Ali Eteraz and Muslim Identity

NEW YORK, October 15, 2009 - Author Ali Eteraz  read from his new memoir Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan and spoke both personally and passionately about Muslim identity in America after 9/11 and the experience of living as a Pakistani in the West.

His coming-of-age story sheds light on his disparate experiences from his schooling at madrassas in rural Pakistan to his teenage years in the American South's Bible Belt.

Eteraz spoke in conversation with Bernard Schwartz Fellow Hassan Abbas at Asia Society headquarters in New York. Eteraz said that although 9/11 focused attention on the Muslim world, his book about his fractured boyhood was not merely a reaction to Muslim stereotypes. “I would have wanted to tell my story irrespective of what’s happened in the world,” he said.

The conversation then turned toward Muslim identity. When asked whether he identified as Pakistani or American, Eteraz pointed out that as ‘Abir ul Islam,’ or being a Muslim, was absolutely necessary, but that he is a Pakistani-American who is a devout Muslim at heart. He said that traveling extensively from a young age has made him “oblivious to borders.”

He spoke about the role madrassas have played in influencing Muslim communities, both historically and today. Eteraz said that the rural madrassas he attended in the 1980s were totalitarian but didn't have a strong political ideology attached. When he returned to Pakistan in 1999, he noticed they had changed into extreme ideological institutions. In response, Abbas explained that some madrassas were “traditional institutions where Islamic teaching and education was a central part of the curriculum” and others, in rural Pakistan had militant agendas to recruit soldiers for a religious war. The two speakers urged Pakistani scholars to dispel misconceptions surrounding madrassas and “create a new vocabulary” to describe them more accurately.

When asked about the link between Islam and terrorism, Eteraz said passionately “Muslims are always being politicized!" He said Children of Dust was his response to widespread stereotypes and tokenism. “It doesn’t really work for me being a token... If you think that I am, just tell me and we can have a talk about it,” added Eteraz humorously.

Reported by Sulagna Ghosh

Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan by Ali Eteraz is available at the AsiaStore.