US & World

Writer Rob Asghar reflects on US/Pakistan relations

Writer Rob Asghar
Writer Rob Asghar
Kitty Felde

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The U.S. has had a bumpy relationship with Pakistan over the years. Los Angeles writer Rob Asghar has lived in both countries and says those bumps in the road reflect bumps in his own life.

Culture clash has been the hallmark of the life of author and scholar Rob Asghar. Saquib Suhrab Asghar (his given name) is a suburban Californian with a big detour. When he was a toddler, his parents left the Golden State and moved back to their native Pakistan. "My reaction as a 3-year-old of seeing this great new culture was to run back to the airplane in a state of shock."

Asghar’s family spent a few years globetrotting; when he was 14, home was Pakistan again. It was 1979 – a bad year for U.S.-Pakistan relations. A false rumor spread like wildfire through the capital city of Islamabad: the U.S. had taken over the holy temple in Mecca.

Asghar says thousands of Pakistanis made their way by bus to the American embassy on the edge of town "and just started burning the place to the ground." He says they killed two embassy staff there "and then made their way to the other part of town and attacked our school. And it was all over a misunderstanding."

Asghar and his brother hid in the locker room. The school closed down for months.

Asghar says he was hungry for American culture, so he raided a friend’s record collection and discovered the British rock band Led Zeppelin. Asghar says Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant grew up in England at a time when South Asians were moving into Birmingham.

"And so in a peculiar way," he says, "Led Zeppelin was kind of more cross-cultural in its musicality than people realize. And it actually in a funny way represents an early version of this clash of the greater Middle East and South Asia and the West, and the music was a consequence of it."

These days, Asghar is a fellow at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy – and a frequent contributor to “The Huffington Post.” His memoir is called “Lessons from the Holy Wars: A Pakistani-American Odyssey.”

Asghar says U.S.-Pakistan relations might have collapsed 30 years ago, but then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. America needed an ally in the region; Pakistan filled the bill then – and does to this day.

But Asghar says there’s strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. "Pakistanis worry that America thinks India is the pretty girl in this subcontinent, that America doesn’t really love us, America is simply exploiting us."

Asghar writes about politics, but also about religion. He charts his own spiritual journey away from moderate Islam to “new age” spiritualism to several years as an evangelical Christian.

Asghar says that was toughest for his parents. "Benign religion is one thing," he says, "but we all love to wave our banner. We all love to say, 'I’m a Lakers fan! I’m a Clippers fan!' and we don’t get along. And there’s something about rivalry – especially religious rivalry – that’s deeply threatening."

Asghar’s since drifted away from Christianity. But he says talking about difficult religious issues with his family is what Pakistanis and Pakistani Americans should do, especially where there’s an unspoken clash between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims.

"Once you start having more of those intra-family discussions, with all the tensions involved," he says, "then you’re actually going to see fundamentalists realize the consensus they thought existed toward fundamentalism does not exist. That’s when you’ll start to see the potential for the sort of a pluralistic republic we all hoped they would have there."

Asghar says there will be no progress until progressive Muslims reject a fundamentalist vision of Pakistan. He says it’s not a lack of freedom that prevents it – it’s a lack of courage.