Letter from an exiled patriot

When Dr. Abdus Salam responded to my letter, he ushered a new way of thinking for me.

Azfar Rizvi
7 min readSep 8, 2018


“Good riddance, f*ing Ahmedi”, Faraz said as he champed through the tikka. We were sitting at a desi eatery in New York City earlier today, our first meeting since 1998 — the year Pakistan inscribed its name in the spurned list of nuclear nations.

‘Good riddance??’ … I couldn’t believe my ears?

We went to the same Al-Murtaza school in Karachi during years of intense sectarian and ethnic strife. Surely he knows better, I thought to myself. But I was wrong. 20 years later, we were two very different men now. He reminded me of my duty: denounce Ahmadis.

And this was a Shia man. A man who, one may argue, understand what persecution means and looks like. As he devoured another piece of meat, I watched in disbelief as he applauded Govt’s decision to rescind the ECP invite to Atif Mian, the incredibly gifted and world-renowned economist.

Last week, we witnessed almost unanimous fervor on social media in support of Imran Khan’s decision to nominate Atif Mian for a position on the advisory council. It all changed today. As we all grappled with this decision, some PTI supporters justified this decision, while a handful expressed their disagreement. Healthy dissent is vital to a burgeoning democracy, especially one as raw as ours. While I’m disappointed, I hesitate to lay the onus only on PTI. I don’t envy the position they found themselves in. News reports indicate a call-to-attention notice supported by PMLN, MMA, and PMAP members had already been submitted in the Senate against Atif Mian’s appointment.

Can’t believe Khurram is no more. We’d meet every week and have doodh patti in the balcony of my apartment in Karachi. He would bring rusk. His favorite topic: Takfir!

It turns out this is still the same Pakistan where bigotry triumphs, and takfir (one Muslim declaring another Muslim as a non-believer) remain paramount to prove one’s faith and religiosity. This is what we have sown … sadly our collective past mistakes continue to haunt us. We’ve enabled these state players and politicians to continue to incubate hate, bigotry and religious intolerance. We continue to allow our differences to define, guide and dominate our relationship with each other. And as long as we continue to do that, we add relentlessly to this vicious cycle of fear and ‘otherization’.

Anyway — I fell hard for #NayaPakistan.

For a few days, I even dreamt of a better Pakistan. This new development, however, is especially painful. This is no ordinary placating of political allies. It is a sure sign of insidious evil, radicalization and exclusionary politics that will only aggravate our cognitive dissonance. I honestly feel Imran Khan should have resisted instead of throwing in the towel. After all, he urged everyone to remain steadfast: Aapnay Ghabrana nahee hai. آپ نے گھبرانا نہی ہے

The Prime Minister of Pakistan should have taken the time and made the right choice, not just the easy choice.

Pakistanis in North America are slowly emerging as a formidable force. We’re increasingly becoming part of the American social fabric. We serve across the board in a diverse array of fields: Public policy, law enforcement, medicine, research, sports, education, social sciences, engineering, IT etc. Several of us collaborate and form alliances with other minorities in pursuit of a just and equal life. Together we work on narratives to gather bipartisan support for a strong social justice system. From creating inclusive empowerment and storytelling campaigns to joining forces with places of worship - be it a mosque or a Gurdwara. This is how the Muslim community is trying to understand and thrive in America.

We recognize humanity transcends faith.

Meanwhile some of deem it prudent to ostracize Ahmadis for their faith back home. Imagine if Muslim, Sikhs, Mexicans or other diverse communities were all rounded up here in the US, and fired from our jobs because of the obvious faith differences. Imagine if we were segregated, discriminated, harassed and pinned in a corner, how would we feel. Granted these are some of the most difficult times for Muslims and others minorities in the US.

There is no denying a difference of thought and opinion between Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis and other sects, we must not let these difference divide us enough to exclude Pakistanis from joining us whether it is in public service, business or any other aspect of the society.

Islam is most definitely a religion of peace and mercy to all. The Prophet (P.B.U.H) was a messenger of mercy for all humanity:

“And We have not sent you but as a mercy to all the worlds.”

— Quran 21:107

These are words beyond reproach. The journey begins with each of us, with the first steps. We can strive to respect each other despite our disagreements. We must recognize our common humanity and caution ourselves from oppressing others and denying their right to exist.

Patriotism should be independent of religion. Forcing Ahmadis or any minority to choose between their religious identity and their love for the country, is dangerously regressive.

The letter:

I was 17 when I graduated from high school. Between flying kites and playing Street Fighter across arcades in Nazimabad, I had developed another fascination: I wanted to become an aeronautical scientist! Of course, I didn’t know any scientists so I did what anyone my age would do: I went online and searched for Pakistani scientists.

The first name that popped up was Dr. Abdus Salam. As I continued to read more about this incredible man, I could not help but marvel at his accomplishments. But why hadn’t I heard about him? Or read about him at school. Surely, If I can be forced to memorize a ten-page compulsory social studies answer about ‘Objective Resolution’, Dr Salam’s contributions to Pakistan and physics should also have come up. At the least, someone should’ve shared we have a Pakistani Nobel Prize winner!

I read more about his work and decided to send him a note to seek advice on the cheapest/fastest way of becoming a scientist. We had always been a middle class family so I was conscious of the timeline I was working with! Casually, I also slipped in a question about a potential scholarship. I wrote the letter by hand mailed it to his London address associated with the Abdus Salam scholarship. Of course, I expected him to write back …. the nativity of youth.

And he did:

A response from Dr Abdus Salam to a letter I wrote 20 years ago

My family circumstances changed and I had to pull up my socks and abandon my passion to become a scientist. As fate would have it, I fell in love with storytelling. Pursuing film-making and news production, I traveled the world representing Pakistan across three continents. Wherever I went, I took the letter with me.

I realize now the letter in not addressed to me alone. It is a letter to all of us. To all Pakistanis wherever they are. I never shared it with anyone until now. This is the time to embrace its essence. It reminds me of our shared humanity. What greater message of hope and commitment do we need other than this letter of love from a Pakistani we forced in exile. Remember this was not the era of social media so no brownie points for Prof. Salam or myself.

It is a short and eloquent reply reminding us of our oneness in existence, that we are all connected at the core. We all owe our success to many other silent and often unrecognized souls around us — from the classmates we grew up with, to the teachers, professors and support staff who continue to shine a light for us when we’re broken, weary and uninspired.

My Islam teaches me compassion, empathy, gratitude, and above all that we are all one. That we will always be a product of our past. Now is the time to be compassionate to ourselves and those around us — so we’re able to smile when our today is manifested tomorrow. We must value these lessons lest we become even more uninhibited and fetishize Islam leading to suspicion of our brothers and sisters. They will remain our equals in humanity, despite the differences in faith, caste, creed.

Rather than remaining embroiled in mistakes of our past, we must prepare to move forward. The question now is: are we ready and committed to building the future we want?

Ref: https://www.mangobaaz.com/dr-abdus-salam-heart-warming-letter

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Azfar Rizvi

Journalist-turned award-winning filmmaker. Writer. Chai drinker. Pakistani Canadian in Contemporary America! | W: AzfarRizvi.com