NYUDC Political Portraits: Haider Ali

Emily Fagel
Staff Writer Emily Fagel interviews a different student at NYUDC in her weekly 'NYUDC Political Portraits' column. This week features NYUSH senior Haider Ali, who is studying political science.

It’s hard to find people who think differently than you do. Especially at a liberal university, on a tiny satellite campus, in an age of frightening polarization. And although I never truly engaged with the other side of the spectrum with these interviews, I heard stories and ideas I would have never heard otherwise. I had conversations and asked questions, and that’s all that truly matters.

On Tuesday night, over half the upperclassmen in the Washington D.C. program crowded into a lounge to watch the Alabama Senate race results come in. And that, if nothing else, gives me hope. If all we can do is engage, then engage we will.

For my final interview, I sat down with NYU Shanghai senior Haider Ali, who is studying political science. His international journey has shaped his political identity, just like how my time at NYUDC and these interviews have shaped mine.

Emily Fagel: How do you identify politically?

Haider Ali: I identify myself as a liberal. For me, liberal in the country where I’m from, not liberal from an American perspective. Liberal in a Pakistani perspective. If I were to equate that to the American version of liberal, I would say yes, I would be considered liberal. But not as liberal as what constitutes as liberal in America. It’s completely different, how it’s perceived back home and how it’s perceived here. But, generally speaking, I would consider myself a liberal.

EF: Okay. And can you talk a little about what that means in terms of what liberal is perceived as in Pakistan?

HA: Basically, in Pakistan, [liberal] is perceived as pro-education, because literacy rate in Pakistan is actually quite low, really low if you compare it to the global average, which is 86.3 percent. In Pakistan, it’s 57 percent. Pro-education, safe access to clean drinking water, and against corruption. And [also for] holding the government accountable because Pakistan has really bad rankings on the annual corruption index. Although Pakistan has moved over a couple of years and has improved its stance. People are [becoming] accountable if there are allegations against them: corruption charges, stuff like that. A recent example of that is that our prime minister got sacked. He got stripped out of his position based on corruption charges that were revealed in Panama Papers previously, so I think that’s progress. But then again, I still think that we have a long way.

EF: Have you always identified this way politically?

HA: To be honest, no. I was politically apathetic, to say the least. Mainly because my father used to be really engaged in politics, and growing up, I just never really understood why he was watching all of those channels. To me, I always wanted to watch cartoons. And I was like, ‘This is so boring.; He would spend hours and hours watching them. I didn’t understand it. But I just think, growing up, I’ve kind of tried to appreciate it, and it’s just something I guess — I just feel that I’m the only person in my entire family who is politically aware, whether it be about Pakistani politics or international politics. And I guess it mainly stems from the fact that I was always interested in international relations.

I always tell people how I was taught history, because I did [the] British education system back in Pakistan, and even [when] colonization was taught to us, it was basically glorified [as] a good thing that happened to India. [When] we learned about World War II, we never touched upon what [Adolf] Hitler did, what [Joseph] Stalin did, what America did. As Muslims, we learned WWII from the perspective of how it impacted the Muslim world. And [that] was basically in terms of how WWII disintegrated the Ottoman Empire, because that contained one of the two most holy sites in Islam. That’s how I was taught WWII. And it’s really interesting, going to NYU, and having these conversations with people from different backgrounds. I’ve [learned] there’s much more to WWII than just what I was taught. Coming to NYU, [I started] my own independent research. And recently I’ve become really interested in events that surround European history, because [that was] something we [were] not taught. Yes, we do know about British history, because we were colonized by the British, but other than that, I literally don’t know anything about it. That’s what prompted me to go to Prague last semester, where I took all of my concentration courses for political science in Central and Eastern European politics. So I got to learn about the history and politics of Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. And [as a] Pakistani, it’s something really exotic and new. And I’m kind of proud of myself [for pushing] myself out of my comfort zone to learn about the history of all of these places that I never knew about.

EF: What is the political environment like at NYU Shanghai?

HA: If I had to compare it to NYUDC, I [would say] that whenever I try to have conversations regarding sensitive topics, because I’m really curious to know the history and the politics of different places, [I do have] really constructive, healthy [and] intellectually stimulating conversations with people, but at the same time there comes a point where [they get] fed up and [say], ‘Can we talk about something else?’

EF: In D.C. or Shanghai?

HA: In Shanghai. And this is something that I haven’t yet experienced in D.C., and that’s why I love D.C. so much. Most of the people that I’ve interacted with are doing political studies and it’s so easy to talk about controversial matters, no matter what time of the day it is, and just to learn things from their perspective. This is one aspect of D.C. that [we] unfortunately don’t have at NYU Shanghai. Yes, people are aware of the politics, but they don’t tend to talk about [them]. Especially the Chinese population, because there’s huge censorship in China. When I tried to ask my roommate about the Tiananmen Square event, he just said that they weren’t taught about it in school. He [didn’t] know about it. It’s just that, you cannot bash the government [in China], mainly because it’s propaganda that they’re being fed. So that kind of translates to a tense environment. Especially within the Chinese community.

EF: Overall, would you say that coming to NYU changed your political views, or just enhanced them?

HA: I would use the word enhanced, because I used to view politics from a black and white perspective, and I didn’t know about the gray area. And [I’ve gotten] to experience that gray area based on the social interactions [I’ve had] with my peers at NYU Shanghai, and NYU Prague and even here at NYUDC. So I would say enhance is the word. I would still say that I’m really skeptical about the government, but at the same time NYU [has] kind of enhanced my experience and it [has] helped me to explore that gray area of politics which I wasn’t exposed to before coming to NYU.

EF: Can you explain what you mean by gray area?

HA: I used to view politics from a Pakistani mindset, which was basically political families taking over the younger generation, replacing their predecessors. That’s a pretty common phenomena in Pakistan. But after talking to my friends in America [about] how there’s a democratic system, there’s a Republican system, or [learning how] in Germany, or in European countries, how there are coalition governments — I didn’t know much about it [before]. I guess the best thing about NYU is that it prides itself on diversity, and I think that it makes complete sense why NYU does that. Because based on my experience, I’ve interacted with people [who are] all the way from Latvia, to [the United States], to Syria, and that has shaped how I view the world of politics.

Email Emily Fagel at [email protected].

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