To be or not to be … Muslim

It’s time for some hard questions.

Are you ready?

I was born in 1970 in a land that was erstwhile Pakistan. You will never ever hear me say I was born a Pakistani. I am a Bengali.

It’s 1971, East Pakistan has had it with West Pakistan. Divided by India in between, these two parts of the same country, are worlds apart. The only tie that binds them is religion. Both are majority Sunni Muslim regions.

Ever since British India’s ejection of the British Raj and independence in 1947, these two parts of Pakistan had been at great odds. There is a vast amount of literature for one to peruse. But I will simply state that culturally they were not compatible. In 1948 imposing Urdu as the national language of all of Pakistan including the East whose primary language is Bengali, the language of Tagore, the pride of Bengal, would reap devastating consequences. The center of government which resided in West Pakistan, was not even willing to grant Bengali status as an official language of Pakistan, even though Bengali speakers outnumbered Urdu speakers in both Pakistans combined.

In the height of discontent, to quell any potential uprising the central government banned public gatherings and rallies. On February 21st, 1952 in defiance, a number of Dhaka University students formed rallies in protest … a large number of them were gunned down and killed, and several more were injured.

This was a defining moment in the history of the region and one rare moment when people sacrificed their lives to protect their mother tongue. 21st February is now International Mother Language Day as proclaimed by UNESCO.

These martyrs of February 21st, 1952 did not live to see the fruits of their sacrifice. Bengalis were not just protecting their language. They were protecting their identity, their culture and the very right to be who they were, as opposed to being assimilated into something they were not.

So it was to be a pre-cursor to the independence of present day Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) in 1971. The war of independence was nothing trivial either. Most popular counts cite three million Bengali’s killed in battle and large-scale genocide – all in a span of eight months.

This is not a political article. History is history. Again there are numerous sources for you to read, if you want to know who was aligned with Pakistan and who was for the independence of Bangladesh. These atrocities happened (the rape of hundreds of thousands of women, the pillaging of villages, the killings of millions) as most of the western world stood silent, some nations complicit.

I hold nothing against the Pakistanis I meet today. I have had Pakistani friends and flat-mates in college. I am just recounting history as it happened here.

So, why did the central government in West Pakistan do what they did? Was it in the name of religion? Or was it a number’s game of land and people? There is no doubt that religion was a predominant factor in the creation of East and West Pakistan, possibly the worst design of a nation.

Something to ponder – is religion that important to you, that you would give up recognition of your mother tongue?

I am going to try to explore the topic of religion as it pertains to me, a Muslim living in the United States in modern day Americana, in the age of Trump.

My father Atiqur Rahman Khan, at Pakistan International Airlines

But before I am able to broach that subject, I must give you some background. I was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1970 during the heart of the movement for independence. The Pakistani army wanted to recruit my father (who spoke perfect Urdu), an officer at Pakistan International Airlines, as a translator for the Pakistani forces. My mother begged my father not to go with them. This “translation job” would be part cover for a “razakar” , a traitor who seeks out dissidents. And the second reason was that she was pregnant with my sister. If there ever was a patriot, it was my mother. My mother instilled in me my love of country. A sense of belonging that I am forever grateful for. I have lived in the United States for about 30 years, more than half my life, but I still feel more Bengali than American.

My sister Tiasha and me, with my parents, circa 1973

After the war, Bangladesh was a wreck. Three million dead bodies later, with the help of airstrikes by the Indian Army, Pakistan surrendered on Dec. 16th, 1971 (Victory Day). It was a great day in history. Bangladesh was born and Bengali would be the national language. No more ties with Pakistan. The only tie would be that they were our Muslim brethren. That’s it.

Almost 50 years after independence, the independence of Bangladesh is still a hot topic. One might ask why? There were huge factions in the country that were against independence. Again, in the name of religion, there are traitors who worked for the Pakistanis. To this day these traitors are sought out and dealt sentences. But to this day there are large numbers who sympathize with Pakistan, because we are of the same majority religion.

Pakistan is an Islamic Republic. Bangladesh is not. It is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. A secular country. With significant Hindu, Christian and minority populations. I will not paint the illusion that things are perfect. Discrimination happens, just like anywhere else. But in my inner circle of friends and family, we embrace other cultures and religions.

Being born a Pakistani would haunt me in the most unexpected ways. It’s 1973, we just arrived in London. My father was posted there as a Senior Sales assistant for Bangladesh Airlines. After we split, the Pakistanis gave us one defunct plane; Pakistan International Airlines took the rest. The government of Bangladesh could not pay my father a decent salary to make ends meet in London. My mother took a job as a seamstress.

I will never forget discovering that I was a “Paki” to most of the students at school. It didn’t matter that I was a Bengali. We were all lumped together. I was bullied and subject to “Paki-bashing”. London was rife with racism. Immigrants were coming in hoards and the resentment was growing. Here is one of the most lucid observations I can give you – I have very few memories of my seven years in London – it’s as if they were wiped from my head. The bad stuff definitely outweighed the good stuff. All those emotions were brought to the surface again when I recently saw “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Freddy Mercury is called a “Paki” in a scene. I feel you Freddy. Wherever you are, rest in peace.

My father, a self-made man, was one of the best damn officers Bangladesh Airlines would ever have. In 1980 he traveled to Italy from London. With no Italian and no prior experience, he established contact with the relevant Italians and their agencies and established from the ground up, the offices of Bangladesh Airlines in Rome, Italy. Our lives would change overnight. Nobody would call me Paki again. With my father’s new post as Manager Italy, the quality of our lives would change. No more taking the “Tube”. We now had a chauffeur driven car. But the Bangladesh government allowances were still not comparable to other countries and I can firmly say that most of my father’s paycheck went to our school fees.

A modern day Bangladesh Airlines, 2011 Photo Credit: Brian Ward

My sister and I were admitted to Saint Francis International School, a Catholic school. My parents were very inclusive. They liked people for being people. It didn’t matter what religion you were. They were “those” Bengalis, the ones that recognize that language, culture and identity are as important as the air you breath. But that other cultures felt this too. When the principal Sister Margaret told my father that my sister and I could skip Religion class, my father firmly said that we would be attending ALL classes just like everyone else including Religion class. My parents were open minded and wanted us to learn about the world. If anything, what a great opportunity to learn about another religion, and therefore culture, one different from one’s own.

So how do you feel about your own religion – is it the only religion, the so called correct religion, the chosen religion, and is everyone else doomed?

I can tell you that my parents did not feel that way. We never had deep discussions about religion. No one was “bad”. There was nothing to be afraid of. But when I saw my father tear up in the presence of the Pope John Paul II in the Vatican – no words were needed. Message received.

With Mamoni (my mother Rowhan Ara Atique) , Eid Day, 2011

I will never forget that dark dreary day in 1984 when we were taking a taxi to the Holiday Inn in Juhu Beach, Bombay (this is before it became Mumbai, so I’ll respect the timeline in history). My father was to be Manager, Bombay for Bangladesh Airlines. The Bombay station was a money pit and losing money everyday. The airline sent my father to see if he could turn things around.

Bombay was no Rome. It was more akin to Dhaka – hot, humid, over-populated and kind of dirty. It was really tough for a fourteen year old to adjust to this new environment, leaving behind all his friends in Rome. Also we were back in South Asia. Back in the thick of things – this was where it all happened – the partition of 1947. India is predominantly Hindu, with a large minority Muslim population. Back then there were riots every now and then, and Bombay was a hotbed of trouble.

But our daily lives couldn’t be farther from this scene of conflict. I was in a class of about 40 students, attending Bombay Scottish School. Sami Alim and I were the only Muslims. But I never felt discriminated against. Neither as a foreigner nor as a Muslim. In fact some of my Hindu friends would trade their vegetarian dishes for the meat lunches that my mom would pack for me. They were a little more chill than their parents about eating meat. And my favorite dish at the time was Chola Bhatura (garbanzo beans with puffy bread). What can I say? ๐Ÿ™‚

Mahesh Pai was one of my best friends. He was the fastest 100 m sprinter in his age group in India and I would hang around him enough that I got some medals in all Mumbai track events – mainly relay events – Mahesh would carrry the team ๐Ÿ™‚

Premilla D’Cruz was a saint. I had just arrived from an American school in Italy and she saw I was struggling with my studies (the American system I studied under in Rome was no match for the Indian system and I had plenty of holes to fill). She hand copied her notes for half the year for me. My parents had me invite her to lunch for being such a kind friend and my father would tease me to no end!

Ten years later crossing the walkway between the Electrical Engineering and Material Science buildings at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, I passed someone walking in the opposite direction. He looked familiar and I turn back. So does he. It’s Manish Goel one of my other best friends from Bombay Scottish School. I scream Manish and he screams Nabeel. We’re both Electrical Engineering students at Purdue. What are the odds? What a find. We picked up where we had left off ten years ago and 25 years later we are still the same.

So my best friends were Hindu, Christian and Muslim – I saw no difference.

We lived across from a Hindu Temple and it was fascinating walking by and watching all the rituals, beautiful really. And my father’s colleagues would come over for Eid, the main Muslim holiday. I will always remember Mumbai for the people I met, the friends I made and the color all around. India is an amazing country, any tourist will tell you that. But having lived there for three years I learned about the kindness of people, work ethic, the richness and mix of cultures coming from a vibrant history, including that of resisting the British occupation.

This is not a chronicle of my life, I will skip to the present. I wanted to share some of the most pivotal experiences in my life, as I feel they are relevant as I discuss this complex topic of religon.

My mother in San Jose, with Pat and Ronnie

I have been living in the United States for about 30 years. It is inevitable that I will evolve as a person based on where I am. From my father and mother I learned to appreciate the cultures of places I live in and visit. I never once heard them vilify someone for their nationality nor religion. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for all of my relatives. I am instilled with what my parents taught me, often by example. I was a Muslim to begin with. I am not a devout practitioner and I joke that I am not a good Muslim. I drink, so I am sure that to some, I am a bad Muslim, or may be not a Muslim.

I don’t eat pork – do I get a few points for that? ๐Ÿ™‚ Actually that confuses a lot of non-Muslims because I explain it is something I just did not grow up with. And I can do without it. But a good glass of Malbec …

And I will also get the “You’re not REALLY Muslim?”, from some non-muslims, kind of implying that it is a bad thing to be Muslim.

But there are so many other choices that we make in life – daily habits, prayers, dating, rituals, etc…What is it that counts? Towards being Muslim?

Does one have the choice to be whoever they want, and identify with the religion of their choice?

My answer: I have the choice to identify with being a Muslim, no matter to what degree I follow the tenets. It is something I grew up with and I will not abandon it.

Some of the sweetest memories of my childhood are trips with my father to visit the grave of my grandfather. On the way there we would stop at the shrine of a famous sufi Khwaja Shah Sharfuddin (To most this is the “High Court Majar Sharif”). Nowadays the strictest of muslims frown upon visiting shrines as idolatry. But again I don’t care what they opine. My father has since passed and he lays a few hundred feet from my grandfather. Honoring the memory of those sweetest moments with my father is much more important to me. I will keep stopping at the shrine on the way to paying my respects to both my father and my grandfather.

Shouldn’t all religions be respected, just as all people, for their choices? Who are we to judge? What gives someone that authority to say “I am right, you are wrong”. And who are we to judge to what extent somone follows a religion, even if they identify with it?

Going to the Mosque early in the morning on Eid Day. Having new clothes to wear. The sweet smell of “shemai” a sweet dish my mom prepares. Spending the whole day going from house to house eating and being merry amongst friends and family. These are the memories that I hold on to. In the United States with no family around, I am sometimes alone and busy with routine things during Eid. But I will make it a point to try to go to the mosque, to have a nice dinner with a friend or just do something that makes the day a little brighter.

Being a Muslim in 2019 takes on a whole other meaning. Crimes against Muslims have surged since 2015. The current administration still has advisors who are anti-Muslim. “Muslim Bans” are a real thing. When I leave my safe haven of the San Francisco Bay Area and venture into other parts of the States, will I be judged for being Muslim. In what way? Will I be affected? Will I be safe?

Some Muslim women wear hijab, some wear niqab. I am sure some face a sense of discomfort in this age we live in, with genuine concerns. But they proudly do what their heart tells them to.

I, on the other hand wear nothing. How easy it would be to pretend to be someone else, not Muslim. But I stand in solidarity. In these difficult times, more than ever.

So I face a decision.

To be or not to be Muslim?

The freedom to be who you want to be and chose what is right for you and to identify with people because of a cause or family or because you just plain want to – this is true freedom.

I am Muslim, hear me speak.

Assalamualaikum (Peace be upon you).


10 responses to “To be or not to be … Muslim”

  1. Love your story Nabeel!!

    1. Thanks Louise! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I took a quiet moment to go through this memories with the appropriate attention that they really deserve. I think everyone reading can really feel to be in nabeel shoes as his way to write is totally amazing. Before his citation of Bohemian rapsody I was thinking the same citation!!! Paki itโ€™s just a word but itโ€™s a word which can be really heavy like every other words which a young man can perceive as offensive no matter if it is is not. Thank you very much nabeel for this journey into history, religion, las but not least real life. Itโ€™s so clear how experiences build an adult person.
    The past will be always with us.
    Happy to read that Italy was a kind of happy bracket in this journey.
    Thank you for the meditation you make me do because of this post.
    Thanks for being a real human being

    1. Stefano, fratello, so nice to hear from you and such kind words of appreciation really moved me. Well it works both ways brother. You brightened my day. I look forward to seeing you in Milano very soon.

  3. Great read Nabeel. I learned a lot from you in this piece, and I’m glad to know you even more. Funny coincidence, in my latest podcast episode, number 48, I also quote from Bohemian Rhapsody, but for another reason. On another note, as soon as I read “Are you ready”, I stopped to pour myself a drink first. It wasn’t Malbec, but now I want some, it was more like 100% de Agave. Keep it up, salud!

    1. Salud hermano! So nice to hear from you & thanks for your kind words. Thatโ€™s awesome! Iโ€™m going to check out your latest podcast ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. What I nice read on history, religion and learning more about Nabeel! Great questions and inspirational thoughts. Thank you for giving the world perspectives of kindness and tolerance. Saludos!

    1. Lisa!!! Thanks for your kind words & I am glad you are enjoying the blog. Thanks for getting it ๐Ÿ™‚
      I hope you and your family are doing great.

  5. […] of the context for how Bangladesh became a nation and its battle with Pakistan. His post,ย “To be or not to be Muslim.” Through it he reflects on his experience growing up across multiple cultures, languages and […]

Leave a Reply

Blog at

error: Content is protected !!