Colorado Springs: The War at Home


In my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, I devote most of a chapter to Colorado Springs. As with my similar decision to devote the book’s entire first chapter to Wisconsin, I did it for a blend of personal and topical reasons. I didn’t grow up in Colorado Springs – I don’t call it home – but my parents have lived there since 1986, when I was 21 years old. That means that, as I put it in Home Free, Colorado Springs has been exasperating me from afar for more than half my life.

So I trust you’ll understand when I say that I take Friday’s attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic there personally. We can, and maybe should, debate the morality and politics of abortion, but we’ve been doing that ad nauseum for decades. Of more immediate concern to me is that, when I called my mother on Friday to make sure she was safe, she told me that she sometimes shops at the nearby King Sooper supermarket where people took shelter during the Planned Parenthood attack. So in addition to concerning myself as a citizen with public issues like abortion and gun control, and as a writer with understanding what’s becoming of American society, I have to worry about the physical safety of my aging parents. I resent that.

My parents are not helpless. They’re both resourceful people, and they’ve done a good job taking care of themselves for nearly 80 years and of each other for 55. But how safe are any of us from some guy with a rifle and an axe to grind? I’m sickened that three people died on Friday in Colorado Springs, especially so because, at the same time, I’m relieved that none of the three was one of my parents.

Also sickening, and telling, is how Planned Parenthood has already been forced partially to retract its initial forthright statement that “extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country.” Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told CNN that the statement was “very premature” and that he “would fully expect an apology” if it turned out – implausibly – that the gunman was not targeting Planned Parenthood. He surely was, but so what if he wasn’t? Three people are still dead.

Planned Parenthood has amended the phrase “domestic terrorism” to “acts of violence,” but I wish they hadn’t. Every time something like this happens, we have the same non-debate about what counts as terrorism, and Muslims – many of whom are my friends, so I hear it directly from them – point out how they are forced to live in a state of perpetual apology for who they are, whereas white American terrorists are always dismissed as lone wolves. That double standard exposes an extremely volatile fault line within a deeply dishonest body politic.

And Colorado Springs is one of the front lines of that fault line. Right-wing extremists have been bullying and browbeating the rest of the community ever since my parents moved there. I don’t say that lightly or from partisan motives. I know whereof I speak, because my mother has been deeply involved in the city’s civic life all along, including a stint as president of the public library board, and was principal of two elementary schools in one of the most socially and politically conservative parts of town.

In Colorado Springs’ political life, there are three distinct breeds of Republican: the old-fashioned Herbert Hoover-type pro-business breed that underpins many cities’ local establishments; a distinctively Western libertarian strain whose largely admirable genuine core motivation is to live and let live; and power-mongering ideologues whose agenda is driven by the fundamentalist Christian right. Anyone who knows Colorado Springs knows that it has been a mecca for the third category since about 1980.

It’s fair enough for Republicans to say that they as an American faction should not be collectively blamed for extremist violence like Friday’s attack (just as Muslims should not be collectively blamed for events like the Paris attacks). But, if we insist on requiring Muslims to disavow Islamist violence, it’s fair also to ask conservative Americans to be honest and self-critical about the connections between our country’s poisonous environment and domestic extremist violence. Congressman Kinzinger’s words on CNN are an evasion. So is Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers calling the attack a “terrible tragedy.” It is that, to be sure, but we’ll get nowhere as a society until we call it the other thing that it clearly was: a terrorist attack.


I know what Muslims are like


I haven’t written many articles or newsletters this year. Part of the reason is that I’ve been busy on other fronts, in my personal life as well as working on a couple of new book projects, plus launching a modest book-publishing venture (the website is still a work in progress). But I also don’t think the world needs a steady stream of op-eds and tweets, opinions and “quick takes,” from me, any more than it needs them from anybody else. Part of our problem these days is that we all have all too much to say.

So I’m writing now to say something I consider important: that the Muslims I know are not like the ones you see on TV. Anyone who knows me either personally or through my writing knows that I’ve said that many times before, in different forms and venues. I really don’t know how to say it differently or better, or to write other than out of my own experience. My personal exposure to Muslim people began in Kashmir in 1994 and continued in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and especially Pakistan, where my extensive travel culminated in a stint living and teaching in Lahore in 2003-04 and the publication of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan. Since then I’ve returned to Pakistan twice, in 2009 and 2011.

And since returning to live in the United States in 2006 I’ve put in a lot of time and air miles getting to know Pakistani-American communities from coast to coast. I can say that I haven’t agreed with or even personally liked every Muslim I’ve ever met, but then again I haven’t agreed with or liked every Christian or Jew I’ve met, either. Human nature is what it is.

So we have to deal with each other, and with ourselves. It should go without saying – but I’d better say it anyway – that the carnage perpetrated in Paris by Islamist radicals is appalling and utterly without justification. But I don’t want to live in an America ruled by fear and loathing, bullied by those among us who lack the self-control or self-respect to resist yielding to their lowest animal impulses. At the moment, I’m speaking in particular of the cretins who have been terrorizing an Islamic center in Irving, Texas by showing up there armed with automatic rifles, which unfortunately happens to be legal in Texas. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean they’re not cretins and bullies.

And I take this personally because the same outfit, led by a coward named David Wright, has also published on Facebook the home addresses of Muslims and so-called “Muslim sympathizers” who spoke out at a recent Irving city council meeting against an unnecessary and incendiary “anti-shariah” Texas state law. Shame on me for the following, but I was especially brought up short by the fact that one of the addresses published was that of an activist named Anthony Bond, i.e. apparently a non-Muslim American just like me. That World War II-era poem about how first they came for the Socialists, then they came for the Jews, etc.  comes to mind.

You could object that bullies like David Wright don’t represent or lead mainstream America. But if they don’t, who does? And who among us will stand up against large, aggressive men armed with automatic rifles, for the principle that might does not make right? Well, Anthony Bond will, for one. “We have a right to disagree, but we do not have the right to target and cause … harm just because we differ in our beliefs,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “That is the goal of this post: to put a bulls-eye on the back of all the people that stood up against the so-called anti-Shariah law bill.”

The other crucial principle to stand up for in today’s America is that it’s not all right to judge or punish or intimidate people solely or preemptively on the basis of the religion they were born into. Perhaps I have an advantage in this, since I know many Muslims personally. And I know what they’re like: for better or worse, they’re just like you and me.


Mohsin Hamid Rises to the Occasion


Discontent and Its CivilizationsMohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), gained the Pakistani writer a measure of well-earned global notoriety and indicated the scope of both his ambition and his ability. But, really, it was only a jumping-off point. Hamid has a great deal more to say than he has said in three short novels to date, or really than is possible to say in novels.

A writer’s occasional pieces are the flip side or reverse image of his or her fiction. As such, they hold a legitimate and even important place in his or her body of work, which can be defined as the statement that he or she spends a lifetime striving to make. Hamid’s novels are concise literary gems, self-consciously crafted in a manner reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and therein lies not only their durable merit but also their limitation. Hamid’s un-Ishiguro-like willingness, between novels, to put himself on the line by writing explicitly about current events brings to mind a truly great writer who for many decades wrote exquisite novels of global and lasting value with one hand and, with the other, stood always at the ready to leap into the breach with what one critic approvingly called “thin-skinned responsiveness”: Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Hamid rises to the occasion. At 44 he is still young, which bodes very well because his wonderfully-titled new collection Discontent and Its Civilizations suggests the potential for him to give us books of even greater importance, both literary and topical, for many years to come. And we will need him in those years, just as we need him now. For now this book is plenty important enough, and for David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times to praise it faintly as a “mash-up” lacking “weight” and “staying power” is to miss the point that rightly compelled its publication now. The times we’re living through are not conducive to staying above the fray, and indeed the relative slightness and datedness of some of the book’s pieces are also very much to the point; to read them collected in book form serves as an apt reminder of just how fast history is moving these days, how alert we must try to be.

The world’s peace party needs for its thought leaders to be as active and assertive as the bullies among both the terrorists and the imperial apologists. Mohsin Hamid’s reputation as a novelist grants him presumptive access to an American audience beyond the usual suspects of East Coast and academic “policy” types – those intellectuals who sell or rent their brains and command of language to the North American imperial state – and he puts that access to good use. I remember only too well my own lunch with a literary agent in New York circa 2004, soon after my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was published in London (that book could not have been published in New York). When I told him that I had written a book about Pakistan, the agent’s immediate question was: “What’s your argument?” As if writing about Pakistan required having an argument. The rejoinder that I lacked the presence of mind to offer at the time was: I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.

Pakistan deserves more telling of its stories, and far less hard-nosed, bloodless analysis. There is no half-baked notion in today’s world that’s more tiresome, indeed pernicious, than the notion that Pakistan exists primarily as a policy puzzle or problem for D.C.-based think-tank thinkers to think about. Pakistan – good, bad, and ugly – exists in its own right. I know this because, over two decades of traveling (and, for one five-month stint, living) there, that messy, damaged and complicated but fascinating country and its peoples have earned my love and respect.

Mohsin Hamid knows it more fundamentally because he is Pakistani, and he writes about it as a stubbornly hopeful liberal patriot. He loves his country; he is entitled to do so; and he is generous enough to take time out of his busy novel-writing schedule to explain to us the nature and meaning of that love. In today’s world Pakistani patriotism is a very important subject for us to understand. If Mohsin Hamid is kind enough to help us try to do so, the least we can do is to meet him halfway by hearing him out with curiosity and without prejudice.

The real problem, as Hamid rightly says, is that “both sides of the alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military share blame for the violence currently afflicting Pakistan.” An ancillary problem is that until we Americans are prepared to accept this correct premise, we will fail to understand well-informed explanations like this one Hamid offers:

By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the U.S. not only sided with India in the Indian-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.

Or this one:

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories [cherished by many Pakistanis] are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The U.S. has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

It’s a shame, but a sign of the times, that I have felt compelled to give over the lion’s share of this review to topical subjects rather than literary ones, such as Hamid’s admiration for Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian author of the unjustly obscure anti-fascist novel Sostiene Pereira (“I have never agreed with the claim that art must be kept separate from politics,” remarks Hamid in his piece on Pereira).

The particular value of Discontent and Its Civilizations is the way its selection and arrangement highlight the way Mohsin Hamid’s occasional writing has concerned itself with both literary and topical subjects, and how those interpenetrate and overlap. That, combined with the remarkably cosmopolitan perspective he brings to his humane concerns, is the sweet spot that defines his special value as a writer in these times.


Which side are you on?


Seattle - On February 10, three young people were shot dead near their condominium building in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The young man and two young women were members of the same family, and they were Muslims. Their murder was either a hate crime or the regrettable result of a dispute over parking.

That it could well carry both meanings at once seems beyond the imagination of many Americans, determined as they are to avert their eyes from the obvious and to excuse themselves from feeling or expressing human sympathy for their fellow human beings  - and fellow Americans – whom they prefer to define as “foreign.”

Regardless of the motivation or state of mind of the killer Craig Stephen Hicks, the fact that his victims were Muslim matters, in a society that has allowed itself over the past 13 1/2 years to become thoroughly marinated in Islamophobia. Yes, we’ve been made this way by the appalling actions of the Muslim world’s extremist terrorists. But we also know darn well that the governments of the West, especially the United States government, have played it to their advantage. And, if we are honest, we’ve willingly colluded in our own manipulation.

On Wednesday, February 11, I felt a responsibility to write about the Chapel Hill killings because, as the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan, I have experienced the humanity of many Pakistanis as well as of many Pakistani-Americans and other Muslims here in the United States. To remind oneself and others of our shared humanity is not the same as “singing Kumbaya,” as many who style themselves hard-nosed realists like to put it. After 49 years on this planet – obsessively traveling all over this planet, in fact – I harbor no illusions about humanity being thoroughly wonderful, or about mutual understanding being an easy thing to achieve. I know that not all Muslims are wonderful human beings. But I also know that all Muslims are, in fact, human beings. And to insist that human beings should behave better than we do toward each other is the opposite of naive.

I titled my article “Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America.” I’m spurred to write again today because I’m appalled by the many comments it prompted on the Huffington Post and on my Facebook page: “Muslims are evil killers and need to be eradicated,” wrote one self-styled American patriot, Micheal Dorrell, on Facebook. “You people are evil and should be destroyed!” wrote another, Darren Simpson. Such words are hate speech. I would prefer not to name their authors, but they named themselves, and people should be held accountable for their words as well as their actions. When I suggested that surely the three young people in Chapel Hill didn’t deserve to be killed, Micheal Dorrell replied: “Yes casualty of war.”

The depression I’ve been feeling since then proves that words have power. But I decline to grant such words power over me. Sometimes I comfort myself by remembering Paul Farmer’s dictum that depression is a rational response to the state of the world. But that’s at best a bleak and shallow comfort. The only partially effective antidote that I’ve found, both to the state of the world and to the depression it engenders, is action.

But what kind of action? For starters, not violent action – there’s already too much of that. The form of action most readily available to me, as a writer, is to write. That – reclaiming language from both the terrorists and the state – is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. I remind myself daily of something Albert Camus, who seems daily more freshly relevant, said: “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Another form of action available to us Americans is to train ourselves to cease clinging to an outdated and untenable national way of life. Here is how I put it in a speech to TCU students on January 15:

More and more these days, I feel that the need of our times, for those of us who have been accustomed to enjoying a middle-class American way of life, is to begin cultivating an attitude of what Buddhists call non-attachment. Buddhists – as well as serious practitioners of other religions, including Christianity – understand that true freedom has a lot to do with teaching ourselves not to want things that we don’t really need. In other times and places, dictatorships have flourished with at least the tacit acquiescence, and often the active support, of their society’s middle class, the portion of society that usually cherishes security and stability more than freedom and justice.

The other thing all of us need to face is a question: Which side are you on? The sides we have to choose from are, emphatically, not “the West” and “Islam.” Our choice – your choice – is between the side of humanity and the side of war. Are innocent young Muslim dental students in North Carolina merely casualties of war, as Micheal Dorrell claims to believe? If you believe that, then you support the notion that the human race will and should remain in a state of universal and perpetual war. If we want any future better than that, we must allow ourselves to believe in and work toward such a future, hard as that is to do.

I don’t know, specifically, everything that the following implies, but here is a starting point: Those of us who would preserve and renew humane society must become as active and assertive as the terrorists and other bullies. Real counterterrorism lies not in governments setting up police states ostensibly to protect us, but in us – each of us ordinary people – not only declaring that enough is enough, but turning off our televisions and laptops, getting off our couches, and demonstrating that we actually mean it.


Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America


Plymouth, Michigan, Feb. 11 - We don’t yet know what effects the Feb. 10 murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will have on Muslims around America or elsewhere, or on the rest of us. For starters, it will anger many Muslims. It already has, and it should. No matter what wrong things some Muslims do, that doesn’t mean that other Muslims who have done nothing wrong deserve to be killed. If you want to know what Muslims are thinking and saying – and you should – follow the #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter hashtags on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that some Muslims, as tragically disturbed and misguided as Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks clearly is, will take matters into their own hands. That’s one thing I’m afraid of. But I’m also afraid of the opposite: that Muslim communities around the United States will be terrorized into cowering timidity.

It’s not for me to tell them that they should do otherwise. Each of us makes a perpetual series of moment-by-moment calculations about how to live in the world both safely and with integrity, and acting with public courage can be physically dangerous. And what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha underscores a widespread and largely admirable fact about American Muslims: they want to get along, pursue middle-class professions, raise families, live in suburbs, make themselves useful to society, help the needy. Through my writing and speaking I know many American Muslims, including many students very much like the three who were killed, and my sense is that most of them would strongly prefer not to be doing things like marching in the streets.

But the parallel that was promptly rendered explicit by the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag is too obvious to ignore. As DeRay Mckesson, one of the Ferguson movement’s most vocal leaders, told a writer for Salon magazine, “We still protest every day, because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.” What implications Muslims might draw for their own public activities in American society is, of course, for them to decide. But one thing I know is that, in America, if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

Some Muslims that I know personally are already doing some of what needs to be done. My Pakistani-American friend Nadeem Iqbal, for example, arrived to study at – of all places – North Carolina State University in 1982, and stayed. Nadeem organizes an annual public Eid festival in the town of Cary, very near Chapel Hill. “The main motive,” Nadeem told me, “was that we live in America, we need to celebrate our religious festivals in this new environment, and we have to add that flavoring. We are celebrating it as an American holiday event.”

When I asked Nadeem why he felt such work was important, he told me:

My children and their children are going to live in this country, and they should be treated fairly. But the only way it can happen is for them and us to become part of the greater fabric. I’m not talking about assimilation, but about being able to participate in American society on an equal basis, without fear or compulsion. … Doing religious stuff is important from the religious point of view and the social point of view, but getting involved in the larger society is equally important.

A parallel challenge and opportunity exists for Americans who, like me, grew up in all-white or white-dominated small towns or suburbs. My friend Sarah Derry grew up in the town of Hubbell, pop. 1,105, in Houghton County in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It’s just in the wake of the old mining ruins,” she told me. “When they talk about small towns in America, this is one of them. It’s a pretty conservative place.”

A couple of years ago, when Sarah’s father was staying with her for a few months in a Detroit suburb, she took him to the Shatila Bakery, a well-known establishment in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn. “I found out about it from a guy I work with who’s Iraqi,” she told me. “My father is not the most open-minded person. As we were driving down there I told him, ‘Poppy, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people there. They’ll be wearing a lot of headscarves, so don’t act all shocked.’”

An Arab man held the door open for Sarah’s father, and “they had a chuckle” because the man explained that it’s a tradition to show respect for elders. “We got our desserts and sat down,” Sarah remembers. “And when we left Poppy said, ‘Well, they seemed pretty nice. They seemed just like normal people.’”

While Sarah was glad to witness this “ah-ha” moment in her father’s life, she was also impressed that her teenage son was unimpressed, as if his grandfather’s insight were merely a statement of the obvious. “I’m glad I’m raising Erik in a place where there’s different races and cultures, because that’s the way the world is,” Sarah told me. “I want him to be a functioning member of society.”


An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris


An Officer and a SpyRobert Harris is one of the most intelligent English-language novelists of our time to aim for a popular audience. His debut novel Fatherland was a gripping murder mystery set in Berlin in the year 1964, in an all too plausibly depicted alternate reality in which the Nazis  won the Second World War, with all that implies for the dictum that the winners write the history books. Pompeii was wonderful. The Ghost was a devastating depiction of a high-minded but calculating former British prime minister bearing an all too credible resemblance to Tony Blair.

The Fear Index is a fascinating thriller about the dangers of computerized stock trading. And then there are Imperium and Lustrum (retitled Conspirata in the U.S.), the first two volumes of his promised trilogy on the politics of ancient Rome, narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. As bracing as the variety of his subject matter is, there is a unity of sensibility to Harris’s novels, and he always delivers on his promise of bracing erudition and historical, moral and political substance and perspective. In short, Harris always gives us plenty to think about, even as he entertains us magnificently.

An Officer and a Spy is as excellent as any other Robert Harris novel, with the added element of being a fictionalization of real events that have already been thoroughly documented in many nonfiction books: the notorious Dreyfus case that convulsed France in the 1890s. By choosing such a famous historical episode as his subject, Harris not only constrains himself, but paradoxically also grants himself the novelist’s license to imagine and portray the personal and moral lives of its personages. By extension, he also offers us the opportunity to reflect on how such a travesty of justice can have been perpetrated on an innocent man by a society determined to avert its eyes from its own corruption and bigotry.

The further point of such a choice, of course, is implicitly to invite us to draw parallels and implications for our own time and society. That is the real relevance of An Officer and a Spy, the real reason it was worth writing and is well worth reading now: it cuts very close indeed to the bone. If a national government’s highest officeholders are determined to collude in scapegoating a minority group and propagating a cover-up, what is the duty of an official serving under them? Indeed, what are the duties of a citizen?