Ali Chaudhry ’12 presented a “Senior Voices” speech in Memorial Chapel on May 26.
When I came to Wesleyan from Pakistan, I came with my fair share of prejudices about the United States and Americans. Don’t hate me for that. It was natural. I hadn’t interacted with Americans before, so my understanding of the U.S. and Americans was limited to the media, hear-say and the odd American I came across. As my economist friends would say, my sample size was really small, which wasn’t good. Some people told me that Americans are very self-interested and will actively work to take advantage of you. Others told me that I should be careful about revealing my Muslim identity, lest I be discriminated against.
But in reality, my interaction with the people at Wesleyan, some of whom held radically different ideas to mine, had a very humanizing effect. Those, whom I conveniently labeled as the “other” without ever interacting with them, actually came to life in the Wesleyan experience and it made me question the stereotypes and prejudices that I held about them.
When I was looking for support in creating a platform to provide free college counseling to Pakistani high school students, it was my Jewish roommate who stepped up to lead the initiative. When Muslim students on campus needed Halal food to cater to their dietary needs, it was a vegetarian student who lobbied for us with the administration. When Pakistan was struck by the worst humanitarian crisis in the U.N’s history, it was 140 members of the Wesleyan community, from various ethnicities, religions and belief systems, who stepped up to raise over $10000 to help the flood victims. So, when people back home made broad generalizations about the “other,” people from different countries and religions, I find it hard to believe them. But that doesn’t mean that the people making these claims have an evil intent or are malicious. They have limited information, a low sample size, and are generalizing from that. Certainly, they are not the only ones doing that.
Here’s a litmus test. I am flying out to Alabama in a few days to visit some relatives, would you like to join me? Past responses have included: “Why would you have relatives in Alabama?” “Alabama and Mississipi are two places you avoid” and “Alabama is backward, I don’t consider it a part of the U.S.” Interestingly, none of these responders had ever been to Alabama or met someone from Alabama, yet they were willing to make broad and firm generalizations about the region. Imagine their surprise when I told them that some of the nicest people that I have met have been from Alabama.
This is a disease. Why is it that the mere mention of certain key words trigger labels in our minds, beyond which we refuse to look? Pakistan – Terrorism? Islam –Retrogressive? Wall Street – Evil? Why is that? Is it because we have stopped introspecting, reflecting over our inner selves. Bulleh Shah, the Sufi muslim poet, said it well:
“you have read books after books
But you never tried to read your inner self
You go daily to mosque and temple
but you never tried to go into your inner self
you fight against devil/satan every day
never tried to fight your inner self
you want to catch something from the sky
but you never tried to get something thats so near to you”
Reflect upon your inner selves. There is a world to be found beneath the labels that we place on people. Once we are able to look beyond the labels and make a conscious effort to understand the other side of the picture, no matter how opposed it is to our opinion, we would realize that it is not necessarily an irrational position. Only then would we able to humanize the “devils” representing the “other” in our mind. Only then would we be able to develop a richer understanding of the other actor. Only then we will move beyond “superficially judging others” to developing “mutual respect.” It is only then that we will be able to find ways to use our differences to reinforce the common good. Wesleyan has taught me to cherish individuals for who they are and judge ideas for what they represent, and know the difference between both.
I must admit though, that it was so much easier being the 17 year old Ali Chaudhry, who would make broad claims about the world with such absolute certainty. I find a verse from the Quran very relevant here, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” Certainly not. Even though the skepticism and uncertainty can be troubling at times, I still prefer the light to the darkness. I hope you do too.