Islam and its place in the world is a complex thing, although you would never know it if your only exposure to Muslims is what you see on TV news. Like anything else, television has gone to great lengths to oversimplify a multi-layered issue and render its subtleties as caricature.
What television so rarely shows us are Muslims like Shazib Jamil. Young, instantly likable, and astute, Jamil is one half of Value Chain Performance, a Hightstown-based consulting firm that helps pharma and biotech companies commercialize their products and streamline their operations. Unless Jamil told you he was Muslim, odds are you would never even think about it. He does not broadcast his faith, but, as is common among American Muslims, he does not hide it either. It simply is a part of his life that he has no desire to make a part of yours.
Jamil, however, is unafraid to talk openly about his faith and his perspectives, which itself is rarer than you might expect. In searching for a Muslim professional who would be willing to speak to us for this week’s edition, U.S. 1 repeatedly was told “thanks, but no thanks.” One businessman even said he feared that he might put off his many Jewish clients if they were to read about him being Muslim.
The reticence of Muslims to talk openly about themselves does not really surprise Jamil. Muslims in America have a hard ride. They are stereotyped and mocked, publicly vilified in a way not seen toward an ethnic or religious group in this country since the 1960s. What, after all, is a group of any people to think when some nut in Florida gets national press for threatening to publicly burn copies of said group’s most sacred text, and then gets a free car out of it (courtesy of Monmouth Junction’s own Brad Benson Hyundai) when he decides to call off the bonfire?
Americans in general do not understand Islam, much less its followers, and the jitters Muslims feel when a news organization wants to pull them into the light is palpable. Jamil understands it, but on the other hand, he fears none of the reprisals, real or imagined, that other Muslims fret.
Nor has he experienced them. Jamil’s life has changed very little since 9/11, even though the world around him has changed a lot. He has a different job (he worked in trade management at Barrier Therapeutics when that company was sold to Stiefel Labs for $145 million in 2008), he has a son, and he’s out of his 20s, but past that Jamil is largely the same person he was before that particular Tuesday morning nine years ago.
Moreover, his business is unaffected by perceptions in the post-9/11 world. While television news reminds us often that Muslims and Jews do not get along, Value Chain has built a client base that includes some Jewish businesspeople. It also includes Indian clients, which for a Muslim — particularly one born in Pakistan — is also supposed to be taboo.
But at the risk of oversimplifying, the 32-year-old Jamil has only this to say about his clients: “Business is still business.” What he means is that business itself cares not about cultural or religious bigotry. In the pharma and biotech game, many companies are connected with India. If you want to play, you have to be willing to work with them.
Jamil could not care less about who is what, so long as business can be conducted in a professional manner. And after 10 years in the pharma game, he has found that no one cares what he is either. The subject of his heritage does not come up often, and if it does, the response usually is something along the lines of “cool.”
Islam informs Jamil in a way that only someone born into the faith can be informed. He has grown from a little boy living under martial law to a successful biotech professional and finally into an entrepreneur. And though he has been in the United States since age 10, he returns to Pakistan yearly to visit his family and his wife’s.
As much as he stays in touch with his heritage, Jamil says he is a “middle of the pack” Muslim. Like a lot of Americans, his relationship with his religion is semi-casual. There are aspects of Islam with which he strongly agrees, aspects with which he does not, and aspects about which he has yet to make up his mind.
As it turns out, Jamil says, this is quite common among American Muslims. Levels of devotion vary in Islam, as they do in anything else. We are used to thinking that when Islam goes extreme, it goes violently so. And at times, yes, it does. But there is more to it than simple aggression.
Jamil and his wife, Shumayl, watch a lot of Pakistani programming on television. Often there are one-off shows that are not connected to a specific program. Jamil was particularly moved by one such show, in which a desperately poor Muslim man is courted by extremists to become a suicide bomber. The man has no wish to kill himself and indeed knows it is against his religion to kill himself or others.
But playing by the rules has gotten him nowhere. His government has failed hi,m and his neighbors cannot help him. This terrorist group, however, is offering him enough money to make sure his wife and family never have to worry again. So he accepts. “It’s a sad reflection of what goes on,” Jamil says.
In America, we tell the same story, only the protagonist is usually black, ghetto-bound, and facing a life of drugs and prison. But the roots of the problem are way down, on society’s lowest rung, here and in the Middle East. Many of Jamil’s countrymen have no options but the most drastic, and Jamil expects things will stay this way until the system can help more than extremist groups can.
Want a non-fiction example? Recall the massive flooding that hit Pakistan in July. “The Taliban was the first to arrive with help,” Jamil says. “Before the government. That to me is the government’s job, to take care of its people.”
Having been born into martial law, Jamil says that such systems have their place. “The government controlled everything, but I didn’t feel anything,” he says. All he knew was that he had to be off the streets by a certain time and refrain from certain activities. The chief benefit of that kind of law in Pakistan, he says, was order. He would not trade his freedom here for it, but there it works.
Having been born into abundant personal liberties and wealth, we Americans tend to think that all it takes for someone to fix his life is to dust himself off and get to work. And that is true. Here.
Where Jamil comes from is a different story. There is little infrastructure in place to bolster free enterprise, and it is not as easy as simply espousing freedom, free markets, and capitalism. The Middle East is a thorny bramble of ideologies, barely compatible, and is easy prey for foreign interests. Poverty levels there would make even the poorest Americans blush. Pakistani ghettos have no houses, no plumbing, no nearby hospitals compelled by law to treat walk-ins, with or without insurance. And no one there seems willing (much less able) to fix it.
Jamil does not pretend to have the answers, but he would like people to ask more questions. And he would like people to know that the problems Muslims both suffer and contribute to are more complicated than simple religious zealotry. “The process is broken,” he says. And the Band-Aid school of problem fixing is woefully inadequate. “Unless the fundamental problem is fixed, it will always be status quo.”
America’s response has been to approach the problem from its own perspective. But how much do we really understand about the inner workings of the Middle East? “If you ask a Pakistani if he wants his freedom, he’ll tell you yes,” Jamil says. “Everybody wants his freedom.”
But freedom in the American sense of the word does not fit the current state of the Middle East. There is not the system needed to support free markets; nor is there the requisite economic and political stability. When those matters are settled, things can change.
But again, this is oversimplifying. And the irony is, the root of all this trouble, this spiral of poverty and extremism and violence that makes its way into TV news sound bites, is probably the most simplistic answer there is: food.
“I go home to Pakistan every year,” Jamil says. “I’ve asked people, ‘What do you think of the United States?’ They don’t care about the United States, they care about what they are going to eat.”
Adlai Stevenson once said “A hungry man is not a free man.” Jamil concurs. Until the basics — food, decent shelter, and clean water — are addressed, he says, it is moot to concern ourselves with anything else. Take away the desperation and you take away the need for people out of options to turn to groups like the Taliban.
If capitalism and American-style free markets were possible in a place like Pakistan, Jamil believes people would take to it. There is, in fact, nothing inherent to capitalism that tramples on any tenets of Islam. There are Sharia lending laws, which forbid the accumulation of interest, but there is much debate over what that means. Some say the word that describes “interest” has been misinterpreted. A more elegant solution to bickering is to simply use the word “fees.” But beyond this issue, Jamil says, there is nothing about capitalism that inherently offends Muslims. In fact, Muhammad himself was a merchant, as was his wife.
Jamil’s wife, Shumayl, is a social worker, who used to work for the American Red Cross at 707 Alexander Road and now works for the American Association of Mental Health at 819 Alexander Road. She also has done work with the United Nations Development Programme, which looks to bridge the gap between industrialized and non-industrialized nations.
Together Shazib and Shumayl — who met in Pakistan and whose families have known each other for years — spend a lot of time discussing what needs repairing in the Islamic world. They also have spoken at great length about what to pass on to their two-year-old son. In any immigrant population, Jamil says, connections to cultural roots fade over time, and he has seen this even in himself. Though he was born in Pakistan and lived there until 1988, he knows he is not as connected to his heritage as the members of his family who still live there.
So what about Jamil’s son? “My wife and I are on the same page,” he says. “We feel that you expose someone to a culture and it is his choice whether to incorporate it into his life.”
But Jamil understands the natural progression that occurs as people age and families fan out across the globe. “I know my son won’t be as culturally aware as I am,” he says. “But we will teach him the value of a dollar and the value of education. Good values are good values, wherever you come from.”
Education is a major component in Asian cultures, and it was suitably important for Jamil’s family. His mother, Khola, is a retired pre-school teacher (though not too retired, since she often watches her grandson while Shazib and Shumayl are at work). The family came here to meet up with Jamil’s father, who had been in the United States since the 1970s pursuing his degree in architecture. “After a while he went for his master’s and the rest is history,” Jamil says.
Jamil’s bachelor’s degree, from the College of New Jersey, is in history, but he had no interest in being a teacher like his mother, and so moved onto an MBA program at Rutgers. He was working at Hoffman-LaRoche Pharmaceuticals in Nutley while in graduate school, near the end of 2001.
Jamil was on his way to work in Nutley on September 11, passing the NJ Turnpike exit to the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan, when he got a phone call. His father, an architect with an office right near the World Trade Center, wanted to let him know that something had happened. Nobody knew what, but it seemed like a big deal. In any case, his father was all right.
Then they lost contact. By the time Jamil got to Nutley, the plant had been closed, but he had yet to know why. He and his co-workers thought the same thing a lot of people thought at the time — free day off. So they went someplace to enjoy it.
Reality landed suddenly. And amid the images we’ve all seen so many times, there was a clip showing the reaction of a group of Muslims in Palestine, hooting and waving flags. Jamil found the whole thing troubling and distasteful. Images like the cheering Palestinians were a visceral response, provoking even further visceral response from justifiably angry Americans. Fortunately, he says, neither he nor anyone in his family felt any anti-Muslim sentiments. His father, however, had to move his office. The building was damaged by a falling piece of the Twin Towers.
September 11 aside, Jamil exudes great concern for the Muslim world. For 700 years, as Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholarship yielded advances in medicine and math that became a cornerstone of Western enlightenment. And the decaying of this cultural juggernaut saddens him.
Even though scholarship is still prized in the Islamic world, it has relatively little to offer. Pakistan, for example, offers few schools recognized beyond its borders. There are three recognized medical universities and one, maybe two, recognized business schools in a country of 200 million, Jamil says. Not good odds for moving forward.
“We need to do what Japan did in the 19th century,” he says. At the time when Japan sought to westernize, it borrowed the best concepts and practices it could find in wealthy foreign nations. “The Muslim world faces the issue of falling behind. What we need to see is how to pick ourselves up.”
Value Chain Performance, Box 1121, Hightstown 08520; 800-604-1864. Shazib Jamil, partner. www.valuechainperformance.com.