American Paki

Ayesha Kazmi

Ayesha Kazmi is a Muslim American specialist in UK anti-terrorism policy at London-based CageprisonersOriginally from Boston, Massachusetts, Kazmi lived in London, England from 2005-2011. She has written for The Guardian and Privacy Matters and blogs at AmericanPaki. You can follow her on Twitter @AyeshaKazmi.

They say the onset of authoritarianism happens through a process of incrementalism. If indeed that is the case, I have missed a lot in the 6 years I spent in the United Kingdom away from the United States.

My first few years in the UK were spent wallowing in my new identity as a Paki. In much of the time I spent wallowing, I did a great deal of idealizing my former American Muslim life – one of relative privilege compared to Muslim life in other parts of the world, including Europe.

Muslim life in Britain was different than anything I had experienced prior. American Muslims are more educated and wealthier than average Americans; my friends throughout the years were from diverse backgrounds. In the UK, I went from living in one “Muslim ghetto” in South London to another in the east, where Muslim immigrants made up a large percentage of the working classes and their children, while many became part of the educated classes, often followed closely in their families cultural footsteps.

Over the years, at work and university, I had no luck making the diverse body of friends that accurately reflected the diversity of London. As much as I fell in love with my new friends, they all looked like me. Becoming a Paki was no easy process. Intellectually, I deliberately attributed my experience as uniquely British given England’s colonial history in the Muslim world, particularly of the Indian subcontinent.

In my London home, I often reminisced over my longing of American life, missing the sense of belonging. As a nation of immigrants, America was infinitely more open to people like me than Europe had shown itself to be. As a tax paying American, I always felt like I had more at stake in US civil society than my marginalized British Muslim neighbors in London. What I missed most was being an equal in a diverse body of friends, as opposed to being just another Paki in a herd. In the 6 years in England, a socialite like me walked away with only one white English friend.

After having lived in two of London’s many “Muslim ghettos,” I very much looked forward to moving back to the US and returning to the privilege of being able to live life in relative anonymity – where I wasn’t made to feel like a shifty outsider that didn’t belong. While I quickly began to make new friends, something was markedly different.

Politically, I observed Americans panic over the “Ground Zero” mosque in New York City. I also closely followed the terrorism cases of Tarek Mehanna, Faisal Shahzad, and Aafia Siddiqui. In fact, I was in the United States last year when the Peter King hearings transpired.

As a specialist in UK anti-terrorism strategy, I’ve witnessed the US’s gradual transformation into a regimented, national security state – from the militarization of all levels of law enforcement agencies to the military spending budget in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This year, I watched even more closely, as the 2012 version of the NDAA  marks an unprecedented shift in US military policy to include provisions that extend the War on Terror battlefield to the domestic front, including a controversial executive power to indefinitely detain American citizens suspected of terrorism in military prisons.

My biggest oversight is that I hadn’t connected the dots. I had no idea how US policy had profoundly shifted American culture – specifically, how anti-terrorism had shaped Americans in everyday life, and not for the better. I have come back to a nation that is deeply suspicious and hostile toward Muslims. Given the public nature of my work, I have been lambasted numerous times with racist terminology and have also been accused of being a double talking liar engaged in taqiyya,” or a person who conceals their religion because of persecution.

It took me to move from the United States to the UK to make me feel like a marginalized Paki. But it took me to move from the UK to back home in the US to feel like a defiled Muslim. While I might have felt alienated in the UK, on the worst days in the US I feel outright criminal. In all my years growing up in the United States, not once had I ever been told to “go home.” In my few months back, I cannot even count the number of times I have been told that I do not belong here.

What baffles me most is the distinction between the US and UK Muslim communities. While British Muslims remain a heavily politicized minority, and therefore, a thorn in the UK Government’s backside, American Muslims are relatively apolitical and are hardly the threat politicians are making them out to be. The grandest irony is that the Muslim world views American Muslims most suspiciously precisely because of their political apathy – yet the utter hysteria in the media and on Capitol Hill, that is determining terrorism policy, is unparalleled.

The recent evolution of the War on Terrorism with the signing of the 2012 NDAA into law signals a most frightening turn for American Muslims, as they’re already the object of prejudiced targeting. Up until now, the very definitions of “extremist” and “terrorist” have been nothing but obscure. Thus, this new executive power has continued to incrementally turn up the heat on American Muslims to uncomfortable levels – and I suppose that is its desired effect. At present, the pressure on the American Muslim community is tantamount to bullying.

While it’s not yet clear how far American policy makers intend to take their bullying, even now upon my return, I continue to hark back to the America I left behind in 2005. It was far from a perfect society even then, but I had no idea just how drastically my country was in the process of changing when I left it. Perhaps this was my difficulty when I first moved to the UK. It wasn’t that the United Kingdom was a worse place for Muslims to live than the United States; rather, the United States was in the process of absorbing from their European allies in the War on Terror, their contempt for Muslims. On the flip side, I now sit from home in America, once again, looking over the Atlantic shores. Only this time, I have no idea where I am seeking.

4 thoughts on “American Paki

  1. At present, the pressure on the American Muslim community is tantamount to bullying.

    Yes, if not worse. Sadly, too many people hate instead of love. The exact opposite of what any religion I know of teaches. And right now, one political party in this country hates anyone that’s not rich, old, white and male.

  2. As a Muslim and Pakistani American, I agree that the atmosphere has shifted in the United States… but I wonder about positive experiences that Ayesha had. I wonder about the one white friend she /did/ have in England, and why s(he) was open to that friendship. I, too, remember feeling distinctly “Paki” during my experiences in England, but with an American consciousness of remaining open to diversity when approaching others. This dynamic aroused a lot of curiosity within me, though my time there was limited and I did not have the opportunity to explore friendships, which as Ayesha expressed, is hard to navigate. Though they may be few in numbers, it could be helpful to have dialogue with those who are open, and focus on what allows them to be so.

    But, with regards to my presence in the United States, it strikes me often that I am still, despite all assaults, a privileged minority. That I am expected to be wealthy, to excel in academics, and that is paramount. Muslims in the United States, even if we are targeted, are still the most educated in the entire world. We have a choice to respond courageously with love while at the same time being honest without ego about our response. I am learning this is one of the hardest things to practice. But I am humbled by the daily recognition that there are many more communities in the United States who are and have been experiencing deeper oppression than Muslims ever will in the West.

  3. Assalam O Alaikum, MashaAllah, this is a very nice and informative article. In fact you have provided the visitors an opportunity to know and learn about Islam. Today many people are under influence of rogue propaganda of media–that Islam is a religion of extremism and hatred. But this is totally a lie. Islam is a religion of peace and Muslims are a loving nation. In this post you have mentioned the role of American Pakistanis. In fact, Pakistanis are playing a major role in future of America and other western countries. We as Muslims have a responsibility to increase knowledge of other Muslims and non-Muslims too. People will really learn from these posts.

    It’s my hobby to collect beneficial articles on Islam, and I have created a platformto spread awareness. Hopefully people will benefit from this.

    Thank You for your precious time and remember us in your prayers.

    JazakALLAH,
    May Allah bless you with all His blessings.

  4. I’m a native American and while it’s unfortunate that there is much Muslim profiling in the USA, look at all we’ve endured at the hands of Muslims. We know all too well that there are thousands of Muslim terrorists within our border who could strike us a violent blow at any time. How do we know who the enemy is and who he isn’t? Many Americans feel like mid easterners have taken over our country. We no longer feel like the Christian nation we were founded to be. While Christianity is a religion of love, we must also protect ourselves. Please have some understanding that our nation will never be the same after having terrorists within our borders. We’ll never feel safe. Why is that so hard to understand? Also, doesn’t the Qur’an teach that unbelievers should be killed? Americans seek out truth for themselves. We ask what the Qur’an says. To hear some of the passages read aloud, that speak of hatred and killing of non-Muslims, why would we embrace such a religion? It’s too threatening. Please don’t live in your own worlds. If you try to get out of your own thinking and want fair treatment, try to realize the hell we have experienced, that has destroyed our nation. I do pray for God’s grace to each person that feels ostracized in this way. But it doesn’t sound to me that any of you have any understanding or sympathy for how extreme Muslims have forever destroyed our American way of life. I awake daily thanking God that be haven’t been bombed somewhere in the USA, knowing it won’t always be that way. Americans live in terror all the time. Why do you focus only on your own feelings, when our entire way of life has been destroyed by extreme Muslims. And we’re supposed to embrace Islam as a peaceful religion? We find it to be a very scarey one.