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.
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.”