The Spirit of Arkansas and the Pashtun Boy
Daily Times, August 1, 2008
Arkansas was once America’s poorest state and has often been dismissed as a backwater by the elite of New York and Los Angeles. No doubt it was one of the states that resisted civil rights laws and was not a very welcoming place for many African Americans.
Yet this beautiful Southern state of rolling hills and hot springs has some very venerable claims to fame.
Bill Clinton rose from an impoverished single parent family in this state to become a Rhodes Scholar, governor of the state and then president of the country. The world’s largest corporation, Walmart, was founded in this state by entrepreneur Sam Walton, and continues to be headquartered in the relatively small town of Bentonville, Arkansas. Arkansas is also the state with the only active diamond mine in America accessible to the public.
Perhaps the most significant and least appreciated claim to fame of the state is that it was the place from where a man named J William Fulbright was elected to become a senator and served in the United States Congress for thirty years. During this time, he initiated a programme for cultural and educational exchange that still bears his name and has benefited over 200,000 individuals from 155 countries since its inception in 1949.
In 2007, the programme had a grant budget of $262 million and the largest share of individual Fulbright awards were set aside for Pakistani students. For the coming year as well, there are over 200 different Fulbright awards allocated to Pakistan, more so than any other country. Clearly this asymmetric allocation has much to do with the country’s “frontline” role against extremism. Yet even if the awards are purely for strategic interests, we must not negate their value.
This summer, my university invited a group of eighteen Fulbright student leaders from South Asia for a month-long institute to develop leadership skills and cross-cultural understanding. What was special about this particular institute was that it did not just aim to “sell” America as a bastion of bliss but rather to promote mutual understanding among South Asians themselves and to collectively consider the prospects for global citizenship.
Six students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were selected after a rigorous screening process that weeded out the typical elite and “sifarishi” elements that might otherwise plan shopping trips to New York or a joy ride to Disney World. Most of the students selected for this programme had never before visited America and came from modest middle-class families. They had earned their way to the programme rather than being carried forth on the shoulders of a retinue of servants and tutors.
The programme was meant to be a learning experience for Americans just as much as it might be for the visitors. Hard questions were asked on all sides and there were plenty of opportunities for constructive catharsis. Perhaps the culmination of the programme was the closing dinner when all the students gave presentations on how this encounter had changed their perspectives. Poems were recited and fond memories exchanged through video montages of the preceding month. Each student had his/her unique set of circumstances and life experiences which intersected with the group in ways that amazed the faculty and staff of the programme.
A Hindu student from India admitted the prejudices he had harboured towards Muslims before coming on the programme and recounted how late-night chats with his Muslim peers from Pakistan had humanised the conversation to the extent that he no longer felt threatened by the descendents of Mahmud Ghaznavid.
Bangladeshi students recounted how college life in Dhaka is often highly polarised between “pro-Indian” and “pro-Pakistani” groups who chide each other by resurrecting selective memories of past injustices from both countries. After this experience, they felt the futility of such camps of acrimony and the need to move beyond such sterile narratives.
Perhaps the most compelling exposition came from a Pathan student, who recounted being questioned by various US government agencies upon entering the country. With a torrent of tears, he also admitted having held strong grievances with America after witnessing the aftermath of a US drone attack in a village where the family of one of his friends had been killed.
However, participating in a programme of this kind had helped tremendously in healing his hurt and convincing him of the perils of collective contempt for an entire country. The audience was clearly moved by this revelation as well and many of the American students in the audience felt a surge of tearful sympathy. What had previously been only a distant news story or an editorial was now a palpable reality before them.
The cognitive transformation of a group of young students and their hosts in Vermont may be considered a minor accomplishment in the larger scheme of world affairs; but the incremental impact of such efforts must never be underestimated. The struggle of cultural connectivity and reconciliation is likely to be generational in nature and we must be patient in this process.
Senator Fulbright’s state of Arkansas was once a place of repulsive racial segregation and incipient prejudice that even the good senator harboured to some degree. If all that can change for the better through the valiant work of civil rights activists within a generation, we should not lose confidence in the transformative power of individual action, so long as we have some democratic process to channel that positive energy.
As for the American public, the words of Senator Fulbright are perhaps most opportune to remember at this point in time: “power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favour.” Let us all not be too sanguine about divine favours in these troubled times.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. www.saleemali.org