This article is adapted from the book The Wrong Kind of Muslim, by Qasim Rashid.
I walked out onto the main street. Rabwah, Pakistan after dark is exciting. Shops are still open and the aroma of fresh fried delectables command the air. I walked past Tahir Heart Institute, a state-of-the-art cardiac center that provides free or near-free medical care to all Pakistanis, regardless of background. Pausing to admire it, I heard a voice call out to me to stop walking any further.
Thinking perhaps it was Uncle Bashir, I turned with a smile. Jogging up to me instead was a Pakistani police officer ready to draw his pistol.
The police officer's left hand was up, making the "stop" motion, the other securely on his holster. He was slender and tall; easily around 6'3, and in full uniform. I want to say that his giant mustache added to his intimidation factor, but it's more likely that I was paranoid about how tightly he gripped his pistol.
I wasn't sure how to react, but stood still for the moment to let him know I wasn't going anywhere. It isn't necessarily smart to run from a man clutching a gun.
"What are you doing here?" He demanded to know.
"Why did you stop me?" I replied rather glibly.
"I asked what you're doing here." He demanded again, taking a step towards me.
"I'm walking." My reply was ruder than I'd intended. But nothing could've prepared me for his response.
"I know what you're doing here. Where's the bomb? Where'd you put it?!"
"Wha.. What?? Bomb? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't get smart with me, you son of a bitch. You goddamn Americans! Where's the bomb? Where is it, you terrorist?!"
The police officer took another step closer, one hand still in front and the other tightly clutching his pistol. It occurred to me that there was nervousness in his voice. At first, it surprised me that he knew I was American. But I quickly realized how foreign I looked from the way I dressed, the way I walked, the way I combed my hair even. When he heard me speak in my accented Urdu, it confirmed that I was definitely either American or Canadian. He probably just guessed American, and guessed right.
My secret identity revealed, I decided to switch it up to English, having no idea whether he understood English or not. I figured it couldn't possibly get me in any more trouble.
"Alright, pal, listen. Slow down. You have no idea what you're doing, and you need to take your hand off your gun." My American humility showed through clearly. He became tenser. I countered by putting my palms out to show I had nothing to hide. "There's no bomb, I'm not a danger to you, and I'm only heading home." I found myself echoing a statement I'd made to police in post-9/11 America on more than one occasion.
"You not terrorist? Prove!" he said in his broken English as he pulled his gun partially out of its holster.
"Wait, what? I said slow down! Prove I'm not a terrorist?" How the hell was I supposed to do that? I paused because I couldn't believe the question. I had to deal with proving I wasn't a terrorist every time I flew in America since 2001. Every time I crossed the U.S.-Canada border I was "randomly stopped" to be searched, sometimes for hours. And traveling with my U.S. Marine brother wasn't any better. Once while crossing through Cornwall in Ontario, Border Patrol actually separated us and interrogated us about one another for four hours.
I'd been pulled off planes, interrogated in back rooms with a "mirror" on one wall, and frisked up and down. I'd had all my books and home videos copiously examined by airport security. I'd been pulled over dozens of times and let off with a warning while never actually told why I was pulled over in the first place. I'd dealt with the stares and the uneasy fellow travelers. I'd been randomly selected for a search so many times that the customs agents at O'Hare Airport actually recognized me, and I them.
Now, back in Pakistan in 2006, the land of my birth, the land of my ancestors, as I came to reconnect with my roots, I had to deal with...the exact same damn thing? What the hell was this world coming to? I was furious inside. Unfortunately for me, the cop didn't care.
"Look, this is ridiculous, how the hell do I prove to you I'm not a terrorist?"
He responded by gripping his gun tighter. He was getting impatient.
"Look, if I was a terrorist I would've..." I was about to argue that I would've looked like one, but the argument immediately failed in my mind. Let's face it; I was in my early twenties, brown, bearded (I had let it grow out for a few weeks), not from the area, and walking alone in the dark. For someone looking to stereotype, particularly under the veil of anti-American prejudice, it didn't take much to convince him or her that they'd uncovered a CIA agent looking to cause trouble. Such conspiracy theories run rampant in Pakistan. To be fair, they're not all conspiracies, but that wasn't helping my case at the moment.
He wasn't budging from where he stood. Neither was his hand from where it rested. He watched me, obviously nervous, waiting for some magical proof of my non-terrorism. Proof I didn't have. Meanwhile, despite somewhat freaking out, I was amazed. I was amazed that he equated terrorism with being American. I was a terrorist not because I was Pakistani, but because I was an American, a "goddamn American" at that.
It felt like the twilight zone. Americans? Terrorists? No, no, but we were the victims of terrorism. We were the good guys. That's what 9/11 was all about, right? The whole world knew this. I saw Ground Zero with my own eyes after the towers fell. It was absolute carnage. I wept with my fellow Americans. Terrorists did that to us Americans. We did nothing wrong, right? And all this was even before we discovered that Osama bin Laden was hiding just a few hundred miles from where the police officer and I stood that day in Pakistan. How dare you call us Americans terrorists?
None of that would've mattered to the officer at that point. He remained silent, but stared me down, waiting; for what, I wasn't sure. But, I was sure it was something I didn't have.
And suddenly, it hit me. A light bulb literally turned on. The proof I needed to show that I wasn't a terrorist. Just as soon as the idea entered my mind, however, the fear of exposing it forced me to reconsider. Dare I show my evidence? Proof would require breaking a cardinal rule, one that my family had warned me never to break.
Even before I left for Pakistan, everyone repeatedly--particularly my parents--sat me down and warned me, "Listen, Qasim, you've got a big mouth, understand?"
"Umm, okay... Thanks?"
"But when you get to Pakistan, under no circumstance, for any reason, to any person, particularly to the government, do you ever break this rule. No matter what happens, you absolutely, positively, do not--"
"Should I be writing this down?"
"Just listen! Under no circumstance are you to reveal to someone, anyone, that you don't know personally, that--"
"This sounds important. I should probably write this down."
"Don't tell them that you are an Ahmadi Muslim! That's the single rule! Do not tell them you are an Ahmadi. Just ignore it and move on. Police tortured your cousin to near death, your other cousin was lynched, and too many things can go wrong. Too many are being killed. The last thing we need is you getting arrested or killed because you can't keep your big mouth shut. Do you understand?"
"Actually, I can probably remember that. Don't think I need to write it down."
"Qasim, I'm being serious."
"Yeah, sure sure, no problem, got it."
"NO, do you understand? You do not mention you're an Ahmadi! Under no circumstance! Zero. This is not a light matter, Qasim."
"Yeah yeah, got it got it, I won't mention it. Mouth closed."
Well, I guess I've never been particularly good at following orders. Middle children, psychologists say, tend to be more rebellious than the eldest or youngest because they supposedly get less attention. I am a middle child. And not that I'm bitter at my jerk siblings for hogging all the attention, but what I did next was probably the exact recklessness I was told to avoid.
"Officer, I'm not a terrorist, and the proof is that I'm an Ahmadi."
I blurted it out flatly, without emotion. I paused, envisioning Hollywoodesque furies of anger erupting from the officer. I might've flinched a little.
Instead, it seemed to catch him completely off guard. "You're...a Qadiani? An American Qadiani?"
"Erm, yes, an American Ahmadi. "So you know I'm not a terrorist."
I had a point. Despite the persecution, Ahmadis have never once instigated, retaliated, advocated, or endorsed any form of terrorism. Despite his obvious prejudice against "Qadianis," he knew this. The officer remained stoic, pondering over his next move. As was my big mouth habit, I kept talking.
"I'm visiting from America, but I was born here. I'm an Ahmadi; I'm just here to visit family. I assure you I have no bomb. I actually have difficulty getting my cell phone battery out of its case. I couldn't possibly put together a whole bomb."
He gave me a confused look. I guess my goddamn American humor must have been lost on him. Whatever the case, he gave me one more hard stare, and slowly took a step...backwards. Then another, then another. He put his gun back in its holster and without saying another word, turned around and walked back the other way.
I did a little happy dance in my head and breathed a huge sigh of relief. My heart was beating like mad. I'm not entirely sure I understood then the danger I had been in. Instead, I was in shock that I was called a terrorist in my birth country. Despite everything, I walked away with a swagger knowing that I mentioned my faith to a cop and lived to tell about it.