By Mohsin Hamid
Sunday, July 22, 2007
LONDON Recently, I found myself in Dallas, a place I'd never been before. As a Muslim writer, I felt about going there pretty much the way an American writer might have felt about heading to the tribal areas of Pakistan: nervous, with the distinct suspicion that the locals carried guns and weren't too fond of folks who look like me.
So I was surprised by the extraordinary hospitality I encountered on my trip. And I still remember the politeness with which one elderly gentleman addressed me in a bookshop. He held a copy of my latest novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," and examined the face on its cover, comparing it to mine. Then he said, nodding once as if to dip the brim of an imaginary hat: "So tell me, sir. Why do they hate us?"
That stopped me cold. I've spent almost half my life in the United States, arriving from Lahore, Pakistan, with my parents in 1974 when I was 3 after my father was accepted to a PhD program at Stanford. I learned to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" years before I could sing the Pakistani national anthem, played baseball before I could play cricket and wrote in English before I could write in Urdu. My earliest memories are of watching "Star Trek" and "MASH" while my parents barbecued chicken in the back yard. I was an American kid, through and through. Part of me still is.
But when I was 9, I moved back to where I came from. And because where I came from was Pakistan and I was about as all-American as a foreign-born brown boy could be, my perspective a quarter-century later on the question of why "they" hate "us" is perhaps a little more textured than most.
For one thing, part of me identifies with "they" and part with "us." For another, growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s let me see firsthand the devastating effects that the best of U.S. intentions can have.
Talk about why so many Muslims hate the United States these days, and you'll hear plenty of self-flagellation, at least in some quarters of post-9/11 America. I have too much affection for the United States to join in. These people make up the "We deserve to be hated because we're bad" school of thought, which is simplistic and unhelpful. It is simplistic because there are 300 million different components of the "we" that is America. And it is unhelpful because it ignores so much that is good about the nation.
Part of the reason people abroad resent the United States is something Americans can do very little about: envy. The richest, most powerful country in the world attracts the jealousy of others in much the same way that the richest, most powerful man in a small town attracts the jealousy of others. It will come his way no matter how kind, generous or humble he may be.
But there is another major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.
When my family moved back to Pakistan, I was given a front-row seat from which to observe one such obscure episode. In 1980, Lahore was a sleepy and rather quiet place. Pakistan's second-largest city was still safe enough for a 9-year-old to hop on his bicycle and ride around unsupervised.
But that was about to change. Soviet troops had recently rolled into Afghanistan, and the U.S. government, concerned about Afghanistan's proximity to the oil-rich Persian Gulf and eager to avenge the humiliating debacle of the Vietnam War, decided to respond. Building on President Jimmy Carter's tough line, President Ronald Reagan offered billions of dollars in economic aid and sophisticated weapons to Pakistan's dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. In exchange, Zia supported the mujaheddin, the Afghan guerrillas waging a modern-day holy war against the Soviet occupation. With the help of the CIA, jihadist training camps sprung up in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Soon Kalashnikov assault rifles from those camps began to flood the streets of Lahore, setting in motion a crime wave that put an end to my days of pedaling unsupervised through the streets.
Meanwhile, Zia began an ongoing attempt to Islamize Pakistan and thus make it a more fertile breeding ground for the anti-Soviet jihad. Public female dance performances were banned, female newscasters were told to cover their heads and laws undermining women's rights were passed. Secular politicians, academics and journalists were intimidated, imprisoned and worse.
One part of this was particularly unpleasant for those of us entering our teens: the angry groups of bearded men who began enforcing their own morality codes. They made going on dates risky, even in a fun-loving city such as Lahore. Meanwhile, a surge of cheap heroin -- the currency often used to buy the allegiance of Afghan warlords -- meant that Pakistan went from having virtually no addicts when I was 9 to having more than a million by the time I completed high school, according to a lecture that a U.S. drug-enforcement official gave at my school.
People all over the world talk about how things were better when they were young. In Lahore, we got into the habit of talking about how they were better last month.
In 1988, Zia died in a suspicious plane crash. The Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan in 1989, shortly before I left Lahore for college in the United States. When I mentioned the final campaign of the Cold War to my fellow freshmen at Princeton, few seemed to know much about it. Eighteen years later, most people I meet in the United States are astounded to learn that the period ever occurred. But in Pakistan, it is vividly seared into the national memory. Indeed, it has torn the very fabric of what, when I was born, was a relatively liberal country with nightclubs, casinos and legal alcohol.
The residue of U.S. foreign policy coats much of the world. It is the other part of the answer to the question, "Why do they hate us?" Simply because America has -- often for what seemed good reasons at the time -- intervened to shape the destinies of other countries and then, as a nation, walked away.
There is so much about the United States that I admire. So when I speak of that time now, and encounter the pose of wounded innocence that is the most common American response, I am annoyed and disappointed. It is as though the notion of U.S. responsibility applies only within the 50 states, and I have no right to invoke it.
How then does someone like me reconcile his affection and frustration? Partly by offering a passionate critique. And partly by hoping for change -- by appealing, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did, to what is most attractive about the United States, to what it claims to stand for, to what is best in its nature.
Americans need to educate themselves, from elementary school onward, about what their country has done abroad. And they need to play a more active role in ensuring that what the United States does abroad is not merely in keeping with a foreign policy elite's sense of realpolitik but also with the American public's own sense of American values.
Because at their core, those values are sound. That is why, even in places where you'll find virulent anti-Americanism, you'll also find enormous affection for things American. That's why Pakistani rock musicians listen to Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, why Pakistani cities are full of kids wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, and why Pakistanis have been protesting to give their supreme court the same protection from meddling by their president held by its model: the Supreme Court of the United States.
All of which leads us to another, perhaps more fruitful question that Americans ought to consider: "Why do they love us?" People abroad admire Americans not because they back foreign dictators but because they believe that all men and all women are created equal. That concept cannot stop at the borders of the United States. It is a concept far greater than any one nation, no matter how great that nation is. For America to be true to itself, its people must broaden their belief in equality to include the men and women of the world.
The challenge that the United States faces today boils down to a choice. It can insist on its primacy as a superpower, or it can accept the universality of its values. If it chooses the former, it will heighten the resentment of foreigners and increase the likelihood of visiting disaster upon distant populations -- and vice versa. If it chooses the latter, it will discover something it appears to have forgotten: that the world is full of potential allies.
I'm one of them. I do not currently live in the United States, but I still believe in its potential for good. And like so many who wonder how our new and more integrated world can be built on a foundation that is humane and just, I look to the land where I, a writer, first learned to write, and allow myself to dream.
Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."