Void of Multi-dimensional Leadership in the Pakistani-American Community
By Azra Ashraf and Sameena Rahman
Bewilderment. That’s how I describe my state of mind, as I turned on the news last Wednesday. “San Bernardino” —I rushed to my phone to call my parents to confirm their safety only to be re-directed to voicemail. “14 dead and 14 wounded…”
This event occurred only a few miles away from my parents’ current residence in San Bernardino. Shortly thereafter, my mother called and affirmed that she was safe in the local Senior Center. I immediately instructed her to remove her hijab and not to attend the weekly Friday prayers. I feared for their security not solely because “assailants” were on the loose, but even more importantly, because of potential reactive hate crimes.
The events of this past week have compelled me to pause and reflect. Although I fail to comprehend the mind of an individual who would pledge allegiance to any form of radicalism resulting in harm, I certainly see a void of multi-dimensional leadership in the American Pakistani community. I have personally benefitted from multiple Ivy League degrees and assimilated into the mainstream. Yet, I have failed because I have refrained from mentoring our young minds and participating in leadership. Our community has suffered a brain drain. The treacherous misguided passion and allegiance of a young American Pakistani to radicals who abuse and misrepresent the teachings of Islam to brainwash and to commit heinous crimes, illustrates the desperate lack of rational guidance and inspiration. Our mosques need to transition beyond places of worship to avenues of leadership independent of level of conviction, denomination of religion, and personal lifestyle choices. I urge all my peers and colleagues, many of whom have benefitted from elite educations and senior professional careers, many like myself, who have graduated from the cultural norms of suburban Pakistani communities, and assimilated into the mainstream to participate in a grassroots effort, to throw out an anchor and to mentor our young, whether it be through an active role in the community or set up apprenticeship programs. President Obama’s promise to prevail against terrorism must also include a robust plan to cultivate strong balanced domestic Muslim leadership.
The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I experience with fellow American Muslims every time there is a major violent event in the news as we pray, “Please let it not be a Muslim”. The subsequent horror that occurs as we wonder, like the rest of the world, what type of sickened individuals could kill and maim the innocent. Then, it is the typical fear that we develop… Fear of the backlash and the hatred that will follow. Fear, not just for myself and my loved ones, but for the brothers and sisters of different faiths who happen to have a similar appearance as the rest of us. This is the typical cycle of emotions that I experience as a Pakistani American Muslim woman in the post-9/11 era: am I going to have to answer the “why” questions to my non-Muslim and non-Pakistani friends and colleagues? Why did they do this? Why are you angry?
As a health care provider, I have a basic understanding of the complexities and ubiquity of mental health illnesses. The perpetrator came from a family of abuse and alcoholism. Whether the motive is mental health, workplace disgruntlement or “self-radicalism”, Pakistanis and Muslims as a community are judged. We are placed on the court-stand to answer on behalf of villains we do not know nor understand. Islam and the radical, fanatic abuse of Islam are mutually exclusive. Terrorists who confuse the Islamic faith and perform acts of unfathomable violence defy the very basic Islamic tenets of peace. Terrorists and their leaders who misrepresent the Islamic faith as a cheap excuse to compromise the international security of the innocent at large defy the principles of any religion; they are a diseased cult.
As a petite Pakistani-born American female, one may say - (laughingly of course) - I was born with issues. Educated both by my family and liberal institutions, I grew up with a moral compass that was guided by spiritual values that emerged from Islam. Integrity, diligence, remembering God, treating others with mutual respect and love, and providing assistance to those in need were essential principles that guided me as a young girl and through my pursuit of a career in health. I pledged my allegiance to the flag of the United States of America”. I was a Girl Scout. I loved the Cowboys. I had the American Dream pulsing through my veins and embodied the same core American values as any other southern girl. “I had strong role models, both Muslim and Non-Muslim. My view of religion, perhaps was spiritual or liberal: all religions teach strong values and the expression -- whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish -- were personal choices.
I was one of the few “brown skinned girls” in my small town in the south who obtained a liberal education en route to becoming a physician. That said, however, as any disenfranchised population, I would be remiss if I fail to acknowledge experiencing racism and sexism at various points of my personal career development. Professional success has neither left me immune nor tolerant of such “isms”. However, I did not fight back with more hatred, ignorance or violence. Instead, I felt love for others despite their misinterpretations and forgave. I knew through my own diligence and acceptance of others that if I could eventually achieve my goals of breaking stereotypes of the women in my culture and help me to emerge as a leader and mentor for others.
“I came to this country in 1960 as an immigrant for you…” were the first words my elderly father stated, shocked and confused. This is the typical story many of our parents share: the transition to the United States for opportunity, freedom and education. Their hard labor and toil to provide their families and progeny with a better life. Yet the Wednesday events have not only halted progress as a community, they have potentially maimed the hardships our parents and families endured to establish their homes in the United States. Many Pakistanis have left their birthplace in pursuit of safety and security, only to face the very same challenges.
Many years ago I participated in a course led by Noam Chomsky inspiring young minds to become leaders and fight the “isms” through academia. I recall the final assignment vividly—to voice our opinions in op-eds regularly. Today, angry, frustrated and bewildered, 12 years later, I am submitting my first homework assignment.
As a health care provider, I send my sincerest condolences and thoughts and prayers to my neighbors, colleagues and their families in San Bernardino who have personally faced loss and injury, but I also send you my word and diligence as an American citizen that I will do my duty to provide mentorship and leadership. I will pledge to return to my local community, set up workshops and open my door to mentor those with a similar interests. The violence, whether perpetrated by those who wish to breed fear and ignorance among us through displaced religious rhetoric or violence perpetrated by those disgruntled and mentally unstable individuals who should have been rigorously screened prior to being allowed to bear arms, needs to be annihilated. (Azra Ashraf is an American Pakistani plastic surgeon who travels to Pakistan annually to teach and participate in international medicine. Sameena Rahman is an American Pakistani Ob/gyn who travels extensively to developing nations for humanitarian efforts)