Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long-standing history of political tensions. Both countries accuse each other regularly of supporting terrorism or not doing enough to eradicate it. These days, anti-Afghan sentiments have reached a peak in Pakistan. Media outlets, the military, and politicians alike blame Afghan refugees for terrorist attacks committed on Pakistani soil, and for almost any other imagineable crime: rape, street robbery, murder – you name it. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan was closed in mid-February, allegedly to stop terrorist attacks. It caused millions of dollars losses in trade and disrupted the lives of thousands of people who have relatives on either side of the border. In early March, the border was reopened, but Pakistani security forces continue to racially profile Afghan refugees by randomly arresting, searching, intimidating, abusing and torturing them.
I was not really surprised then when a high-ranking cleric of the Catholic Church at a recent dinner conversation proclaimed that Afghans were at the core of Pakistan’s security problem. He pointed out incidents of suicide attacks, rape and robbery that involved Afghans (or people from the northern areas, because Pathans and Afghans are often just thrown together indiscriminately in public discourse). Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a debate I could just as well have had in Germany. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
“In 2015, I was in Munich”, the cleric narrated. “The refugee crisis happened. I was asked by my hosts to give a statement. I said: take heed and learn from our mistakes. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was pressured by the UN and other political actors into accepting Afghan refugees. We gave in, and look at the price we’ve paid. Our country has become destabilized by this.”
“But terrorism is first of all a home-grown problem. Attacks are overwhelmingly committed by local groups with long-standing roots in the country. There is a history to that which goes back to the colonial period”, I replied.
“You’re right, we have a problem with terrorism in southern Punjab. But in general, Afghans are also more prone to crime”, he deflected. “Or why is it than whenever a woman is raped on Pakistan’s streets, there is somehow an Afghan involved?”, he asked.
“This is the same kind of rhetorics employed to ostracize refugees and immigrants in Germany”, I pointed out. “It is nothing but racial profiling. One group is otherized to use it as a scapegoat.”
“What about the rape and murder of a student in Freiburg, then?”, he asked. “Wasn’t the perpetrator also an Afghan?”
“Yes, but rape and murder is also committed by German men born in Germany with no immigrant background”, I replied. “Refugees, Afghans and Muslims aren’t more frequently involved in these crimes than other people. We just hear more about it in the news. Not all refugees are good people, of course. But they aren’t worse than other people, either.”
And so on. I have had these discussions so many times in Germany already. The arguments are always the same, they never change. Rhetorical devices are used to portray one group of people as the root cause for someone else’s problems. One could easily transplant this conversation from Pakistan to Germany or the US without changing its content. Just replace names and places, and you get the same thing. Whether Trump is saying it, or the AfD in Germany, or a Pakistani cleric doesn’t matter. It still boils down to the same problem.
This conversation brought home to me again that we are all prone to racism (sounds like a commonplace, but it was a good reminder). Religious conviction, education, upbringing, affluence or social standing do not protect us from discriminating others based upon their skin complexion or background. Eventually, it is our individual responsibility to develop a positive attitude towards others that looks beyond outward appearance and sees humanity first. At some point in this process, all arguments will have to end, and trust in the goodness of the person next to us has to develop. Racism knows no religion, but humanity doesn’t either.