Lessons I learned from two communities on opposite sides of the world

Every time I travel abroad, I return with a different perspective on my home. That was especially true when I visited Karachi, Pakistan.

Friends weren’t sure why I would go to that distant city, where thousands have been killed in street warfare and terrorism over the past 25 years. Even a reporter who survived bombings in Iraq told me he soured on Karachi after going there to cover the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. My own first visit was to cover court proceedings for Pearl’s killer, yet I returned repeatedly while writing a book about the city.

Some of my passion for the place grows out of the city where I live, and from which I began each of my journeys abroad. Karachi seems nothing like my neighborhood in Washington, D.C., yet I discovered that each place is a commentary on the other. Both showcase a universal theme of urban life: our struggle to deal with neighbors who are different from us.

I live in an area called Shaw, a mile and a half north of the White House but in a different world from official Washington. It’s a historic center of black culture, home to old theaters and nightclubs. Howard University, a historically black school, lines one side of the neighborhood, whose main thoroughfare is filled with architectural reminders of segregation, like the brick headquarters of a black-owned insurance company that served customers white insurance firms would not. When I arrived in 2000 there were also vacant lots, many dating to the fires that gutted buildings after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.

In recent decades newcomers have moved in, most (though not all) white like me, and vacant land vanished as developers put up new buildings. These changes exposed divisions: between black and white, affluent and poor, old-timers and newcomers, churchgoers and people with hangovers. Renters lost their apartments, sold at steep prices to newcomers. Only gradually has the neighborhood adjusted. Some newcomers stayed long enough to become old-timers. Black-owned businesses remain landmarks, as do several black churches, and some longtime residents were pleased by a small but meaningful gesture: the area’s African-American heritage, rather than being erased, was highlighted on historic buildings and sidewalk signs.

The area remains vibrant and diverse—people on my block range from a black lawyer who lived through the 1968 riot to young white couples with toddlers—though not without stress. If you doubt this, just attend a zoning board meeting. Or study the last mayoral campaign, which highlighted charges that the city government was catering to white people who’ve been moving into the city, and ignoring African-Americans who’ve long been in the majority. The incumbent mayor, an African-American, lost his job. Managing diversity is not a goal; it’s a process.

This is the place I departed to visit a city on the other side of the world. I discovered that Karachi, too, must manage diversity, and is an extreme example of how terribly the process can go wrong.

Karachi is on the shore of the Indian subcontinent, a spectacularly diverse place that is a home to countless ethnic groups, languages, and religious beliefs. Britain ruled the subcontinent until 1947, when it was split into two independent nations, each dominated by a major religious group—India was majority Hindu, and Pakistan majority Muslim.

This division along religious lines changed Karachi, which became part of Pakistan even though it was a majority Hindu metropolis of around 400,000. Soon almost all Hindus fled or were driven out, replaced by hundreds of thousands of Muslims fleeing India. It was a vast, unintended social engineering project.

You might imagine that these horrific events would at least make Karachi more stable, since it became more homogenous—well over 90 percent Muslim. There should be less friction between different kinds of people.

The opposite happened. Karachi became less stable as it became less diverse.

The city suffered for the Hindus who left. Many were educated, or ran businesses, and represented human capital lost. Worse: the people who remained found new divisions among themselves. The city wasn’t as homogenous as it seemed.  There were still religious minorities—including Muslim minorities, such as those who belonged to the Shia sect. Extremists argued that minority Muslims weren’t Muslim at all. Other conflicts grew along with the city, which was swelling to its current population of over 13 million.  People of different ethnic groups migrated to Karachi from all directions, and commonly spoke different languages. Newcomers and old-timers argued ever more stridently that they faced discrimination in jobs, in housing, and even in the languages they were required to learn in school.

Today, ethnic and religious groups are represented by their own political parties; identity politics trumps both reason and law, degenerating into spasms of violence. The central event of my research was the 2009 bombing of a Shia religious procession. Afterward men appeared on the street, in a still-mysterious act, and burned hundreds of wholesale shops. The fires sparked ferocious recriminations between the rival political parties, who blamed each other for the catastrophe. It was the conclusion of a year in which 1,747 people were killed in the city—many of them victims of a long-running struggle that, in the end, isn’t really about religion or ethnicity. Politicians and extremist groups alike are exploiting those issues in their struggle for power in the city.

Karachi’s failure to manage its diversity is especially poignant because Pakistan’s founder, a Karachi native, was a member of the minority Shia Muslim sect. The founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, gave a speech just before independence in 1947, urging Pakistanis to treat each other as equals regardless of “color, caste, or creed.” His speech would have been provocative even in America in 1947. Pakistanis remember Jinnah’s words today, even though their country hasn’t followed his advice.

Americans can understand this gap between ideals and reality, since it took us so long to absorb our own founding statement “that all men are created equal.” Today almost all of us accept the principle, but the practical details take constant work, especially when we live in a swiftly changing city. Someday our children and grandchildren will walk through the cities we’ve built and see concrete evidence of how well we lived up to that creed.

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