COMMENT: Time to heal —Saleem H Ali
As we reflect upon the events of the last week, let us take some solace in knowing that there are indeed people like Dr Shafi who can embrace their faith constructively and perhaps help us move away from the precipice of self-annihilation
Amid the gloom of disaster that has been thrust upon Pakistan by the self-declared “Fidayeen-e Islam”, it is perhaps therapeutic to consider the story of a young Muslim, whose faith has instead led him to heal rather than hurt humanity.
Every year, MIT’s prestigious publication Technology Review selects 35 “young innovators” worldwide whose “inventions and research are most exciting”. Among the laureates this year is a 34-year-old Pakistani-American doctor named Bilal Shafi, who is based at the University of Pennsylvania.
When I interviewed Dr Shafi last week, he was quite direct and unapologetic about his devoutly Muslim identity as well as a sense of pride in his Pakistani lineage. Such patriotism among expatriate Pakistanis is becoming increasingly rare as the political situation declines in the country. Often, there is a sense of foreboding about the motherland or a detachment among young Pakistani-Americans who have grown up in the West. Yet Dr Shafi had no such complexes about his multiple identities and has excelled in his field with an aim to give his faith and ethnic homeland a good name.
Before starting his residency in Pennsylvania, he was based at Stanford University’s Biodesign Innovation Programme where he developed a biopolymer coating for the heart that can be highly effective in reducing mortality in patients with serious cardiac disease. The liquid coating is injected through a catheter immediately following a heart attack. The material subsequently gels but remains flexible enough to expand with each heartbeat, yet firm enough to support the heart during its natural healing process. The polymer is designed to degrade after six months as it is innocuously absorbed by the body.
What makes Dr Shafi’s work particularly compelling is his commitment to using bioengineering as a development tool for Pakistan. He has already launched two companies to develop such life-saving materials and is currently in negotiations with major pharmaceutical companies to raise further capital through acquisition of his patented technologies. Pakistani doctors have clearly made a mark in the West in terms of their clinical practice and are thus very well suited to use that expertise to develop such enterprises.
Bilal Shafi’s father is also a doctor, based in Baltimore and a product of King Edward Medical College, Lahore. The elder Dr Shafi grew up in an impoverished quarter of Bhatti Gate and persevered his way to the United States in the 1960s during the first phase of “brain drain” from South Asia to America.
Bilal Shafi has been further motivated to work towards development due to his family’s humble origins. “My aim is to reverse the brain drain,” he said with a sense of youthful optimism. Such a reversal has clearly occurred in the garden suburbs of Bangalore, where many expatriate Indians have returned to their homelands to contribute in developing the economy.
However, Pakistani expatriates are still reluctant to return, quite understandably, because of recurring violence, often specifically targeted towards professionals. Within the last decade, Karachi faced an onslaught of murders targeting doctors for their sectarian background. A concerted effort to contain such madness is needed for entrepreneurs like Dr Shafi to return to Pakistan and contribute to its development.
Our religious scholars should showcase practicing Muslims like Dr Shafi as true role models for the minions that are graduating from madrassas around the country. The sanctity of life is very clearly articulated in the Quran, in which there is strong denunciation of wanton and indiscriminate aggression, but also celebration of saving lives, which is most significantly the work of medical professionals. Unfortunately, many contemporary ulema trivialise the existing world (duniya) in relationship to the afterlife (akhirat) that many practicing Muslims have become complacent about social work or development. This has become a particular problem with many highly educated professional members of the Tablighi Jama’at who are politically peaceful but apathetic towards any ambitions of development.
It is high time that our religious institutions move young Muslims away from such indifference and resignation and urge them to improve the conditions of the country before getting all fired up to protect its borders. Even from a theological point of view, the best way to improve akhirat is to help your fellow humans in this world. Contextualisation of scripture and an antidote to the jihadist polemics are desperately needed by focusing on development. After all, if people are going to be dying of disease and poverty within our borders, what is the whole point of offering a warped sense of external “protection” from phantom invaders? Saving lives is perhaps the most profound kind of “ibaadat” or prayer and yet such exhortations continue to elude most of our clerics.
As we reflect upon the events of the last week, let us take some solace in knowing that there are indeed people like Dr Shafi who can embrace their faith constructively and perhaps help us move away from the precipice of self-annihilation.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. www.saleemali.net