Pakistani Americans mobilize for the election…back in Pakistan

Neither pressure from his  family nor the burn of his parched throat could have moved Jibran Ilyas from the clamor and activity of bustling bodies. Resolute, there he would remain.

It was in that sea of red, green and white flags, with voices soaring in a continuous chant of “Imran Khan,” that Ilyas fell into the embrace of an old friend: hope. Gathered in an outdoor stadium of more than 250,000 to 300,000 Pakistanis in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Ilyas witnessed the rich and poor, the politically extreme and apathetic, unite under the rallying cry of a united Pakistan by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf  (PTI) political party. That evening on Dec. 25, 2011, an auspicious date stemming back 135 years to the birth of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Ilyas rediscovered his roots to his country.

Here is the catch – Ilyas is American.

Increasingly, second-generation Pakistani-Americans are navigating cultural boundaries through the unlikely outlet of politics. More specifically, these American citizens are becoming strong supporters behind the political momentum of PTI’s rising popularity with Pakistanis both at home and abroad. The PTI, a centrist progressive political party in Pakistan founded on April 25, 1996 by former Pakistani cricket captain Imran Khan, is one of Pakistan’s fastest growing national parties. A seeming paradox, the dichotomy of American citizens participating in Pakistani politics, is only beginning to capture the budding sentiment of ownership among Pakistani-American youth.

“Often the second and third generation don’t have many, if any, connections with their homeland,” Ilyas admits. “But, we do go back to Pakistan for weddings.”

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This story is part of a unique collaboration of twelve Chicago area ethnic news media examining how different immigrant communities in and around Chicago are approaching the 2012 election campaigns. The stories were released in June 2012 by Africa Today, Al Moustaqbal – Future newspaper (Arab), Bulgaria Weekly, Draugas – The Lituanian World-wide Daily, Extra (Hispanic), India Tribune, InformacjeUSA.com (Polish), Korea Daily News, Pinoy Newsmagazine (Filipino), Reflejos (Hispanic),  Reklama (Russian), and  Urdu Times (Pakistani). Click here to access the other stories: Indian Americans shift party allegiance and take their money with them, An election dilemma for Poles: Vote religion or immigration, Russian immigrants trending Republican, Russian Jews moreso, Bulgarian immigrants may abandon Obama, but voting participation unclear, Memories of corruption and the Machine stunt Latino vote, Dual citizenship for Lithuanians not for everyone, For Arabs, there’s more to American citizenship than voting, Filipino immigrants stepping onto the political scene, PERC leads Korean immigrant community into the political process, and African activism coming off the sidelines.

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Often a week to two week-long affair, weddings are a far cry from political rallies. Yet, it was a wedding that brought the 28-year-old computer forensic analyst back to Pakistan that winter. The wedding of a good friend was coincidentally near the date of Khan’s second PTI rally in Karachi. Ilyas, somewhat exposed to Imran Khan during an earlier trip for a different wedding, decided to book plane tickets five days before the wedding in order to participate in an event he believed would become historic.

As Ilyas and his wife neared the location of the rally, the arteries of the city became increasingly clogged with supporters waving PTI flags with a fervor that took the two by surprise. Slowly nearing to a stop,

Ilyas waits at the Karachi rally for Imran Khan to appear. Photo courtesy of Ilyas.

with people milling around the car, the driver turned around to ask them if they were sure they wanted to continue.

“Why are you two from America going? Even the locals I know aren’t,” the driver said.

Yet, Americans like Ilyas, are defying expectations.

“I was never interested in politics at all, but when I saw him speak, I got goose bumps,” Ilyas recalls. “He gives hope to the youth of Pakistan.”

Hope is one word that is liberally sprinkled in any conversation concerning the PTI leader, Imran Khan. Considered by many as Pakistan’s most successful cricket captain, Khan led the country to victory in its first and only World Cup win in 1992. He later went on to become a politician in 1996 and in the same year managed to raise enough money through worldwide fundraising to establish the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Center, a center that not only was deemed impossible by Pakistan’s top physicians but also treats many of its patients free of charge.

With his relative youth, strong principles and, thus far, corrupt-free track record as a politician, it is little wonder that Khan has left many living in and outside of Pakistan intrigued by his party. Juxtaposed against the current state of Pakistani politics and it becomes almost obvious why the word hope is synonymous with Khan’s name.

Jibran Ilyas (middle) and Haris Siddiqui (right) prepare for the event to host PTI's Women Wing's President.

“Pakistanis are so sick of the other parties that that accounts for a large percent of Imran Khan’s popularity,” says Taha Gaya, executive director of the Pakistani American Leadership Center, an advocacy organization located on Capitol Hill. “Imran Khan is the chance of something different.”

This is a sentiment readily shared by Haris Siddiqui, one of the founders and the membership coordinator of the official PTI chapter in Chicago. A nonprofit organization with the purpose of aiding Khan’s campaign back in Pakistan, the PTI Chicago chapter was launched earlier in October 2011. With roughly 24 chapters sprinkled liberally in the U.S., PTI is hardly the only Pakistani political party that can boast supporters within America. However, the composition of their members is chiefly first- and second-generation Pakistani-Americans who are leading the cause.

Siddiqui is not your typical second-generation Pakistani-American. Born in Dubai, the 24 year old spent a good portion of his childhood in the emirate before moving to Pakistan when he was 11. The stay was temporary. Shortly after Siddiqui moved to the Chicago area in 2002, where he has remained ever since. For Siddiqui, though, he is just as American as he is Pakistani and to be involved with Pakistani politics is to be involved with American politics.

“To me the reality is the lack of political participation on our part,” Siddiqui says. “When I say that, I’m speaking of the issues we’ve had since 9/11…[Pakistani-Americans] who are living here are not a part of the political system, not in front of the average American, and I think that was one motivation for me. You have to be part of something here.”

Siddiqui was sitting on a couch when he knew he wanted to begin the PTI chapter in Chicago. In front of him the TV flashed images from a show highlighting the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. The victory that colored the screen of Pakistan’s past seemed such a stark contrast to Siddiqui of Pakistan’s current state-of-affairs. It was that realization that motivated Siddiqui, along with the insistence of his mother, to organize a PTI chapter in Chicago.

“Fine, let me do it for you,” Siddiqui says, recalling his response to his mother. “Next thing, I’m a part of it for eight long months but it’s been an experience that has taught me a lot.”

With a background in graphics and marketing, Siddiqui set up a Facebook page for the Chicago chapter and began meeting with different individuals in the Pakistani-American community to talk about realistic methods of implementing and registering the organization. Since then, PTI Chicago has received more than a thousand likes on Facebook and is continuing to gain traction within the community.

“Now people are more desperate and even the younger generation sees that it’s almost a do-or-die situation,” Siddiqui says. “If nothing changes now, then maybe nothing ever will, but the hope is as the second generation is getting more involved we are bringing that first generation back in and hoping the third generation will be involved, if not more.”

On February 14, overseas Pakistanis were granted the right to vote. While there are roughly 6.7 million Pakistanis overseas, only 3.7 million are holders of the national identity cards for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP), which makes them eligible to vote. Imran Khan himself had filed a petition to the Pakistani Supreme Court to amend the People Representative Act 1876 and the Electoral Rolls Act 1974 to endow voting privileges to Pakistani expatriates.

For Ali Ghumman, studying for his MBA in entrepreneurship and strategic management at University of Chicago, he remembers an earlier election when he tried to vote for PTI in Pakistan’s 2008 general elections. A staunch supporter of PTI, the 25 year old was determined to vote for Khan. However, as he lined up in a Karachi voting center, he was shocked to witness a volunteer entering the ballot boxes in order to persuade citizens to vote for MQM. Fed up, Ghumman walked out of the center.

As PTI membership grows, so too will the funding for Imran Khan's party.

“I wasn’t going to vote for the person he wanted me to vote for,” Ghumman says.

Imran Khan dropped out of the 2008 elections, citing corrupt voting practices as the cause. However, this year things are different. Not only is PTI running in the upcoming elections, the date of which has yet to be officially determined by the Election Commission of Pakistan, but Khan’s burgeoning popularity combined with the push for increased overseas involvement could become the tipping point in this election.

While the number of Pakistanis overseas seems insignificant when compared to 170 million Pakistanis residing in the country, “it’s not just about the number of the votes,” Ghumman stresses. “It’s the fact that you’re building political awareness in people in the U.S. who send remittances in the billions to Pakistan. The one reason Pakistan is floating around is because of these guys and if you’re getting them involved in politics, you’re letting them know what’s going on in Pakistan and you’re building awareness.”

In a 2011 International Monetary Fund (IMF) study looking into remittances in Pakistan, the authors discovered that the flow of workers’ remittances to Pakistan has more than quadrupled in the last eight years, and shows little signs of slowing down. In 2008, remittances reached more than $7 billion, or 4.2 percent of the GDP. The State Bank of Pakistan are seeking to attract more than $13 billion in remittances from Pakistani workers overseas for the current 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The statistics alone are enough to encourage the PTI Chicago chapter to tap into this spring of wealth. Funds raised from PTI chapters in the U.S. are funneled to PTI-USA’s bank account which is managed by the financial wing, located Texas, and directly transferred to the party back in Pakistan.

At ten dollars per month for PTI membership, the organization “is trying to establish funds from everybody,” says Doctor Mujahid Ghazi, development coordinator for Islamic Relief USA and an integral member of PTI Chicago. “In America you have to be a paid member. It is all to give strength to the party financially so we don’t have to depend on lobbyists or people who have some other benefits in mind. We want to be independent of those pressures – other Pakistani parties have these large landlords funding them whereas PTI is a grass roots political party.”

Two PTI members animatedly engage in conversation. In the background, an image advertising PTI's membership costs is on display.

There are individuals in the Pakistani-American community, though, who have expressed skepticism regarding the presence of Pakistani political parties in the U.S.

“The old politics were so ugly and most of the parties have been very callous about how and what they’ve done in Pakistan,” explains Zafar Malik, Associate Dean for Development and University Relations at East-West University. “They’ve stolen from Pakistan, they’ve done everything that’s wrong and then they bring their fight to Chicago or New York or Philadelphia. Why do we have to deal with it here?”

“They” are the ones who exist just within the periphery of the Pakistani-American community. The current party in government Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League “Nawaz group” (PML-N), Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and, lastly, PTI have all established not just offices in Chicago, but chapters throughout the U.S. However, what sets PTI apart from the fray is the legality of its nature – it is the only Pakistani political party officially registered with the Department of Justice, as dictated by the 1938 Foreign Agents Registered Act – and the Imran Khan factor.

“PTI has challenged our view and we’ve been saying, ‘No, no, PTI is an exception,’” Malik says. “And it is an exception.”

In Skokie’s Holiday Inn, Ilyas works a cheesy grin onto his face as he peers out into the crowd. Almost immediately, he turns to his left to face the three individuals seated next to him. They are acting in a comedic skit reflective of Pakistani’s popular night time political talk shows, with Ilyas as their host. As they begin rapid-fire exchanges in Urdu concerning the past NATO summit in Chicago, the crowd of a hundred or so Pakistani-Americans laughs appreciatively at the dialogue. It is like being in a room full of family members, all regaling one another with inside jokes only they can understand.

The PTI Chicago chapter event is being hosted to honor the matriarch of the family, the visiting PTI Women Wing President Fauzia Kasuri. Seated at the front of the ballroom, she laughs loudest of all.

A long table, manned chiefly by Ghumman, rests in the corner of the ballroom. National Identity Cards for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) forms, information on voting in the upcoming Pakistani general elections, and PTI membership sign-up sheets are neatly arranged along the surface. Ghumman chuckles at a line delivered by Ilyas just as a man walks up to the table. Taking one last glance at the stage, Ghumman turns to him and exchanging basic pleasantries, the two begin to work together in filling out the forms.

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