Aisha Sultan: Going back to where you came from


By Aisha Sultan |
July 25, 2019


A few years ago I went back to visit the country from where my parents had immigrated to America.

It’s in an important part of the world that fascinates me with its complexities. I still have relatives in Pakistan. I can understand the language. The food is delicious. The art is stunning, and the people have legendary hospitality. It’s also been on the brink of a failed state politically, with all the challenges and corruption that developing nations face.

It’s an odd experience when you’ve grown up a minority in your own country to suddenly be in a place where you are in the majority. I was particularly aware of my status as part of the privileged majority when I visited with the religious minority communities there. Members of the Ahmadiyya community face state-sponsored discrimination and some Christians also have been targets of persecution and targeted violence. Political leaders and journalists who have spoken out in defense of religious minorities risk violence and threats. For years, rising intolerance has been fueled by those with a political agenda.

Hatred and fear of the other can be powerful recruiting tools anywhere in the world.

There’s always a sense of relief when I come back home from traveling abroad. I’m hyper aware of my “Americanness” when I am in a different country — my beliefs, my mannerisms, my way of operating in the world are a clear giveaway.
After this most recent trip to Pakistan, questions nagged at me when I returned. What if my parents had stayed and I had been raised in an educated, Sunni Muslim family where the country’s power structure and dominant culture benefit my group. Would I have grown up to care about the most vulnerable people in that society? Would I have spoken out if they were demonized if it didn’t affect me personally? Would I have made excuses for or rationalized the dehumanization I can see so clearly as an outsider? Would I have looked away from it all, oblivious to an injustice because I wasn’t personally involved in it?

Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat or offend my family or friends who supported a particular political party. Maybe I would have thought there were more pressing concerns and been willing to compromise on the backs of the most vulnerable.

These were uncomfortable questions to consider. I wouldn’t want to be that person. I like to believe I’m a person who cares about liberty and justice for everyone, not just when my own liberties are threatened. But, maybe as part of the majority I wouldn’t have been aware of what it actually feels like to live under a sense of political threat and otherness.
Maybe it would have been easier to stay silent even if I saw places of worship bombed or angry mobs targeting innocent people who were different from me.

I think about this when I notice the deafening silence of Americans who I know to be good and decent people.
We all know what it means when people chant “Send her back!” at a political rally. We know what it means when only certain Americans are ever told to “go back” somewhere other than the country in which they are a citizen.

Intellectually, I’ve understood how privilege works. But on an emotional, visceral level I learned something about privilege by going to where my parents came from. I could have easily been part of a silent majority willing to overlook cruelty and bigotry. It wasn’t just greater economic opportunities and democratic freedoms I benefited from by being born in America. Growing up as a minority in America changed my heart and conscience. I internalized the belief that we are a country bound by common ideals — not a particular race, ethnicity or religion — and the responsibility that comes with defending those values.

Growing up hearing slurs shouted at my mother has given me the courage to call out a wrong when I see it happening. Learning our history has made me realize that if a politician promised me safety and economic security at the expense of Christians or Jews or Hindus, I would reject it.

It’s America that taught me if a political leader says we would be greater if we got rid of those who disagreed with him, he is betraying our most cherished values.

It’s America that taught me the price of silence is greater than any risk of speaking out.
It’s America that tells me it is my only home.

Aisha Sultan is home and family editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


Aisha Sultan: Going back to where you came from

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