The situation in Kashmir has forced many Kashmiris to leave their homeland in search of answers for their struggle as Kashmiris and as human beings aspiring for a better life.
I left Kashmir and migrated to the United States in the early ‘90s. it was not easy, but there were not many options left for youth in Kashmir. United States, my new home, offered opportunities but not without challenges. In the beginning I was very excited to be in the United States. But that excitement was very short lived when I faced the challenges of survival. But later things evened out.
United States in the early ‘90s was different — knowledge of Islam and Muslims was very limited. There were no halal restaurants or stores nearby to shop for food. So being a vegetarian was my only option. I had to travel some 230 kms to get halal meat. There were not many masjids around to go out and pray as we have in Kashmir — a masjid in virtually every lane.
I had to adapt to many things that were different than what I was used to. I could have easily been consumed by things around me. But by Allah’s blessings I was protected from those things at every step. Alhamdulillah, wherever I lived, masjid was never too far. This helped me stay connected to the reality than get lost in the glitter and glamour of the world around me.
Another challenge was that I knew very little about my faith. When people asked me about Muslims and Islam I had my cultural answer, not the answer based on genuine knowledge. The definition of a practising Muslim was five daily prayers and fasting in Ramadhan — at least that is what I thought. Most of us spend our lives educating ourselves about the world but have very little knowledge about things that make this world a blessing. When people around me wanted to know why I fast or pray, my answer would be: I am supposed to do so. These were not the answers people wanted to know. But these were the answers we were taught by our elders/imams back home in Kashmir. I was asked these questions almost daily. That set the thinking process rolling in me. It forced me to take a deeper look into my own self and seek the knowledge that was necessary to understand why I do what I do. I can say that I learned my deen in America, but the foundation was laid in Kashmir by my family and the environment.
I knew very little about my faith. When people asked me about Islam I had my cultural answer. The definition of a Muslim I was taught was five daily prayers and fasting in Ramadhan
In the past twenty years I have been through many hoops, but never did I feel that achieving success was impossible. I always believed that success comes to those who have faith and work hard. I was a Biscoe boy and the motto of our school was: In All Things Be Men. It was the training that I had got in school and the effort that many of my teachers and mentors had put in crafting my character as a human being. I remember many of my teachers and have deep respect for them. I simply cannot find words to thank them for giving me a gift that has helped me through my struggle and taught me to never give up.
America taught me my faith. It also taught me something else equally important: respecting people for who they are, not for what they have. This changed my perspective. I was no less of a person who may be a millionaire or a billionaire. I had the same rights as these rich people had and I could stand up to defend my rights without worrying about anything. The law was there to protect me the same way it protected anyone else. This was a big change. In Kashmir I had seen people being respected for what they have, not who they are, and money could buy you justice or lack of it could serve you injustice.
American nowadays is seen by people as a hate monger, enemy of Islam among other things. America is definitely not what people across the globe see it. Kashmiris are very familiar with a walnut, a very hard outer shell but a very soft and tasty inner. America is very similar to this walnut; you taste it when you pass the outer shell. People have always been very supportive and ready to help me without asking for anything in return. It was simply one human being helping another. It still holds true today, even though we may not see it in the media. This attitude towards each other makes it very easy to adjust and integrate. Are there bad people in America? Yes there are bad people. But they exist everywhere in the world and we don’t define societies by a small minority of bad people.
All of this creates a warm and welcoming environment for people from across the globe who come to America and make it their home. It allows everyone to maintain their own individual culture and beliefs and yet be part of the American success story. I have my neighbours and my friends, most are not Muslims, ready to stand with me whenever there is anything against Muslims. They visit us and give us solace and courage. “We are here with you. Don’t let a few bad people think that they represent all of us,” they tell you. I have people walk up to me in the stores to comfort me and my wife and ready to stand up against the evil. This doesn’t happen in Kashmir or other places across the globe.
I have visited Kashmir many times; each visit has brought joy of meeting the people I grew up with and at the same time sadness by seeing the environment I grew up in completely destroyed. I remember going to Pari Mahal and looking at the famous Dal lake, only to see a layer of smog in between my sight and the Dal. My memory of the Dal was a crystal blue water body. As a Biscoe kid, we used to go for a Zabarwan climb every year and the nature was clean and pure at that time. Political, social, environmental and other changes have really altered the beauty of Kashmir that many of us know and our next generation will never get to know what Kashmir actually was.
I know what Kashmir was, and looking around me I know what Kashmiris are capable of. There are many Kashmiris who have come out of Kashmir to become very successful professionals, businessmen and industry experts. What I don’t understand is why is this same Kashmiri not able to excel in Kashmir. Why is the same Kashmiri so incompetent in Kashmir? Why is the same Kashmiri so corrupt in Kashmir? Why is the same Kashmiri so indolent in Kashmir? I am struggling for answers. And for hiding this shame as well.
Muneer Baig is the founder and CEO of American cybersecurity company SYSUSA