Saturday, August 04, 2007

HELLO London, this is Pakistan

The Saturday Profile
A Pakistani Envoy in Britain Defuses Cultural Land Mines
By JANE PERLEZ; August 4, 2007, New York Times

HELLO London, this is Pakistan.”

Maleeha Lodhi, a vision in glittery turquoise trousers and long tunic, made the introduction as she serenaded tens of thousands of British Pakistanis stretched across Trafalgar Square. The crowd, all smiles and laughter at the prospect of a Saturday afternoon of the best of Pakistan’s pop, roared with approval. They came with gelled hair, spiked hair, long hair, fashionable gear, trendy sunglasses; only a few women wore the hijab to cover their hair as a sign of Muslim identity.

As her country hovers on the precipice of chaos, Ms. Lodhi, the high commissioner of Pakistan in Britain, holds down the fort in London, working all the angles to convince the British government and public alike that British Pakistanis are normal people, with aspirations like most Britons, and not, as the British media commonly like to portray them, a pack of terrorists.

Of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, Pakistanis make up the largest single bloc, about one million. Three of the four suicide bombers who attacked London’s transit system in July 2005 were British Pakistanis, and other British Pakistanis have been convicted in recent terrorism trials.

On the counter ledger, 257 British Pakistanis serve as elected councilors and mayors in Britain; many, many more hold positions in big financial institutions, and serve as doctors and academics. Last month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed one of the four British Pakistani members of the House of Commons, Shahid Malik, under secretary of state for international development.

So there Ms. Lodhi was on the last Saturday in July, a 55-year-old former political science professor, journalist and editor, two-time ambassador to Washington and now Pakistan’s highest representative to its former colonial power, boogieing on stage with Abrar-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most popular singer; Amir Khan, a British Pakistani Olympic boxer; and Meera, the sexy star of Pakistan’s movie industry.

The Pakistan Festival, two years in the making — getting permission from the London authorities for a mega-gathering is not so easy in this age of terrorism — was the most visible endeavor, so far, in Ms. Lodhi’s mission to bridge the social and cultural gap between the stiff-upper-lip British and the community togetherness of the Pakistani immigrants.

She is convinced, she says, that cultural understanding, economic support and ushering the British Pakistani community into mainstream British life are more important than tougher law enforcement in the struggle against terrorism in Britain.

An outgoing person who thinks little of entertaining 100 people at her Hampstead residence, wine included, Ms. Lodhi says she often tries a test on British officials to illustrate that integration is a two-way street.

“The British have their own test from Norman Tebbit, a Conservative politician,” Ms. Lodhi said. “They say to immigrants, are you for the British or the Pakistani cricket team? My test for the British is: When was the last time you invited a Muslim family to dinner?”

The answer from the British is uniform, and unsettling, she said. “ ‘It’s not that we don’t invite Muslims, we don’t invite anyone,’ ” she said.

FROM her august address at the high commissioner’s office on Lowndes Square in the Knightsbridge section of London, Ms. Lodhi, who is unfailingly attired in elegant renditions of the salwar kameez, the traditional South Asian trousers and tunic, brings a potent mix of talents to the job.

Foremost, she served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington during President Clinton’s first term (appointed by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto) and again during President Bush’s first term (appointed by the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf).

She was present at the now-famous meeting on Sept. 12, 2001, at the State Department between Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. She had been ambassador for nearly two years, and recalls with slightly more texture than most accounts the “you are with us or against us” dictum that Mr. Armitage issued.

“The two of them were very tense,” Ms. Lodhi said of Mr. Armitage and General Ahmed. “Armitage started out by saying: ‘This is a grave moment. History begins today for the United States. We’re asking all our friends — you’re not the only country we’re speaking to — we’re asking people whether they’re with us or against us.’ ”

Toward the end of the meeting, General Ahmed asked what Pakistan could do for the United States, an immediate indication of friendship, Ms. Lodhi said. The next day, General Ahmed and Ms. Lodhi were summoned to see the deputy secretary again. They were handed a list of seven points, most of which were a harbinger of the coming war in Afghanistan, and some of which are still hotly debated between Washington and Islamabad in the current crisis.

THAT Ms. Lodhi presents herself as the paradigm of a modern self-made South Asian woman comes in part from her middle-class family heritage. Unlike Benazir Bhutto, whose roots are in the feudal landed gentry, Ms. Lodhi was the daughter of an oil executive and a journalist. She was sent to a convent run by nuns in Rawalpindi for schooling because that was the best education available, and a tolerant atmosphere prevailed. She learned to read the Koran as a child, but hers was a “spiritual household,” she said, rather than a strictly religious one.

She first came to London in the 1970s to the London School of Economics for her Ph.D. Here she married a Pakistani banker — a union that ended in divorce five years later — and gave birth to her son, Faisal, now a successful financier in the city. She returned to Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad to teach, but found her natural niche was in newspapers. “Compared to teaching, journalism is where the action was,” she said.

Ms. Lodhi was editor of The News, one of the national dailies, when Ms. Bhutto approached her to become ambassador to Washington. She had already returned as a firebrand editor of the paper when General Musharraf, who had just deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup, called on her again. She was hesitant.

She thought for five days about representing a military man, and decided in favor. “He was deeply committed to making Pakistan a more modern society,” she said. But now, more than seven years later, with many Pakistanis howling for Mr. Musharraf to shed his uniform and even hand over power, she is diplomatic. “Economically, he’s moved,” she said. “Politically, obviously more needs to be done.”

She says she has not heard grumbles from the pro-democracy forces about being ambassador for a military regime. “Envoys serve the country,” she said. Some people, she suggested, would see her as a useful influence from within.

Ms. Lodhi admires the United States. “I say to the government here: the United States is an amazing example of how to embrace ethnic minorities,” she said. “They are not seen as ethnic minorities, they’re Americans.”

British officials, she said, perplexed by the emergence of terrorism suspects in the British Pakistani community, often ask her “how come things are different here.” First, she said, she reminds them upfront that the United States did not have an empire. “That plays into how people are perceived when they are nonwhite,” she said she tells them.

And she has her own favorite personal comparison. “When I moved into the neighborhood in Washington, people came up and asked if there was anything I needed,” she said. Someone delivered a piece of pumpkin pie, someone else flowers.

“I’ve lived in my neighborhood in London for three and a half years, and I have no idea who the neighbors are.”

Also See, Pakistanis denounce extremism in London cultural extravaganza, The News

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