“al-Bretannia” – my country!
There comes a point in any community’s timeline for its members to stand up and be heard. And that time has now come for members of my community, the British-Pahari community otherwise known as the ‘Mirpuris’. For far too long, our absence from the discourse on all things “British-Pakistani”, “British-Muslim”, “British-Asian” has allowed our fellow nationals – the proper Pakistanis if you like – to fill a cesspit that supposedly exposes our illicit dealings in the UK.
“Cesspit, that’s a little harsh – how dramatic!”
Perhaps I’m being ‘over the top’. I don’t know. But I know how I feel every time I pick up a book on “British-Muslims”, or “British-Pakistanis”, and end up reading about the supposed misdemeanours of my ‘amorphous community’. It’s funny how entire ethnic minority communities are routinely blamed for the actions of individuals or groups. And so like most ‘British-Paharis’, yes that’s how we self-affirm in the UK, I didn’t set out to buy a book on ‘British-Pakistanis’ or ‘Muslims’ to discover, accidentally, sordid details about my community. I don’t go looking for the ‘trash-talk’ about everything that’s improper about my specific ‘nation’. Far from it. I just want to learn from other people’s insights in the hope that they’ve something tangible to teach me. And so when I do casually skip through the pages, I’m always stupefied to read in print, what all of us instinctively know to be ‘impressionistic’ tropes, now nuanced as valuable ‘insights’. It goes something like this, “whose responsible for all the s*** that goes on in the British-Pakistani community?” The resounding, thumping, unequivocal answer is predictable “…the MirpOOOris of course!”
I guess I’ve had enough.
But just so you know, we don’t call ourselves “the Mirpuris”. When our forebears came to the UK, they were more than happy to tick the Pakistani box for their ‘ethnic origins’. When probed a little further by fellow Pakistanis, they would say that they came from “Kashmir” on account of coming from a territory that was part of the old Jammu & Kashmir Princely State whose full name was often shortened to “Kashmir”. This convention predated them by decades. The term “Kashmir” became territorial shorthand for an entire State comprised of diverse peoples and cultures. This continues to be the norm today.
It was British-Pakistanis that started the trend of calling us ‘the Mirpuris’. ‘Mirpur’ was the name of a District in the erstwhile Kashmir State, now split between India and Pakistan. The ethnic peoples of Mirpur occupy a vast cultural expanse that includes many regions in mainland Pakistan, “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir and Indian-administered-Kashmir. The same people that live in Mirpur also live in Attock, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Abbottobad, Haripur and Mansehra, all of which are areas in Northern Pakistan beyond the Indo-Gangetic Plains. On the Indian side Rajouri, Poonch, Uri and Karnah all come to mind. They speak related ‘Himalayan’ dialects of the same language and share the same ‘hill-mountain’ culture. I doubt mainland Pakistanis in Britain will be attuned to these ethnic ‘facts’
Of course no ‘group’, however you define the supposed commonalities between its members is uniform. The few tempered and reclusive ‘experts’ out there who know a thing or two about ‘identities’, their ‘types’, ’causes’ and ‘group-identification’, and who actually understand the nature of ‘power-dynamics’ in a wider community, which in our case means that amorphous ‘lump’ of ‘Mirpuri-cum-Kashmiri-cum-Pakistanis’, yup, the local dilettantes are still trying to work out how to define us, tend to stay silent! They know how poisonous such ‘misrepresentations’ can turn out. More often than not, the anecdotal impressions turn out to be false. Laypersons for their part are just amenable to these facts, and they can be excused for fanning the flames of what they hear from other lay-experts.
That’s just the nature of apocryphal ‘facts’.
But what do we say of ‘journalists-turned-experts’ who not only give a platform to such anecdotal representations but they profit from them as the custodians of some hidden insights? This is a particular brand of writers who think their borrowed ‘insights’ actually count for something. And yet their expertise is just assumed because they spent time writing a book. By virtue of putting into print popular tropes, having ‘hung out’ with the ‘shakers and movers’ of a community – the knowledgeable ‘insiders’ if you like – they add their own veneer of respectability to claims that are otherwise fanciful. And they think that they’ve somehow demystified an otherwise complex social landscape.
It really irritates me when this happens, and in respect of my community, it seems to be happening all the more. But, my community is not unique. We’re not a peculiarly well-known band of ‘villains’ to feel sorry for how we are being portrayed. BME ‘mainstreams’ everywhere have their fringe communities. And, as it so happens, if the mainstream is placed under scrutiny, its members feel under siege, and some of them quickly apportion blame to the other members in their group. This is a bit like kicking the can down the street.
Just look beyond any number of popular tropes.
Look to the power-dynamics behind the tropes.
Here’s an example for you. When “Eastern Europeans” are scapegoated as the less-amenable “EU” immigrants in the UK given their propensity to do “work” that no one else wants to do, no one ever questions the underlying proposition – why are immigrants being placed in different baskets? From a labour-shortage point of view, immigrants come because vacancies need to be filled. There’s a reason why immigrants are here, the economy absolutely needs them. Just as we can’t do without engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, we can’t do without plumbers, electricians, builders and a whole host of unskilled workers.
Every society needs cleaners, fruit-pickers, people prepared to work monotonously dull, boring jobs. This is the type of work, upwardly-mobile people shy away from, because it’s low-paid and beneath their dignity, however bloated their egos, however warped their mindsets.
And yet from a power-dynamic perspective, some immigrants are more significant, they have prestige and privilege, others are not so significant because they are less-powerful on account of the ‘status’ they hold. They have less prestige and even lessor privileges. These sorts of immigrants do not matter in the overall scheme of things. Who cares if what’s written about them is false and why bother asking the more probing question, “why is the comparison being made in the first place between ‘good’ immigrants and ‘bad’ immigrants? The jobs immigrants do will always be diverse, that’s just the nature of modern economies, right?” But you’ll hardly ever hear anyone speaking disparagingly about ‘German’ bankers, ‘French’ Models or ‘Scandinavian’ teachers, given how we imagine ‘immigrant communities’ sterotypically. Very rarely will the media shine its torch on them, and yet they exist, like every other ‘generic’ immigrant group, and they absolutely have their rotten apples.
If individual members of these communities engage in vile acts, damaging to society, you can bet your last fiver, that there will be no mention of their immigrant backgrounds in any disparaging way. Their status as respectable ‘nationals’ means their actions do not represent the communities they come from.
Their ‘collective’ crimes will be deemed as the failings of individuals.
There’s a wider point here.
The thing about stereotypes is that they are true to some extent; yes, some members of a community give life to the stereotype but it doesn’t follow that everyone in the group should be defined, or even categorised on the basis of the stereotype. That’s what we mean by sterotypes. Some stereotypes are positive, whilst others are negative. But ultimately all stereotypes are false when applied to every member of the group.
Not every British-Jew is rich. Not every British-Indian owns a local grocery shop. Not every Bengali works in a restaurant. Not every British-Pakistani male works as a taxi driver. Not everyone from a council estate is on benefits. Not every British African-Carribean youngster is involved in knife crime, neither are British-Pakistani youth involved in drug dealing. Not every member of the “Roma” community is involved in pick-pocketing. Not every Muslim woman is oppressed. Not everyone in the South of England is rich; not everyone in the North is poor.
And why are the communities defined in this way? Why are some communities presented through positive stereotypes whilst others are presented through negative stereotypes? Why are we ascribing ‘value judgements’ in this way? For one thing, it has absolutely nothing to do with the individual worth of the communities. If you believe this to be the case, you are very naive and don’t understand how power-dynamics work. Communities are usually represented through outsiders. It is not experts who help us form these opinions. It’s usually journalists “reporting” on power-dynamics they don’t understand. They shape our unsuspecting thoughts as many of them turn to the same grapevine we all turn to for our salacious gossip. If some communities have access to power, they will tend to be presented more positively. If they exist on the fringe of society, they will be presented negatively.
Plus, gossip sells papers! There is an audience for gossip. Facts, especially nuanced facts don’t. Facts are boring. Facts require some intellectual investiture. How many of us like to research a topic, on our own initiative, as opposed to reading about some social vice through the behest of the popular media? How many of us can even question what we read?
There is a reason why we are always counselled against thinking of people through stereotypes particularly when we have no exposure to them. If you know people from a certain community, having befriended them, you would be less likely to buy into the idea that they are ‘bad’, ‘evil’ or ‘dangerous’. Why? Because you know them!
And let’s face it, how many people from the mainstream are going to have opportunities to hang out with such people?
Mirpuris, for instance, make up 70/80 percent of the British-Pakistani community, some 1.2 million people according to the 2011 census. In other words, they make up just roughly around 1.5 percent of the wider British population.
So let me ask you two rhetorical questions.
- What are the chances of everyone in the mainstream meeting a “Mirpuri” or “MirpOOOri”?
This is how some British-Asians pronounce the word. It was actually a play on pronunciation by some British-Pakistanis trying to insult Mirpuris; Mir-“Poo”-ri. It’s a bit like the word MP, for Mirpuris, as the rejoinder to TP – “typical Paki” used by young Mirpuris, born and raised in the UK slurring their Pakistani-born counterparts including those from Mirpur. A lot of these “TPs” were international students, and they didn’t like how they were being described. The modern street equivalence would be “Freshies”. Today we still hear the term MP thrown around, but how many come across the word TP? The nature of unequal power-dynamics behind the continued use of such words can be seen in how such words are being recycled by unsuspecting people unaware of the British-Pakistani/Mirpuri cleavage.
2. What are the chances of the mainstream reading about Mirpuris through the agency of the journalist-turned-detective ready to spill the beans on this particular community, now deemed an expert by virtue of authorship?
Yup, there’s a reason why both negative and positive stereotypes can be dangerous.
The fact that a populist like Nigel Farage from UKIP can weigh in on any number of stereotypical observations, married to an EU ‘national’ from EU-prestigious Germany, shouldn’t be lost on any of us when he laments, for instance, the “criminality” of the Slovakian and Bulgarian “Roma”. Unsuspecting people, predisposed to his way of thinking, would just accept his description.
“It’s not racist to speak about immigration”, they would say. “Besides the country’s full!”
Farage doesn’t seem to be concerned about German or French ‘immigrants’ though when he says the country is full?
And you don’t see the Slovakians and Bulgarians coming out from under their bunkers to defend the Roma, absolutely not. Some in these ‘mainstreams’ make the point of trying to point out that it’s actually the ‘Roma’ doing all the pickpocketing, the thieving – “they’re the benefit cheats, not us!” Some go as far as saying, “give them ID cards, so we can distinguish the Roma from the true ‘European’ nationalities they assume” unaware of how this makes the architects of the EU project feel in Germany.
And this from the mouths of individuals who work on the same orchards as the Roma picking apples so they can feed their children in an alien land!
This way of thinking this has become ubiquitous.
Conveniently, people everywhere blame the least powerful members of their society for their own misfortunes. In monocultural Britain not so long ago, back in the days when the land was green and the people ‘pale’, the ‘powdered-whites’ blamed their ‘duskier’ ‘peasants’ for all their society’s woes.
The streets of London were dirty and unclean because of all the vagrants stinking up the place! Yup, this is what they used to say about poor white “layabouts”, ambiguously I add given how ideas of pure white race notions poisoned such attitudes. There weren’t any blacks, or immigrants to blame back then.
So they shipped off these “inconsequential souls” to the new colonies where new ‘mainstreams’ emerged and ‘fringe communities’ arose. We tend to forget that it wasn’t just “blacks” who were maltreated and stigmatised during colonialism, given how “blackness” become inextricably linked with the American-slave trade. There was a whole hierarchy of victims. For a time, even the Irish were considered “black”, a little less worthy than the poor “anglo-saxon” whites who all eventually coalesced with their southern-european “cousins”. Notions of whiteness took some time to catch up with the melting-pot experience for the ambiguous whites vying to get accepted, legally, as white people. Even in America today, certain European backgrounds still seem more prestigious than other European backgrounds.
How come no one talks about this?
How many of us like to re-imagine our humble beginnings as we pick on the ‘newcomers’ unaware of how our own forebears were treated historically?
What about our upwardly mobile social climbers who go out of our way to behave like this, to somehow prove something to their new peers?
Times change, new identities are constructed. The ‘bad guys’ are no more. A ‘new ruling’ class morphs into its ‘timeless’ ‘national’ label. Bias and prejudice remains. It just assumes new personas as people aspire to be like the dominant group, hating everything about their past lives. Even surnames are misappropriated as individuals consciously move away from their older memories of where they actually came from in the hope of coalescing with the ‘established’ nobility.
Some descendants are positively denied this history, as they think they are the children of aristocracy.
Dave the ‘water-carrier’ who made his fortune collecting and bottling mineral water becomes David ‘Paxman’ and his descendants begin to reimagine the ‘world’ his ‘ancestors’ came from. This history has been well-documented in many societies. We’ve even got a new academic discipline – ‘whiteness studies’ – the world starts to feel different, people develop new priorities, the underclass assert itself, we start to ask new questions, and the paradigms shift.
In Britain, and in the New World, our poor, destitute, unwanted ‘whites’, there was even a pejorative term for them, ‘white trash’, were a constant irritant for the Eugenicists of their time. These progressive “Eugenicists” happened to come from the intellectuals of their age. Adventitiously, the white race triumphed as landless labourers moved from the estates of their Lords, from the rural countryside and into the emerging towns and cities, gradually evolving into the ‘working class’ we take for granted. They were now gainfully employed thanks to the industrial revolution and the progressive march of imperialism, and the forced transfer of wealth from many parts of the world, not barring humans.
Serfdom was over though, thank god!
But all good things must come to an end. Everything good and edible, seems to have a shelf life. And so in the absence of alternatives, the blame game begins in earnest. Economies contract, and the left behind want simple answers to their ‘new’ but ‘old’ problems.
We don’t do soul-searching in these British Isles, we do finger-pointing!
“Where are all the jobs?” “The Immigrants have taken them!”
“Why is there so much crime in this area?”
“It’s a poor area dimwit, what did you expect! It was messed up before, and then the immigrants arrived!”
Such is the pecking order. And this is exactly what has been happening with my community, as people quickly rush to judgement about the British-Pakistani culture that in recent years has produced Britain’s “Pakistani grooming gangs”- a constructed idea if you understand that individuals don’t deliberately sit around conspiring the creation of ‘organised gangs’ with the intention of trafficking children into prostitution rings.
The emergence of such crime is a lot more adventitious than that.
But, people are now asking, “why are so many Pakistanis involved in this nasty crime?”
And the answer comes directly from the mouths of our fellow British-Pakistanis as they attempt to redeem their own ‘reputation’ courtesy of their friends from the mainstream press/media.
“Don’t call them Pakistanis!”
“They are Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir, and not the Panjab Province of Pakistan”
“Well, actually they are “MirpOOOris”.
“Real Pakistanis don’t commit these crimes. We’re too ‘middle class’ to commit these vices. Don’t you know we live in the South of England? Mirpuris live in the North beyond the wall! These crimes reflect the Mirpuri mentality.”
And then some smart Alec retorts,
“But, why is there so much honour-crime against women in the British-Pakistani community?”
Wait for it.
“…the Mirpuris commit honour crimes!”
“No, not us – respectable ‘Urdu’ speaking Pakistaaanis – we don’t commit honour crimes.”
“We’re originally from the cities – we’re immigrant-aristocrats – our ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ values… (imagined no less) …are tied in with the sophistication showcased by that lovely, distant, country of ours’ called Pakistan – a beacon of human rights and human development built on the banks of the River Indus!”
Just look at Pakistan’s lovely Crescent and Star!”
But, someone, somewhere inevitably retorts, “But you Muslims are extremists!” You don’t want to integrate with the rest of us, ‘foreign-loving’, ‘open-minded’, ‘progressive’, ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘global citizens!’”
Wait for it.
“Nope, you don’t understand the subtleties and complexities of the British-Pakistani community. The least educated Pakistanis, hmm…, you know the sort that live in the ‘North of England’ are from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir and they’re not really Pakistanis, at least not like us progressive sorts with our grammar-English!” They mean to say they speak the ‘Queen’s English’ unaware of how even the BBC accent has changed over the years.
And then, wham, bam, they hit you with caveats and the assumed wisdom of the grapevine couched in sociological observations.
“Not all Mirpuris are that bad by the way. Just the majority! Most of ‘them’ are uneducated, live off benefits, sell drugs, kiddy-fiddle, beat their multiple wives, breed like rabbits” and… “…they’re poor and come from a rural place, from hills and mountains – that’s not really Pakistan but AZAD KASHMIR!”
And then you confront the glees and self-assuredness of individuals who really don’t know what they’re talking about, “by the way we’re from the cities, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, in these bastions of high-brow culture these kinds of things don’t happen!”
Of course, it’s all self-affirming twaddle! The extremists are blowing up Churches, Mosques, schools, hospitals in the cities. They’re killing minority groups everywhere. The honour crimes you read about in Pakistani newspapers – the sort that get reported in the British-Pakistan press – happen in the cities and not just in the villages. Yes. Absolutely. It’s members of the citified gentry that are currently throwing acid on women’s faces, their egos bruised by having their advances turned down by inconsequential ‘poor women’ sick and tired of a patriarchal society that has its male votaries, and its most outspoken defenders living in the cities. You have cases of women being physically abused, pelted to death in front of court houses, in the city, by people living in the city, as the Police watch on. Can any of us not be forgiven for asking, “wow Pakistan’s cities seem a lot more violent than its villages. Is this really about cities and villages, or something more profound, perhaps like ‘attitudes’ and ‘values’?”
But of course, none of these vile acts reflect the character of Pakistani society. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, like people everywhere, are just ordinary people, trying to get by, living their inoffensive lives as best they can. They are polite and courteous; if you happened to be dying of thirst and starvation, they would happily feed you with whatever little they have.
This is the real Pakistan. The Pakistan of the ordinary person, even if this person has a couple of rupees in his pocket, and is never celebrated.
Is this not the norm for most human societies whatever a particular society’s social problems, fault lines, wealth or international ‘status’?
And so when you hear another self-affirming British-Pakistani admonish you in his highfalutin accent, “my friend, it’s the Mirpuris that marry their cousins, not us, they are backwards!” Please spare a thought for us, the rest of us, who don’t have people speaking up for us because of the power-dynamics I mentioned earlier. Just scratch your head and ask your own questions as to why one section of a supposedly ‘self-coherent’ BME community is so keen to push the blame further down the street.
Let me just give you one insight, one backed up by the “experts” and not your average journalist-Joe turned ‘detective’. Cousin marriages are practised by more than a billion people on earth. They are also practised by Pakistan’s self-affirming city dwellers. You don’t believe me? Do your own research and read about studies written on consanguineous marriages in Karachi, for instance. The number is in the millions. Yes, health experts are trying to stop the practise because of all the congenital diseases that come from it.
But, of course statistics are on a much better footing than impressions. So here’s a ‘fact’ for you as quoted in a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune in 2014 whose readership is mostly made up of ‘citified‘ Pakistanis. According to the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Health Sciences Lahore, approximately 82.5% of ‘parents’ in Pakistan are blood-relatives. Now, I don’t think much has changed since then, but in any case Mirpuris make up less than 1 percent of the Pakistani population.
Technically, they don’t even feature in Pakistani government statistics because the area of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is treated differently. It is considered a separate territory on account of its unresolved status due to the Kashmir Conflict. So, why blame the Mirpuris for such a practise in the UK simply because it’s assumed that it must be on account of ‘them’ “because that lot are from the villages”, because the upwardly-mobile, self-conscious, ‘citified’ Pakistani ‘libertines’ are telling you so?
There’s a subtext here that you need to familiarise yourself with, sadly one I have no time to discuss but it has a lot to do with upward-mobility and social-climbing. And so these interactions between various Pakistani groupings is much more than just the recycling of negative stereotypes courtesy of a journalist who wrote a book.
For ordinary Muslims, the practise of cousin-marriage goes back to the earliest days of Islam. The Prophet of Islam was married to a member of his extended network who descended from a ‘common’ ancestor. His companions were married to their cousins. Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph, was married to Fatima, the prophet’s daughter who was, of course, his cousin.
But cousin marriages aren’t solely a feature of Muslim societies. From Egyptian Pharaohs to European Royal families, everyone has been dabbing their feet in this pond. Even a great luminary like Darwin was married to his first cousin. And what about that other great mind, ‘Einstein’? Yup, he too was married to his first cousin.
Even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for a time, was married to his cousin.
But to hear through the agency of journalists, mindful of the power dynamics I described above, that the Mirpuris are somehow responsible for all the vices in the British-Pakistani community, and recessive diseases, highlights a solidifying cleavage between British-Pakistanis and their Mirpuri peers from ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir.
And this is exactly what you get when you read books like “al-Bretannia, my country” by James Fergusson. He sets out to present Muslims in a better light. He wants to give Muslims a voice, so that his “white” readers appreciate how diverse the British-Muslim community is. Because British-Muslims have a large contingency of British-Pakistanis, he naturally devotes a lot of pages to their experiences.
And so what of the ensuing narrative as far as “my” community is concerned?
It is the recitation of British-Pakistani anecdotes and ‘trope-telling’ about “Mirpuris” through the confirmation-bias of British-Pakistanis. Fergusson is simply out of his depth as he happily buys into the tropes, speaking of ‘racial differences’ between Pakistanis that are all but imaginary. At one point, he quotes a British-Pakistani comedian from posh “Harborne”, a middle-class area – (note the anxieties) after describing her appearance in terms that implied in his own mind that she was unlike the common Pakistanis he had encountered in say, “Bradford” or “Birmingham”. How he came to this conclusion, I leave to his conscience.
But the words of the comedian, if indeed she said them, are quite insightful of individuals who know nothing of the actual Pakistan they want to redeem by disconnecting Mirpuris from the country’s actual social fabric. He quotes a particularly disparaging line from her, “I know Pakistanis who think of Mirpuris as self-ghettoizing cousin-shagging Neanderthals”. These are words that could get her killed in Lahore and Rawalpindi, the places from where her parents come from. I’m not joking either. This is not hyperbole. She can only share such insight because she’s living in Britain and precisely because of power-dynamics that she doesn’t understand.
Pakistan is not Britain. British-Pakistanis, however they want to imagine their new ‘status’, are not part of a Pakistani liberal aristocracy. Their parents came to this country as immigrants because they were poor, from humble backgrounds, and more than likely the product of cousin-marriages.
And so it’s kind of ironic of some cocky people who try to put down others less-threatening to them as a means of proving how “integrated” they are. I doubt our comedian is more accomplished than Einstein or Darwin, or more ‘refined’ than the ‘cousin-shagging’ Royals of past ages simply because, in her mind, she lives in a nice suburb of Birmingham! If indeed she comes from an enlightened people from the heart of civilised Pakistan – as many self-affirming urbanites would have us believe – she can prove me wrong by flying over to Lahore on her private jet – PIA is apparently bankrupt – and say exactly what she said in front of her city peers. I doubt very much, the citified Muslims of Lahore and Islamabad would like the idea of their most famed personalities, religious or otherwise, being described as ‘cousin-shagging Neanderthals!’
They’d probably lynch her.
To sum this up with some insights on Pakistan.
It is unfair to apportion blame to the “Mirpuri” community for the social ills of the British-Pakistani community. This is exactly what has been happening to my community. As social commentators and observers move effortlessly in their multicultural, one dimensional, circles listening to their ‘insecure’, ‘aspiring middle-class’, ‘Pakistani’ friends and peers, they end up giving credence to tropes that are unproven. Some of these writers are ignorant of the anecdotal nature of the claims being made, putting into print ‘disinformation’ and contributing to a narrative that is ‘dangerous’. There are no other words in the English language to adequately describe such behaviour.
Impressions do not give way to facts, that’s why we have experts.
British-Mirpuris are a product of their society as immigrants from “Pakistan-administered-Kashmir”. They have their own grievances against fellow-Pakistanis not least because they feel their region is being exploited by a political elite living in mainland Pakistan. They are not wrong in saying they have given more to the Pakistan State and its peoples, than what Pakistan and Pakistanis have ever given them in return. This inconvenient fact is becoming a burden too heavy to carry for some. A huge ‘cleavage’ can be seen developing on the ground, as ordinary youngsters in Mirpur are now prepared to toy with the idea that ‘India’ would’ve probably been a better choice than Pakistan. ‘Attitudes’ can and do change even if the foreign ‘elite’ bussed in from the Punjab Plains into ‘A’JK are impervious to the feelings of the common folk.
Sadly, some of the activists from my region confuse political structures with the bigotry of ordinary people and create their own tropes and false narratives against ordinary Pakistanis. The crucial point being, you don’t see mainstream journalists repeating these particular tropes in Britain.
Why is that then?
Well, because it’s about power-dynamics. It’s that simple.
And yet the social and cultural practises of the “Mirpuris” are not peculiar to ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir. These practises are ubiquitous throughout Pakistan, in both cities and villages. For the citified gentry of Pakistan to think of themselves as the embodiment of sophistication in the UK all the while they distance themselves from the ‘hillbillies’ of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is truly mind-boggling.
Aside from why they would make such distinctions between various groups from Pakistan, we should look at their substantive claims. What exactly are British-Pakistanis proud of when it comes to extolling a ‘city identity’ (‘sheri’) as opposed to a rural one (‘dhiati’)? They need to be reminded about the reality of Pakistan, a landmass that has become the butt of international jokes, not least Pakistani ones.
This is a country that sits at the bottom of international development indices. It’s a poor country with a massive population and a tiny government budget, procured mostly through foreign aid, loans and remittances. It is a ‘corrupt’ country, internationally recognised as a ‘corrupt’ country, where an unelected army calls the shots whilst its civilian-elite bicker with each other, siphoning funds earmarked for the poor.
Pakistan does not produce anything.
It does not contribute anything to science and technology.
Where exactly are its patents?
Its few notable academics are renowned on account of their western university credentials, many have left the country to teach in North America and western Europe! The ‘elite’ sends its children to foreign universities. When the rich get ill, they quickly head for foreign hospitals, they have money, and lots of it, so their visa applications are less likely to be denied. Without exception, they invest their money in foreign countries and even deposit their savings in foreign banks. Journalists in Pakistan constantly whip this dead horse. They tell us that the “elite” do not trust Pakistan’s weak institutions not least because they come from the same people who apparently run the country, or at least that’s how they like to present themselves abroad!
Pakistan’s modern “cities”, tiny but fabulously rich ‘gated’ areas surrounded by sprawling shanty towns are no more a collective liberal utopia than the villages are nightmarish dystopias. Life is hard for ordinary people whether they live in villages, towns, cities or mud-houses. If you don’t come from the ‘elite’ and are socially and politically connected, you’re screwed, literally!
This is the Pakistan of the ordinary Pakistani and not the Pakistan of our deluded social climbers here in the West.
But, how do I know all this?
Because, NGOs and well-wishers have been writing about Pakistan’s problems for decades. There is a huge body of knowledge that condemns Pakistan for what it has become. Besides, my family originates in areas controlled by Pakistan, on either side of the PAK-‘A’JK border. Members of my extended family live in the cities and villages that span this border. Aside from having witnessed life in the cities and villages first-hand, not a day passes in Pakistan except social and media commentators condemn ritualistically their country’s plight. From dirty water, intermittent electricity (the rich have generators), inedible food, carcinogenic cooking oil, malnutrition, stunted growth, massive poverty, huge corruption, sectarian squabbles, religious violence, state-enforced propaganda and ideology; the army is in the business of writing Pakistan’s history, enormous gender and wealth inequalities, a ‘dumbed-down’ population – the list is endless!
Then there are those who blame India for everything, literally everything whilst glued to the latest Bollywood movie.
And what about the ‘conspiracy theorists’ – oh yes, the superstars of the intellectual class. For these ‘enlightened’ few, almost always from the cities, “911” was a mere figment of the western imagination and Bin Laden was never ever caught in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan.
It was staged!
It’s all one big American conspiracy to control ‘nuclear’ Pakistan, that ‘enormously powerful’ and equally impoverished country that needs billions of dollars of American aid to fight the Taliban. Oh, lest I forget, there’s others who speak disparagingly of Malala Yusuf, that 12 year old girl shot in the head by the Taliban. Yup, to many British-Pakistanis it’s just one big conspiracy. Just read some of the tweets about her dress, from fellow Pakistanis outraged by her immodesty.
And all these guys are from the “cities”!
And we’re being told the real villains of the British-Pakistani community are from Mirpur because they came from villages and there is some sociological determiner to their backward ways in the UK?
Give me a break, please!
It’s now time for members of my own community to speak up. No amount of waiting around for well-wishers to help us out is going to stop the vilification of our community. That’s not how power-dynamics work. Vilification always precedes discrimination, sometimes decades in the making, and it is a waiting game until we see the shoots of this enterprise. Our community is dispossessed and disenfranchised. If you think our community is aloof from social prejudice that has impacted numerous communities across the world, then just hope your children don’t fall foul of your optimism. If, on the other hand, you think you’re not a Mirpuri, because you no longer associate with the humble beginnings of your forebears, perhaps you will find contentment in your new identity. And I really hope you the best, genuinely.
For the rest of us, no amount of social climbing, or self-hatred, is going to make the negative portrayal of our community disappear on account of denying our heritage and the enormous dispossession our forebears experienced as they left their homeland for greener pastures. We have academics in our midst, politicians, professionals, business people, individuals with a lot of talent, but sadly they are as disconnected from the community as many others are, in some bizarre twist of irony of thinking they are somehow aloof from the common folk of Mirpuris.
All of this contributes to our ongoing vilification.
In 2005, when three of the four 7/7 bombers, were incorrectly presented as ‘Mirpuris’, no one from the community spoke up. Ever since then, all sorts of bogus claims are being made about our nefarious ways. There comes a point when you get sick and tired of listening to c*** especially when you know it’s not true. For instance, there are no data-sets that tell us definitively the origin of the Pakistani sex-groomers to Mirpur; it’s just assumed on the basis of anecdotes and ‘numbers’ – i.e., impressions. Because Mirpuris are the majority British-Pakistani community, it must follow that they commit all the crimes in the UK not least because of the negative stereotypes being recycled by their fellow British-Pakistanis.
Sometimes, this type of statistical determinism can be proven to be wrong.
The Beeston area of Leeds, apparently, was an area with a large Mirpuri presence and it turned out that the ‘Pakistani’ parents of the 7/7 bombers came from the Panjab Province. Some days later, a journalist decided to write a piece on the culture that produced the mindset of such terrorists. Clearly she wasn’t an expert on Radical Islam to know that Islamism, or political Islam, is a product of the Muslim city and not the rural areas from which the majority of Muslims come. It is absolutely the case, that the majority of Muslims who come from rural areas subscribe to apolitical Sufi interpretations of Islam. It is the children and grandchildren of these people, ironically in western cities, who are becoming fodder for the extremists, as journalists condemn the ‘conservative Islam’ of their elders. And yet Madeline Bunting decided to write an article 9 days after the attack entitled Orphans of Islam; the history of Britain’s Mirpur population may help to explain why some became suicide bombers.
It is pretty clear to me, from which group she took her insights. Other writers repeated her mistaken claim that the suicide bombers were from Mirpur; one Samira Shackle visited Bradford, even describing the attire of the ‘Mirpuris’ she interviewed to give some credence to the negative stereotypes about the community. She unwittingly shared her own prejudices about Mirpuris, coming from the respectable sorts of Pakistanis, who would refuse to marry Mirpuris because of their backward culture.
Other writers discovered the error of Bunting’s ‘impressions’ even as they endorsed the ensuing narratives. Imagine – an entire indictment of a community based on the mistaken identity of its members. To date, there has been no apology to the Mirpuri community, and we don’t need to exercise our minds to understand the reasons.
Mirpuris are not important or significant enough to warrant an apology. However, this makes British-Mirpuris feel, to use an ethnic label that isn’t even of our choosing, it is the sad reality of negative stereotypes and narratives pushed by our fellow British-Pakistanis.
I guess respectable journalists, or members of production companies, who care about reporting the facts and not merely recycling popular anecdotes should take heed when they want to write about any dispossessed community. You know you can’t slander powerful communities, because you are aware of the repercussions, and not just because your moral compass still works.
But here’s the thing. You don’t have to be a journalist, or documentary maker, to endorse prejudices, we all do this in our ‘common sense’, and unreflective ways, and I don’t see this stopping any time soon. Humans have been gossiping about one another, groups and peoples for centuries. It’s easy to label entire peoples because of the actions of their members. It’s almost become an intellectual reflex. But if you claim to care about the people you report on, assuming for yourself some responsibility, and you’re proud to be a journalist, a respectable profession, than you can’t take your facts from the grapevine.
This lazy sort of journalism will be the death of journalism, because ultimately no one will trust would they read in print anymore.
“Al-Britannia, My country” by James Fergusson is one such example. In as much as he shares his wider-insights about British-Muslims, he merely gives credence to bigoted voices within the British-Pakistani community when he describes Mirpuris possibly on account of not understanding the subtext behind the anxieties – this rivalry is one-sided I add.
To be fair to the author, I actually spoke to him via twitter messaging and he seemed like a genuine guy looking for answers. He was unequivocal though that he wasn’t an expert and had so much more to learn. He was clear his insights were ‘impressionistic’. Some of the tropes he fastidiously recorded gave me a chuckle. He spoke of a ‘Pakistani’ guy from ‘Punjabi Attock’ living in multi-cultural ‘Sparkbrook’ perturbed by the “mono-cultural” neighbourhood of Alum-Rock a couple of miles away populated almost entirely by ‘Mirpuris’ – yup, those ‘cousin-shagging Neanderthals’ – lest you forget!” He went on to quote him, “There’s nowhere like it in the UK,… You hear Patwari, [a Mirpuri dialect] on the street. They’re a claustrophobic monoculture compared to us. I’d think twice about living there myself!” Immediately Fergusson endorsed the underlying proposition speaking about the differences between ‘Alum Rock’ and ‘Sparkbrook’ folk.
I’m from Birmingham. Trust me, when I tell you this, ‘Sparkbrook ain’t no Beverly Hills’ for this particularly rare ‘cosmopolitan’ resident to look down his nose at his Alum Rock peers.
It just goes to show that it takes a rare genius to religiously parrot what he’s been told in the hope of trying to shed light on an important topic. It takes an even rarer genius to think he’s actually made us all more the wiser.