An Amer­i­can’s let­ter to Sabika Sheikh

The Miracle - - Opinion -

By: Michael Kugel­man Dear Sabika, It’s been sev­eral days since the school shoot­ing at Santa Fe High School in Texas, where you, a 17-year-old Pak­istani ex­change stu­dent, were among the 10 vic­tims. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about you from me­dia re­ports and the mov­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als from your fam­ily and friends. You were blessed with many ad­mirable qual­i­ties, but what par­tic­u­larly stands out is your pure and unadul­ter­ated op­ti­mism. In­deed, in a deeply trou­bled world where many night­mare sce­nar­ios have come true, you still dared to dream of bet­ter things. In a speech you made at a re­treat for for­eign ex­change stu­dents in North Carolina ear­lier this year, you said you “prayed ev­ery night to wake up to a world of peace.” At a time when the US global image is suf­fer­ing be­yond be­lief, you still saw the good in Amer­ica. Your fa­ther re­called that be­fore you ar­rived here, you stud­ied US his­tory “to learn from the best.”You be­lieved Amer­ica pro­vided a safe and special space to re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion. You wanted to be a diplo­mat and hoped to help im­prove US-Pak­istan re­la­tions. You were from Karachi, where ter­ror­ism and other vi­o­lence haven’t been as fre­quent as in ear­lier years. And you lived far from Pak­istan’s most con­flicted re­gions in the west and north. Still, given your coun­try’s many af­flic­tions —

in­clud­ing the ex­trem­ism that you re­port­edly sought to es­cape by study­ing in Amer­ica — you had good rea­son to come of age too quickly. In­deed, in Pak­istan and be­yond, so many con­flict-scarred, dis­ease-rav­aged, and prej­u­dice-vic­timised young peo­ple — and many more trau­ma­tised by the tra­vails of their global peers thanks to the pow­er­ful ve­hi­cle of so­cial me­dia — have had to grow up way too fast. In short, it wouldn’t have been sur­pris­ing if you’d be­come jaded. Or at least a bit cyn­i­cal. But you didn’t. You were an op­ti­mist to the core. Un­til the mo­ment you died. How cruel and tragic that the coun­try you so ad­mired, and that gave you so much hope, didn’t only let you down. It killed you. Now you are one more vic­tim of a sick­en­ing Amer­i­can gun cul­ture that has lit­er­ally been the death of so many peo­ple in this coun­try—again and again and again and again. I’m also struck by some­thing else: your death has taken a pow­er­ful per­cep­tion har­boured by many Amer­i­cans and turned it firmly on its head. Nearly eight years ago, a Newsweek head­line in­fa­mously de­clared Pak­istan to be the most danger­ous coun­try in the world. Today, many Amer­i­cans — who of­ten fix­ate on the fate of Daniel Pearl and the dis­cov­ery of Osama Bin Laden — con­tinue to view Pak­istan as a danger­ous place, and es­pe­cially for Amer­i­cans. And yet then there was you: a Pak­istani stu­dent gunned down at school — by an Amer­i­can ter­ror­ist. In Amer­ica. It’s as if the lens through which Amer­i­cans view Pak­istan has been in­verted, bring­ing into fo­cus an ugly and deadly di­men­sion of the United States that many here are still un­will­ing to fully ac­knowl­edge. This un­der­side of Amer­ica is all too real. It makes your de­ter­mi­na­tion to fo­cus on Ameri--

ca’s bet­ter side all the more ad­mirable. Your fa­ther said he hopes your death will fi­nally prompt Amer­ica to re­form its gun laws. Sadly, that’s not in the off­ing. Dozens of pre­vi­ous school shoot­ings — in­clud­ing one in 2012 that killed 20 six- and seven-year-olds — haven’t prompted change. Nei­ther has the most gal­vanis­ing gun con­trol move­ment in US his­tory, spear­headed by sur­vivors of the Park­land, Florida school shoot­ing in Fe­bru­ary. We’ve al­ready wit­nessed a fa­mil­iar cha­rade since the Santa Fe shoot­ing: US po­lit­i­cal lead­ers blam­ing ev­ery­thing — video games, not enough re­li­gion, too much drug abuse, even too many doors in schools — but guns for school mas­sacres. In­deed, it’s hard to find any sil­ver lin­ings. But it’s worth try­ing, if only to hon­our some­one who seemed to have an end­less repos­i­tory of hope. Here’s one. Even in your much-too-short life, you achieved your goal of be­com­ing a diplo­mat. Your first and only over­seas post­ing was in Texas, where you served as a cul­tural am­bas­sador — a well-de­served in­for­mal sta­tus for ef­fec­tive for­eign ex­change stu­dents like you. How tragic that in the end you brought the US and Pak­istan to­gether in grief, not good­will. Here’s one more sil­ver lin­ing: you of­fer a re­sound­ing re­minder that young peo­ple are Pak­istan’s great­est as­set. In a coun­try where two thirds of the pop­u­la­tion is un­der 30, and where the me­dian age is 23, there are many more Sabikas: young, smart, suf­fused with hope, and de­ter­mined to make Pak­istan, and the world, a bet­ter place. Here’s hop­ing we hear more about Pak­istan’s other Sabikas in the com­ing years — not be­cause of their tragic deaths, but be­cause of their in­spir­ing acts in life. And I’d like to think you’ll be pulling for them all.

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