Syed Irfan Ashraf is happy to be in America. He also is filled with concern for his home country of Pakistan.
Ashraf, a doctorate student in the SIU School of Journalism, was able to come to America for his studies with the help of a fellowship from the U.S. State Department’s Study of the United States Institute, or SUSI.
Ashraf is from Peshawar, a city about 35 miles east of Afghanistan. He spoke with respect for the United States and Pakistan.
“The area I come from is a troubled area with the U.S. involvement across the border,” Ashraf said.
“NATO and the U.S. in Afghanistan had some plan where on the one hand they would bomb the area, but on the other hand they would give you something to sort of pacify things and I am part of that pacification process,” Ashraf added.
“It is good for me, but it is not good for the people there.”
Prior to coming to America in 2011, Ashraf was a journalist for Dawn, a television news outlet in Pakistan. He began reporting on the Taliban bombings taking place in the SwatValley, particularly in a city called Mingora.
Ashraf was interviewed for a Vanity Fair article in 2013 that told the story of Malala Yousafzai, a teenaged Pakistani girl from Mingora, who spoke on Dawn television about the bombings and fear taking place in her city.
Ashraf was touched by the image of young Malala speaking for her people on camera. She went on to become a human rights activist, and became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work on behalf of children’s education in the region.
The Vanity Fair article describes Ashraf’s fear that he and the media had contributed to an assignation attempt on Malala that nearly ended her life. He was at SIU when he learned of the attempt, and wrote an op-ed piece for Dawn denigrating the media for placing Malala in danger.
He spoke of “the media’s role in dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent,” in the piece.
Ashraf is concerned with the relationship between America and Pakistan and thinks a purely militaristic dialogue is only making the relationship worse. He believes a conversation must begin on a social level.
“I took the trajectory of education when many of my colleagues took the trajectory of militants,” Ashraf said. “Many people I know are in Afghanistan and they are fighting against the U.S. troops.
“There are many differences between the sides, but I think that the main one is education,” Ashraf said.
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“On that basis I am saying that the more you increase the militarization in that region, the more you are destroying the chances of a common person like me to get an education and change the social environment around them,” he added.
Ashraf plans to return to the University of Peshawar after earning his doctorate. In doing so, he would like to change things for his country from the inside.
He said he has had difficulties sharing his thoughts on helping the relationship between the two countries with people in Pakistan due to his studying in the U.S.
“I am teaching about love, and social relationships and they would say, ‘wait a minute, you just came from the U.S. and are telling us about these things?'” Ashraf said.
“That is the reaction from the huge militancy around me there and that militancy is a result of the militarization from which the U.S. and NATO forces have done,” he added.
“Despite my great social experiences here in America and despite all of the positive things I can say about America, I will be less influential there as long as officials here do not engage in social interaction, but through metals and bombshells.”
Ashraf said he is hesitant to speak of his studies here with many people in Pakistan and discourages his family from doing so for fear of extremists. He said that any progressive western ideas are met with scorn by militants.
Ashraf spent time with extremist forces to report on them for Dawn and the New York Times, but had to act as if he was for their cause to avoid being killed.
“At night my sittings would be with progressive people who were planning and trying to turn the tuft on these militants,” he said. “While I was with the militants it was a very threatening place for journalists.
“If they had known my true beliefs they would have gotten a hold of me and slaughtered me,” he added.
Ashraf refers to the cycle of U.S. and NATO militarization creating a “crater” that in turn creates people like Malala.
“In the long run by creating this kind of situation you are creating people like Malala,” Ashraf said. “She stands up for the rights of herself and her people and at the same time is inviting someone to kill her.”
Ashraf still manages to keep his composure through the situation he sees. When asked if he enjoyed teaching or reporting more, he replied that he “just enjoys life in itself.”