Journey of a Pakistani student: Americans can win hearts and minds

By Kazim Alam

I arrived in the United States on Aug. 22, 2010, with a small suitcase and barely $200 in my pocket. My host family, which I found through Quinnipiac University‘s website, was at Bradley International Airport to receive its new tenant and neighbor from Pakistan — a country whose name has become a synonym for terrorism, Islamist fundamentalism and suicide bombings.

They drove me to my apartment in Hamden at 1 on a Monday morning. To my surprise, they had a fully furnished apartment ready for me. Refrigerator, microwave, stove, kitchen utensils, TV, lamps, food for a week, everything I could need — free of charge. They gave me a bicycle, too.

I didn’t even have to purchase warm clothes for the winter. One of their friends gave me lots of winter clothes (that fit me well).

My landlord is a policeman — a fun-loving, family-oriented, patriotic Republican. I often wonder why he let me be his tenant.

Why didn’t he tell his wife, “Look, this guy may be a Fulbrighter, but he’s from Pakistan? He’s from the country whose premier intelligence agency is accused of playing a role in the 9/11 attacks. I don’t want this guy to be around my kids. He might decide to blow us up someday.”

Didn’t they know that Faisal Shahzad, the man behind the failed attempt to bomb Times Square, was from Pakistan — and that he lived nearby in Bridgeport?

Why, then, did they accept me as their tenant?

I asked my landlady. “You intrigued me, that’s why,” she replied. She wasn’t sure herself initially. She had e-mailed my editor in Pakistan and asked if she should let me stay in her apartment.

“He’s a peaceful, law-abiding citizen,” my editor wrote back. He said she could hold him responsible if anything went wrong.

She also asked her friend, a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, if he thought she should rent her apartment to a Pakistani student. He said she should, because the best boss he ever had was a Pakistani doctor.

Once my landlady’s daughter mentioned at dinner that one of her classmates said 9/11 happened because of the follies of the American government. That made my landlord visibly angry.

“Just ask her one thing. Why do all these countries owe America so much money?”

After that, my landlady asked me if I agreed with her daughter’s classmate. I said no.

“On 9/11, you were a victim — and a victim cannot be blamed for the act of an aggressor,” I replied.

I’m secular. I’ve no sympathies with religious fundamentalists. I hate the Taliban.

But if you ask me if I supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, let alone the Iraq war, my answer would be no.

The reason is simple. War is a horrible, horrible thing. As a resident of Karachi, Pakistan, I know what terror means. But is going to war any solution? Can you beat a mindset with tanks and helicopter gunships?

Can religious fundamentalism end by drone attacks and aerial bombings? Can you force somebody to abandon an ideology and change his values by pointing a gun at him? I don’t think so.

Then, what’s the solution, you’ll ask.

I don’t know. All I do know is that war is no solution. Violence begets violence. You can’t beat a social phenomenon by military means.

The United States has prevented any major attack on its mainland since 9/11. But this has cost it heavily. Not just monetarily, but also socially and psychologically.

In the other part of the world, terrorist attacks, violence, fanaticism and anti-Americanism have increased manyfold in the past 10 years. A large part of this madness is arguably in reaction to what’s considered foreign control of Muslim land and resources.

The mistrust between the two cultures is so deep that a Fulbrighter from Pakistan raises all kinds of suspicions in the United States, while ordinary Americans are considered by Pakistanis as purveyors of Guantanamo-type violence.

The impression that Americans are a trigger-happy, warmongering nation — strengthened over time by photos of mutilated bodies of Afghans and Guantanamo inmates being subjected to waterboarding — now seems in stark contrast with what I’ve experienced in the past year as an exchange student.

My American experience humanized my political thinking. For me, the concepts of coexistence, pluralism and respect for human rights, regardless of race, creed or color of one’s skin, were abstract before I arrived in the United States. Personal interaction with everyday Americans has made me a more tolerant citizen of the world.

Kazim Alam is a Fulbright scholar from Karachi, Pakistan. He is getting a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University and will return to Karachi in July.

[This article was first published by the largest mainstream newspaper of Connecticut, The Courant. It’s the oldest newspaper of the United States — in fact, it’s older than the nation (est. 1764).]

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2 thoughts on “Journey of a Pakistani student: Americans can win hearts and minds

  1. Are you a Muslim (I presume )? Do you think Islam’s denegration of non-Muslims have anything to do with that hatred you write about? Or do you prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist?

  2. Thanks for your comment.
    Would it be wrong to say that, with some exceptions, each religion preaches hatred for other religions?
    Isn’t it the whole point of any organized religion?
    Some societies have discarded that hateful part of their mainstream religion, and moved on.
    I think we need to do that as well.

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