Morse: Pakistani-Americans Face Identity Crisis

Morse Stop IconBy Maham Khan-Amed and Kristin Camelia Rencher
The Red Line Project

Posted: June 3, 2010

It is easy to find Rana M. Ahktar, the father-in-law of Tahawwur Hussain Rana — a Chicago-based Pakistani American awaiting trial in connection to an attack plot on Danish cartoonist in October 2009.

Ahktar sits at the cash register of Rana’s grocery store in West Rogers Park. He wears a long beard and is garbed in traditional Pakistani clothing.

“What do you want to know?” Ahktar asked. “The lawyers have told me not to speak. But I don’t feel like being silent.”

He had just visited Rana at a federal facility in Chicago the night before. The two men discussed life in general, Ahktar said. According to Ahktar, Rana believes God is testing him with a trial.

“This is a trial for my son-in-law, and for our whole community,” Ahktar said, nodding his head, as in acceptance.

Rana is just one alleged terrorism case occurring  “at home” instead of “back home.” 

Days after Shahzad's arrest on May 4, the Pakistani community in Chicago faces a complex identity crisis.

Glenn Sommer, a Chicago-based hair stylist, chats with clients from diverse backgrounds. His Pakistani clients, he said, always seem embarrassed.

 “They are always apologetic,” said Sommer, who lives with an Iraqi-Muslim roommate. “I tell them I know all this violence and hatred is not their real religion or culture. You can’t believe everything the media tells you.”

However, Sommer’s roommate Mohammed Rashid said he is angry with the Muslim world for not stopping all the violence in their own countries.

“Pakistan takes a stand to shutdown Facebook because people want to draw a cartoon,” Rashid said referring the Pakistani Government’s recent decision to ban Facebook on May 20, after an "Everybody Draw Mohammad Day" group was created. “But so much violence and crimes are happening in the name of religion in their own country.”

Discussions like the one Sommer and Rashid have within the confines of their home are in one part synonymous to the identity crisis Pakistanis-Muslim-Americans may be facing. Post September 11, Muslim organizations and communities set out to mend the wounds of misunderstanding with the Western world.

Now, within the close parameters of the Pakistani/Indian and Muslim metropolis on Devon Avenue, the wounds are caused by an inter-cultural divide.

“Why would he [Shahzad] do it?” asked Zubaida Sultana, who has owned a Pakistani salon neighboring Rana’s Grocery store for over 13 years. “A man with so many opportunities—doesn’t make sense. One man’s actions are going to affect all of us.”

The effects, however, have long been into play much before Shahzad’s infamy, according to Political Science Professor Dr. Khalil Marrar at DePaul University.

Why would this financial analyst allegedly gone terrorist do such a thing? Marrar argues it is because a major identity crisis already exists. This is common when “hyphenated” peoples, like “Pakistani-Americans” begin to relate less to the American and more to the culture which may be facing adverse effects abroad, as a result of current American foreign policies. "It is the ultimate example of dissent," Marrar said. "Just like American-Jewish born Adam Ghadan, who announced his allegiance to an American Al-Quaeda in videos on YouTube."

For other Pakistanis living on American soil, the crisis is not one of dissent from American ideals. Instead, as result of other Pakistanis’ extreme choices and interpretations, the crisis is an inter-cultural and religious dilemma: who to trust?

“I used to worry that people would discriminate against my sons because they are Muslims,” Sultana said. “Now I also worry that they might meet the wrong kind of Muslim friends in college who try to involve them in something wrong.”

Daniyal Syed, 26, who received a degree in Marketing from Valparaiso University in 2006, “A disconnect from the fundamentalist preaching and terror plotting in an ultra conservative province far away in Pakistan was easy. It is scary to think that this Shahzad guy is just like someone I could have been friends with.”

Many of the Pakistanis interviewed repeated their allegiance to America.

“Our loyalties are with America. We are Americans first,” said Javed Khan, a chemical engineer living in America since 1978. “But we fear that innocent people may end up in jail too,” he said, in response to Rana’s case, verdict pending. “But if he did it, I hope he gets the most extreme sentence,”

Muhammad Mukhi responded: “And Shahzad, he only did this for money. He got brainwashed—shown pictures of dead children and offered money.”

Khan and Muhki, along with several other gentlemen often find themselves sitting in a café on Devon discussing “local politics.” Their opinions tend to disagree when discussing the agendas and motives of all the institutions involved.

According to Marrar, distrust between and within institutions is expected on a global level in times of war.

“The community starts to doubt itself as well as the American institution.” Marrar said.

Conversations with local Pakistanis indicate trust issues within the community -- distrust of the unknown and the misguided at the forefront.

“I don’t feel comfortable donating my money to organizations collecting for Muslim or Pakistani issues,” Sultana said. “I don’t really know where it is going.”

Many other Pakistani-American Facebook users responded with the same sentiments to a discussion thread asking the question: “Do you feel safe donating to charities supporting Muslim or Pakistani causes?

“It’s just too much of a risk these days,” Facebook user Hannah Khan said 

For Syed Quadri, a Muslim, and a Chicago Police Officer, there is no dilemma in profiling people of his own community. It’s his job to protect people first and foremost, Quadri said.

Many in the community ask Quadri if he ever feels bad for “listening-in” on his own people.

“I am at an advantage, being a Muslim — because I know my religion and I can determine what is suspicious and what isn’t,” Quadri said. “I’m protecting my people.” “Everyone should support the authorities,” Quadri said. “People can be afraid to get involved, but they should realize that if something happens, all of us will be victims.”

Quadri is also a part-time mechanic at AutoTecx garage. One of his co-workers, Shiraz Kamal, used to work with Rana occasionally on Rana's farm in Kinsman Illinois, which involved a major FBI raid in October 2009.

“If I had actually seen something suspicious, I would have come forward,” said Kamal, 26. “But he was so nice and honest in his work ethic, I would never have guessed that he could possibly be involved in a terror plot.”

Another Rana employee, Roxana Younus, still works at his Chicago Grocer store on Devon Avenue.

“Reporters still come all the time asking questions,” Younus said. “I still tell them he is innocent and we have nothing to hide.”

Rana can face up to life in prison if found guilty — a possibility the Rana family has accepted, Ahktar said. Ahktar spoke about his daughter, Rana’s wife, who was a physician by education, but has stopped practicing to manage her husband’s business.

For her, and for an entire community, which Ahktar said has been supportive, “God will provide the ultimate justice.”

Interactive map of incidents involving Pakistani-Americans in alleged terrorism plots:

View Locations of Alleged Pakistani Ties to Terrorism in a larger map

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