Pakistanis in U.S. worry what Bhutto's death means for homeland, kin

Thursday, December 27, 2007 | 8:53 p.m. CST; updated 8:18 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

NEW YORK — Pakistanis across the U.S., regardless of whether they supported Benazir Bhutto, mourned her on Thursday and worried that her assassination could destabilize their homeland and threaten the safety of family members living there.

At least half a million Pakistanis live in the United States, with the largest concentrations in New York and New Jersey, according to Boston University professor Adil Najam.

Mian Zahid Ghani, a former journalist with a Pakistani news agency now living in New Brunswick, N.J., predicted Bhutto’s assassination would force cancellation of Pakistan’s upcoming elections. He said many Pakistanis would blame President Pervez Musharraf for the killing, bringing “a lot of chaos and unrest.”

“It has already started today. There might be a civil war. Musharraf should be planning his exit,” Ghani said.

The reaction to Bhutto’s death in Columbia was more subdued. Most Pakistani’s living in the city are either second-generation Pakistanis or immigrated to the U.S. at an early age.

Several MU students have some relatives who still live in the country.

Pashwala Khan has lived in the United States for most of her life and was asleep when news of Bhutto’s death came.

“My friend text-messaged me in the morning, asking me if I had seen the news,” Khan said.

When she said she hadn’t, Khan’s friend told her of the assassination. Pashwala then watched the news with her family, with whom she is spending MU’s winter break.

“It was a really big shock,” she said, “but we expected it because of who she is.”

Another MU student, Faisel Pervaiz, also heard the news from friends.

“I got it from text message first,” Pervaiz said. He then relayed the news to many of his friends with a simple text message of his own: “Bhutto is dead.”

Pervaiz was born in the U.S. after his parents immigrated, but some of his family still lives there, he said.

“More and more stuff is happening that is forcing them to change their perception of what Pakistan has become,” he said of how Pakistanis view their nation.

While Pakistanis wonder about the nation’s political future, others wonder what repercussions Bhutto’s assassination will have on a larger scale.

Paul Wallace, a professor emeritus at MU who specializes in the politics of Pakistan, said the incident will lead to continued U.S. support for Pakistan as a military state.

“There are possibilities for Pakistan to become moderate and to hold fair elections,” Wallace said, “but it is only possible if the U.S. steps in.”

Wallace said he is also worried that the assassination will force the ruling regime to indefinitely delay elections slated for Jan. 8 — elections that could result in a more moderate Pakistani parliament.

“With continued military rule, more extremist elements will rise,” Wallace said.

New York City is home to the nation’s largest Pakistani community, with more than 100,000 residents who trace their heritage to that country, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who released a statement Thursday deploring the assassination.

In a neighborhood dubbed Curry Hill, just south of midtown on Manhattan’s East Side, Pakistanis were glued to television sets as news of Bhutto’s death unfolded.

“I love her. It’s very sad,” said Sharmen Talukbar, 32, who struggled not to weep as she bustled behind the counter of a Pakistani restaurant.

Missourian reporter Elizabeth Schlee contributed to this report.

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