Novelist: Obama Should Note Pakistan Concerns President Obama makes his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world Thursday in Cairo, Egypt. Pakistani novelist and political commentator Mohsin Hamid says it would have been "incredible" if Obama had made his speech in Pakistan.
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Novelist: Obama Should Note Pakistan Concerns

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Novelist: Obama Should Note Pakistan Concerns

Novelist: Obama Should Note Pakistan Concerns

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For a view outside the Middle East, we'll hear next from Mohsin Hamid. He's a Pakistani novelist and commentator. The American-led war against militants in Afghanistan has been spilling across the border, into his native country. And Pakistan has launched its own battle against the Taliban. Mohsin Hamid understands the choice of Cairo as the venue for the president's address, but he has an alternative idea.

Mr. MOHSIN HAMID (Novelist, Commentator): I think if he had given the speech in Pakistan, it would've been incredible. There's both pros and cons about the choice of Cairo. If the intention is to speak to the Arab world, then, of course, Cairo is the capital of Egypt - the most populous country in the Arab world. But people often forget that the majority of Muslims are not Arabs. Countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh all have more people than any Arab country. So I think this sort of Arab-centric or Middle East-centric view of Islam is perhaps a bit - it tends to misunderstand, I think, where the Muslim population lives, and what the concerns of that population are.

BLOCK: Well, what would those concerns be? What would the misunderstanding be, that you might want to see him address - and addressing this broader population outside the Arab world?

Mr. HAMID: Well, I think in Pakistan an important shift is taking place. There's been a long period of viewing the conflict in that region as America's war. But increasingly, terrorism and terrorists targeting Pakistanis has shifted that opinion. So, for example, my sister and my father are both university professors in Lahore - and I spoke to them just a few minutes ago -and both of the universities have been shut for the next 72 hours, because there's fear of suicide bomb attacks taking place against Pakistani universities to kill the children of soldiers who are fighting the Taliban in the North West Frontier.

This really has become a Pakistani war, and in that sense, it's very important for the United States to let this be a Pakistan-led, Pakistani-identified operation - not to confuse America's goals in the region with Pakistan's own very legitimate need to fight these terrorists in Pakistan.

BLOCK: Mr. Hamid, you have several identities here, it seems to me. You were born in Lahore, grew up in Pakistan, but lived about half your life in the U.S., now you're in London. Do you think your international experience means that you see the issues that President Obama will be addressing tomorrow - that you see them differently?

Mr. HAMID: Well, I think that I tend to not fit comfortably into any one of these camps. So I've been, you know, raised as a Muslim. I'm a Pakistani citizen. I've lived a long time in the United States. And I've come to the belief that, you know, our identity is not made up of one thing. You know, President Obama is not just black, he's not just white, he's not just an American. And similarly, I'm not just, you know, my religion or my nationality. We are complex beings, and this aspect of people often gets lost.

When we start talking in terms of war and conflict, we start saying, oh, the Muslim world versus America. Those sorts of oppositions are actually absurd. You know, the vast majority of Muslims want very similar things in terms of peace and prosperity and progress as anybody else. And similarly, the vast majority of Americans don't necessarily want to be invading other countries.

So, my own background leads me to look at, you know, what is the common humanity that binds us together and that helps underline these concepts of, you know, nationalism and religious nationalism and state nationalism that tend to make us oppose each other?

BLOCK: I wonder, too, whether you'll be listening to President Obama's speech tomorrow differently because you're a novelist. I mean, would you be looking or listening for some sort of narrative, as the writer that you are?

Mr. HAMID: Yes, I mean, I am interested in that. As a writer, the character of Barack Obama is fascinating to me. I think, you know, he does appear to be a very exceptional human being, and somebody with a strong sense of morality and a really sophisticated look at what people are all about. He is also occupying the office of U.S. president, and that imposes enormous constraints on him. And I think the tension between those two things: Barack Obama the human being and Barack Obama the president, one can see from time to time. And his policy in the Middle East, his policy towards Muslim majority countries will expose some of those tensions - and I'm curious as to how he navigates them.

BLOCK: Mohsin Hamid, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you.

BLOCK: Mohsin Hamid's most recent novel is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."

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