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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Immigrant experience a two-way street

Recently an irate reader took me to task for criticizing the foreign policy of our government. He questioned my patriotism and my loyalty to this country. What amused (and startled me) was his angry suggestion that I should go back to the country of my origin and help “your own people that our young boys are helping overseas.”

He also reminded me, as if I need to be reminded, that I should be grateful for being in this country rather than criticize the policies of our government.

While it is tempting to brush aside the rant of an otherwise educated professional, close scrutiny reveals that such an attitude has become rather pervasive since 9/11.

Somehow everyone who looks different and thinks differently is a suspect and a turncoat. This attitude, permit me to call it un-American, is not uncommon in some of the Third World countries where nationalistic and religious fervor fuels the fires of prejudice and intolerance.

Ours is a pluralistic civil society that accommodates and encourages conflicting and opposing opinions. Here in America one could speak out loudly and stridently without being reminded of one's foreignness or, for that matter, one's legitimacy.

This raises some interesting questions. Does society expect immigrants to be more loyal and toe the government line on foreign policy than the old immigrants and American-born citizens? And how long does it take to wash away the foreign label and become part of the fabric of the society?

I am mindful that the immigrant experience in this country has not always been picture perfect. At different times various immigrant groups - Italians, Irish, Japanese, Jews - have been singled out as undesirable and subjected to social and occasionally governmental persecution.

In post-9/11 America it now appears to be the turn of Arabs and Muslims. The neo-cons and their spiritual gurus have been ratcheting up hateful rhetoric not only against those who perpetrated crimes against this country, but also against the religion itself and by implication all those who believe in it.

All one has to do is to look at the fatwas and edicts emanating from the high priest of the judiciary and the potentate of the sacred religion of extreme conservatism to realize how scary it has become.

My case is rather simple. Forty years ago I made a conscious decision to make this country my home. I did not leave Pakistan, my native land, out of persecution or economic hardship. America offered opportunities not only for personal and professional growth but also provided an intellectual freedom that has been sorely missing in many places around the world.

What I did not do, which was neither a prerequisite nor advisable, was wrap myself in the flag and jump into an ocean of symbolic and occasionally misguided patriotism. To be an American, even a hyphenated one, is much more precious and sacred than the symbolic rah-rah-rah of the amen crowd.

These past 40 years I have received a bounty of goodwill and unprecedented opportunities in this country, for which I remain indebted on a very deep and personal level. In return I have also, in some small measure, contributed to the society.

To put it bluntly, it has been a two-way street, just as it has been for many other ethnic and religious groups in this country. And like them I also subscribe to and believe in the secular democratic values of my adopted homeland.

So when someone demands that I pack up and go back to the country of my origin, I am amused by the absurdity of the very thought.

Suppose we start applying an arbitrary patriotic litmus test to all immigrants, new arrivals as well as old ones, to test their loyalty. And suppose we force those who fail the test to pack up and leave on a one-way return journey on some modern-day Mayflowers.

I for one would find it difficult to find a berth, because most of these ships would be heading toward European ports rather than Karachi, Mumbai, or Calcutta.



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