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'Namak Haram': Pakistani Disdain Towards Afghans Isn't Limited to the Cricket Field

Why were reactions from Pakistani supporters, opinion makers and former players to Afghanistan's Asia Cup loss – and the sledging episode – so xenophobic and distasteful?

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The Asia Cup Cricket Championship that concluded in Dubai last week was tainted by ugly incidents on and off the pitch during a crucial match between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fixture, which Pakistan ultimately won in a nail-biting finish, saw an Afghan bowler sledge – i.e. aggressively harangue – a Pakistani batsman whom he had bowled out. As the game ended, a group of rowdy Afghan fans threw plastic chairs towards their Pakistani counterparts. Later, videos emerged of ostensibly Pakistani fans taunting the Afghans with pro-Taliban sloganeering.

It was a sad spectacle all around, but one was particularly dismayed that the Afghan fans lost their cool and came across as sore losers.

What followed on social media, however, left me totally aghast. The Pakistani supporters started to smear not just the culprit fans but the whole Afghan nation as “namak haram” i.e., a thankless, ungrateful lot.

The allusion to Afghans having lived in Pakistan for decades as refugees was unmistakable.

“Namak haram” became a top Twitter trend in Pakistan. Many Afghan social media users responded by lambasting all Pakistanis as terrorists – a reference to the Pakistani military establishment’s patronage of jihadists.

It was was perplexing how otherwise reasonable people from the Pakistani side were quick to attack the Afghans as a people, under the veneer of condemning their fans. 

One of the greatest sportsmen ever, the US Olympian Jesse Owens had said, “friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded; friends gather no dust.” The same is true for spectators in the stands, for they are as much a part of a sport as the players in the field.

Their banter and spats, cheering and jeering, the friendships between members of the opposing camps, have remained an integral part of sport. Similarly, teasing and taunting are common to players in most sports.

Cricket, in particular, is known for sledging among players on the pitch. Similarly, threats of or actual physical altercations between players and fans have a history as old as sporting events themselves. Football hooliganism in the United Kingdom and Europe has morphed into an unpleasant subculture that marred many a great game, but no one has denigrated a whole nation for the undesirable actions of a few. 

Also read: Complaint Against Zubair, Notice to Wikipedia and Waves of Online Abuse: What Followed a Dropped Catch

Why was the reaction of Pakistani supporters – including of opinion makers’ and some former players – so xenophobic and distasteful?

It is not like the Pakistani players and fans are without their share of unsavoury incidents over the years. From the Pakistani hockey team’s rowdy protest after losing to West Germany at the 1972 Munich Olympics, resulting in not just the whole team but the Pakistan Hockey Federation’s suspension from the sport, to the disgraceful match-fixing allegations and suspensions in cricket, there are episodes that one wishes hadn’t happened.

I remember the Dennis Lillee-Javed Miandad spat where the two nearly came to blows on the pitch or when spectators in Multan kept pelting fruits and objects at the West Indian paceman Sylvester Clarke, provoking him to the extent that he hit back and smashed a man’s head with a brick he had thrown. Lillee and Miandad reconciled to an extent, Clarke and his captain Sir Clive Lloyd apologised to the injured fan, but no one condemned and trashed the cricketing nations of Australia, Pakistan or West Indies. Afghans may be sore losers but the Pakistani response has deeper roots than meets the eye.

‘Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan,’ Sanaa Alimia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.

A new book by Pakistani-British scholar Sanaa Alimia, Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan, tells the story of Afghans in Pakistan as refugees and noncitizens for over 40 years. The volume is divided into three sections, comprising five chapters that start with providing a detailed background to the interface that Pakistan, a newly-minted post-colonial state, had with its older neighbour.

The author has used micro-histories of individual Afghans and the localities and communities they became part of in Pakistan – mainly urban areas like Karachi and Peshawar – to narrate the story of their belonging and alienation in a land that has been both hospitable and hostile to them, sometimes simultaneously and on other occasions, in tandem.

The book uses the daily struggles of Afghans for work and wages, needs and necessities, and safety and security i.e., mere survival, without virtually any formal rights and recourse, to paint the picture of a mass of humanity that has been both extraordinarily vulnerable and remarkably resilient.

Alimia notes that far from being free-loaders and criminals, which the conventional and social media in Pakistan has often stereotyped them as, the Afghans have contributed productively to the host rural and urban areas. From providing manual labour for construction projects, to running small businesses like bakeries, flower shops, grocery and meat stores, to restaurants and catering, the Afghans worked their way to providing subsistence for their households, and at the same time contributed tremendously to the changing and expanding urban centres like Peshawar and Karachi.

The author notes: 

“In many cities in Pakistan, Afghans have transformed space into place, imbuing it with emotional, social, and material investments. Using informal channels, such as social solidarity networks (friendships, marital relationships, relationships with neighbors), as well as middlemen and other power brokers, they claim rights and resources in the city. In this process, of struggle and redistribution, they experience an emotional attachment to the towns and cities of which they are a part. They become urban citizens, a status that is informally recognized by the communities composed of citizens and noncitizens of which they are a part.”

This existence in the informal sphere and quest for rights where none are formally recognised or granted is a direct function of the Pakistani state’s policy and practice in handling the Afghan refugee issue.

For a country that has been host to one of the largest refugee populations for perhaps the longest time in modern history, Pakistan surprisingly has not had a formal Afghan refugee policy. Various governmental agencies, a Commissionerate, and assorted ministries have taken turns managing the Afghan refugees over the years.

What is also astonishing that for a country that claims to have spent a ton on the Afghan refugees, Pakistan does not have an accessible official archive for what that expenditure actually was. It also has not logged the international financial assistance received from both individual donor countries and the aid agencies. I was informed by both current and former government officials in Pakistan that such database does not exist.

People wait to cross into Afghanistan at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan August 19, 2021. Reuters/Saeed Ali Achakzai

A former advisor to a provincial government informed me that the federal government’s Economic Affairs Division asks donors to not include the word refugee in project documents. The provincial officials prefer the term displaced or migrant persons or families, which gives enough leeway for diversion to the native populations. The verbiage used even in the US military aid documentation is rather vague. Whatever may be the veracity of such claims, the fact remains that there is a lot of ambiguity and opacity around what exactly was spent in dollar amount, by whom, and when.

And this is not factoring in the Arab petrodollars and American largesse that rained on Pakistan in the 1980s to support the so-called Afghan jihad against the erstwhile Soviet Union, for which there never was any accountability. The mushroom growth of private, non-governmental and government enterprises in Pakistan since that era didn’t just create thousands of jobs for the natives but made scores of them millionaires.

The ambiguity, however, is not limited to the financial affairs. The book correctly observes that Pakistan, after all these decades, “is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; nonetheless, it acted in support of the convention’s principles.”

But that support or its withdrawal has followed Pakistan’s geopolitical priorities, not the international law. Alimia notes, “shifting geopolitics, however, have had a dramatic impact on the Afghan experience in Pakistan and their sense of security in the country.”

The Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan in five waves: after the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan; following the toppling of Afghan communist government in 1992; in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996; post-Taliban ouster in 2001; and finally, after the fall of Kabul back to Taliban in 2021. From being the darlings of the west – whose dignitaries used to visit them in tent villages — and Pakistan’s military regime under General Ziaul Haq, to getting marginalised and ignored in subsequent years, to being actively maligned and harassed for the last two decades now, politics around the Afghan refugees have mirrored where the Pakistani state’s priorities vis-à-vis the Kabul government of the time lie.

Pakistan has used the refugee card as a political stick with Afghanistan whenever there was a downturn in the relationship. While Pakistan has hosted the Afghan refugees both willingly and reluctantly for over four decades, it has not been shy of using them as a trope in the anti-Soviet narrative previously and more recently as a convenient piñata that is whacked — without any proof whatsoever — for crime and even terrorism.

Alimia has recorded the Pakistani state’s increasing hostility towards the Afghans refugees during the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani era, which peaked after the 2014 terrorist attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the Army Public School in Peshawar. In the aftermath of that attack, the common Afghan refugees were directly scapegoated by Pakistani authorities for terrorism and faced downright brutality by the police department. Afghan street vendors, students and common folk spoke of state-led coercion that tacitly approved police highhandedness, extortion and blatant cruelty against a people who have little or no legal recourse. Afghan refugee women were subjected to scrutiny, the children faced difficulty in going to schools, and access to healthcare became an ordeal for refugee families.

The torment was persistent enough that many Afghans opted to go back to their native land despite imminent danger to life. Others were forced by the Pakistani state authorities to leave, blatant contravention of the non-refoulment – no forced repatriation – principal, which is the cornerstone of the 1951 Convention. Alimia cites the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, which stated in 2017 that Pakistan was engaged in the world’s “largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees.” What adds to the complexity of this coercive expatriation of Afghans is that over 80% of them were born in Pakistan but had no track to citizenship or permanent resident status. Alimia writes:  

“At the height of the Soviet-Afghan war, even though Afghans were welcomed in the country, the Pakistani state never wanted them to be a permanent presence. Theoretically, Pakistani citizenship laws offer the possibility of naturalization and state that anyone born in Pakistan after 1951 is eligible for citizenship (jus soli, citizenship right of the soil). In practice, however, this was never realizable, other than for Afghan women who marry Pakistani men.”

The Durand Line. Photo: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The author posits that Pakistani military and civil elite’s paranoia emanates from the Durand Line issue, which the successive Afghan governments have disputed, and the once-vibrant Pashtun nationalist politics that were perceived as a threat to an insecure post-colonial state.

She rightly notes that even though the Pashtun nationalists and progressives were never overtly secessionist, the Pakistani state power concentrated in Punjab saw them as potentially complicit in the Afghan irredentist designs. The revival of the Afghan state with the US backing gave a new impetus to the Pakistani state’s concern. The Pakistani state saw the Afghan refugees as a liability and sought to expel them except its Taliban protégés. 

Alimia notes: 

“Pakistan has dismantled its hospitality toward Afghans, repatriating millions and creating a viciously hostile environment for those who wish to remain. For Afghans newly entering the country after the 2021 Taliban takeover this hostility remains—at best it can be said Pakistan has agreed to act as a site of transit for newly displaced Afghan nationals seeking to relocate to a third country. Pakistan is using the global normalization of anti-migrant governance for its own objectives.”

Pakistani state’s varying approach to Afghan refugees has, by and large, informed the national narrative and public opinion about them. When Pakistan sought to wage a proxy war against the Soviet Union, in a throwback to Islam’s early days, the terms muhajireen and mujahideen – meaning, respectively, those who have migrated for the sake of God and the ones who fight a holy war – were used for the Afghan refugees and jihadists.

With the need, dollars and goodwill eventually drying out, the narrative and practice shifted to that of an outright hostility. The epithets and slurs that large sections of the Pakistani social media users threw at Afghans were but a parroting of the state narrative that peddles half-truths and utter lies about the benevolence bestowed upon the older but poor neighbour. Afghan opinion, on the contrary, is informed by over 40 years of war and strife, which they see directly imposed on them by Pakistan’s military establishment. But even though the Afghans found it embarrassing and awkward that they had to seek refuge in a country whose military officialdom they saw as their tormentors, the twin ironies of geography and history forced them to do so.

An Afghan refugee woman waits with her children to be repatriated to Afghanistan, at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan April 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Alimia writes:

“The idea that Afghan nationals, especially representatives of a sporting national team, would live in a neighboring and rival state was deemed embarrassing. In reality, Peshawar’s status as home and a city for Afghans—cricketers and others—accurately reflects the complex interconnections of people’s lives across these two nation-states.”

Pakistani social media crowd, on the other hand, took that Afghan bowler’s sledging as some form of a national affront. In their minds perhaps, just because the Afghan players grew up and started playing cricket in Pakistan, they should forever remain beholden to them. Cricket in Pakistan is obviously a colonial legacy, which the people and state adopted and continued wholeheartedly.

Back in the day, defeating the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in an unofficial Test used to be the necessary steppingstone for a former British colony to get Test status. Pakistan cleared that bar with a victory against the MCC in 1951. But no one expected its team to pay homage to the former colonial masters each time it walked on to the grounds. 

The Refugee Cities reminds us that labouring under the figures are real people, millions of Afghan refugees who came to, crossed through or remained in Pakistan over the past four decades. They didn’t seek handouts despite all odds. They worked hard for a living and sought rights and resources under the most non-conducive and often hostile circumstances. As non-citizens seeking to survive in an informal sphere in the Global South, they have had extremely hard lives under highly precarious conditions. But despite being denied naturalisation and citizenship rights, they wholeheartedly enriched their communities and called them their own.

Alimia aptly writes:

“Afghans have contributed toward Pakistan’s urban transformation: they have quite literally made Pakistani cities. And Pakistan’s cities too, have created new identities that are more inclusive than that of the nation. The jingoistic rhetoric of the nation and regional conflicts might depict warring nations, but examining the city tells another story, of the shared struggles and shared rights of ordinary people. How long this can stand up against a growing agenda of securitization and continued efforts of the Pakistani state to intervene in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Yet it is clear, for many Afghans the cities of Pakistan are home.”

The present volume is a poignant but also uplifting take on a crisis that has been bookended by the Cold War and the War on Terror. It seeks to and succeeds in telling human stories as building blocks of research and analysis of a conflict where super and regional power rivalries had put security issues front and centre and relegated the abject plight of the people to background. The book is also an ode to the Afghan women, men and children who have strived to preserve their dignity in the face of an incredible adversity spanning not years but generations. 

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets at @mazdaki.