Remembering ‘Apolitical’ APPNA’s Political Convention

By Jay Rover
(Image, courtesy APPNA website)
Thousands of Pakistani-American doctors concluded their annual gathering in Dallas on July 9. The 46th annual convention of the Association of Pakistani Physicians in North America (APPNA), one of the largest, most organized and wealthy organizations of Pakistani Americans, had everything but a theme.

The result was obvious – no result. And how about any major achievements? There may be few small ones other than a speech by Pakistan’s ambassador to the US Masood Khan,  Turkish President Tayyab Erdogan and several other luminaries.

The loads of entertainment and delicious Pakistan cuisine aside, not much seemed to have been achieved, except for the organization’s internal divisions going global. Reason: the Association, which prides itself with being ‘apolitical’, tried to enforce its known position by disallowing Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan to address the event. Even though it failed to stop Khan’s supporters within the APPNA family from hosting the former prime minister at a hotel not far from the convention venue, it did make headlines far more widespread than the APPNA leadership would have liked – a lot of media coverage, but less exciting.

While Khan’s supporters celebrated their ability to let their leader address the doctors, their critics did not mince words in criticizing him either. “I am so happy that the president (of APPNA Dr Arshad Rehan) and chair of host committee refused to bow to Khan cult,” wrote Dr Shahnaz Khan, a long-time member of APPNA in a tweet.

Numerous videos and posts making rounds on social media of the grand event revealed two striking trends. The first being that APPNA, whose president himself is scion of a known political family, is not as apolitical as it so stubbornly claims. And secondly, it may have grown in age at 46 and might have succeeded in amassing impressive over seven million dollars in its coffers, it is yet to finesse the art of capitalizing on its conventions.

APPNA reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the travel expenses, appearance fees, lodging and other needs of a handful of Pakistani journalists and singers to stage political debates and musical concerts for the education and entertainment of the participants. Of course musical concerts are apolitical and the organizers deserve appreciation for bringing Pakistani artists because they at least showcased some of the best from the Land of the Pure, in the Land of the Free and the Brave.

However, organizing political panels belies its leadership’s neutral status. Even though topics of at least two of the noteworthy panels with strong political connotations were titled “apolitical” – “Growing Intolerance and Polarization in the Society” and “The Great Breakup – What Went Wrong?” the political discussions, some with a few fireworks, spread more negativity than the organizers might have expected. Prominent names on Pakistan’s journalism scene sitting in Texas discussing Pakistan’s divisions – all rooted in the country’s nasty politics – gives little credence to APPNA’s apolitical claims. It is like using the names oof prominent journalists to highlight its internal political preferences.

APPNA would have done justice to its stature if it had been a little more thoughtful in planning the event. Its contemporary organizations in other communities use such events to project their best, promote their countries of origin’s relations with the United States and highlight their members’ challenges and contributions to the US health sector. Not that APPNA did not try, it did and should get its due credit for at least bringing so many Pakistani doctors under one roof. However, it did not try enough to capitalize on the presence of some of the top brains of the United States at the convention. There was not enough celebration of the success stories of Pakistanis in the American health delivery system nor was there noticeable conversation around replicable models in health sector that could be shared with Pakistan.

While the organizers did bring a few US elected officials, they conveniently ignored a large majority of distinguished Pakistanis who have attained highest positions in the Biden administration. It could have used the event to promote dialogue with the US-based organizations working in health sector in Pakistan which could have helped Pakistan in more meaningful ways. Other communities are already successfully using such events for the benefit of their communities here and their countries of origin.

Last year when the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) held its 40th convention in San Antonio, Texas, each day at the event featured a different theme, other than its main theme – “Heal the Healers — Rejuvenate And Rekindle Your Mind And Spirits”.

The event, one of the biggest of Indian American physicians in North America, began with “Unity in Diversity” to display one’s state dress code to ‘Heritage India’ which honored and celebrated India’s cultural diversity. The convention included several sessions on medicine and an in-person plenary session on the India-US Healthcare Partnership with Indian Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya among the attendees. The Indian doctors’ association claimed three major achievements – successfully showcasing their heritage, their contribution to the American health delivery system and the growing US-India partnership in health sector. AAPI his getting ready to meet for its 41st convention in Philadelphia in the last week of July.

If AAPI has the ability to turn their convention celebrations into opportunity, why can’t APPNA? It certainly can and may do it way better than many. But for that APPNA will have to come out of its political bubble that it so conveniently denies.

Despite being an organization of medical professionals, APPNA can rightly be considered one of the most precious assets of Pakistani American community. It is a platform that can play a much more fruitful role in the professional, political and economic empowerment of Pakistani American medical practitioners. Its events have traditionally served as a sort of a convening ground for the professionals under one roof. But these events have rarely lived up to its untapped potential. It can play a more effective role in the integration of Pakistani American community into mainstream America, strengthen Pakistan-US relations and help young medical graduates from Pakistan get residency at US hospitals. However, these lofty goals may remain a dream if APPNA offers its platform for poisonous Pakistani politics and divisive subjects. APPNA is too important to be pushed into the murky waters of Pakistan’s divisive political arena. The earlier its leaders realize and do their course correction before it become more ineffective, the better it is for the Pakistani American doctor community, integration of Pakistani American community and the US-Pakistan relations.

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