Pakistani-Americans here fear they will be singled out

Tensions high with N.Y., local arrests

By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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Muneeza Nasrullah knows the fear of being a Muslim in the United States, having lived through the recriminations after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

With the arrests of Pakistanis following this month’s failed car bomb in New York City, the Pakistani-American woman worries that her community will be singled out. She says her niece has been ostracized for wearing a hijab and her nephew has been told that his middle initial, T, stands for terrorist.

“It’s very scary,’’ said Nasrullah, 34, president of the Pakistan Association of Greater Boston. “You worry that we’re going to be viewed by people as the enemy.’’

Nasrullah’s family is one of an estimated 5,000 Pakistani-American families in New England, whose ranks include leading professionals and academics and who fear their hard-won community standing is at risk.

Tensions rose when authorities arrested Faisal Shahzad, an American born in Pakistan, on charges that he tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square on May 1 and accused him of working with the Pakistani Taliban. Then two Pakistanis were arrested this week in the Boston area, accused of handling money transactions for Shahzad.

Nasrullah, a real estate agent from Grafton, worries whether she will have trouble traveling to Pakistan, adding that her husband is routinely pulled out of line and interrogated when they fly.

She also worries whether the donations she makes to her mosque could come back to haunt her one day.

“I just hope innocent people don’t get swept up in this,’’ she said. “It keeps you on edge, because you don’t know if it could be you next.’’

Muslim immigrants from the region of modern Pakistan began moving to the United States more than a century ago, most to work on farms and in the mining industries in the west.

Immigration surged after 1965 when the United States abolished per-country quotas for a new system that encouraged the immigration of people with higher skills.

By 2005, there were about 210,000 Pakistanis living in the United States, at least 25 percent in the New York metropolitan area, according to US Census data.

Including children born to Pakistani parents and those who come here for college, the total population is about 500,000 people of Pakistani descent, according to Pakistan’s embassy in Washington.

The US Census Bureau found Pakistanis earned about $6,000 more per household than the overall population and were better educated; about 31 percent of Pakistani Americans age 25 or older have college degrees, nearly twice the percentage for the general population.

“There’s no question that Pakistanis have made a major contribution to this country,’’ said Barry D. Hoffman, consul general of Pakistan in New England. “There isn’t a major teaching hospital in this city that doesn’t have Pakistani doctors on the staff, and they work at the most important high tech companies in the region.’’

Nadeem H. Kiani, a press attaché at Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, said Pakistanis are increasingly assimilated into the general population, but some find themselves being cast as “other’’ in recent years, as Americans have battled Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and the tribal lands of Pakistan and now face attacks at home.

Kiani cited a graphic making the rounds on the Internet, featuring a South Asian man sitting on a New York subway, with a caption reading: “If You See Something, Say Something. Even if You’re Pretty Sure He’s Just a Pakistani.’’

“We don’t want Pakistanis to be singled out,’’ Kiani said. “They should be seen as very much a part of this society. That’s why they moved here. These false things on the Internet leave a very bad feeling.’’

Malik Khan, president of the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, has lived in the United States for 35 years, since he came to complete his doctorate in engineering at MIT. He since married, had three children, and runs his own image-processing business.

Like others, he worries that the recent arrests could make life more difficult for Pakistani-Americans.

“I worry about this a lot,’’ he said. “I’ve lived here long enough to know that the vast majority of Americans are fair-minded, but it’s human nature for people to generalize things. Whenever something like this happens, it causes a dark cloud to come on the horizon.’’

He said that after the attacks on Sept. 11, neighbors of his mosque, including those from a nearby synagogue, brought flowers and asked how they could help prevent any backlash. In recent days, he said, he has received similar expressions of support by e-mail.

“We believe that hurting innocent people, no matter the cause, is absolutely impermissible,’’ Khan said. “Our prophet says if you take one innocent life, it’s like killing all of humanity. We condemn these actions very strongly.’’

After Friday prayers yesterday afternoon at the large mosque run by the Muslim-American Society of Boston in Roxbury, Muhammed Riaz said he hoped PakistaniAmericans won’t be impugned because of an extremist. The 44-year-old unemployed computer technician, wearing a prayer cap, said he hopes people see him and other Pakistani Americans for who they are.

“We’re human beings,’’ he said. “If you have a full pot of rice, and one piece in the pot is bad, it doesn’t make the whole pot bad.’’

David Abel can be reached at

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