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A few days ago, I had the honor of accompanying former Pakistani Ambassador to Great Britain Akbar Ahmed to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to introduce his new book, “The Thistle and the Drone,” on John Milewskis show on the MHz Worldview Channel. The research, which I helped collect and synthesize, draws on 40 case studies of Muslim tribal communities found along the borders between nations and caught in a post-9/11 paradigm in which they are labeled terrorist and set upon by central government and foreign power alike.
I am an Indian-American working at American University; religiously, I identify as Hindu. These sorts of global clashes aren’t just something that is happening out there, theyre also happening to me.
At the event, we were greeted by an incredible audience–a crowd of enthusiastic high school students from all over the world chosen for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange D.C. Civic Engagement Conference. This incredible initiative invited 115 bright youth, representing more than 30 Muslim-majority countries, to attend American public schools. Many of the students in attendance were from the same areas of study that I helped to research. I held my breath as the interview began, unsure of how these students would react to our work.
The dialogue between Milewski and Ahmed began by laying out the parameters of the book. When Ahmed began speaking about drone warfare spanning across Somalia, Waziristan, and the Yemen, I saw the students lean forward in their seats. Tribes are under attack, said Ahmed; faces emerged from the crowd. A Pakistani girl named Fatima approached the mic and described how her closest friend from Waziristan lost her father, uncles and female cousins in a drone strike outside their home. A boy from Yemen asked Why do they keep doing this to us? What should I do? I looked at the boy and then to Ambassador Ahmed. In that moment I was not sure of who was us and who they were.
The tribal people described on the news are not anonymous people. They are real mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Some of them were right before us, studying in the United States. Amidst all of this, I saw before me a very concerned boy two years younger than me. He could have been my brother.
“You are an ambassador for Islam,” Ahmed said to the assembly. “I congratulate you for being here. You are brave. You represent not only your tribes, your family and your country, but also Islam. Many Americans have not even met a Muslim. Go to your classrooms and educate your peers.”
More students approached the mic. A Filipino hijabi shyly asked: If I am an ambassador for Islam, how do I answer questions like what is jihad? A teacher in my host school says it is holy war; how do I explain its true meaning to my class fellows? Milewski then asked the audience: You have been here in America for six months. How many of you have heard in this time that all Muslims are terrorists? Three- fourths of the room lifted their hands. My heart collapsed.
The kids behind me raising their hands were from across the ocean, the faces of cases I have studied over the last year. They were from the same communities that my parents left thirty years ago in order to make a better life for themselves, here in a country that boasts unparalleled freedom and equality. In a way, the students who were raising their hands were also here for the American Dream. They wanted to learn, just as my father wanted to learn, and as I myself strive to do.
I, too, raised my hand in solidarity. Since 9/11, the number of attacks on the South Asian American community has sky-rocketed. Just last month, a Hindu man was pushed into a New York metro because the perpetrator wanted all Hindus and Muslims dead. My hyphen (Indian-American) became a gaping hole and I was suspended somewhere between. This is precisely why I am studying anthropology–to detangle the intricacies of the contradictions and clashing histories that gave birth to me. I wanted to address the room and tell them that I too knew what it felt like–even though I am not a Muslim. Our different identities and similar experiences are intertwined.
We, the youth of the world, are expected to overcome the great divides we inherited because of misunderstandings rooted in the fading pages of history. We are expected as members of our faiths to come together and fix things. How do I fix Pakistani-Indian tensions when the conflict is three times my age? Where dialogue fails, our actions speak. I tapped Fatima on the shoulder and introduced myself. She smiled back and we squeezed each others palms. In that moment, we assured each other.
Priyanka Srinivasa is a research assistant for the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. She has assisted Dr. Ahmed on his new book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” (Brookings Institute, March 2013).