In the last post, ReligionWriter was speaking with video and text blogger Amar Bakshi about the religious ideas he found while traveling in Britain.

In this segment, Bakshi shares the insights he gained as a roving blogger in Pakistan to explain why Osama bin Laden is so popular there, and how differing perceptions of his own religiosity affected his reporting.

ReligionWriter: A poll this month found that Osama bin Laden has a 46% approval rating in Pakistan, making him more popular than Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (38% approval rating among Pakistanis) and U.S. President Bush (9%.) To most Americans, those numbers for Bin Laden seem absolutely horrifying. What would you say to help Americans make sense of them?

Amar Bakshi: It’s surprisingly easy from a distance to separate human tragedy from political spectacle. Just as numbers of casualties can blur in the minds of people who are far away, so the human tragedy of 9/11 can blur for people who are far away, especially if they are spoken to in a certain way about it. I think very few Pakistanis actually advocate the suffering that 9/11 represented for Americans.

To some of the people I spoke with, Osama bin Laden represents slap in the face of U.S. power and prestige and invincibility. That as political gesture appeals to people who feel America has undermined their right to self-determination, their economic prosperity — whatever their grievance is.

In Pakistan, as in many countries besides the U.S., historical memory, and the mythologization of that memory, is very powerful; Pakistanis well-remember America’s involvement in the rule of [former military leader] Zia ul Haqq. Ironically, they are objecting to the radicalization of Islam and the loss of liberty that his rule entailed — in a convoluted way, that is associated with America in the minds of Pakistanis. There are similar analogies in Iran.

RW: Is anyone who supports Osama bin Laden necessarily a violent enemy of America? Is it possible to humanize that bin Laden supporter? Is there any common ground to work with?

Bakshi: The whole pursuit of “How The World Sees America” — and for some people, I’ve learned, my approach is quite controversial — is to humanize these guys. How are you going to say 46 percent of a country of 160 million are fundamental enemies? That’s ridiculous. If you go to other countries, the numbers are just as staggering, if not more so.

To make an enemy, in our minds, of 300 or 500 million dispersed people is ludicrous. So you’re going to have to humanize. I can see the headline: ‘Humanizing Bin Laden Lovers.” Put that way, you can just dismiss the idea, but that’s far too simplistic.

There is a huge spectrum of what that support actually means. Would any of these guys lay down their lives for him? If you ask that in a poll question, I don’t think the number would be high. So what does it mean to them to support someone like bin Laden? And what is it they are searching for? These types of questions usually have very personal answers. That’s very much what this project is about: what are those personal answers?

RW: Do you mean everyone has a story like “a CIA agent killed my brother?”

Bakshi: Each act that takes place affects 100 people around that act. Social networking thought might help here. When one person dies in Afghanistan, 100 people are vividly seared by that event, and that affect ripples outward. What look from here like small mistakes can multiple quite rapidly in people’s psyches. So, sure, “the CIA agent killed my brother” is not a very likely or common scenario, but one act can have more impact than you think.

Then, of course, anti-Americanism is very much exploited by political parties, by imams wanting more power or prestige, or in organizations where anti-Americanism is a way of expressing belonging. So you might start with a rational reason for disliking America — maybe a CIA agent really did kill your brother — but this drumming up of hype can quickly lead things to spiral into the irrational.

There are two things at work here. First, we have got to figure out what policies of ours might be dangerous for us in terms of perceptions in the long term. I think that’s an important consideration, and one that we can control. Then we have to see some things for what they are: for example, political infighting in which orthodox people attack moderates by claiming they are pro-America. Really that has nothing to do with America, it’s really about moderates and extremists battling each other within their own society.


RW: Tell us a little about your own religious and cultural background. What sort of Hinduism were you raised with?

Bakshi: I went to Episcopal school, St. Albans, where I was on the vestry. My mother is a spiritual woman, but no one in my family is particularly religious. To me, religion is a way of ordering your spirituality, of disciplining it. The idea is a certain practice gets your spirituality richer or better.

I have been free to dabble in a lot of different things and read a lot of books, both as literature and for teasing out how to live life. In terms of what practice I want to use to discipline my spirituality, I haven’t decided yet, but I’m not opposed to picking one eventually.

If anything, my family is Hindu, but there are Muslim influences as well, and of course I went to Christian school, and my mother tried to send me to Hebrew school -

RW: Hebrew school?

Bakshi: I was young, and at the time, my mother thought it was a just beautiful language, with beautiful stories, and she always dreamed of going to Jerusalem. She still does.

RW: You were born and raised in Washington D.C. Before you went to India for your blog, had you been to there before?

Bakshi: Growing up my mother never really wanted me to see India or learn Hindi. My parents had just recently migrated to the U.S., they were struggling to fit in, and my mother was fighting her own gender war to define herself as a physician, and she thought Indian culture didn’t help her in that. But when I was 15 I went back to India when my mother set up a local scholarship for a girl in Mysore, where she was from. I got really interested in local crafts people and set up something called Aina Arts, which links crafts people up with art markets.

RW: You are often mistaken for a Muslim. How has that experience affected you and your reporting?

Bakshi: One reason I don’t want to talk much about my religion online is that I love being mistaken for any number of things. In Latin America, I’m taken for Latin American. When I introduce myself to Muslims, I’m assumed to be Muslim, and Hindus assume I’m Hindu; I know enough about each to hold my own.

I go to a lot of Muslim services around the world, wherever I am. It’s a great way to connect and meet people, and I don’t feel badly doing it.

RW: You mean you would go to Friday prayer at a mosque and pray yourself? As part of your reporting for the blog?

Bakshi: Yes. (Laughs.) I have gone to Friday prayer and prayed, often out of sign of respect; I would be with a bunch of people who were going to pray, and it seemed rude to say, “I’ll wait outside.” In high school, I said the prayers every day, and I wasn’t Christian. I was head prefect of my school for a while, and at every ceremony I had to give a prayer, which I ended with “Amen.” One teacher told me it was just a sign of respect.

So that’s how I interpret it. [Blending in] helps me meet a lot of people, and I earn a lot of trust as a result of being ambiguous. I have no hesitation about that, because ultimately I think it’s foolish for there to be divides on the basis of religion, and I’m perfectly happy moving between them.

RW: So you go to a madrassa in South Asia and act like a Muslim, salaam aleikum and all that, and later they find out you’re not officially a Muslim: What happens next?

Bakshi: I never lie. If someone asks me “what are you,” I say exactly what I told you: my parents are Hindu but they are spiritual; I have devout Muslim and Sikh ancestors not that far back; I went to a Christian school, and basically I haven’t decided for myself yet.

I’ll be around the most hard-core Muslim guys you can imagine, and all they’ll say to me is:”Look, brother, this is not a good way to be, you have to choose.” They won’t say, “You snuck into our mosque, how dare you.” I’m happy to have them present to me the values they find in their faith. If anything, that’s when their passion really comes out.

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Amar Bakshi has what for many people would be a dream job: the 23-year-old recent college graduate travels the world, capturing the thoughts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people in word and image. Bakshi’s text and video blog, “How The World Sees America,” appears on Washington.Post.Newsweek.Interactive’s foreign affairs blog, Post Global. This summer, Bakshi traveled to England, Pakistan and India. He’s briefly back in his hometown of Washington D.C. before heading off to the Middle East, South East Asia and Latin America in October.

ReligionWriter caught up with Bakshi this week to ask him what role religion plays in perceptions of America and how he manages his own “ambiguous” religious identity while traveling. Part One of the interview appears today; Part Two will appear on Monday.

ReligionWriter: How did you manage to create this assignment for yourself?

Amar Bakshi: I always wanted to see more of what life was like in places where headlines were happening. CNN clips are nice, but they’re short, and I never could figure out, say, what the woman in the background’s life was all about. I was working on Post Global, and I first pitched the idea of doing something on ordinary lives through text and video. What the project needed, though, was an overriding question that would hold it all together.

At the time I was still wrestling with my experience in Zimbabwe, where I was jailed and then released while researching my senior thesis on media propaganda. One thing that haunted me from that experience was how consistently I was accused of crimes related to being American. After I left Zimbabwe, I read about how this rhetoric about America helps solidify controversial regimes around world, and also about the type of things America has done to develop that reputation. I just blurted that interest of mine out in a meeting one day, and the project clicked: it had a focus.

RW: When people overseas look at America, do they perceive it as a religious nation?

Bakshi: I’d have to say no. Religiosity in the U.S. is now embodied in Bush – he’s the symbol of religious America. Again and again I would hear from people: “I’m against the American government, and I’m for the American people.” But people tend to have more knowledge about the government than the micro-level faith of millions of Americans. A small town church doesn’t make headlines in Pakistan the way Bush’s use of the word “crusade” did. Comments like that really resonate. One of the YouTube clips I kept getting told about in England was a video from 1993 of one of our generals, General Boykin, saying about a battle with a Somali warlord, “I knew our God was bigger.”

RW: So when people overseas think of America in religious terms, they only think of the religious right?

Bakshi: Yes, but there is also a good sense of the religious diversity that America embodies. I heard from Muslims who are really opposed to U.S. government and what is happening right now to their brothers and sisters in the U.S. — there have been a lot of deportations of Pakistanis, for example. But at the same time, a taxi driver in Lahore must just as easily say, “In America Muslims do just fine. My cousins are there earning a lot of money, not being bothered.” So there is a sense of increasingly higher level of injustices, but that at root, America tolerates a lot of religious diversity.

RW: We hear that Europeans tend to see Americans as crazed religious fanatics. Did you get that sense from the British people you met?

Bakshi: In England I heard again and again a feeling of surprise at how overtly patriotic and outspokenly religious Americans seem to be. The two ideas were often conflated, especially when it comes to perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. But in England at least, people spoke with some nuance about different aspects of American religious life, rather than lumping everyone together.

RW: England is known for being much less religious than America; we hear about Anglican churches with only a handful of elderly ladies in the pews. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: Public display in general is much more of an American characteristic than a British one, and this applies both to patriotism and religion. England looks at America so demonstrative and crass and tacky and loud. And religiously, America often comes across in similar ways: it’s evangelical, it’s preachy.

There’s a sense around England, “If only we were less demonstrative of our beliefs, the better we could all fit into this polity.” When Jack Straw, the home minister, asked a woman to remove her face veil, there was a huge uproar, but his point was wanting to lessen those differences in public as much as possible.

RW: I have heard that British Muslims are more outwardly traditional-looking than American Muslims — that you’re more likely to see women with face veils or South Asian men in salwar khameez for example. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: It’s one of the first things I noticed when I got to Walthamstow or Blackburn. You walk down the street and there are bearded guys everywhere; you could be on a street in Lahore or Malegaon in India. But at the same time, there are a tremendous number of British Muslims who look just like I do, and I’m not terribly religious at all. So it’s easy to get fixated on those strong outward displays of identity.

In Blackburn, what I heard is this: outward displays help to bind together a community that felt itself under seige; identifying marks help them remember what they are fighting for. Of course everyone has a different explanation of what that is.

RW: And why exactly do British Muslims feel under siege?



Bakshi: The grievances of most were largely not religious but civil liberties-oriented grievances. I heard again and again the idea that “our friends are getting jailed, we’re scared, we don’t have jobs, there’s crime.” It wasn’t “the West is too liberal” or “Christianity is at war with Islam.” Of course there is a small minority of extremists that do hold those views, but they are not held by anywhere near a majority of British Muslims.

RW: Do you think emphasizing America’s religiosity is a way to build bridges with Muslims or others worldwide who would otherwise be anti-American?

Bakshi: Absolutely. In London I met an American guy who converted to Islam in prison and later went to Saudi Arabia. He’s not exactly normal, as he was standing in Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner saying some pretty outrageous things, but he made the case that Muslims could common cause with the religious Christian right in America to defend values he felt were being badly blasted around the world by a growing ethos he nebulously defined as consumerist and sexual. He saw a strong ally in conservative Christian American for a political and religious agenda of combating abortion and stopping sex before marriage and any number of different things. He said that as he traveled around Saudi, he advocated this strategy.

On the other hand, the people who don’t want religion in public life, who think religious displays should be tamed down, for them America’s religious center is not really seen as an ally. It’s seen as a problem of religion growing into the public sphere. In England in particular, I heard the sentiment that religious expression needs to be reigned in.

Coming Monday: Bakshi offers explanations of why Osama bin Laden is more popular than President Musharraf in Pakistan, and how his own fluid religious identity has impacted his reporting.

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