As someone drawn to writing, someone who likes to tell stories, who likes to dream, I have often lived between worlds. At Harvard Law School, while many of my classmates signed up for electives in securities law and corporate tax, I found ways to earn credits from literature courses. I saw no contradiction in my behavior: I wanted to be a lawyer, but I also wanted to study fiction. And university regulations tended to agree, within limits, that this should be possible.
On one of my forays into nonlegal education, I encountered a book by Primo Levi called Survival in Auschwitz. The narrator is a man, an Italian and a scientist. But he is sent to a concentration camp because he is a Jew. As his story unfolds, he realizes that being Jewish, an aspect of himself to which he previously attached little significance, is now considered the most important component of his identity.
I face no concentration camp. I work as a management consultant, previously in New York and now in London.
I am free to write novels and articles. But more and more I find myself thinking of Primo Levi's narrator because, like him, I consider myself a secular, liberal, progressive man, and like the people around him, actors in a politicized conflict are attempting to make my religionIslamthe most important component of my identity.
This is happening on many levels. Muslim friends of mine in America have been picked up in their homes and workplaces for government-sponsored interrogations. When I travel, I am routinely harassed and subjected to long delays at immigration, even though I have a valid visa and carry ridiculous amounts of additional documentation, such as bank statements, employment letters and utility bills. Teenaged cousins of mine face the prospect of being unable to enroll in colleges outside of Pakistan because the "background checks" performed by Western embassies can stretch for months.
Around the world, non-Muslim officials are reminding people like me that we are Muslims first and businessmen or novelists (or heart-broken lovers, for that matter) second. On this point, these non-Muslim officials are in complete agreement with Muslims like the Taliban who say that a Muslim identity must come before all else.
To a certain extent, these narrow-minded non-Muslims and Muslims have already succeeded. Like many of my friends, I have come to see the Muslim component of my identity as much more important now than I did two years ago. I feel that Muslims are being persecuted. I feel that Muslim countries are under military threat. I feel that many Muslims live in impoverished, underdeveloped conditions. And my sympathy for my fellow Muslims has grown.
At the same time, I remain firmly opposed to the idea that this widening division between Muslims and non-Muslims is inevitable, and to the simplistic and dangerous notion that more than a billion Muslims around the world can be disassociated from their ethnic, cultural, political and personal characteristics and meaningfully grouped together for any positive purpose.
For example, I believe in democracy, the right of people to elect their own leaders. I believe that religion should influence laws only through universal ballots, not through the will of a clerical Úlite. I believe that markets, trade and immigration are powerful forces that can be harnessed to improve living conditions on our planet. There is nothing particularly Muslim about these beliefs. There is nothing particularly non-Muslim about them, either.
Similarly, I see nothing particularly Muslim or non-Muslim in my personal tastes. I like many types of music, ranging from the blues to qawwali. I like novels of the Japanese Haruki Murakami and the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz. I like to watch cricket. I like dogs. I like to dance. I love sushi and have a particular soft spot for fresh-water eel. In other words, I am a reasonably well-off large-city dweller, no more different from millions of my fellow large-city dwellers around the world than they are from each other.
Surely, shared values and shared tastes (or at least a shared fondness for a diversity of tastes) are components of identity that cannot and should not be brushed aside. The fact that I support a plebiscite in Kashmir and a viable state for the Palestinians does not make me violent. Nor does my opposition to war in Iraq make me a threat worth the attention of an immigration officer. In the end, I remain a law-abiding, productive inhabitant of whatever city I currently choose to call my home.
Personally, I would like to propose a new and more useful division of the world. I would divide us into those who think that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is desirable and those who think it is not. I suspect those of us who oppose such conflict are in the vast majority, and if I had to be seated next to someone on a long-haul flight from London to Hong Kong, I'd rather it be one of us, Muslim or non.