“My Faith in America” by Aleem Walji

September 22nd, 2010

“Muslims” are a hot topic in the Western world again.  Starting with 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the various assortments of shoe, underpants, and car bombers, Americans are worried that every Muslim they meet might be harboring secret fatalistic fantasies of the Constitution being upended by Shariah. Its gotten so bad that it is now perfectly fine to denigrate, over-generalize, and collectively hold responsible over 1.5 Billion people for the actions of the very very few, case in point the Martin Peretz controversy, here and here and of course the infamous “Ground Zero” Islamic and Cultural Center (with multi-faith prayer rooms, including the ones for Muslims, aka the “Ground Zero Mosque”).  At the same time, most Muslims in America have been rather quiet about their perspective on the polarizing views that they are subjected to.  Many of us are quietly despairing and feeling at unease.  How could we participate in this antagonistic debate?

So I was very glad when I read the following essay by Aleem Walji, a Muslim in America, just on this topic.  Aleem beautifully captures the sentiment felt by me.  While I don’t want to generalize to the rest of the millions of American Muslims, I do think that this essay is a refreshing refrain for all Americans – regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

My Faith in America- Aleem Walji

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been listening to and watching with wonderment and amazement the national conversation about Islam in America. I hear a question of whether moderates in my faith can exist or whether we’re all somehow fundamentalists-in-waiting condemned by a faith that stems from a root word meaning “peace” in Arabic. How would my late father respond to such a question in the spirit of restraint and generosity that marked his life? An immigrant to the US by way of Tanzania and India, my father saw himself as a bridge figure, embracing this country with all his heart but forever explaining that his Islam was characterized by openness, compassion and respect for other faiths.

My father built on the teachings of the Prophet and my Imam. He started with the premise that we all share a common humanity: a concern for those less fortunate than ourselves, a sense of civic duty and a commitment to higher ideals, spiritual or secular, that can unite or divide us, depending of which parts we choose to follow. He taught me to respect, serve, and be loyal to my country and that in no way diminished my ability to practice and express my faith.

But that’s what puzzles me about the current national conversation. I grew up in the United States, in the deep south. I practiced my faith easily and integrated into a community in Georgia that supported Newt Gingrich. And nobody questioned my faith or my commitment to America. Not until after 9/11. That’s when seemingly educated but ill-informed scholars asserted that Islam and the West were caught in an unavoidable clash of civilizations; that there is something fundamentally inconsistent between Islam and western values.

But I embrace both. I am equally stirred by the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech, and the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed. One of my favorite teachings of Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph, stands out in my mind. He said, “No honour is like knowledge; no belief is like modesty and patience; no attainment is like humility; no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than consultation”. When I read this, I see no fundamental conflict between Islam and the West. But we need more bridge figures. Those who can help us get past mutual ignorance and clashes of misunderstanding. And perhaps we don’t fully appreciate our own history. There was a time in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries when Muslims, Christians, and Jews created a civilization together, prospered together, and built a culture of mutual respect.

Not so different from America today at least as I have experienced it. Until this debate about whether we have a right to build mosques and cultural centres in New York or anywhere else. Apart from challenging the First Amendment, the terms of this conversation are marked by a clash of misunderstandings, often deliberate. According to Pew Research, American Muslims are “decidedly American in outlook, values, and attitudes.”  We (not “they”) want the same things all American want. We embrace the American dream, strive for higher education, and want peaceful lives like our neighbors.

So how can “we” be the enemy? We are you. We are Republicans and Democrats, entrepreneurs and employees, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. When George W Bush distinguished between Islam and the actions of extremists, we wanted badly to believe him. But today when people like Imam Feisal stand up, self-identify as moderates, and talk about pluralism, mutual respect, and building bridges of peace and understanding, he is attacked and in some ways we are all attacked. But we are not the enemy. Muslims need help in building bridges of understanding and mutual respect across faiths and communities in this country.

And to be clear, there is no one Islam any more than there is one Christianity, Judaism, or humanism. I do not speak for all Muslims or even all Muslims in America. Just as there are huge differences culturally and politically between a Southern Baptist, an Irish Catholic, and a Lebanese Maronite, so too are there differences between Islam practiced in different places. Culture, history, and especially politics play an enormous role in how faith is expressed. But it’s just too easy and wrong to conflate deep seated political issues with matters of faith. Just as it’s wrong to conflate the Irish Republic Army with the Catholic Church or the Ku Klux Klan with Southern Christianity, it’s wrong to conflate Islam with political violence. Personally, I reject those who play the faith card and hijack faith to incite violence or spread hate, whether they appear in Waco, Texas or anywhere else. I do not accept religion as a justification for killing innocent people. In the Quran itself, there is a teaching which states “to take ones life is as if you take the lives of all humanity and to save one life is as if to save all humanity”. I think there is much we share across faith traditions. Let’s not draw fault lines in the wrong places.

And so I continue to be hopeful. When I watch Jon Stewart pushing us to wake up and look in the mirror, hear Mayor Bloomberg’s courageous speech even when unpopular and listen to Keith Olbermann or Fareed Zakaria say what I hope many believe, I remember why I choose to live here. I hope more Americans will join hands in battling bigotry, xenophobia, and misunderstanding, wherever they find it. Let’s see each other for who and what we are without attention to labels be they racial, religious, or political. I strongly believe that higher ideals will prevail in this conversation. That’s why I live here and that’s my faith in America.

Aleem currently works in the field of Innovation at an International Organization in Washington, DC. Previously, he was Head of Global Initiatives at Google.org and Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Foundation in Syria.

Past and future

February 24th, 2010

Over the past six months I have been overdosing on William Gibson. His ability to write about the “near-future” in a way that is both serious and fun is a rare talent.  I have become very found of his book Pattern Recognition, about a “Cool Hunter” who has a severe allergy to brands.  The ratio of compelling insights into the nature of the world we live in and the number of words in the novel approaches 1.  Its quite good and I highly recommend it.  For example this excerpt between Cayce and Bigend, both great characters in the book, has tremendous meaning about the things we care about now and what future generations will think:

“The future is there,” Cayce hears herself say, “looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.” “You sound oracular.” White teeth. “I only know that the one constant in history is change: The past changes. Our version of the past will interest the future to about the extent we’re interested in whatever past the Victorians believed in. It simply won’t seem very relevant.”

Its a really fun book and if you are looking for a slightly different perspective on our culture and times – then Gibson is your author.

The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle

February 18th, 2010

Over the last two and a half months I have had the pleasure of using the Kindle DX as my primary means of reading fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers (NY Times and Wall Street Journal), academic papers (in PDF format) and the very essential InstaPaper service.  My excuse to get the Kindle was to eliminate the 1.5 meter – at least 10 kilogram tower of academic papers that I had to read over the Christmas break while travelling overseas to visit family in Dubai.  I instantly fell in love with the device.  Reading on the Kindle is a joy.  The device actually disappears and I find my self completely engrossed in the story or the arcania of untangling endogeneity in econometric studies of innovation contests.  The built in dictionary and Wikipedia access is simply divine.  The Kindle DX truly foreshadows how the experience of reading will change in the future and to me its pretty exciting and amazing.

But there is a very major downside to the Kindle, at least in the way it works now, which is making my enthusiasm for the device bitter-sweet.  Fundamentally, the Kindle is very anti-social.  Reading, at least for me, is a very social activity.  Social in the sense that I want to share passages, excerpts, citations, equations etc that I read with family, friends and colleagues.  I want to convey the excitement of finding a cool new author to my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook – I want to highlight passages that make them standout to my Tweeps, I want to share citations of interesting new articles to my academic colleagues, I want to share news stories and my joy and anger at the human condition with everyone.  Unfortunately I cannot do any of this.  Instead the Kindle makes reading a lonely exercise.  Worse it makes discovery of new books impossible.

My favorite activity when visiting other academics is to stare at their bookshelves.  I want to know what they care about – by looking at the books they have assembled and most importantly which books and articles they are currently reading.  Discovery of new relevant knowledge through bookshelves is critical.  Most recently one of my graduate students was perusing my bookshelf and discovered two books that he felt were going to be essential to a paper we are developing.  Those books were right under my nose – but by looking at the bookshelf – by having access to my bookshelf – he was able to make the connection and bring them out.  With the Kindle – my books get locked into a thin white plastic and aluminum container.  Never to be seen by others.  I will say nothing about sharing books here via the Kindle.

Needless to say its surprising that Amazon – which made book buying social by enabling user reviews – did not design in social features for the Kindle.  Or over the couple of years add features that would make the reading experience more social.  Were they simply locked into a DRM paradigm that ensured that sharing knowledge would construe copyright infringement?  Were the developers not readers themselves?  I simply don’t get how a company whose value proposition emerged from socializing commerce – missed the boat so big on the Kindle.

There maybe hope with the iPad coming to market that Amazon may get more creative.  Or that the iPad (I will have to find a way to justify that purchase!) will have built in social features for readers.  I hope that both Bezos and Jobs will set a higher bar for their product designers so that they understand readers and create devices and services that augment and extend the quintessential social experience of reading

Jet Lag

January 8th, 2010

Just got back from Dubai and have been suffering the vagaries of the nine hour time zone shift.  William Gibson’s wonderful book Pattern Recognition has an apt description of jet lag:

Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.

The book is a treat in general.  See you more often..

Hey I should blog more often..

September 1st, 2009

Sorry its been a while – mostly now on twitter – but thinking that the long form is still needed…

Fight the Power and Amazing Grace

January 20th, 2009

The USA and the world celebrated Barack Obama’s inauguration just a few moments ago. What a wonderful event to see an African American man become the most powerful person in the world.  A person who has accomplished this against unbelievable odds and with discipline, strategy and organization that will be written about for years.  It was thrilling to see the event live with some colleagues in our faculty commons.  The normally sedate room was fixated on the flat screen showing the events and I could feel a real sense of hope and excitement amongst my colleagues

However, for me this day is very special as it marks the rebirth of hope in this country.  Hope as distinct from blind optimism. Hope that recognizes that accomplishment and service require hard work, dedication and discipline.  As I was watching the inauguration two songs kept going through my head.  Chuck-D kept imploring me to fight the power and the hard work required ahead:

1989 the number another summer (get down)
Sound of the funky drummer
Music hittin’ your heart cause I know you got sould
(Brothers and sisters hey)
Listen if you’re missin’ y’all
Swingin’ while I’m singin’
Givin’ whatcha gettin’
Knowin’ what I know
While the Black bands sweatin’
And the rhythm rhymes rollin’
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power

As the rhythm designed to bounce
What counts is that the rhymes
Designed to fill your mind
Now that you’ve realized the prides arrived
We got to pump the stuff to make us tough
from the heart
It’s a start, a work of art
To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved lets get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
(Yo) bum rush the show
You gotta go for what you know
Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say…
Fight the Power


Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant —- to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother—- him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, c’mon


What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

At the same time I kept hearing John Newton Amazing Grace and the opportunity for redemption for the country on so many levels and how this signifies hope:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

While I have many questions about divine grace – this song captures the spirit of hope for me.  Here is hoping for a succesful presidency for BHO and the hope that all Americans will come together and make this country and the world whole again.

Mubaraki Americans!

Mubaraki – Barack Obama’s Victory

November 5th, 2008

I just got off the phone with my Dad’s brother (his name is also Karim), and we wished each other the customary greeting of Mubaraki on the occasion of Obama’s victory.  Mubarak is used in the sub-continent as a way to wish someone well on a happy occasion, a sign of congratulations, both Hindus and Muslims use it as a greeting for celeberation.  Interestingly as Wikipedia shows the word’s orgin are actually from Barak and it implies blessings.

Obama’s victory is a blessing in many ways for America and the world. Much will be written about its significance.  However for me his election means that I can look at my four and half year old daughter and tell her that yes she too can be anything she wants to be.  She too can dream as big and as far as her imagination.  The recent rehtorical ugliness in American politics about being a “Muslim” really sicekened me too my stomach.  I could not imagine her growing up with this stigma.  On top of that, I had come to realize that she would have a very “racial” experience in America.  Having spent 12 years of my life in Pakistan and then another 14 in Canada, the color of my skin was never a serious issue.  Yeah I encountered some minor racist people and was forced to undergo “special registration” after 9/11 and was once pulled out of an airplane line and asked some extra questions – but beyond that I have had very non-racial view of my self.  However, with my daughter, I always felt that the culture was tagging her as being “colored” and “Muslim.”  A double whammy.  I worried if somehow she would be handicapped and told by others that some dreams were beyond her reach.

Last night, as I was taking a nap at around 11.00 pm, my wife Shaheen, ran in and woke me up and said that Obama had won!  I had hoped and prayed that he would win but was reluctant to imagine it – all of that has now changed.  And with his victory I think differently about the future of my daughter in the USA and our future as citizens of America.  I don’t believe that this achievement could have taken place any where else in the world.  Only America has the diversity, the institutions and the optimism for people to leave behind their old views and embrace a new possibility.  This was the attraction that got us to immigrate to America in the first place and now is the reason we want to stay.  Yes the last 8 years have been terrible.  But our American friends made it so much more easier.

I used to joke that Cambridge, MA is 5 miles OUTSIDE of USA.  But today I feel included in the American story.  I am celebrating.  Mubaraki to you as well.

Whoa – more than a year…

October 26th, 2008

Since I posted on this blog..must be because twitter is becoming my medium of communication of random thoughts.  Any way I will try to dust this blog up and maintain a more regular infrequent schedule.  Oh yeah we had another TOM Midterm this past week!  Sky was falling again for sure.

The caviar was quite good while the sky was falling – HBS TOM RC Midterm 2008

October 22nd, 2007

Harbus, the HBS student newspaper, is reporting on a sekret investigation of the TOM RC (required curriculum) faculty as we were discussing today’s midterm. The headline:

Sky Falls As Tom Midterm Approaches

RCs Seen Wallowing in Pool of Hate and Self-Loathing as TOM Faculty Crack Out the Champagne

All I can say is that the caviar in our private dining room in the faculty club was quite yummy. As for the exam – well we will know soon enough if the cracking sound I heard during the exam was that of a student or a Benihana chopstick.

Touching Genius

September 30th, 2007

I was really pleased but not at all surprised to hear that Saul Griffith, MIT Media Lab alum, was awarded one of the 2007 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships. It could not have happened to a nicer and smarter surfer dude.  I got to know Saul as a grad student at MIT and take some micro-credit for improvements in his love life.  Saul represents the ideal hacker spirit at MIT and actually enacted the principles of distributed innovation that I studied in my dissertation. If you want to track the future of distributed innovation and how to work with communities – keep an eye on Saul.

Tim O’Reilly, future father-in-law of Saul, has a very nice write up about him and his accomplishments.
Way to go Saul!  I knew you when…