9/11 has surely changed the world: it has changed perspectives, changed the geographies of countries and most importantly it has changed the lives of countless families and persons. I still clearly remember the recording that was playing on the local news channel on the evening of the day after in Pakistan when I barely was 8 years old, though now all I can remember is my feeling of sheer awe at how the planes crashed into and brought down the tallest buildings in the world. I had no idea that that day would change the course of history not just for America but for Muslims, Afghanis, Iraqis and Pakistanis and the rest of the world too.
As time flew by, many changes started taking place. America was at war, vengeance was its only goal and it was unforgiving of anyone who might be or was responsible for 9/11. War was taken to Afghanistan and Iraq, and America shouldered responsibility for making the world a peaceful place for everyone, no matter how high the losses involved might be nor what effect it would have on people.
I saw the world change. I saw how Americans supported the military dictator Pervez Musharraf in reining in Pakistan for 10 years in return for a promise by the country to support the US war on terrorism and be one of its major allies. Pakistan’s support made headlines all over the world as did the billions of dollars of military aid to the Pakistani armed forces which still hold Pakistan accountable no matter that 33,000 people have lost their lives supporting the war on terrorism or the ‘War of the West’ as the majority of Pakistani citizens believe it to be.
The reputations of Afghanis, Pakistanis and all other Middle Eastern citizens were destroyed as we were declared to be criminals and terrorists or deranged and hostile Muslims. Mistrust among people has also drastically increased as Pakistanis have to undergo longer and much more rigorous security clearances at airports than many other nationals.
In 2006 I was sent by the British Council on an exchange program to Birmingham and London in England to share the ideology of Pakistan and its educational and cultural norms with students at the Moseley Language College. Most of the students there were Pakistani immigrants, and I had the opportunity to learn their personal views on how their lives and situations had changed over the last few years after 9/11. One boy told me that his family had moved to a different neighborhood for the sole reason that their neighbors had turned hostile on them and would taunt them with insulting remarks about their origins in Pakistan even though they were all British nationals. What I saw in that school was that all Pakistanis would stick together and that most people would look at me with suspicion and greet me with rude remarks.
In 2008 I had yet another opportunity to become acquainted with another culture by becoming part of the Kennedy Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES) which sends high school students between the ages of 15 and 17 from Muslim majority countries to the United States for a study year at high school. The purpose of the program is to combat American stereotypes about Muslims all over the world and vice versa. I joined hundreds of other exchange students from countries like Palestine,I Israel, Lebanon, and Morocco, to name but a few. All students get to live with an American family and experience American life in its real context, and they share their values with the families they live with.
It was not surprising to be called a Pakistani terrorist at first, because that is the general stereotyped view of Muslims, and even my host father with his radical point of view wanted the American army to bomb Afghanistan and Pakistan and “nip the evil in the bud”, not realizing that there are millions and millions of people who have nothing to do with the war and are just innocent bystanders living in a country that holds a major card in this game. I do not deny that the Taliban has ruined the reputations of Muslims in the western world nor that Osama Bin Laden has ruined the reputation of the religion of Islam, but I really do appreciate the effort such programs make to try and bring these two very different worlds together. It took time for me to settle in but as people started accepting me I realized that in the end we are basically all the same but with different thoughts and perceptions. A little knowledge might be a dangerous thing, but ignorance is a curse – how very true this statement is! We need to bridge the gaps to change how people think about others.
The many American lives lost in the war has stiffened the way the American people feel about Muslims and Pakistanis and Afghanis. The situation has escalated to such an extent that students at the American university preferred not to sit with Pakistani students because of their nationality and their religion. This applies not just to America and other western countries, because the war and the blame game has made people in Pakistan and Afghanistan biased too – our unrecognized sacrifices and the frequent threats to end financial aid has given the majority of the population a negative bias against western countries and people. But who is to blame? Are we all not perpetrators in so far as we are not bridging the gaps but rather feeding people with visions of war and hate. Is it the media causing this stir of negativity in the general public?
Yet programs like YES do try to make a difference. They make sure that American perceptions about Muslims change. However, much more remains to be done to make life easier for Muslim students in the States. No matter how accepting Americans are, there is always somebody who will stand out in the crowd and call you a ‘Paki’ or a ‘towelhead’ and no matter how liberal we Pakistanis might be, we still tend to lay the blame for everything on the West.