Aslam Kakar: Becoming a Free Thinker

Aslam Kakar was born in Pakistan, in the most humblest of traditional Islamic families. Having grown up without a father since the age of 2, Aslam goes over his journey of the pursuit of knowledge and his experience here in the United States.

This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps. This story was produced by Sydney Jarol through StoryCorps Chicago.

“I lived all my life in Pakistan and I came to the U.S. three years ago. I come from a very poor background: I was born in a very traditional Muslim family, my father died when I was two years old. My mother raised six children and showed us the right path and really encouraged us to come to where I am today. It was never easy; I mean, I started in a makeshift school in the shade of a tree without shoes on my feet and I realized that I didn’t have anything like the children of rich people. I remember, from the beginning I had this dream of coming to the U.S. at some point in my life–it was not very clear, but this was what I wanted to do, and this was my way, and I didn’t have anything else.

I went to school, and I did great in school and was given a scholarship by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. It was unbelievable, but I got it and I went to Lahore, where I studied at the University of Lahore, one of the most liberal institutions in Pakistan (by the Pakistani standards). So that was where this shift happened, from a conservative religious background to a freethinking, secular mentality. I started reading a lot and that opened my mind to the world–to the world beyond Islam. I started questioning religion; I was like, if I don’t fast it’s fine–there’s no God in some physical form hanging over my head and if I don’t fast he’s not going to cut my throat. I also started [thinking that] we are not better than other people, I mean we are all humans! That’s, I think, one of the most powerful things.

I went to the University of San Diego, where I did my masters in conflict studies. of course Pakistani and American cultures, they are two different cultures, so it’s not easy to adjust when you come [to the U.S.] the first time. I think in our [Pakistani] society, you have support from the family, from the community, and there is less tyranny of choice, so you can lead a simple life, a happy life. Here [in the U.S.] that is different. Compared with Pakistan, I think the U.S. is one of the most amazing places for the freedom of expression. You know, you can say whatever you want. Pakistan is one of the worst countries for journalists and human rights activists, freethinkers, and atheists. Several of my friends have come to the U.S., and several have been killed in Pakistan so I am very happy and comfortable living here learning and growing, and reading and really expressing myself.”