Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas in Pakistan: lessons in interfaith cooperation

I used to think that “Christmas in Pakistan” was a complete oxymoron. In fact, when I started thinking about taking Christmas off to visit my family in the states, I was afraid to mention it to our Water Division Head, under the assumption that he wouldn’t understand given his Muslim faith. What I quickly learned was a humbling and challenging lesson about interfaith cooperation and the power of shared values.

When I finally approached Shakeel sab, he not only suggested that I take however much time off that I wanted, but he also traveled several hours to his home village in order to arrange a Christmas present (pictured above) for my family, whom he had never met. Speechlessly, I received the gift from him the day before I left, and with tremendous excitement, I presented it to my family a few days later. I’ve honestly never been so proud to give a present.

Through his compassion, Shakeel taught us that love isn't confined by religious beliefs. In essence, he taught us the power of religious pluralism.

In Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith, he defines religious pluralism as:
A form of practice cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well-being of each and all depends on the health of the whole… To see the other side, to defend another people, not despite your tradition, but because of it, is the heart of pluralism.

Before I left for Pakistan, Eboo Patel came to speak to our Acumen class. He shared about his background as a Muslim American from India, and the reasons why he believes the interfaith movement is critical to the future of our world. In his words, “human beings were meant to be diverse, and they were meant to live together… If we let the rights of one group erode, we endanger the very existence of those rights for everybody.”

Several months after Shakeel’s present, during a visit to Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi, my friend Bavidra pointed out one of his favorite quotes, where Gandhi compares the religious tradition into which we are born to a house. He says:
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, although I won't be blown off my feet by any. 

Over the past year, I’ve realized that Shakeel (and many of my other friends from Pakistan) have built beautiful houses, with strong foundations but also with enormous windows; my prayer is that the rest of us can learn to do the same.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Saying “goodbye” to Pops and Pakistan

Pops enjoying the simple things in life.
I’ve never been good at saying goodbye. (I don’t even understand why it’s called that – is there anything good about saying bye?) This past week, however, I had to say two of them – to the beautiful Pakistan and to my beloved Pops.

As I struggled through the two “goodbyes,” however, I realized something quite unexpected as a result of the repeated difficulty: my grandpa and the Pakistan that I've come to know/love have more in common than I would have ever imagined.

Joy through simplicity
Over the past few years, Pops faced a number of significant setbacks, beginning with Nana’s (completely unexpected) death in 2008 and concluding with his own pancreatic cancer battle (which I wrote about here) four months ago. Similarly, Pakistan (PK) has had a rough few years: Since my arrival in November 2010, there has been unbelievable ethnic/political violence in Karachi; a number of high profiled assassinationskidnappings, and bombings in Lahore; flooding in rural Sindh; rising inflation and power outages throughout the country; increasingly tense international relations with the US; and more.

Although both situations might appear helpless from an outsider’s perspective, what I’ve discovered is that Pops and Pakistan have been able to nurture hope even during the darkest nights. While even from my perspective this has often seemed to be a peace that passes understanding, I believe that a significant part of it comes from an unwavering ability to enjoy the simple things in life and to celebrate the small victories.

The list for Pops is endless: oatmeal with raisins, pinto beans, black coffee, the daily newspaper, morning walks, anything that involves eating or catching fish, games of backgammon and table tennis, cross country road trips, the Tampa Bay Rays, etc. Pops was a complex man who gained an inexplicable amount of enjoyment from the simplest things.

Similarly, PK is an incredibly complicated country – one which I am only beginning to understand – and yet it is clear that she has learned to celebrate the small victories, to embrace hope and joy wherever it’s found: Whether it’s a World Cup victory over West Indies (which we celebrated at Pharmagen), the laying of the first brick of low incoming houses outside of Lahore (an Acumen project where my friend Bryan worked), the launching of a new socially focused clothing store in Lahore (founded by my friend Babar), or even the 4th season of Coke Studio (where my friend Anam worked).
By finding joy in even these simple things, both Pops and Pakistan have developed an unshakable foundation of joy, one that has somehow held up even during the thickest storms.

High expectations, hard work
Although they’ve been able to discover this sense of peace, it would be wrong to imply that either Pops or Pakistan have grown complacent. In fact, the second similarity proves the opposite: Pops and Pakistan have both taught me the value of hard work and high expectations.

Pops believed that hard work was the solution to almost everything – through it, people could achieve anything they put their mind to. He learned this early on in life: when he got his first job as an 11 year old newspaper boy and again when he snuck into the Air Force at 17. He also strongly believed in the entrepreneurial value of making the most out of every opportunity. After my Grandma passed, for example, he eventually started dating again and joked around that he and I could have a double wedding. After he met Lee, however, he told me that he couldn’t wait around anymore, and he was married a week later (clearly making the most out of the opportunity)!

Over the past year, I’ve realized that PK also places a heightened importance on hard work, and specifically upon entrepreneurship and the private sector. At Pharmagen, for example, we work 6 days a week, for at least 10 hours a day (even during Ramzan, a month without food or water during the hottest days of the year). Similarly, the number of close friends who have started their own business is significantly unparalleled: from Babar (who I mentioned) in cause based clothing, to Asim and Zahoor (previous Acumen Fund Fellows) in leadership, to Ali in tech, Zehra in sustainable housing insulation, Saba in job training and girls education, and Junaid in renewable biomass energy.

Even though PK might not believe that every single problem can be fixed through hard work alone, examples such as these have shown me that people have high expectations (for themselves and for their country), they believe in a brighter tomorrow, and they believe in doing their part to create that tomorrow.

Unconditional love and community
Lastly, Pops and Pakistan place an immeasurable amount of importance on personal relationships, friendships and family. Pops was the type of person who was fueled by others. When I was little, my sister and I used to go on 10-15 day road trips across the country, just so we could go to some family reunion in Kansas or Oklahoma. And somehow, along the way, Pops seemed to have friends in nearly every town where we stopped – it was unbelievable. He would invite strangers over for dinner, he and I talked at least twice a month for hours on the phone (long distance), and he once hitchhiked from California to Kansas (probably just to meet new people). He believed wholeheartedly that all we have is one another other, that we are all responsible for each other, and that serving someone is the strongest form of unconditional love.

And to be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to discover love and community this deep in PK. Not until I started talking with Dr. Ahmad, the Business Head at Pharmagen, when he began calling me weekly – back in early September – just to get to know each other.  Two months later, he picked me up from the airport at 3AM, and we had soda and tea at his house until 5AM. He treated me as a son from the very beginning, even though I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Shakeel, our Water Division Head, was the same (he once gave me Christmas presents for my parents in CA), as was my host family, the Acumen Fund office, Acumen investment companies, and nearly everyone I got to know. It was nothing short of amazing, completely unwarranted, and incomparable to anything but the love I’ve seen from Pops.

My family in Lahore
Which of course, makes it all the more difficult to say goodbye. But in many ways, also creates endless reasons why I don’t actually have to say goodbye at all, but rather, Allah Hafiz aor jaidi miltay hain (God protect you and see you soon). And of course, bahut shukriya (many thanks): For the joy and the peace that pass understanding, the heightened expectations and hard work that can truly change the world, and especially for the selfless servant hood and unconditional love that have already changed my life and thousands of others.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gandhi, independence(s) and discovering unity in a world of division

About one week before Pakistan and India celebrated their separate independence days, I found myself standing in the final footprints of the man who largely inspired this independence but forever opposed the division that it created.

Standing at the exact spot where Mahatma Gandhi was shot and killed, I was overwhelmed by the irony of his death, the serenity of the Delhi garden, the supernatural-feeling of the monument, and the surrealism / palpable connection created by standing on the same soil as one of the world’s most inspiring, sacrificial and revolutionary leaders.

Overcome with humility and awe, my friend Bavidra and I found some consolation in the hundreds of profound and timeless words from Gandhi that were displayed along the path of his last walk. Each quote seemed to build off of each other, amassing into a wave of wisdom that finally overtook us with the following idea:

I believe in fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all god-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed and I believe that, if only we could all read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all One.

Having spent the past 9 months in Pakistan (and the majority of my life in a very homogeneous country), these words perfectly described a part of my soul that I’ve never been able to adequately articulate.

Since moving to Lahore in November, I’ve wondered dozens of times how different Pakistan would be if she wasn’t split from India. If they were able to develop a mutually beneficial relationship, based on tolerance and respect. If Pakistan and India believed, as Gandhi dreamed and preached, that men are all, no matter by what name designated, children of the same God. If, instead of having two separate Independence Day celebrations this week – on two separate days – there was just one festivity, embracing the collective progress, shared successes, and united hope for the 1.3 billion people in Indo+Pak.  

I’ve also wondered, nearly every single day, how radically and revolutionarily different our world would look if we, the global society, learned to love and respect each other as human beings, celebrating our commonalities instead of dividing ourselves over diminutive differences. If we, in the words of Gandhi, made no distinction between relatives and strangers, countrymen and foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths, whether Mussalmans, Paris, Christians or Jews.

I realize how ignorantly idealistic and impossible this sounds – and , yes, there are a thousand excuses why it will never happen – but there are also several reasons why we simply cannot afford to continue on our current trajectory. The very existence of our world, and especially South Asia, is dependent on nothing short of a revolution, as threats – such as natural disasters, climate change, energy access, illiteracy, food insecurity, HIV/TB/malaria, etc. – continue to suffocate humanity. These are forces that we cannot possibly comprehend defeating on our own, but can only hope to overcome through our collective efforts… 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Father's Day, lessons from our beloved Pops

On March 2, 2011, I received an email from my mom that I could have never been prepared for: my 81 year old grandpa – one of the most influential people in my entire life – had a large tumor in his pancreas, and they were pretty sure it was malignant. The confirmation came 9 days later: pancreatic cancer, stage 4, incurable, 3-6 months. That combination of words still leaves me speechless.

About two and half months later, on May 18, 2011, our beloved Pops was promoted to glory.

This blog post isn’t about morning Pops, however, although there has unfortunately been lots of that. Rather, it’s meant to welcome others to join in the celebration of his life and to continue his legacy by sharing the stories that forever shaped and changed my life during the 26 years that I physically spent with him.

And ironically, focusing on the positive – even in seemingly hopeless situations – is one of the most reoccurring lessons that Pops taught me, most recently through the way he handled my grandmother’s passing. Even though she was only 71 years young, and died very suddenly and unexpectedly, Pops told me that he didn’t want to focus on morning her death, but rather to celebrate all the amazing times he had with her. “Nana and I had 51 good years together, Benj. I’m a lucky man, and she was an amazing woman. What good would it do to be bitter?”  

Although I was shocked, challenged and inspired at how Pops processed my grandmother’s passing, I never realized how profoundly optimistic and infinitely hopeful his outlook on life was until I called him the day I received my mom’s message. In her email, she had actually written that Pops was “staying positive and cracking jokes like he always does,” but somehow I couldn’t internalize that. The news for me was too much to accept, and I didn’t see how anyone else – let alone the person most affected by it – could be processing it either.

I called him from my room in Lahore, and he answered the phone with the same excitement and chuckle that he always had: “Hey Benj! How’s it going?”(I called him every other week and he would always answer the phone this way!). He went on to ask me how my project was going, and only after about 10 minutes mentioned the cancer. “You know Benj, I know it’s not looking great, but I’ve seen a lot of things and been through a lot of things, and I’ve realized that you just have to take it one day at a time. When you get depressed and start overreacting, well, that just makes it harder on you.”

Just take it one day at a time… That’s how Pops lived his life, enjoying the present without fear for tomorrow. He had mastered the ability of living in the moment, and literally confronted death with his classic smirk and a backpack full of jokes. Sure, he mapped things out and believed (probably more than anyone!) in preparation (e.g., a good night sleep and a solid oatmeal breakfast), but he was never thrown off by any unexpected turns or roadblocks.

On the phone that day, something inside of me changed forever. Here I was sitting in Pakistan, worried and anxious about what seemed to be some pretty tense political situations, and yet Pops was literally facing death with a smirk. If he could maintain that type of optimism, given his situation, than who was I to be worried about the very improbable possibilities I was facing?

As a result of this optimism, I have no doubt that Pops lived the fullest life that he could possibly have lived. He saved hundreds of lives during his 28 years in the Air Force, he brightened the lives of thousands as a cook and host, he raised 3 beautiful daughters and dozens of grandkids, and he remarried a beautiful woman named Lee just one month before he passed away.

Pops might not be with us to celebrate Father's Day today, but my prayer is that we can continue to carry his legacy forward by taking things one day at a time, by enjoying the present because tomorrow will worry about itself and by truly celebrating the ones we love. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The World [Water] Cup comes to Pakistan!

Last month, seemingly all of Pakistan (and apparently much of the world) was enthralled by the Cricket World Cup. As a football fan still recovering from the madness (and heartache) of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I also found myself captivated by this newly found sport, as Pakistan excitedly anticipated our debut match (against Kenya).
As the coin toss drew near, I began to reflect on my experiences living in Kenya and the time I spent preparing for Africa’s first World Cup. I vividly remembered the football tournament that we hosted in the Mathare slum, which we designed to raise awareness for World Water Day and the importance of clean drinking water and sanitation. Appropriately titled the World [Water] Cup, this tournament was a huge success, and we wondered how we could scale it up.

The advent of the Cricket World Cup – coincided with the 19th annual World Water Day and my placement at a water company in Pakistan – provided the perfect opportunity. So with the support of the management team at Pharmagen, we set out to introduce the World [Water] Cup to Lahore.

Given that Pharmagen has launched 13 new water shops over the past several months, this also seemed like the perfect opportunity to raise awareness for these shops. Rather than host a tournament, therefore, we decided to screen the Pakistan matches at our shops, an activity that seemed to fit perfectly with our new community-based, guerilla marketing strategy. 

Although we considered canceling the event because of security concerns – given the situation with the American CIA agent who very publicly killed two Pakistanis – we decided that it was safe to move forward, and the event turned out to be a huge success. As Pakistan swept over the West Indies during their quarterfinal match, over 400 hundred fans stopped to watch on our road side projector, enjoy Pharmagen water with us, and receive flyers and coupons promoting clean drinking water.

We then went on to screen the match at three other new shops during the nail biting Pakistan versus India semifinal, a match that sadly (but rather dramatically) ended the tournament for our team. Fortunately, however, the celebration for Pharmagen and our communities has continued on, as we have seen a 10-20% increase in customer usage in the shops were we hosted the World [Water] Cup. 

Check out the video below for a quick glimpse into some of the action!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

ThinkChange Pakistan's article on Pharmagen and my role there

I recently had the opportunity to chat with the lovely Kalsoom Lakani, who wears a thousand different hats, one of which is Managing Editor at a blog called ThinkChange Pakistan. Although I'm obviously biased, I think the piece she wrote is a great glimpse into the work I've been doing, and I wanted to share it here... 

Pharmagen, Innovation & Acumen, Oh My

Acumen Fund is a non-profit venture capital fund that invests patient capital to strengthen and scale businesses effectively serving the poor. The organization also believes that “a unique pool of talent comprised of individuals who have the operational and financial skills combined with the moral imagination necessary to create innovative solutions to global poverty” can help strengthen these transformative businesses. The year-long Acumen Fund Global Fellows program achieves this by selecting well-qualified individuals and placing them in the organization’s investments around the world, giving them the necessary skills and support to work in the field for nine months and ultimately fostering a corps of next generation social sector leaders.
One of these leaders is Benje Williams, who has been working on the ground in Lahore for Acumen investee Pharmagen Healthcare Limited. Benje, a California native, came to Pakistan with a management consulting background and experience in Kenya and South Africa. He is currently working to develop and implement a marketing strategy for Pharmagen, a company that provides safe, clean, and affordable drinking water to low-income residents in the city.
The need for clean and safe water is great. According to USAID, water and sanitation related diseases are responsible for 60% of the total number of child mortality cases in Pakistan, with diarrheal diseases killing over 200,000 children under-five years old every year. In total, water-borne diseases cause 40% of illnesses in Pakistan.
Pharmagen Healthcare (Pharmagen Limited has been operating for 20 years, but Pharmagen Healthcare was launched only five years ago) aims to tackle this problem. Its chain of shops extracts water from underground, purifies it through a Reverse Osmosis plant, and re-mineralizes it. Water quality is then checked to WHO Standards, and affordably priced for low-income customers in Lahore.
In 2010, Acumen Fund made a $1.5 million investment in Pharmagen Healthcare, which will allow the company to scale their water shops fromfour to 30 by the end of this year, supplying half a million people with clean water daily.
A cohesive marketing plan is key to making this investment a success and helping the company expand. Since arriving in Lahore four months ago, Benje has performed market research and analysis to further understand customer expectations and preferences in the communities Pharmagen Healthcare serves.
The results have been interesting. Although the company previously undertook a mainstream marketing strategy more traditionally in line with urban customers, using radio spots and commercials, Benje found that a guerrilla marketing campaign would be more effective. As he told ThinkChange Pakistan,
In order to communicate Pharmagen Healthcare’s message and build trust within the community, we needed a more informal, rural-like approach.
The strategy, now in its implementation stage, will involve tactics like posters, in-shop promotions, partnerships with local businesses and school outreach.
This tailored strategy is a testament not only to Acumen and their close relationship with their investees, but also how important it is for social enterprises to understand the nuanced need of their low-income customers. Benje noted that going into the field – talking and listening to customers, as well as researching competitors – helps to enlighten discussion with Pharmagen Healthcare’s management team, strengthening the business’ market-based approach, as well as his own understanding on the ground.
While working in Pakistan presents its own set of challenges, Benje said his positive expectations prior to coming to Lahore were largely fulfilled, citing the hospitality and generosity he has received.  He added,
I think one of the biggest surprises has been from a religious perspective, how similar Christianity and Islam are. The appreciation and respect I have received from friends in Pakistan has been very encouraging and a very pleasant surprise.
Having previously worked in Kenya, Benje noted that he is also encouraged by the potential of the social enterprise space in Pakistan. “A large majority of Pakistanis may not yet know about social enterprise, but they could potentially be really interested in this space. From a cultural and religious perspective, there is already a strong conviction to tackle social justice issues, to help your neighbor. There is therefore potential to expand upon the pure charity approach to also gain support for Acumen Fund’s model,” which takes the best of charity and the markets.
Pharmagen Healthcare epitomizes this hybrid entrepreneurial approach, and, with Acumen’s investment and support from its fellows program, will undoubtedly have a long-term and sustainable impact among low-income communities. How’s that for moral imagination?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World Water Day and the World (Water) Cup in Pakistan

Ali Zubair is a resident of Lahore, Pakistan, a city with 10 million people who – like everyone else in this world – are dependent on water as a source of life. Unlike you and me, however, Ali relies on water that is a source of potential death.

Nearly every day, he wakes up and journeys about a hundred meters to this nearby government water plant, believing that it is a safer alternative to the water that comes out of his tap, which has been contaminated by the old and rotting water pipes. Although he admits that this government filtered water might still be unhealthy, Ali claims he has little options since he can't afford to buy purified bottled water from Nestle or to boil water every day at home.

As this picture suggests, Ali’s water source is indeed impure, polluted with thousands of invisible microbiological and chemical impurities. While the government claims they are safe, such filtration points are only further propelling the problem that initiated in Lahore with contaminated tap water. Tragically, the end result is that 40% of all diseases in Pakistan originate from unhealthy water, killing over 200,000 children every year from diarrhea alone.
Fortunately, Pharmagen Healthcare Limited –the social business that I work with – is doing something about this emergency. Throughout the city, we have set up 17 Pharmagen Water shops – including one near Ali – where we purify our own ground water through a comprehensive purification process that involves multiple filtration steps, chlorination, ultra violet treatment and reverse osmosis. In other words, we are eliminating all the bad stuff that the other treatment methods (including boiling water) are not, while pricing our “Pure and Refreshing” water at just 1.5 Rs (about 1 cent) per liter.

Through our partnership with Acumen Fund, we have created 13 new shops over the past 6 months and are planning to add an additional 13 by the end over the year. In addition, we have rolled out several new services – including home and workplace delivery – that enable our customers to have similar service offerings as the affluent, but at a price they can afford.

In order to observe World Water Day (WWD) this week, we are continuing a tradition in Pakistan that began last year in Kenya. In collaboration with another Acumen Fund investee – and in eager excitement for the approaching World Cup – my football team from the Mathare Slum hosted the “World (Water) Cup” football tournament one year ago. This year, the Cricket World Cup is currently in full swing in Asia, and the Pakistani national team will be playing in the quarterfinals tomorrow. Therefore, in order to carry on the tradition, while also celebrating WWD, we will be hosting a “World (Water) Cup” party tomorrow at one of our Pharmagen Water shops.

Through this initiative, our new marketing plan and our planned growth, we hope that Pharmagen Water can continue to provide people like Ali and the rest of Lahore with safe drinking water and that – together, with the rest of the world – we can play a small role in eliminating the need for a day like WWD to even exist. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

For whom the bell tolls: Bomb blasts and our global family

Lahore is a city filled with indescribable beauty. The mango colored sunrises over the Ravi River, the lifted laughter of kite-flying-kids running across Race Course Park, the bowling and batting of cricket balls in the back alleys of Badami Bagh, the curves of shrines and mosques that weave throughout Mall Road, the 10 million smiles that illuminate the markets and malls (even during the longest blackout).

Last month, there was a bomb blast – approximately 5 blocks from our Pharmagen Water Shop – that attempted to destroy that beauty. At least 11 people died, including the 13 year old boy who was likely bought and brainwashed to bear the explosive.

Two days later, still unsure how to respond, I came across the following poem:
No man is an island entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
It tolls for thee

Reading this piece, I immediately thought about my 11 person family – including my littlest brother Gerry – and realized that even though I never met the 11 who died that day in Lahore, they were a part of me. They were my brothers and sisters. They were my parents. They were my family…

By adopting 7 children and living a life of sacrificial and impartial love, my parents began teaching me at an early age that family is a globally inclusive idea. And when my dad and I first traveled to Kenya 7 years ago I began to understand what that really means. I realized that the abandoned wives/mothers struggling with HIV in the Kibera slum were my sisters, the young men running from gangs and drugs in Mathare were my brothers, and the couple in the Rift Valley struggling to feed their kids a single meal a day were my parents.

Reading this poem in Lahore, I realized that that the 11 who died on January 25 were also my family.

And I realized that you – wherever you might live, whoever you might be, whatever you might believe, however you might feel about me – are also my family. And together, we need to realize that our globally family is struggling and the bell is tolling, for them and for us. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Louder than 27 bullets: America vs. Islam

“Pakistan is going down.” 

This was the headline pasted across the CNN broadcast as I prepared to board the 16 hour New York – Lahore trek, returning to a country I've grown to love deeply but that the newscaster was condemning as the most dangerous in the world. The news of the night (and eventually the week/month) was the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, a man described as an exceptional figure in Pakistani politics, an ambitious and gloriously profane man, a flamboyant and bold leader, and a martyr who was willing to put his life on the line to defend a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

But despite the true hero Taseer was, it became clear – after landing back in PK – that a flood of opposition from the conservatives/extremists was rising, seeking to drown out his legacy and his ideals.
While it’s easy to sit back and observe the rising waters as they further divide the liberals and the conservatives, I believe this is a sofa seat that we, as Americans, can no longer afford to keep warm.

Afterall, if all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing, then perhaps we are just as responsible as the extremists.   

As I read this quote yesterday, I thought about Salmaan Taseer’s life, the ultimate sacrifice he made, and wondered: what am I doing to unapologetically obviate evil from triumphing? What am I doing to defend hope from 27 more bullets of ignorance? What am I doing to live out Taseer’s dream of a militant-free Pakistan and to louden the cry of his daughter: that all those who share in the belief of Pakistan’s future honor her father’s memory and stay silent about injustice no longer.
So here’s my first step at staying silent no longer: Despite how individualistic and isolated Pakistan’s problems may seem, we Americans need to realize how profoundly, intimately, and tragically we are tied to these issues.

This is a strong statement, but one that is unfortunately backed by strong evidence. One thing that has become depressingly clear over the past week is that this polarization in Pakistan has been created by the local conservatives’ fears that Islam is under attack. And what makes this so personally painful is the possibility that the US is perhaps the primary perpetrator.

He goes on to make an extremely important, yet most often underrated, point: If the terrorists are perceived as terrorists, than you are winning the war. But, if they are perceived as freedom fighters who are protecting Islam, than you are losing the war.

From a policy and military perspective, there are profound implications to this statement, and I plan to write about those in my next post. But perhaps more importantly, there are also profound implications for you and for me – as global citizens, or even just human beings – and we cannot afford to ignore them.

As Khan points out, fighting terrorism is to win the hearts and minds of people, and by allowing the people in Pakistan to believe that this is a war on Islam, we are losing both.

US Vice President Biden – who visited Pakistan last week – gave a speech in Islamabad claiming that America is not attacking Islam, but that we embrace those that practice this great religion.

These are important words and a critical message coming from our country, however, the people of Pakistan need them to be more than just words. They need us to carefully and critically analyze if our actions mirror this belief, or if these words have merely just become a sound bite, a Twitter post, a Facebook status.

Does the way we personally approach issues such as the mosque at Ground Zero or the Quran burning in Florida indicate that we embrace those that practice Islam? What about how we look at someone in the airport or interact with people at work or at the store? What about the stories we tell to our family, the jokes we tell to our friends, or even the ideas we allow ourselves to think? And perhaps most importantly, what do we say to the millions who don’t believe in this idea, who naively still think Islam is the enemy?

We need to realize the sweeping and draconian damage that discrimination towards Muslims creates in our country, that each and every actions has ubiquitous consequences and that we cannot continue to ostracize this community, allow others to ostracize this community, or send the global message that Islam is the enemy of America.

This realization begins at a personal level, and it starts with me and it starts with you. Yes, it's easy to point at the seemingly never ending list of issues that Pakistan needs to sort out internally, but we have to play our part first. 

Instead of giving life to the very idea of religious intolerance that Taseer gave his life fighting, let’s work together to overcome evil by interrupting oppression wherever it’s found and by staying silent no longer.