Letter to the editor

A wasted opportunity

On Feb. 10, I hurried into a Spectrum event, “Lessons from the Holy Wars: A Pakistani-American Odyssey with Rob Asghar,” afraid to miss the first few minutes. A book promoted at the venue carried the same name. I expected to gain insight into the situation of “Af-Pak,” as they now call it in the media, from a fellow Pakistani-American. But the mystique of the night’s orator, Rob Asghar, was soon unraveled when it became clear his intentions had little to do with the people whose lives were in question. As a Pakistani-American myself, I found this deeply unsettling.

During the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, the CIA provided massive funds and weapons, and Pakistan, via its expanded religious school (madrassa) system under a military dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul Haq, who conducted a coup and reigned with the support of far-right religious groups, provided the children to fight in the war.

Asghar claimed to understand religion and society in Pakistan and the Pakistani views regarding the current war in Afghanistan. While Pakistanis themselves have begun openly addressing the legacy of those crucial years to understand their present situation, nothing Asghar mentioned on his own touched upon them. By contrast, the lion’s share of his time was spent discussing a Hollywood version of the story, Charlie Wilson’s War, before he rerouted the talk to himself.

Poverty and jihad have a strong connection. Yet, that evening, the plight of Pakistan’s poor were largely ignored. In the past year, my mother received a poor woman and her son at the front gate of our home in Islamabad. This peasant woman was not there to beg for money or food; she was there because she wanted her child to have a better life. When asked by this woman for directions to a nearby madrassa, my mother winced: “Why do you want to send him there? Don’t you know that upfront these religious men offer to feed, clothe and educate your sons, but what they don’t tell you is that one day they may send him off for jihad?” The woman was startled. My mother immediately offered her an alternative: that she admit her son in the nearby public school and, in return, all of his expenses would be paid for. It was a done deal. In fact, it was one of many.

When one speaks to a lay American audience on foreign issues, one’s oratory skills may either be used for improving the lives of millions and saving lives or for banking off widespread ignorance. “Lessons” clarified which side of the fence Asghar’s preferences lie.

Fareed Butt

Senior, International Relations

Editor’s Note: The Daily Trojan contacted Rob Asghar for his comment.

“I agree with much of Mr. Butt’s analysis of issues surrounding Pakistan. The “Pakistani-American Odyssey” that I write and speak about is less intended to be an objective and exhaustive analysis of Pakistani current events and more of a subjective, memoir-style discussion of how events in my life intersected with larger political events. This discussion typically spans Pakistani culture, American culture, world religions and on and on. I do recognize my flaws as a speaker and writer, but I hope that no one holds it against the good folks at USC Spectrum.”

3 replies
  1. Larry Moretti
    Larry Moretti says:

    You really can’t Judge a Book by its Cover:
    Maybe Mr. Butt should have read the book and understood the premise of the Spectrum event before attending, and certainly before writing a self absorbed defensive rant. It was obvious Mr. Butt read the title of the book and decided he would attend what he thought would be a rally for the Pakistani plight in the United States.
    While Asghar’s book and event gave me insight of the conflicts he dealt with while growing up in a family that has deep religious roots, Butts defensive and off-base retort only made me think about how some people are so cynical that they shut out everything but what they want to hear and believe.
    It was an interesting event. Not only to hear Rob talk about his family while his brother sat in the audience, but also to look at the diverse group of people in the room listen to what he had to say. I wondered how they interpreted his comments about his life.

    I watched the 30 year old academic that never left college, or probably his mothers home for that matter, dissect what Rob had to say and reflect how it impacted his own life.
    I saw the black judge flinch when Rob commented negatively about Dr. Martin Luther King. What was this judge thinking? Was his mind shut off after the comment? Absolutely not. He listened closer to Rob’s thoughts. In fact the judge closed the evening with one of the most insightful questions for Rob.
    One gentlemen seated behind me argued and scoffed at Rob’s idea about pulling troops out of the Middle East. Rob certainly didn’t change his mind, however, because of Rob’s non-defensive and non-abrasive response, I saw the man truly think about what Rob’s belief was on the subject.
    The event was an enlightening discussion that really centered around Robs understanding of why he took the path in his life that he did.
    Most walked away from the evening with a better understanding of how Rob thinks about life, race, religion, politics, his family and his relationships. I even think his big brother walked away standing tall while thinking, “That was my brother up there…, I am proud of him”.
    Bottom line, Mr. Butt should have attended another event. This event certainly was not for a person with a closed mind and a different agenda. There are plenty of events for you Mr. Butt. If you want Americans to better understand your issues, you should listen to what Rob Asghar has to say and learn to take a different approach.

  2. Ferhan
    Ferhan says:

    Butt has pointed out his mother’s commendable work in a self-congratulatory manner. He accuses Asghar of not doing anything for the masses. I invite him to visit the massive school/college/clinic complex his family built from the ground up and supports with 100% personal funds. This is discussed in the book, which Butt really needs to read before making such accusations. A senior in IR should understand that not all pertinent issues can be discussed in one session, especially when the session is related to a book on a personal odyssey. The strange thing here is that there has been no disagreement on Mr Butt’s original point, yet he remains angry.

  3. Jessica Izuno
    Jessica Izuno says:

    Butt should write his own book, for crying out loud, as he’s completely missed the point of Asghar’s novel/memoir. What we have here is one Pakistani-American sharing a unique experience with immigrant culture/roots and how it’s intersected his American life, and another fellow Paki-Am criticizing him because those lessons did not provide the answers he was seeking. Tall order to make upon your fellow brother! Instead of sitting in the corner and complaining, Butt should get off his — and add as much to the Paki-Am discussion as Asghar has — through his book, his speaking engagements, his Huff Post column, and his countless news articles that have appeared nationwide. At least, Asghar is using his voice for something good.

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