Senior Lecturer in Urdu and Postcolonial Studies
SOAS, University of London
1. How do you see issues of trust affecting the Pakistani communities in Britain? Are there particular issues where intercultural trust is a problem?
It's often suggested that Pakistani communities are insular and don't engage with other communities around them. In fact, Pakistani communities have a vibrant culture and interact daily with others. Those instances where there is a ghettoisation are really to do with patterns of poverty and comparative deprivation, rather than any instinct to seal themselves off. Having said that, since 9/11 there has been a 'rediscovery' of particular kinds of Muslim identity within the Pakistani diaspora community, some of which are more positive than others.
2. Please talk about some of the ways in which the SOAS Centre for the Study of Pakistan sees itself as being able to make interventions in areas where trust may need bolstering.
The Centre has, as its main aim, the study of the culture, politics and history of Pakistan. We are always aware that Pakistan as a nation is a relatively recent creation, so our understanding extends back prior to Partition to think about the various legacies and traditions which inform contemporary Pakistan and its diaspora in ways which sometimes get overlooked. To that extent, we are aiming to raise awareness of the diversity of cultural elements that make up Pakistan, beyond the usual stereotyped elements that make it into the news all the time. We would hope that this would help to reconnect Pakistanis to their heritage and increase understanding among other groups, with the result that more awareness in itself will lead to better trusting relations. In addition, our links to government representatives and NGOs have the potential to feed through discoveries about trust and improve techniques of intercommunity dialogue.
3. Multiculturalism is nowadays sometimes seen as problematic in Britain and Europe particularly. How do prevailing political discourses actually impact on the lived experience of people of Pakistani heritage in Britain?
They impact in a number of ways, large and small. For one thing, there's a tendency to stereotype the diaspora as a problematic and unintegrated minority wedded to backward practices like forced marriage and honour crime. These things do exist of course, but not only are Pakistanis actively working to eradicate them, they should also be recognised as cultural practices which have made their way to Britain as part of a defensive mindset in some quarters that wants to preserve the old ways in the new environment. Not only is that practically impossible, it's also counterproductive. They're not integral to people's identities either as Pakistanis nor as Muslims. In other areas, the whole multiculturalism debate has become quite antagonistic and you can't really blame people for feeling it as an attack. In that respect, the building of trust, both in everyday life and in the dominant structures of political and media representation becomes really important.
4. Can the history and cultural traditions of the Pakistani diaspora help us to build more trusting relations with non-Muslim communities? If so, how?
The rich heritage of the Pakistani diaspora draws in elements ancient and modern, Islamic and hailing from the pre- and non-Islamic traditions of South Asia, This is often forgotten in the rush to stereotype. In the Centre we are keen to explore all areas of cultural activity because, it seems to me, that any attempt to understand this - or any other - minority community, has first to understand the way it imagines itself. And that comes through the art, culture and literature of the people as much as - if not more than - from political theorists, nationalist politicians and so on. In the same way, the multiculturalism debate would be enhanced enormously if politicians and policy-makers tried to engage more with the values and attitudes embodied in the best of this work, rather than seeing minorities generally as a 'problem' to be addressed only in the context of assimilation or short-term political gain.
5. Any other observations you would like to make.
Working with the RCUK 'Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue' project is exciting because it allows us to address some of the above issues and pool our resources with those of scholars of other Muslim diasporas, but also to move beyond them, to the lived experience of communities themselves, and to help to build a better understanding of what makes for trusting intercultural relations.