ENVIRONMENT: The Xenophobes —Saleem H Ali
Pakistan exhibits xenophobia in various ways by fostering grand conspiracy theories about “foreign influence” and “hidden hands”. Media pundits are proudly willing to blame anyone but us for the country’s continuing problems
During my childhood years in Pakistan, every spring we would make a vacation trip by road from Lahore to the Swat valley to witness the melting snows and enjoy the crisp mountain air of this fabled destination. On those long drives with my companion relatives, the adults kept us occupied by a host of impromptu alphabet games like “Name, Place, Animal, Thing”.
I fondly remember how it was always impossible for us to come up with the name of an animal that began with “X”. With a pinch of literary license, I would now say that such an animal does exist — the xenophobe. Clearly the species of this animal is identical to homo sapiens, and yet the xenophobe insists on being distinct. The etymology of the word is fairly self-evident — “xeno” meaning foreign and “phobe” meaning fearing. Xenophobes define themselves as being somehow pure in some racial or ethnic category and fear those who are extant to those self-defined categories.
Sadly, xenophobes are gaining strength worldwide from Swat to Siena. I was made acutely aware of the situation in Europe during a visit to Italy. The Italian government has shown remarkable disdain for immigrants who are ethnically different or “non-white”. One can understand the pressure faced by the Italians with an onslaught of illegal immigration from nearby Africa.
However, the demographic trends in the country do not support this attitude. The country desperately needs immigration to support its tax base since they have a declining population. Most Italian women are choosing to have no more than one child — often late into their thirties. Without immigration to boost the tax base and take care of the welfare state, the country would implode. The same is true of Russia, and yet xenophobia is rife there as well.
In the Italian case, the government does recognise the need for immigration but would much rather have Caucasian immigrants. Senior Italian officials have been quite blunt about stating this preference on many accounts. Where would they find a ready stock of such people to come from? My Brazilian friend Jose gave me the answer — “Europe wants us South Americans — but the white ones only.”
The Italian government in particular is giving specific incentives for immigrants with European lineage to move to Italy from South America. The argument being that it would be easier for them to adjust than the retinue of Somalis and Gambians that are now found hawking tissue-paper packets on the streets of Rome and Pisa. Their adjustment may be more difficult but if European powers are really serious about development, they have no choice but to consider this more difficult form of immigration as well.
To its credit, France has absorbed a huge number of North Africans from its former colonies and while there are tensions across demographic tiers, the radical xenophobes are presently being contained by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French want greater assimilation but they are at least transcending race to some degree so long as basic attributes of French language and culture are absorbed.
The United States also has its share of xenophobes but the election of President Barack Obama has thrown a resolutely wet blanket on most of them. It remains to be seen, however, if the new president may latently try to placate the xenophobe constituency through his policies. The United Kingdom, Canada and Australia are struggling against xenophobic tendencies with some success.
Asians should not be too sanctimonious about the matter either. Japan, China and other smaller Asian states are notorious for airtight immigration policies. Much of the current struggles in the sub-continent are a result of entrenched and selective xenophobia. Osama bin Laden’s main rallying cry has been “foreigners are in Muslim lands”.
The same cry seems to be emanating from the pulpits in Saidu Sharif. As long as one is branded a “Muslim”, the xenophobia in terms of race seems to evaporate in these doctrines. However, categorising individuals in terms of their human rights on the basis of religion is clearly xenophobia as well. Pakistan exhibits this form of xenophobia in various ways by fostering grand conspiracy theories about “foreign influence” and “hidden hands”. Media pundits are proudly willing to blame anyone but us for the country’s continuing problems. Our neighbouring states, east and west, seem to be indulging in the same manifestations of xenophobia in similar forms.
In other Muslim states, the religious variable doesn’t dissipate xenophobia, nor does being “white”. The Gulf states are frequently reviled for how they make no apologies for giving immigrants second-class status. Many Gulf governments justify differentiated pay scales and preferential treatment for locals as an antidote to xenophobia. It is argued that in a country where the indigenous population is a mere 20 percent of the total, such as in the UAE, the only way to combat xenophobes is to give preferential treatment to the locals.
While such policies may abate xenophobia, they do not address the systemic challenge of cultural exclusion in aspiring pluralistic societies, nor do they help the local population mature beyond entrenched entitlement.
In all their various forms, xenophobes are highly resilient animals in most human societies, who may take cover under pressures of political correctness, but seem to find their way into our lives by stealth. Let us hope for a day when xenophobes can truly be labelled in our social taxonomy as being “extinct”.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont. His new book Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs will be published by Oxford University Press in January 2009. www.saleemali.net