After two weeks in Pakistan, a trio of Ohio Wesleyan University students has a newfound understanding of life in the Islamic Republic and its tumultuous relationship with the United States.
Students Anthony Harper, a junior from Westerville, Ohio; Kyle Herman, a senior from Stow, Ohio; and Sean-Paul Mauro, a senior from McMurray, Pennsylvania; visited Pakistan from May 22 through June 6 with the support of an Ohio Wesleyan Theory-to-Practice grant. They were hosted by Usman Javaid, a 2010 OWU graduate from Lahore, Pakistan, and Javaid’s family.
Harper said everyone’s impression of Pakistan changed greatly during the trip. To illustrate his point, Harper recounted the first time he was stopped on the street and asked his name and nationality.
“I didn’t know how to respond,” said Harper, a double-major in politics and government and economics. “But as our trip progressed, I felt comfortable saying I was from America and seeing how happy (the Pakistani people) were.”
Herman, a double-major in politics and government and international studies, said the OWU travelers saw none of the suspicion or anger toward them that they had feared.
“Pakistan is this beautiful country that has all these amazing cultural sites and cultural experiences,” said Herman, who plans to pursue a career as a foreign diplomat. “The people there were extremely friendly. We didn’t encounter any anti-American sentiment toward us first-hand the entire two weeks we were there. …
“The people we met in Pakistan were able to draw a clear distinction between us as American students and the policies of the American government, which was really comforting because, in retrospect, I don’t think most Americans afford the same sort of perspective toward the people living in Muslim countries,” Herman said.
Regarding their Theory-to-Practice project, all three said they were pleasantly surprised at just how many personal interviews they were able to conduct regarding U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.
“Our baseline goal, since we were not sure how many interviews we could do, was to go there and just get a cultural awareness of the country as a backdrop for further studies,” said Mauro, a politics and government major and economics minor. “But actually we were able to talk about our topic almost every single night with various people of various backgrounds.”
And the results of all that research?
“I think our biggest takeaway in regard to our topic was that we cannot find a single explanation or solution to the U.S. difficulties in the region,” Mauro said. “No matter how much we strive to learn, our understanding of the Pakistani perspective will always be limited because we are not from there and we have not lived through their experiences.”
In addition, he said, the issue is complicated by the separate relationships Pakistan and the United States each have with India and Israel, as well as by the Pakistani people’s anger over attacks on their country by U.S. unmanned military aircraft, often called drones.
“The majority think we shouldn’t be there.” Mauro said. “That it’s making things worse there.
“They get very angry whenever American politicians outspokenly say Pakistan isn’t doing enough to combat terrorism,” he continued. “That’s easy for us to say and, if you look at the facts, it might be somewhat true. There are safe havens in the northwestern frontier province where it seems like they could be doing more to break those up. But their response to that is: ‘First of all, you went through a 9/11 once, we go through one about every other month. And second, we’ve lost more troops than you have fighting it.’ … It’s delicate. There’s not just one answer.”
Harper added that the issue becomes even more complex when you expand it beyond just Pakistani perceptions.
“My takeaway was looking to the Muslim point of view, not just Pakistan’s,” he said. Also eye-opening was comparing news coverage of the same events in U.S. and international media. “Their perceptions are completely different from our own (in the United States),” Harper said, with more of the U.S. news reinforcing negative Muslim stereotypes.
Herman recalled talking to a group of Pakistani women who had studied in the United States. Ironically, just as the OWU group had fears about traveling to Pakistan, the Pakistani women had concerns about how they would be treated in the United States. Their fears, he said, were largely based upon watching U.S. news coverage.
“Their recommendation is more people watch ‘The Daily Show’ for their news,” Herman said with a grin.
Harper, Herman, and Mauro came up with some recommendations of their own after compiling their Theory-to-Practice research.
Based on their first-hand study, the OWU students have the following recommendations for President Barack Obama and other U.S. politicians regarding the future of Pakistan-U.S. Relations:
- The United States should contribute more aid to improving education and development to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people.
- Those receiving U.S. aid must be held accountable for the aid to ensure that it is used as intended.
- The United States should increase public diplomacy efforts in the region to highlight the distribution of aid to Pakistani people.
- U.S. Foreign Service Officers should display a more visible commitment to helping the Pakistani people.
- The Pakistani government should work to decrease stratification between classes and give the people more democratic power.
- U.S. leaders should treat the Pakistani government as a partner rather than a subordinate, especially in public.
- U.S. leaders and media should advocate a better understanding of Muslim perspectives.
“We need to understand what we have in common with each other instead of demonizing Muslims as ‘the new other’ to try to score cheap political points,” Herman said.
“More than the differences, we saw the similarities,” Mauro concluded, picking up on Herman’s observation. “It’s a much rosier picture when you are there.”