Notes from the Field

Biswa Ijtema

February 4, 2009

When I visited Dhaka last weekend, I arrived a few hours prior to the last prayer of the “Biswa Ijtema,” the world’s second largest annual Muslim congregation after the “Haj” in Saudi Arabia. Two million Muslims attended the three-day assembly where devotees primarily prayed for the welfare of the Muslim community. However, the final prayer called for global peace, prosperity, and an end to worldwide conflict. The prayers and sermons delivered were spiritually uplifting and were neither political nor inflammatory.

Although the great majority of the congregation was from Bangladesh, there were 10,500 pilgrims from 105 nations, including India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. On my flight home from Dhaka, via Dubai, the great majority of passengers were congregants returning to the Middle East. This gave me the opportunity to chat at length with one traveler, Anwar.

Anwar is a Pakistani who has been living in Kuwait for the past 28 years. This is Anwar’s first pilgrimage to the “Biswa Ijtema,” which has been held annually since 1946, although he has made the “Haj” numerous times. Flying from Dhaka to Dubai, Anwar spoke very enthusiastically about his faith, but also spoke highly about America despite having been turned down twice for a visa to visit the U.S. to see relatives in the 1990s.

Although not critical of former President George W. Bush, Anwar expressed optimism about President Obama and described him as being “thoughtful, sensible, and sensitive.” Anwar added that he was looking forward to hearing President Obama speak to the Islamic world from the capital city of a Muslim nation. When I asked Anwar if he had a preference where he would like President Obama to make this speech, he said he had none, but added that President Obama should take the opportunity to address Muslims more than once because they would view one speech as a public relations ploy.

I asked Anwar what makes him so devout to his faith. His story is heart-wrenching. In 1991, Anwar’s wife died giving birth to their fourth child. Their child died of heart complications 10 days later. The following week, Anwar’s parents died unexpectedly within a week of each other in Pakistan. Anwar found love again a few years later when he married a nurse who then gave birth to their child. But tragedy struck again when his wife was in a severe car accident. Despite five brain surgeries, Anwar’s wife remains mentally impaired.

Anwar said, despite his difficulties, his faith in Islam gives him “hope and sustenance to live his life as best he can.” I could sense that Anwar was troubled when talking about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and what people might wrongly conclude about Islam. He said “no matter what they say and think, these Muslims deviate from the true teachings of Islam.”

Anwar is right in wanting President Obama to speak to the world’s Muslims in a respectful, constructive, and sustained manner. As The Asia Foundation’s America’s Role in Asia reports recommend, the U.S. should avoid visa restrictions against Asians, particularly Muslims, who are favorably predisposed to the U.S. For the past 17 years, Anwar has worked as an employee of the U.S. Army in Kuwait. If Anwar can work effectively among American military personnel for almost two decades, one can only feel puzzled why he would not be granted a visa to visit the United States.

When the flight landed in Dubai, Anwar and I exchanged contact information and said we would keep in touch. I hope to see Anwar again in the United States, granted that he receives a visa to visit his relatives.

John Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s Director for International Relations programs. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org.

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