One botched act of terror – allegedly committed by a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan – has wiped out several years of peace-building efforts with the City of New York, not to mention the larger American society. In the aftermath of the failed car bomb attack on Times Square, many Pakistani Americans are angry and scared.
Pakistan-born musician Salman Ahmad noted the irony. A week before Faisal Shahzad attempted to car-bomb the theater district, Ahmad’s Sufi rock band Junoon was in Times Square performing for Earth Day and “spreading the message of peace, unity and pluralism.”
“And then some wacko goes and ruins the atmosphere by trying to blow up Times Square,” Ahmad told FI2W.
Shahzad, who lived in suburban Connecticut, was arrested on May 4th at JFK Airport. He was on a flight bound for Dubai after the failed May 1st attempt to blow up Times Square using homemade explosives. Prosecutors say he admitted his role in the plot, but it’s still unclear if he was acting in coordination with a larger terrorist network. While the government is trying to determine if he was acting in coordination with the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani Americans in New York are closing ranks, comforting each other, and trying to protect the community from whatever backlash Shahzad’s adventure into radicalism may trigger.
Urdu Times publisher Khalilur Rehman said some in the community are getting yelled at in malls and other public places. He said some Pakistanis are starting to avoid Times Square.
“Our people are really angry,” he told FI2W. “They don’t want this kind of incident. They are also scared because [American] people have reactions that each and every Pakistani supports terror. That is not true.”
The Urdu Times, a 30-year-old newspaper published in Queens, promptly issued an editorial condemning Shahzad.
“It’s a disturbing incident. It came at a time when we’re trying to educate people that this kind of incident shouldn’t happen again.”
“That’s why we’re letting the [Pakistani] people know that if you see young people, people in religious places doing this, expose them,” Rehman said. “Let the people know what’s going on.”
Another Urdu-language newspaper, Sada-e-Pakistan, published in Brooklyn, ran the headline: “Pakistanis condemn cowardly act of terror.”
Sada-e-Pakistan is trying to send the message that the action of one man “has damaged the image-building efforts and hard work of the entire community,” said journalist Jehangir Khattak, who is not connected with the newspaper. “Pakistanis should not be judged on the basis of the headlines.”
Khattak said the mainstream U.S. media has generally been fair in its reporting, and careful about not portraying Pakistanis as “extremists.”
He also noted the community finds solace in Mayor Bloomberg’s statement that he “will not tolerate any bias or backlash against Pakistani or Muslim New Yorkers.”
“Everybody is very happy about that,” said Khattak. “Bloomberg gave an excellent statement.”
In the years since 9/11, the NYPD says there have been several terror attempts, and Pakistani radicals figured in a number of them. In a widely publicized incident, Shahawar Matin Siraj was convicted in a Herald Square subway bomb plot in 2004.
The U.S. has long-maintained a watchful eye on the nuclear contest between India and Pakistan, but recent reports of Al-Qaeda training camps along Pakistan’s border and the growth of the Pakistani Taliban make the country even more important to U.S. strategic interests. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a fundraising gala of the American Pakistan Foundation whose mission is to “advance mutual understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and Pakistan.” “We all have a stake in Pakistan’s future,” Clinton said at the event. “We want to see more [Pakistani] children in school. We want to see more mothers given the health care they need to bear and raise healthy children. We want to see more young men working toward a better future of peace and stability and prosperity.”
But the reaction to the foiled Times Square attack has engendered harsher words. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced legislation that would strip American citizenship from those found to be involved in a foreign terrorist organization, a measure that could potentially target Faisal Shazad.
Whether the American educated Shahzad was a religious radical or a hired gun has yet to be determined, but the impact of his caper is certainly being felt throughout the large Pakistani neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.
Musician Ahmad, who is also a professor of Islamic Music and Culture of South Asia at Queens College, City University of New York, made a distinction between religious observance and violence, saying terrorists cannot hide behind their faith.
“There are clear fatwas against wanton violence, and the people who attempt to kill in the name of religion are the enemies of Islam and humanity,” he said. “They are terrorists, not heroes.”
Rehman agreed, saying it would be a mistake to characterize all Pakistanis as extremists. “Pakistanis don’t support terror. We are good Americans.”