A classroom of students from around the world gathered to answer a tough question: “Can Jihadist ideas be killed?” Louis Gordon writes.
The class began with introductions. Americans, Brits, Bangladeshis, Canadians, and Pakistanis filled the room. There were Atheists, Christians, Jews, and Muslims among us. We settled in and briefly reviewed our reading material
. The floor was ours; as a class it was our responsibility to begin the discussion, and it was our passionate commentary that would drive it through the ninety minute period.
A (Not-so) Timid Entrance
I kept quiet, until we reached the topic of madrassas in Pakistan
. A Pakistani student was eloquently describing radical Islam and how certain madrassas facilitate the spread of radicalism and terrorism in Pakistan
When he finished, a Bangladeshi Muslim took the floor in an attempt to delegitimize the comments of the Pakistani. Embedded in his argument was the claim that attaching a negative connotation with the word madrassa
undermines their importance in educating young Muslims.
Suddenly - impulsively, I blurted, “Do you live in Pakistan?” The room fell silent. The Bangladeshi, who lives in America, responded honestly. I continued, “What authority do you have to say that a Pakistani is wrong, in his opinion,
about a matter that he is directly involved in?”
“Actually,” the boy from Pakistan interrupted, “I am not directly involved with the issue of radicalized madrassas. I am Pakistani, I do read about madrassas
in the news, I have friends who have attended madrassas, I do discuss the issue, but radical madrassas are not the overwhelming majority. Most, simply focus on teaching the Quran.”
American Ignorance Strikes Again
After my Pakistani friend corrected me, I reflected not only the mistake I made, but what caused it. I knew that he lives in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, but in my ignorance, I allowed myself to believe that unlike all Western countries, Pakistan’s geopolitical landscape is totally uniform.
I despise generalization, so I will keep this personal. I go to an excellent public high school in the suburbs of Chicago, and I studied Pakistan in my sophomore year, but never learned more than its basic historical narrative. This means that my perception of Pakistan is based on the media and what a textbook decides to include about Pakistan’s history (and I know, that is my
Yet, as the media enhances all the negatives associated with the country and textbooks highlight India and Pakistan’s rocky history, I start to forget that Pakistan is so much more than what any headline can tell me.
When so much of the news about Pakistan revolves around “hot words” like drones and terrorism, the country is no longer a place of people, but a place of drones and terrorism. In the process, I allow myself to forget that Pakistan is filled with amazing and unique people.
American Ignorance in Regression
At this point, I need to thank the Yale Young Global Scholars for putting my Pakistani ignorance to rest, because as I sat in this classroom discussing Pakistan with Pakistani friends, I realized that I knew nothing about Pakistan. Identifying ignorance is the first step towards correcting it, and at YYGS I was able to identify my ignorance, and learn enough to correct it. What I learned is this: when people are allowed to associate a country with terrorism, drones, and radicalism, but are generally restricted from seeing the humanity that the country maintains, their perceptions are skewed and their ignorance prohibits their ability to make judgments in regards to that country and its people.
Ignorance and the War of Ideas
Well, so what? If an American student like myself, who is receiving a top notch public American education, has to search actively to see the awesomeness that Pakistani people maintain, then what does that mean for the American population as a whole?
We need to understand that Pakistan is not our enemy, and more importantly, Pakistanis are not our enemy. A fundamental necessity in the fight against radical extremism in Pakistan is the support of the Pakistani government and people.
Our ignorance perpetuates this fight. A portion of the American population may continue to support our government, as it kills innocent civilians
. To do so without understanding who Pakistani civilians really are is misguided and incompatible with American ideals. Until we understand that there is a difference between fighting a place and fighting a people, and that there are differences between Pakistani civilians and Pakistani extremists, then we shouldn’t solely attempt to kill Jihadist ideas; we should focus on killing American ignorance.