Land of Confusion 

Faced with pressure to become a Muslim extremist, Pakistani student finds opportunity in Nashville

Faced with pressure to become a Muslim extremist, Pakistani student finds opportunity in Nashville

Waqar Lodhi knows all about avoiding beggars on the street, their skin nothing more than a weathered bag of bones. He’s familiar with grown men, laborers in antiquated factories, who can’t even spell their names. He can also tell you a few things about bearded clerics who are never quite satisfied that anyone’s devotion to Allah is good enough. The 23-year-old Nashvillian, who recently graduated from Nashville Auto Diesel College, knows these things because, in his native Pakistan, poverty, ignorance and religion permeate every aspect of society. They are as much a part of life there as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie are in America.

That’s why he came to the United States, to get a real education. After years of corruption and state-sponsored religion, he says, Pakistanis are perpetuating their own self-destruction. In a country where, according to the Congressional Research Service, only 42 percent of the population are literate and 40 percent live below the poverty level, radical Islam fills the void where opportunities, learning and social services are supposed to be.

If a student wants to study in Pakistan, Waqar says, “You have two options. Either you leave school and study privately, or the fundamentalists are going to push you. They will want you to grow a beard and wear religious badges. If you say no, they will make your life miserable.”

In President Bush’s war on terrorism, Pakistan may well be the most important U.S. ally in the East. Yet most Americans know very little about the country and even less about the 144 million people who live there. For all the talk of a moderate, silent majority in Pakistan who support the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, poverty and ignorance threaten to rip the country apart and derail U.S. efforts there.

Pakistan was created in 1947, when India was divided to provide homes for the region’s respective Muslim and Hindu populations, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Islam became the official religion there. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the dictator at the time, changed the constitution because he realized that religion could be used to solidify political support. Since then, according to Pakistani historian Saeed Ahmed Minhas, every successive dictatorship has relied more and more upon the fundamental elements of Islam to legitimize their reigns.

Waqar grew up in this climate and graduated from high school in Lahore, a large city in the northeastern corner of the country. By Pakistani standards, his family is considered middle-class, meaning that his parents could afford to pay for his education. When he was 17, he began college at Quaid-i-Azam University, a private school. Unlike the country’s 10,000 or so madrasas, or Muslim seminaries, Quaid-i-Azam is supposed to be dedicated to science and learning. But as Waqar tells it, all schools in Pakistan are potential recruiting grounds for Islamic extremism.

“I went to a private school, but it was no different from the public schools,” he says. “The very first day, I noticed these older guys sitting in the back of class. They were maybe 30 years old. Two or three would be in every class. I just thought they had decided to come back to school. They had beards, and I noticed they were passing out money and giving people religious badges to wear. They didn’t study, and they approached different people after class. I found out that all the people sitting next to me were going out after school with these guys. These guys would preach to them and give them stuff.

“One of these guys approached me and said I should join them. He wanted me to grow a beard and wear a badge. If I have a fight, he said, they will help me. I told him that I had no reason to fight and not to discuss it with me again. A month later, he approached me again and said that I needed to join them. I told him no again. I told him I didn’t believe in what they were saying and I wasn’t going to follow it.

“Then things started to change. Everyone was meaner to me. It got to the point where people were physically pushing me around. They were writing things on the walls about me and putting things in my chair before I got to class. Finally, some guy knocked me down in the hall.

“[The extremists] infiltrate the school system through the union, so even the principal’s hands are tied. I’ve seen people beaten up very badly just because they come to school to learn—not to be a religious puppet. In the end, it became too much and I had to quit.”

After dropping out, Waqar studied at home and worked for a family member who ran a satellite office for Hewlett Packard. Then he heard from an uncle, Ali Lodhi, who told him about Nashville Auto Diesel College. Now 32, Ali had graduated from the school and was working as a mechanic for a firm that performs aircraft maintenance for Emery Worldwide Inc. in Nashville. Waqar applied, was accepted and, with his uncle’s help, came to Tennessee.

“The people back home are so sick and tired of the fighting,” Ali says. “There aren’t any jobs and no education. You find the person who didn’t even go to school for one day...all his knowledge is [from] listening to people. [Extremist Muslims] tell him it’s very bad; the U.S. is coming to ruin your country, ruin your religion, ruin everything.”

Waqar’s cousin, Al Lodhi, 43, who also lives in Nashville, says he never experienced any harassment from religious zealots when he was in school in Pakistan, but he has been in the United States for almost 17 years. “Waqar is part of the younger generation, and things have changed,” he observes. “There is no standardization; anyone can open a school and teach anything.

“The education level in Pakistan is so very low that most people will follow like goats and sheep. I would say that only 20 percent of the population—that live in the cities—have any kind of schooling. The rest still live where the basic necessities of life aren’t being met, like drinking water, schools and health care. They are just sitting on the street corners with no work, nothing.”

Al believes that America deserves some of the blame for the animosity Afghanis and Pakistanis feel toward our country. The United States government’s lopsided foreign policy has caused people in the region to become distrustful of the U.S., he says, pointing out that our country at one time supported Saddam Hussein’s oppressive, murderous regime, not to mention the Taliban. The only hope for people of the region is for the United States to create a long-term plan to rebuild Afghanistan and Pakistan. Western allies, he argues, should spend money rebuilding the same infrastructure they are now in the process of destroying.

“The people of Pakistan see the countries that have flourished, the countries that are well fed. They see it every day on Western television. They look at a country that was totally created by Western money—a country like Taiwan or Japan or Germany. They see that and wonder why not them.”

It’s precisely this vision of the West as a fount of opportunity that convinced the Lodhis to come here, and their time in Nashville has certainly paid off. Waqar just recently graduated from Nashville Auto Diesel College, and he says it was the “best experience of my life.” Right now, he spends much of his time at his new hobby, fishing, but he plans on returning to school. “I want to educate myself,” he says. “There are so many different things I want to learn.”

For a person who couldn’t speak any English only two years ago, Waqar has already learned a lot, most of all an appreciation for many things that Americans often take for granted: the chance to learn, to make a living wage, to choose one’s religion. “People in America always say this is bad or that is bad,” he says. “But there is so much good here—bad is not even considered.”

Of course, things have changed somewhat since Sept. 11. Ali says that his wife and a friend from Malaysia were recently subjected to insults while grocery shopping on Nolensville Road, and he’s a little afraid to send her out alone right now. But he has no doubts about where he belongs. “I feel myself a stranger back in Pakistan. Nashville is my home now. I still believe we are in a safe place and in safe hands. We have great hope.”

Late this summer, Ali was laid off from his job as an airplane mechanic. After the terrorist attacks, he said most of his fellow mechanics called to see how he was doing and to wish him well, although they tended to express their feelings by trying to make light of the situation. “They called and joked with me, saying, ‘We just wanted to make sure you weren’t flying one of those planes,’ ” Ali laughs. “But I know they were concerned.”

If anything, the Sept. 11 bombing has brought the local Muslim community closer together and caused them to question how they can reach out to the rest of Nashville. Ali and Waqar hang out with a number of other Pakistani immigrants, and most Fridays, Ali goes to pray at the Islamic Center of Nashville.

Beyond that, though, they continue to live their lives. Waqar recently looked into joining the Marines Corps when a friend from school signed up. “I went to see what it is and would I fit in or not. I liked what they showed me. It is a respectable institution. I did the paperwork and told them once I get my education done, I’ll come back to them. It would be a great honor for me to be there. I would help the United States any way I could. I would love to help.”

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