Karachi, Pakistan – As darkness fell across America on the night of November 8, halfway across the world in Pakistan, dozens gathered outside the United States consul general’s home in Karachi to watch the election results as they trickled in.
It was a sunny day and a public holiday in honour of a poet and political leader who was one of the nation’s founding fathers.
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Inside the residence, cardboard cut-outs of the two presidential candidates greeted members of civil society, journalists and development workers.
Even as many consular officials had a pre-dawn start to the day, they were in high spirits as they posed for selfies, donned Uncle Sam hats, and took part in a straw poll of the most beloved past US president (Abraham Lincoln won by a clear majority).
Officials are not allowed to disclose for whom they voted, but as the electoral map steadily turned red, the hosts got unusually quiet.
They turned their backs to their guests as they stood in tight knots around television screens broadcasting the latest figures.
“Look at their faces,” one journalist said. “They look as though they might cry.”
As guests jostled for a photo with Consul General Grace Shelton, Donald Trump’s cut-out was accidentally elbowed to the ground. “It’s too late to knock him down now,” an elderly gentleman said grimly.
Voting as an expat
Many Pakistani Americans, like 29-year-old Jahanzaib Shafique, an events manager living and working in Lahore, had registered to vote in the US elections for the first time.
He felt “compelled to”, he said, after the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce – a mosque frequented by Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, as well as members of Shafique’s family – was set on fire during Eid-al Adha in September.
“That’s when the threat felt real,” he recalled.
The divisive nature of Trump’s campaign, however, was not the only factor influencing the decision to vote for some Pakistani Americans. Many took their cues from Pakistan’s general election in 2013. That year, millions of Pakistanis who had never cast a vote headed to the polls to elect the members of the National Assembly. According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the election saw a historic turnout of 46.2 million voters – an increase of 9.6 million since the previous election in 2008.
In Karachi, Saadia Pathan and her father, both first-time voters, threw their support behind Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former cricket champion and the leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), who challenged a decades-old political status quo of only two parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz – leading the country. The PTI gained an unprecedented number of votes in the election on the promise to bring change to the dynastic political system in Pakistan.
“It felt like my vote mattered,” Pathan, a 22-year-old student, explained. When Bernie Sanders entered the race, Pathan said she was reminded of Imran Khan.
“Just like Khan in 2013, Bernie was the outsider and the underdog, and he had a vision that people don’t really talk about,” she recalled. “He needed our votes.”
To an outsider, the nature of politics in Pakistan may seem utterly removed from the American democratic system.
But as journalist Declan Walsh pointed out, the American campaigns featured moments that were all too familiar to Pakistanis.
After Trump’s stunning win, a meme featuring Imran Khan calling Clinton to suggest she protest about rigging – an issue that Khan has not backed down on since 2013 – quickly made the rounds on social media.
“Lurid personal attacks, insinuations of vote-rigging, rampant conspiracy theories – I might have been in Pakistan, where I lived for nine years,” Walsh said.
And the similarities do not end there. For many, support for Hillary Clinton was rooted in the memory of a female leader closer to home.
“I was just 13 years old when Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister of Pakistan, and I haven’t forgotten that hope that a woman would handle things and it would be different, and how ecstatic everyone was when she won,” said 42-year-old Ali Rez, a naturalised US citizen who returned to Pakistan in 2010.
“Hillary embodied that vibe, that sense, for me.”
|State by state, results showed Trump winning he election [Sanam Maher/Al Jazeera]|
The end of times?
Traditionally, dual nationality has offered Pakistani Americans a safety net. But on November 9, some felt as though they were in a free-fall.
Sanna Tahir, a 35-year-old teacher in Karachi, is an American citizen and wants the same for her three children.
“My greatest motivation is that they should have an alternate home base, given the security situation in Pakistan,” she said. “I want them to pursue their education in the US.”
Tahir applied for her sons’ citizenship just days before the election.
“Their passports are supposed to be here in two weeks,” she said, “but Trump will be in office by January. I guess we’ll get the passport, but what will it be worth?”
As she watched the speech of the president-elect, she thought anxiously, “Will we have to get special IDs now? Will he pursue his anti-Muslim agenda right away or will it take some time?”
Shortly after Trump’s victory was confirmed, author and activist Rabia Chaudry shared a saying of the Prophet Muhammad about one of the signs that the Day of Judgement is near.
“When the most wicked member of a tribe becomes its ruler,” it states, “and the most worthless member of a community becomes its leader, and a man is respected through fear of the evil he may do, and leadership is given to people who are unworthy of it …”
For voters like Tahir, this saying resonates deeply. They believe Trump’s win does not just set the stage for greater harassment of Muslims in the US but also barrels the world closer to what they believe will be their final days on this earth.
“Our elders would always warn us of a time when Muslims would face immense trials, when the time would come to hide that you are a Muslim,” Tahir explained. “And I can’t stop thinking about that now. Forget about the American passport, the citizenship – all of it. Maybe we are getting as close as possible to the end of time.”
What they deserve
For others, however, Trump’s presidency is not apocalyptic, but welcomed.
“I’m not exactly a Trump supporter, but out of the two candidates, I would still choose him,” explained one woman in her 20s who wished to remain anonymous.
“Trump’s racist campaign is designed to get all the rednecks to vote for him,” she felt.
“Once he takes office he will not follow through with such radical principles. On the other hand, Hillary just seems shady.” Referring to conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health, she said the secretary of state cannot be trusted.
Others were motivated by resentment over American foreign policy over decades.
“America has made such a mess of things around the world and Americans don’t seem to care,” said one woman, a doctor, in her 50s. “It’s time that they get a leader like Trump. They should get what they deserve.”
US officials in the country have been quick to reassure that Trump’s win does not signal a shift in US policy towards Pakistan.
“Our foreign policy is based on national interests and they don’t change when the government changes,” Consul General Grace Shelton said the day after the election.
“Just because there’s a madman elected to be in charge, I don’t think there will be a situation where America goes wild,” said Hassaan Khan, a 31-year-old journalist in Karachi. “There will be plenty of checks and balances.”
Even so, Tahir says the support Trump’s presidential run received should trigger some soul-searching for Pakistanis.
“Maybe it is time that we stop going for American, Canadian, British or Australian citizenship,” she said. “Maybe we need to work on this country and make it a better home for ourselves. Maybe it is time to make Pakistan great again.”