THE BLOG

Muslims in Massachusetts: Beyond the Boston Bombing Narrative

05/13/2013 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2013
  • Saleem H. Ali Chair and Professor, University of Queensland, Australia

As a Pakistani-American, I have sadly become a bit numb to terrorist attacks in Pakistan itself which are an almost routine news story. However, the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon hit me far more acutely despite the relatively minor scale of the incident in comparison to the truck bombs and targeted killings that ravage Pakistan.

I was born in New Bedford, Mass., the city where charged terrorist Djokhar Tsarniev appeared to have a network of friends. The University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, the school that Djokhar attended was where my father taught political science for more than 30 years. After my father's death in 2002, the university established a scholarship in his honor, The Shaukat Ali Memorial Humanitarian Scholarship, which continues to be awarded ever year and which our family and friends strongly support. My sister and my wife studied psychology in the same university and I grew up for part of my life in this small New England region.

For many years we were the only Muslim family in North Dartmouth, Mass. My mother always wore traditional Pakistani dress -- a shalvaar kameez -- though she did not cover her hair with hijab. We were recognizably foreign but were made to feel quite comfortably at home in this region. New Bedford, like much of America, had experienced major migration flows in the past. Once the whaling capital of the world, New Bedford had welcomed Portuguese settlers, particularly from its erstwhile colony in the Cape Verde archipelago (off the coast of Africa) in the 19th century. Subsequently, the region became a major textile hub during the earlier part of the 20th century. This continued even until the mid-80s when my sister did a part-time job in one of the mills in New Bedford. However, with the decline of the textile sector, the main economic engine for this region became the university which attracted a range of immigrants and helped to also incubate small businesses and start-up companies.

Providence, R.I., was our nearest metropolis and for much of my years of growing up in this region, it was rather economically depressed and grimy. Boston was the big city, a 70-minutes drive to the north, where we went for Asian groceries and for Friday prayers at the mosque in Quincy. My parents had taken me to the mosque a few days after my birth for the ceremonial "azaan" (call to prayer) to be whispered in my ear by the imam. As a treat after mosque visits, we would occasionally visit the campuses of Harvard and MIT. My father would be sure to say at each visit: "Do well in school and you will come here some-day, Insh'Allah (God willing)!" Invoking religion as a mark of humility about an uncertain future (hence the frequent refrain Insh'Allah in Muslim conversations) was perhaps the most significant impact that Islam had on me in those days. There were no political aspects to my Islamic upbringing in Massachusetts. We would often go to church events with friends and my mother was deeply involved in ecumenical activities in the community with our Christian and Jewish brethren.

Despite their level of comfort in Massachusetts, my parents felt a strong connection to Pakistan and wanted me to have cultural immersion back in their land of origin, especially for learning Urdu -- a highly complicated language with vocabulary that spans Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Turkish. In fourth grade, my mother took me to Pakistan to be schooled in a prestigious academy in Lahore (founded by the British) called Aitchison College. I would also get some measure of religious education at home with a private tutor whom my mother monitored to ensure was not being exclusionary in his interpretation of Islamic texts. My summers were still spent in Massachusetts during those years of schooling in preparation for my return to the United States for higher education.

Those early childhood visits to the Boston-area ivory towers perhaps motivated me to get my undergraduate degree at Tufts and my doctorate at MIT! But the world had become a different place by then and centers of higher learning were far more conscious of the activity of Muslim students as aspersions were branded about regarding political conflicts in Muslim lands. In subsequent years, MIT was itself to endure some tarnish when one of its alumni, Aafia Siddiqui, became associated with terrorist activities. There was clearly a figurative loss of innocence for the Muslims of Massachusetts and across America.

During my travels, I am often asked with some suspicion by border control officials about how came to have a South Asian accent when my place of birth on my passport is Massachusetts? "It's a long story," I say with a smile! I start and proceed to provide an abbreviated account of the narrative herein. It is a story that certainly did not lead to radicalization but to continuing affection for the land of my birth.

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