The last time I visited Pakistan was in 2007, soon after I’d started my Ph.D. My topic was Muhammad Iqbal, the philosopher and poet who gave intellectual heft to the Pakistan movement. Not surprisingly, my family was intrigued by my choice of topic. They were however less amused by my choice of residence: I lived at the edge of Columbia campus, near Harlem, an arrangement that elicited respectful horror.
“Isn’t New York so dangerous?” they asked. (A Pakistani was asking me if my city was dangerous?) In their minds, New Yorkers had only to exit their apartments and they would immediately be subjected to random muggings, extortionate kidnappings, spectacularly explosive car chases, or Allah knows what else. Probably their idea of the city had been formed by and remained stuck in Coming to America.
For many Americans, the Muslim world is likewise dangerous. It is a place mired in the thick sludge of the past, peopled by exotic and prickly foreigners who, at any slight however real or perceived, fly off into a mad rage. It is irrationality’s last refuge, a museum shop of medieval horrors that has somehow survived the rest of the planet’s transition to the 21st century.