Whither Pakistani Americans?
By Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui
London alone was not rocked by a series of bomb explosions on July 7, 2005. The shock waves of the blasts were felt across the globe, and more tremulously in dwellings that housed demoralized followers of a faith that preaches just the opposite of terrorism - peace. Suddenly, a discomforting feeling filled the air: the blame game would start anew!
For overseas Pakistanis the crushing blow was to come a few days later. The news was chilling: The bombers were identified as Britons of Pakistani origin! Shezad Tanweer, who carried out the bombing of an underway at Aldgate, had attended a madrassah in Lahore.
Perched precariously in the post-9/11 period, overseas Pakistanis felt the stinging twinge of the revelation. Pronounced guilty across North America and Europe without committing so much as a trivial act of omission! An eerie quiet quickly descended upon them.
In February 2005, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had made the incisive observation: the pivotal challenge for the 21st century would be Islam’s relations with the Western world.
What would be the nature of these relations? Would mutual distrust give way to understanding and trust in the years ahead? Would Islam and the West be on a coalition rather than a collision course? Would the 21st century be characterized by a dialogue of civilizations rather than a clash of civilizations? Would the West be inclined to identify Islam with forces of moderation rather than the wily acts of fringe, extremist groups? Would the madrassahs emerge as seminaries that combine religious teachings with lessons in physical and bio-sciences - a sprinkling of computer skills, physics, chemistry, mathematics and English - for ushering a wholesome change or would some of them serve as breeding centers of terrorism? Would reclusion of extremist groups precipitate their ultimate exclusion from the global community or would they tend to demonstrate a spirit of accommodation? Would the sturdy, handsome Pathans, admired and adored by Sir Olaf Caroe, do more than just legislating controversial Hasba Bills?
In shaping these possible trends Pakistan’s role would be decisive and catalytic. What precisely do we need to do?
First, the supreme feeling of self-righteousness afflicting each one of us should give way to an exercise in self-introspection. Other faith groups on planet Earth are as much a part of God’s ashraful makhlooqat as Muslims. We should be seized of our obligations to people of the book as also to others. Self-glorification must make way for mutual respect.
Science and technology are the greatest equalizer – a stimulant for economic equality and resultant peace – between nation states and community groups. Indisputably, they account for the disconcerting divide between the haves and the have-nots. The creative impulse needs to be nurtured and sustained anew.
A fresh effort must be made to incorporate natural science within the framework of the Shariah. The issue, to quote Professor Nazeer Ahmed, an eminent historian, is one of constructing a hierarchy of knowledge wherein the transcendence of revelation is preserved but wherein reason and the free will of man are accorded honor and respect. The classical Islamic civilization thrived and made contributions to science and civilization, because it sought its inspiration not just from the schools of jurisprudence, but also from the Shariah of nature and the Shariah of human history. While societal balance and societal stability were achieved through an application of fiqh, a natural balance with nature was achieved through an understanding and application of the Shariah of nature (the laws of nature), and historical lessons were applied to keep a just balance in the matrix of human affairs. The balance was lost with the passage of time until Shariah was marginalized into a set of rules for marriage, inheritance, rituals and monetary transactions.
A revision of the madrassah syllabus is no less important. Emphasis should be placed on imparting deeni as well as dunyawi taleem. Until the eighteenth century, mathematics, natural and social sciences coupled with Qur’anic spirituality formed the syllabus of the madrassahs. Their reintroduction is more than a pressing need today.
The Friday sermon should relay a message of hope and love. It must be divested of hate and dismay. Who is to be held responsible for motivating the three young Britons, born and bred in the UK, on the July 7 2005 suicidal course? Are all khatibs familiar with both religious and secular education? Can they rationalize Islamic teachings in the light of modern knowledge? Can rhetoric and platitudes suffice for a sermon? Islam is a progressive religion, so progressive that Europe shied away from it at its inception in the seventh century. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was infinitely head and shoulders above the super Renaissance man.
With him there was no dilemma between religious and temporal power, nor, indeed, between military and civilian power. Church, State, and Army were one. “His career,” according to Bernard Lewis, “was the answer to a great political, social and moral need” for a higher form of religion than that which the Arabs had had before them.”
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was much more than a spiritual leader: he was also charged with temporal responsibilities. In his young age he was seen as an introspective child often ‘contemplating under the stars.’ He encountered Jews and Christians and learned about both religions. A feminist in his own right, the Prophet granted legal rights to women. Hazrat Ayesha, who had an active mind, questioned the Prophet and questioned him relentlessly without ever so much as rattling him. How could one explain the frequent Mukhtaran Mai aberrations by followers of his sunnah today?
The interfaith dialogue should be strengthened, particularly among followers of the three Abrahamic religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This would help a speedier integration of Muslims in mainstream communities.
Muslims should figure more prominently in national and international media. So far intelligent and incisive observations, including the scant pro-Islam comments, have come from non-Muslim writers:
“... The Iraq war is identified by the dossier as a key cause of young Britons turning to terrorism. The analysis says: ‘It seems that a particularly strong cause of disillusionment among Muslims, including young Muslims, is a perceived double standard in the foreign policy of Western governments, in particular Britain and the US.
“The perception is that passive ‘oppression’, as demonstrated in British foreign policy, e.g. non-action on Kashmir and Chechnya, has given way to ‘active oppression’. The war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all seen by a section of British Muslims as having been acts against Islam…” – Robert Winnett and David Leppard, The Times (UK), July 10, 2005.
“What the United States should be doing, instead of invading and occupying countries, is re-examining its foreign policy vis-à-vis the Islamic world. There is no natural conflict between the West and Islam. The followers and true believers of Osama bin Laden are a tiny minority. The best way to cut the ground out from under him is to develop and pursue policies that treat all of the Islamic countries with fairness and respect…” – Charles Reese, Antiwar.com, July 9, 2005
A Western news agency highlights the fact that “Osama bin Laden is losing public confidence in several key Islamic countries, while growing number of Muslims are sharing Western concerns over extremism…” The 17-nation survey was conducted by the Washington-based Pew Institute!
Food for thought for our social scientists and academics. The Western media is the villain as well as our savior. Such is the enormity of our predicament.
As for Pakistani-Americans for whom the latter half of the hyphenated identity means a great deal more than the first without occasioning the much needed attitudinal change in the Land of the Free, the present picture is one of both hope and dismay. They have had their share of successes and their part of failures.
In terms of community service, the singular contribution of the affluent business class of Pakistani Americans has been the construction of buildings. Little do the businessmen realize that bricks and mortar hardly create institutes pulsating with the creative impulse. They are no substitutes for foundations or endowments that nurture higher learning and scholarship and furnish the passport to modernity.
A beginning has to be made. Seeme and Malik Hasan have established a business school in Colorado. Sohaib Abbasi has donated two-and-a-half million dollars to support Islamic studies at Stanford. The effort needs to gather steam.
A few professional associations have played a role in the uplift of rural Pakistan. Afflicted by the Owadh kae nawab streak – patronizing musicians, singers, artists, poets et al. – they have been hardly seized of responsibilities in their immediate surroundings. There are institutions that they have to nurture, the fledgling community media in the US, to name one. Deprived of popular support the media has failed to make its mark. Barring a few exceptions, our papers continue to be mere rags and TV programs theatrical portrayal of our strivings, thanks to the indifference of the community’s well-to-do ignoramuses.
The scene must change. Quite a few Pakistanis graduate from Colombia and USC schools of journalism every year. If Dawn, Herald, The News, and Newsline in Pakistan could afford foreign-educated staffers, why not the Pakistani-American media? True, ethnic papers in the US don’t earn as much as Dawn or The News do but it is also a fact that the Pakistani society at large is not as rich as the Pakistani American community. The Congressional caucus is a laudable initiative but it is in a formative stage and has yet to deliver. It needs wholehearted community support to fulfill its promise.
The Embassy and consulates can be credited with a mixed record. They have been alive to issues at times but totally inert on occasions when action on their part was most needed. PAL-C, Rising Leaders and the Intern Scheme are laudable initiatives. The young men and women associated with these programs are sure to make a difference at Capitol Hill.
The academics have been absent from forums where their presence was needed the most. They have been too mute, too docile. Only Professor Akbar Ahmed seems to be an exception to this disturbing trend. He has been engaged with rabbis and reverends in a dialogue of civilizations to present the peaceful face of Islam. What is more, he has successfully introduced an absorbing course on the subject at the American University in Washington. His stout defense of Islam on BBC, CNN, ABC, Fox, C-Span and numerous channels, social gatherings and through newspaper articles has furnished a clearer picture of the Muslim perspective on jihad, terrorism and other current subjects. We do have role models. The spring of hope is not far off.
Not sure of its cultural and historical moorings the youth appears confused, particularly when the absurd argument against the two-nation theory is advanced. Earning grades and counting units, they seem to drift listlessly while yearning for an intellectually stimulating environment that could lend meaning to the newly found Pakistani-American identity. The overall picture breeds optimism: Quite a few youngsters of Pakistan descent have excelled at the glittering Ivy colleges and testify to the potential of the Pakistan-American community.
Finally, in the post- 9/11 changing US, Pakistani Americans are required to demonstrate greater civic participation at every level. The crisis of confidence between Muslims and non-Muslims must come to an end. Muslims have been relegated to second-class citizens as a result of this crisis. They must strive for their full-citizenship status.
Barely a decade ago American Muslims clamored for a Judeo-Christian-Muslim identity. A sea change has taken place in the few intervening years. Some developments have been truly ominous. What could eventually be the long-term implications of the Indo-US Strategic Pact?
There is a lot that our social scientists have to think about. There is a lot that each one of has to do to contribute to our response to the post-9/11 and -7/7 global scene.