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In a new home, but fearing for old one

Political turmoil worries Pakistani Americans, who find peace and opportunity in U.S., but also misperceptions.

January 13, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

In a nondescript strip mall in Inglewood, the political debate was as heated as the chilies in Arif Malik Awan's fragrant Pakistani curries. As customers gathered at Awan's Bilal restaurant, where Pakistani satellite TV piped out religious advice from an Urdu-speaking imam, the talk was of dictators, death and democracy.

Farooq Aziz, a 48-year-old Los Angeles accountant, recently returned from Pakistan, where he said he rallied outside the presidential palace in Islamabad to protest President Pervez Musharraf's recent political crackdown. Western nations have propped up Musharraf's dictatorial military rule for too long, he fumed, slowing his homeland's democratic progress.

Bilal Awan, a 21-year-old Cal State Fullerton student who helps out in his father's restaurant, said the bigger shock was the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto late last month. His aunt burst into tears, he said, wailing about the irreplaceable loss of a great leader and daughter of Pakistan.

"Whenever a great leader steps up to do something in Pakistan, they aren't allowed to," Awan glumly said. "They either get stopped halfway or are killed."

The South Asian nation's recent political turmoil has stunned many of Southern California's Pakistani Americans, sparking passionate and politically diverse exchanges online, in community newspapers and in gathering places like Bilal restaurant. Opinions are sharply divided on whether Bhutto was a heroine or a "mobster," as one critic put it; whether Musharraf is a dictator or Pakistan's best hope for progress, as Pakistan Link editor Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui argues.

"I feel he is the best man to take Pakistan out of the present crisis," Faruqui said of Musharraf, praising what he views as the former general's honesty and promotion of education, science and technology. "Democracy is needed, of course, but if you want to take care of terrorism, you need a strong man."

Whatever their political views, many Pakistani Americans said they fear that the political chaos, Musharraf's crackdown and Bhutto's assassination have worsened perceptions of a community already under siege from the fallout of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hasan Shirazi, a Los Angeles banker, said it was bad enough a few years ago, when he went to volunteer in a Compton elementary school classroom and asked the students what they knew about Pakistan. He was startled when one student responded, "That's where Osama bin Laden is living."

Bhutto's assassination has furthered perceptions of Pakistan as an extremist nation, he said. But Pakistani Americans like Shirazi say their homeland is in fact a place of moderation and hospitality, whose people first elected a female leader two decades ago, never gave religious political parties wide support, are crazy about cricket and have embraced American shows like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" dubbed in Urdu.

"The community is under scrutiny now, but I see it as an opportunity to engage with the broader public and share our common values," Shirazi said during a conversation with fellow members of the Council of Pakistan American Affairs, which aims to promote ties between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Those common values were repeatedly voiced in interviews last week at Pakistani American restaurants, homes and shops and a mosque in the South Bay, where many of the community's members live. Almost everyone interviewed had a story of being stopped at airports for security checks, hassled at school or work, of facing post-9/11 business slowdowns or being mistaken for an Arab or Mexican.

But they also extolled the kindness of neighbors, the quality of public services and American freedom and democracy -- political values they say they want Pakistan to have.

Hawthorne shopkeepers Arif and Amena Ebrahim, for instance, said their son lost many friends at his Torrance high school after 9/11 and was accused of being linked with a terrorist country. But Arif Ebrahim remains bullish on America, saying he received great healthcare during recent surgeries, public schooling and aid for his disabled daughter and abundant economic opportunities as a cashier, airport security officer and now small-business owner.

The hodgepodge of products in his store includes Islamic art, Pakistani spices, and traditional clothing and jewelry. But it was with the American flag that Ebrahim wanted to be photographed.

"We love America," said Ebrahim, a Karachi native who came to Los Angeles in 2000 after waiting a decade for a family visa sponsored by his brother. "Anyone can enjoy their life here."

A 2005 demographic profile by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles paints a picture of California's Pakistani American community as relatively small, highly educated and solidly middle-class. The study, based on the 2000 Census, found that Californians of Pakistani descent numbered about 28,000, double the population of 1990. Community members say the figure now surpasses 40,000.

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