"The government's gotten too lazy since 9/11," said the elderly Texan woman seated a row behind me last Friday, as I eavesdropped on her conversation with a fellow passenger on our flight from Dallas. "They keep letting all of these people in -- and it's going to get us all killed."
These people? She then thanked the good Lord for Glenn Beck, "the one guy who's willing to say it like it is."
As a Pakistani-American, and presumably one of "these people," I believe that my people have perhaps one last, best chance to define who we are, before Glenn Beck and jihadists do it for us.
If I had a little more time after we arrived at LaGuardia Airport, I would have tried to strike up a conversation with the woman about what precisely she believed about "these people." But thanks to the flight arriving typically late, I needed to scramble off to the inaugural gala in Manhattan for the American Pakistan Foundation, an effort by the diaspora population of Pakistan and friends of Pakistan to reverse the decline of that embattled nation's civil society.
Whether we can transform a political black hole into a beacon is not certain. What is certain, however, is that our public efforts are crucial to managing the dangerous mutual perceptions among the West and the Muslim world, each which can feel under attack by the other.
If the Texan Beck fan had attended the APF event, she may have marveled at a grand room stuffed with successful Pakistani-Americans, able and eager to balance ancient heritage and their new homeland. Many women wore elegant saris, which trace back well beyond the Islamic era to the time of the great Indus Valley civilization. And wine, that anathema to Islamic fundamentalists, poured easily. "These people" did not represent Talibanic sympathizers, nor even the more rigidly traditional segments of Pakistani society.
It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had encouraged the Pakistani diaspora's efforts to mobilize for this moment. APF chair Nafis Sadik (a special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General) and the organization's board of directors responded in kind by inviting Clinton and her predecessor Colin Powell to play visible roles at the inaugural event.
In his introduction of Clinton, former Pakistani Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi effusively praised her as the American best equipped to guide a new relationship between the two nations. Yet Clinton, in her own remarks, acknowledged a "trust deficit" she encountered on her recent trip there. She won some of the most heartfelt applause of the evening when she remarked that the administration intends "to be guided by a paramount principle: full respect for Pakistan's sovereignty. We come as a partner, not a patron."
Indeed, Pakistan's conservatives and nationalists have long viewed any outstretched American hand less as generosity as an effort to choke or manipulate them. I found myself surprised in recent weeks to find that even those associated with Pakistan's modernizing sphere had intense doubts about American intentions.
Moderate and progressive Pakistani-Americans such as those who attended the APF launch can feel pinched on all sides. The Glenn Beck crowd seeks to marginalize us. Jihadists seek to polarize us or at least eclipse us in the Western eye. Pakistanis back home seem intent on modeling a culture of angry victimization, a culture characterized by what the great psychologist Martin Seligman termed "learned helplessness." And successive administrations in Washington have indeed been fickle over whether they consider Pakistan to be a jewel, a mere pebble, or a handy rock with which to bludgeon communists and jihadists.
Still, recent actions and stated intentions signaled by Powell (who accepted an offer from the group to serve as its honorary co-chair) and Clinton afford Pakistani-Americans an opportunity to serve as a bridge over some of the more troubled waters our times.
There may be no other way to construct that bridge, suggests Shamila N. Chaudhary, a State Department official and senior adviser to President Obama's Af-Pak envoy, Richard Holbrooke.
"Diaspora-led initiatives can address challenges in ways that governments can't -- whether it's sending doctors from the U.S. to help the displaced in Pakistan, or hosting dialogues between American and Pakistani youth on policy issues, or connecting American businesses to investment opportunities in Pakistan," says Chaudhary, herself a Pakistani-American. "We've always known that close, personal, people-to-people exchanges are a major force in finding innovative solutions -- take the examples of the Irish and Indian diasporas in the United States. The Pakistani-American community is successful, giving, and professional -- and we hope it can unite its ongoing efforts to help Pakistan in a big way through the foundation."
Indeed, in that way, "these people" can prove to be quite valuable to the doubters here and abroad.
Follow Rob Asghar on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rasghar