6 August 2012

Why Foreign Office needs to engage with British Pakistani community

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Up to 6,000 people fly to Pakistan from Britain every week. But Anwar Akhtar says attitudes in the Foreign Office to working with the Pakistani diaspora in Britain are changing and it could open up great opportunities.

Pakistan is a young country with an old history. In recent times, it has resisted floods, assassination, attacks on minority communities, the revelation that Osama Bin Laden resided there, terrorist attacks and the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. What is the future for Pakistan and what can the British Pakistani diaspora in the UK do to support it?

The Samosa and the RSA recently held a series of events that explored the relationships between Pakistan, Britain and the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. It’s estimated that up to 6,000 people fly to Pakistan every week from the UK and approximately 1.2 million British citizens have Pakistani heritage. Although Britain is thought to be home to the largest Pakistani diaspora in the world, there is little engagement with this community by the big foreign policy departments and agencies.

There is a need to engage this British Pakistani community in the debates about the future of Pakistan and the wider region. These debates have been too often dominated by an echo chamber of thinktanks and pundits obsessed with security, geopolitical strategy and global power relations. Meanwhile, the fundamental aspects of the diaspora communities such as family, culture, trade, welfare, arts, and education have been ignored.

Focusing only on conflict and security too often provides a platform for the more extreme anti-Muslim views we see in some tabloid newspapers – views that are then taken up by the racists in the English Defence League and British National Party. Given the British Pakistani community makes up almost 50% of the British Muslim community, this is a double layer of prejudice to deal with.

It is important we challenge racism and ignorance which poses as populist nationalism or hides behind security and cultural discourses, the classic demonisation of ‘the other’ that has been with us for a long time, now being served to Muslims in Europe in large portions. Equally, there is also a need to challenge bigotry and hate within Muslim communities. Much of our work is focused on minority rights, violence against women and persecution of non-Muslim communities in Pakistan and the wider region. Something far more British Pakistanis should also speak out on.

One of the aims of our work at The Samosa is to generate a more productive and positive engagement between the British Pakistani community, Britain and South Asia. The Department for International Development (DFID) recently announced a £650m aid programme to improve schools and development in Pakistan. While this support is welcome, DFID could do much more to engage the British Pakistani community in the change process in the region. Their input would certainly serve Britain’s interest; a stable Pakistan is crucial to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, where our forces are at constant risk because of instability in the region and the “Cold War” between Pakistan and India.

Our work such as the Britain and Pakistan programme with the RSA and our online campaigning help link social and political activists, social entrepreneurs and those working in development in Pakistan with their peers in the UK, with larger non-governmental and aid organisations, and economic development networks. It has brought religious and secular voices together and raised important issues related to minority rights, women’s equality and religious freedoms.

The success stories from the British Pakistani community can and should do much more. We are only just developing second and third generation networks of philanthropy and civic leadership and our work with the RSA is but one important project. We need more organisations and networks in this space. That way they might broaden their audience beyond the usual suspects and media guest appearances providing running, spirit crushing commentary that all blur into the same paranoid voices.

The British government is, perhaps, slowly waking up to the negativity of their earlier campaigns such as Prevent, which aimed to counter terrorism and extremism but ended up stigmatising an entire community because of the criminality of a few people.

Following our Britain and Pakistan programme with the RSA, the UK Foreign Office has just launched their own development of our programme of work. Whilst I have helped with this work, I am someone that has been critical of UK foreign policy, of the lack of diversity within the Whitehall foreign policy networks and engagement with the British Pakistani community by not only the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but also other international agencies such as the British Council and Department For International Development. I have, however, found some staff in the Foreign Office Pakistan team to be both open minded and willing to engage.

It is perhaps a reflection on how the British government should conduct cultural diplomacy and international relations: working with diverse and, sometimes, oppositional groups to build partnerships, trust and open up dialogue.

So, credit to them for launching this programme. Can you imagine their French or US counterparts doing the same?

Anwar Akhtar is director of www.thesamosa.co.uk, a culture and politics site with a focus on Britain and South Asia. He is also an associate of the  www.urbed.coop  regeneration practice Manchester. He was previously director of Rich Mix and spent 10 years working as a DJ and club promoter.


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