During a time when there are tensions between the governments of the United States and Pakistan, and misperceptions about each other among their citizens, it's important to have ordinary people from both countries reach out to help close the gaps.
One such person is right here in the Philadelphia area. Raza Bokhari is a physician turned entrepreneur who believes in a tolerant society in which there is a place for every nation, culture, and religion.
Born in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province of Pakistan, Bokhari came to the United States in 1991 after graduating from the Rawalpindi Medical College. Once here, he earned his MBA from the Fox School of Business at Temple University in 2001.
Bokhari is 47 now and holds himself up as an example to dispel the misperception that Muslims in general, and Pakistanis in particular, are widely discriminated against in the United States, particularly in the years since the terrorist attacks in 2001. He says he has never faced any difficulty as a Pakistani Muslim post-9/11. "The first person who gave me a call as the tragic events of September 11 were unfolding was a Jewish American friend eager to inquire about my well-being," Bokhari says.
He believes that no one can be discriminated against without his or her consent. "It is mostly our own assumptions and preconceived notions that force us to feel discriminated," he says. "If we make the effort to establish relationships and intermingle freely with others, it is less likely that we would think of us as being discriminated [against] or feel different than others."
He acknowledges that, in the United States, there are some bad actors, bigots who discriminate against others based on religion or race. But they are a small minority and do not represent true American values, Bokhari says. Of course, the United States is not alone in this regard. He notes that in Pakistan, a small but vocal - and violent - minority is ruining that country's global image.
The vice chairman of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and a trustee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Bokhari strongly believes that a liberal and tolerant society is one in which people have the right to practice their faith and live their own lives. He believes that liberals in Pakistan should stand up and confront extremists, especially religious extremists. Ordinary citizens must stop being apologetic about their liberal and tolerant ideology, he says, because Pakistan is as much their country as the religious right's.
"Religion is purely a matter between a person and his or her God," Bokhari states. No one should be forced to follow a certain religion, he says, and no one should be forced to abandon his religious beliefs.
While Pakistanis must stand up to extremists, Bokhari believes it's also important to eliminate the notion prevalent in the West that everyone in Pakistan is an extremist. The country was not created solely based on religious ideology, he notes, but was formed to provide the Muslims of the subcontinent better economic and social opportunities than were available in Hindu-dominated India. "Pakistan is not just a homeland for Muslims, but is also home to Christians, Hindus, Parsis," Bokhari explains. "This reality is embedded in Pakistan's national flag."
But in the years since 9/11, changes have occurred in both Pakistan and the United States. In the latter, he notes, in the process of establishing a homeland security apparatus, a few bad choices were made, which involved targeting residents of certain countries, including Pakistan, who were entering or leaving the United States. Despite the mistakes, he believes those efforts paid off, with no sequel to 9/11 after 13 years. "Sadly, Pakistan cannot make such claims," Bokhari says. "Extremism and terrorism are on the rise and the law-and-order situation in Pakistan is turning from bad to worse."
Bokhari stays involved with events in Pakistan as a volunteer spokesman for the former president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was charged with treason after he returned home to participate in the general elections. Bokhari says he assists Musharraf because of his strong personal ties with the former president. During Musharraf's self-imposed exile after resigning the presidency in 2008, he would often stay at Bokhari's home on the Main Line.
Though a Pakistani court refused to allow Musharraf to participate in last year's election, his party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, continues to organize. "The party is gradually developing in Pakistan and also has chapters in the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries where volunteers are working to promote Musharraf's political ideology of a strong, stable, and tolerant Pakistan co-existing in peace and harmony with its neighbors and others around the world," Bokhari says.
The former president knew he faced arrest in Pakistan, but returned because he's not a quitter, Bokhari says. He thinks of his country first, and is committed to reform Pakistan within and to promote a positive image of the country on the international level.
Despite the controversy surrounding the former president, Bokhari remains a steadfast supporter: "I am honored to represent an extraordinary and humble person who has middle-class family values and who reached the highest rank within the Pakistan military through sheer grit, hard work, determination, and perseverance. I have become a better human being because of my close association with General. Musharraf."