and secure their jobs. If people are restricted to move relatively freely for security reasons, and they live in homes that are full of security gadgets and armed watchmen, they would constantly have security issues on their mind, beginning to believe that the risks are high. It distorts the image that foreigners carry with them of Pakistan and what they present in their home countries when they return. Yes, almost all foreigners do return safely from Pakistan, indeed from Islamabad – one of the world’s safest capitals, most of the time and in most sectors.
With these thoughts before Christmas at the end of 2017, may I express the wish that we all do our utmost to present a truer picture of Pakistan, as we also pray for incidents not to happen, in the beautiful land with kind and friendly people. If we stay for the current holiday season, I hope we don’t feel too restricted to move about, alone or with visiting families and friends from home. And if we go to Europe or other parts of the world, or to a holiday resort in Thailand or somewhere else, I hope we will be the good ambassadors we should be, presenting Pakistan in the right light, having used the right glasses when we established our understanding and opinions, even humbly realizing all we didn’t understand – which gives us good reasons to learn more, and be impressed by so much in 2018.
And we pray; let there be peace in the land and on earth. That is the real message of Christmas – and of all Muslim Eid celebrations and messages throughout the year.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.