04/17/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

To Be or Not to Be Pakistani

In an op-ed in the New York Times the day after the Boston bombings, Haider Javed Warraich expressed his fears about life as a Pakistani in America. He wondered if it would be safer to call himself Indian or Bangladeshi.

Until 9/11, it was only restaurants that suffered from this dilemma. If a restaurant advertised itself as both Pakistani and Indian, it was safe to assume that it was Pakistani-owned. If it said just Indian, then it was probably Indian-owned. Pakistani-run restaurants inserted Indian into their names for easy recognition. The cuisine was similar, no one seemed to mind, and life went on.

Came 9/11, and suddenly South Asians of all hues came under the scanner. A few Sikhs, those wearing turbans and beards, were shot at, mistaken perhaps for being templated from Osama bin Laden. Some, reluctantly, got rid of their turbans and beards.

Most Americans are unable to make out a South Asian name as Muslim, unless perhaps if it is Mohammed. And, with South Asians themselves having a hard time figuring out oneself from the other, what to say of Americans? But even as some Pakistanis pretend to come from another part of South Asia to feel more secure, other South Asians are wary of being clubbed with them.

The situation manifests itself in peculiar ways. Khan is a common South Asian Muslim name. The Transportation Security Administration possibly carries a list of suspect names in its bowels, into which the Indian superstar Shahrukh Khan invariably falls on his travels to the U.S. He seldom refrains from raising a hue and cry, emitting howls against American discrimination from his supporters mainly at home. Many South Asians in America, though, quietly worry about how harsh the spotlight is.

Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan has become associated with terrorism. The rest of South Asia (save for Afghanistan) has not, but suddenly all South Asians are suspect. So as Pakistanis like Mr. Warraich justifiably ponder their fate, spare a thought for other South Asians in America.

(The scope of this article is restricted to exploring an aspect of South Asian life in America, without going into issues such as root causes of terror. Which country or adherents of which religion are causing greater harm to the world is a topic for another discussion.)

Tony Blair suggested that countries should be judged by whether people are trying to get in or out. One would be hard put to dispute his contention, even if one contends his general worldview. It can of course be argued that countries like the U.K. and the U.S. have benefited from imperialism, with arm-twisted wealth attracting immigrants. But if these countries did not provide better opportunities and/or security, why would people leave hearth and home?

Many Indians in America are returning for greener pastures, but the pressure of the reverse commute is greater still. For Pakistanis, it remains one-way traffic for the most part. They either want to stay here or come.

To be, or not to be Pakistani, is now the question before South Asians in America. Indians and Pakistanis immigrants seem to get along well. Having seldom met the other before arriving here, they are surprised to note the absence of horns, as well as the much of a muchness.

But congenital prejudices persist. Social interaction between Hindu-Indians and Muslim-Pakistanis in America is limited. Defaulting into comfort levels in a foreign and often-overwhelming land is as easy as 123. Accepting reality, that America sees them as one whether they themselves do so or not, is painful. Realizing that their destiny has suddenly become common, while they were taught so otherwise at home, is hard to stomach.

More terrorism in America can only result in greater backlash against them. Indians cannot shirk being considered Pakistani with protestations of India being innocent of terrorism. One can duck only so much. A shot in the back is, after all, a shot in the back.

Pakistanis for their part need to curb the tendency of justifying terrorism. America might do harm to their country, but they came to its shores by choice, not compulsion. And yes, they might face discrimination here, but they always have the option of going back.

Both the Indian and Pakistani diasporas have prospered in America, remit billions of dollars home, and forcefully put forth the divergent viewpoints of their respective countries. But let the past be left behind. Other than paying lip service, leaders at home can do little to protect them here.

And if these leaders, especially those of India and Pakistan, cannot be convinced to bury the hatchet, South Asian expatriates need to disavow them and their ceaseless bickering, and build a calming united front. Were things to spiral out of control in America, it will be they, not their native comrades, who will be at the receiving end.

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