As A Pakistani Muslim In America, I'm Always An Outsider

How I survive the "you-belong-there-and-not-here" talk -- in one home and then another.
Should American Muslims -- or, really, Americans in general -- have to deal with this man?
Should American Muslims -- or, really, Americans in general -- have to deal with this man?

The questions that disturb me most, that sting me as a Pakistani Muslim living in the capital of the United States and make me feel that maybe it won’t all be okay after all, fall into the "you-belong-there-and-not-here" category.

You may be familiar with that world of subtle (or sometimes quite direct) hurt. It’s a haunting space, equal parts strangeness and familiarity. Within it, what should be home turf of a kind -- the place where I grew up, or the place where I now live -- is transformed into a place where I’m a defensive "other."

Here is what that looks like.

It's being in the U.S. and needing to explain why "my people" (what does that mean, anyway?) aren’t condemning terror attacks apparently done in our name. It's being told, sometimes by liberal well-wishers and often by fearmongers with a megaphone, that I should be able to explain what the terror thing is all about and also offer a detailed but digestible summary of the Quran.

I want all the time to yell out that my knowledge and my authority have limits, that what I can say is that "my people" are the primary victims of such terror -- that most of Daesh’s targets are Muslim Arabs, that Pakistan has lost more of its population to armed extremism than almost any other country.

I want to roar. But I won’t, of course, because I need to be the polite ambassador, the well-educated, perfectly groomed bearer of a calm, reasoned message. This choice isn’t only about civility. It’s also about survival. Growing up in a place where people with unpopular opinions are murdered, sometimes by those empowered and constitutionally bound to protect them, showed me that skepticism and fear and ignorance can soon turn to violence. As a reporter, I receive updates from the Council on American Islamic Relations -- anecdotes and statistics detailing anti-Muslim behavior around this country that I’ve found so welcoming for so long. As a curious worrier, I read about trends that scare me -- and I’ve been morbidly fascinated, as one might be by information about a creeping epidemic, by Center for American Progress research on fringe anti-Muslim groups trying to shape the national narrative about Muslims in America.

So I and many others live daily with the conundrum of wanting to keep our distance from radical Islamist terror, but being called upon -- because we are the easily associated “other” -- to explain, dissect and denounce it. This is a version of “call it by its name,” the attack some Republicans launch against President Barack Obama to say he should speak of the Islamic State not as an aberration of Islam, but as a form of it. (It's as though the battle to end extremism were simply one to guarantee more exact phrasing. This grammarian would certainly prefer that kind of fight.)

This kind of "othering" shapes each day. I can joke about it, telling friends and coworkers that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s rules stop at the homes of Muslims with their own definitions of what behavior they are comfortable with, and that sure, I did go to high school on a camel flanked by armed guards. But I can’t, through chuckles or intimacy or achievement, make it go away.

I’ve known this for some time. What I’m only realizing now, after spending three weeks back in the old home where some residents of my new home wish I had stayed, is that there’s no easy respite for this sense of feeling like an other. Little by little, I’ve begun to feel in Pakistan like an awkward half-breed in a different way.

In Pakistan, my body attracted any U.S.-related conspiracy theory, grievance or tale of woe in a pretty broad radius. I didn’t know humans could become magnets, and suddenly I’d become a red, white and blue one. I faced a line of questioning equally forceful as any I’ve gotten stateside. Why is Washington so hell-bent on suppressing the Muslim world? Why did Obama create ISIS with Israeli and Saudi help, rather than recognizing that Syrian President Bashar Assad -- whose tyranny and duplicity are the focus of much of my writing -- is the region’s great white hope?

I tried again to keep my composure. If I felt pressed to argue, I’d rely on facts, speaking of strategic concerns that may really be driving U.S. policy and explaining that many Americans go out of their way to embrace Muslims. There was a limited audience for this unexciting approach. What seemed more popular was calling me a fool, a stooge or, in two memorable instances, in remote parts of the country I was visiting for the first time, a CIA operative.

Here, too, there were jokes, laughs about "my old friend" Donald Trump and about my now doing X or Y thing “like an Amreekan.” But more often than not, there was also a slight unease -- a distance that was tough to bridge and tougher to talk about in the limited time I had. My roots were deep there, but I began to feel as though I had grown too far out.

In 2016, I don’t want to abandon either of the two places I love. Instead, I want to name the othering -- and try to use it.

There’s something liberating about being just a little removed. As you try to understand and inform, you can do it your own way, less bound by rules because of your connection to “there.” Strangeness can be almost a halo. That may not mean much added license, but it’s enough to thrill thinkers -- or reporters who are trying to piece together reality, helping it rise above misunderstandings, prejudice and imagined intrigue.

It’s tiring, tiring work. But I think it’s the best way I can reconcile the tensions between the two homes that have shaped me. I don’t think I’m alone. There are many of us in the burgeoning, proud community of the "not-quite-here," thousands who reject the idea of "you-belong-there-and-not-here." We won’t accept that notion quietly for much longer.

A version of this piece appeared in Newsline magazine in Pakistan, in a February issue co-branded with The New York Times.

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