Losing the battle for hearts and minds
By Irfan Husain
30 Sep, 2009
Travelling on a green Pakistani passport has never been easy, but it’s got progressively harder in recent years. Add to the hassle of fulfilling endless visa requirements the long queues at airports, and you may as well stay home.
While we are now used to the red tape involved in the exercise, the UK Border Agency has taken bureaucratic hurdles to a whole new level. Earlier this summer, my son was supposed to visit me in England on his way to the United States. However, when he was informed he might have to wait up to two months for a British visa, he told me he would have to defer the pleasure of bringing his wife and my little grandson to see me.
But he was lucky because he did not apply for a visa: thousands of Pakistanis who did found their passports and applications had been dumped somewhere in the UK embassy in Abu Dhabi. For some bizarre reason, the Brits now process Pakistani applications in the Gulf state.
A friend who found himself in this predicament was Masood Hasan, the well-known columnist and brother of the late Khalid Hasan. Apart from being a public figure by virtue of his popular column, Masood also broadcasts a weekly jazz programme on an FM channel, and runs a successful ad agency. His wife is Dr Ira Hasan, the eminent academic and ex-principal of Kinnaird College.
Although Masood needs no introduction from me, the reason I am giving some details about him is that he is just the kind of Pakistani the Brits should be encouraging to visit their country. In fact, he has been a regular visitor for 30 years, so he was understandably taken aback when his application for a visa was turned down.
Not only was Masood told he was unwelcome, but his son Meekal’s application was also rejected. For those who follow the Pakistani music scene, Meekal is even better known than his father. Considered one of the finest guitarists Pakistan has produced, young Meekal has established his own iconic pop group, and has performed at many concerts at home and abroad.
One would think that in these recessionary times, the British government would be encouraging foreigners to come and spend their money here. But there’s more at stake than tourist dollars: through this misguided policy, the Brits are losing friends at a time they (and the West) need as many as they can get in the Muslim world.
It is true that Pakistan is increasingly viewed as the epicentre of Islamic terrorism. Many plots, real and imaginary, have had their roots in the badlands of Fata. Many young Brits of Pakistani descent have travelled to remote parts of the country to receive training in bomb-making. But the point is that these young men do not need visas to return to Bradford and Wolverhampton. Being born in Britain, they enter their country without let or hindrance.
Apart from the Pakistani students who were arrested on terrorism charges last year, all those accused and convicted in Britain are citizens of the United Kingdom. And all the Pakistani students accused in the so-called terror plot were later released and deported without any charges. In fact, the entire episode was deeply embarrassing for the British government.
Every country has the right and the duty to protect its citizens by denying entry to suspicious foreigners. And certainly, no country wants outsiders without means of support to sponge off the social security system. However, while scrutinising applications, visa officers need to use their discretion and their common sense.
For example, last July, the 30-member Lahore Pipe Band was refused visas that would have allowed them to compete in the World Pipe Band Championship in Glasgow. As they had been competing for the last four years, one would have expected them to be waved through. At the same time, a business delegation composed of members of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce were also barred from visiting Scotland at the invitation of the local chamber of commerce.
Such stories can be multiplied endlessly. George Fulton, writing in the Guardian blog (‘Britain’s visa shame’; September 20), recounts the ordeal his Pakistani wife Kiran is going through in her attempt to return to Britain. Fulton also writes about the plight of thousands of students who have confirmed university places in Britain, and are waiting for visas. Meanwhile, their residential arrangements have been placed in jeopardy because of the long delays in processing their visa applications.
The unpleasant reality is that the events of 9/11 – and in Britain, 7/7 – have unleashed forces of racism and Islamophobia. While few voice such sentiments openly, there is an increasing suspicion of foreigners in general, and Muslims in particular. And while ordinary Pakistanis have little to do with the situation in Afghanistan, the steady rise in casualties among NATO forces there has added to the growing unease.
It is precisely because of the rising extremism in the Muslim world that people like Masood and Meekal Hasan should be made welcome in the West. Given the position they enjoy in Pakistan, they can influence many to see that the enemy is not the West, but the forces of darkness that have gained the ascendancy in our own country. By turning them down, the British government only provides ammunition to those who are convinced of the West’s inherent anti-Islam policies.
I can see why visa officers are under pressure to err on the side of caution. Should they issue a visa to somebody who subsequently breaks the law in Britain, they are answerable to their superiors. There is thus an incentive to say ‘no’ rather than ‘welcome’. But knowledge of local conditions lends perspective to such tricky decisions. By removing the entire visa processing system from its High Commission in Pakistan to another country, the British government has made it more difficult for its officials to exercise sound judgment.
Over the last few years, we have heard the phrase ‘battle for hearts and minds’ so many times that it has become a cliché. Nevertheless, this is a battle that must be won to wean people away from the siren call of militancy and extremism. This can only be done by encouraging more, not less, interaction between ordinary people living in the West and in the Muslim world. By closing its doors to sane, secular people like Masood and Meekal Hasan, Britain is losing this battle.