VIEW: Balancing act Saleem H Ali
Defying the stereotype of many Muslim youth who are often branded as killjoys, Isra also knows the importance of enjoying life. She is an avid fan of American football and plays sports regularly
British-born South African diamond tycoon Cecil Rhodes left a lasting legacy of learning for brilliant minds aspiring to study at one of the world’s oldest centres of higher learning — Oxford University. Despite his adamant support of colonialism and overt claims of British superiority in world affairs, the endowment of the Rhodes scholarship in his bequest is considered one of the most significant acts of global educational philanthropy.
Distinguished politicians such as Wasim Sajjad in Pakistan or Bill Clinton in the United States, to name just two, have been Rhodes scholars and one can make a good bet every year that winners of the scholarship will end up in notable political positions within a decade or so later.
Among the recipients this year is a young Pakistani-American named Isra Bhatty who is currently a first year law student at Yale University. While South Asian families are well known for being “model minorities” and often produce many over-ambitious youngsters that end up with prestigious scholarships, Isra stands out as a particularly remarkable recipient.
She attended high school in the Chicago suburb of Glenview and came from a devoutly religious family that was deeply committed to bridging Islamic learning with modern education. Even though Isra attended an American public school, she was intimately involved with a mosque school that her parents helped establish on weekends and is a deeply observant Muslim. She wears the hijab but considers it a personal choice and has no ill feelings towards those who choose not to do so.
Isra has only visited Pakistan three times in her life for brief family visits, but her ethnic identity is strong and she can read and interpret Urdu poetry. Her parents were quite insistent that she always embrace her multiple identities as a Muslim, an American and a Pakistani. When I questioned her about how she might prioritise these identities, she was hesitant to suggest one was more dominant than the other but admitted that “Islam is her compass” and thus most salient in how she defines her life.
Given her strong cultural sensitivity, it is not surprising that as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Isra chose to major in Economics and Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations — one of the few programmes in the United States where you can even get a doctorate in Urdu. She subsequently went on to work for a law firm that was advocating the cases of prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Isra speaks six languages and these rare skills were used by the firm to facilitate communication between the inmates and their families in Pakistan and with the legal teams in the United States.
This assignment was a particularly emotional experience for Isra as it had the potential to bring her identities as an American and as a Muslim and Pakistani in conflict with each other. Yet she handled the matter with tremendous maturity.
One of her professors at Yale Law School, Dr Ian Ayres spoke glowingly of her ability to balance her Faith in Islam with her Faith in science and the democratic process: “Isra is amazing in how many different worlds she can simultaneously inhabit. She is devoutly religious but at the same time can be speaking about Monte Carlo simulations.” Such an ability is perhaps what many young Muslim students need to embrace with greater vigour as it exemplifies the Islamic concept of meezaan, or the ability judiciously balance values.
At the age of twenty-four, Isra is already married but has managed to continue her career with a supportive Muslim husband who is also a lawyer (and a graduate of Yale Law School). She still has two more years to complete her law degree but will first take a year off to complete her MPhil in “evidence-based social intervention” at Oxford. She plans to focus her studies on the improvement of the American criminal justice system, particularly its interaction with people of colour. “It is my motivation from the scriptures of Islam and also the scriptures of America — the constitution,” she says with confidence.
Defying the stereotype of many Muslim youth who are often branded as killjoys, Isra also knows the importance of enjoying life. She is an avid fan of American football and plays sports regularly (one of the criteria for evaluation in Cecil Rhodes bequest for the scholarship). The ability to connect with youth through sports and peer-mentoring programmes is so essential among social activists and Isra has used these skills in her work with the Inner-city Muslim Action Network in Chicago.
As we ponder the future of Muslim societies, inspirational stories such as those of Isra Bhatty give us much-needed hope.
Dr Saleem H. Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and on the adjunct faculty of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Email: email@example.com