As I contemplate the environment in my home away from home, I reflect on my personal and intellectual journey that brought me from my homeland, Kashmir, which is cradled by the Himalayas in the south and by the Pamirs of the Karakoram range in the north, to the rolling plains of Oklahoma. 

My political, ideological, and cultural leanings rendered me a “foreigner” in the American Midwest when I first arrived. The initial sense of “not belonging” and of having to make it in a territory that was oblivious to the meaning of my lineage, my cultural heritage, and everything that I had, up until then — considered my anchor — was disorienting.

The American Midwest has been good to me. I have enjoyed living and working in the states of Oklahoma and Nebraska, have learned a lot from the institutions of higher education as well as the professional and community organizations in which I have been affiliated. The howling winds of this region constantly remind me about the purpose of life, which is greater than merely existing.

And the howling winds also remind me that we crave a world in which social justice, political enfranchisement, cultural pride, and self-actualization are the order of the day.

Working and living in Oklahoma has taught me that community is the ability to organize and mobilize for social change, which requires the creation of awareness not only at the individual level, but also at the collective level. Community is the courage to bridge divides and to pave the way for the education of the younger generation, which is the only viable response to ignorance and bigotry. Community is the openness to dissent, and differences of opinion, which is true courage.

It is important to diligently work to engage young people in the United States and other parts of the world in the processes of democracy, to acquire skills and knowledge that would enable them to effectively participate in decision making, to recognize the importance of standing up and being counted as well as the value of the vote.

In order to improve the election process and civic engagement for the people of the United States, particularly millennials, to engage and encourage them to be informed and to vote, it is imperative to identify issues that are important to voters, so they are inspired to make a significant difference by participating. It is unfortunate that the average US citizen knows very little about how local, state, or federal governments work, which is why it is necessary to begin civic education in early grades, and this should press upon high school seniors the importance of registering to vote.

In order to create democracy, there must be a minimum of participation and adequate diversity in a society. This issue needs to be addressed not just in Oklahoma but across the nation as well.

We have a lack of understanding of each other and a paranoia that may lead to violence. The identity of a state or a nation cannot be built on unquenchable hate and certainly not on cashing in on the pain and grief of other people. It is, or at least should be, inconceivable, in the day and age of a global economy, to spurn the concepts of reason, rationality, and political and moral ethics.

The rhetoric of bitterness and hate that is palpable the world over, the most recent example of which is the carnage at two mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand, undermines rule of law and political accommodation in democratic nations. We still have a lot of work to do in order to repair divides.

As I’ve said at other forums, the non-legislative reforms that we require are new efforts and new forums not just in this country but in other parts of the world, as well, for the birth of new ideas and broad-based grassroots politics that transcend organizational divides. And it makes me happy to see such seeds being sown on our college campuses, particularly in rural areas.

We cannot afford to cling to outdated positions, which are incapable of bringing about change or progress. I consider it urgent to reflect on the recent hate crimes against people of other faiths in the United States. The fear of the “other” must be addressed boldly and courageously.

Democratic, social, and educational institutions cannot function in a country without participation by citizens. Nurturing civil society groups, like chambers of commerce, the youth, musicians, artists, public speakers, and activists that bridge racial, ethnic, and religious divides is a prerequisite for the effective and legitimate functioning of institutions.

Democracy does not limit itself to numbers or majoritarian rule, but to substance. My work with the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance, the United Nations Association of Oklahoma City, and the YWCA has reinforced that there is no room for the subjection of religious and racial minorities to authoritarian rule in a democratic nation.

It is important to delve into concrete and viable ways in which women politicians on both sides of the aisle in this country, Republican and Democrat, can reestablish their historic ties with dialogue and peace, instead of blindly advocating militarization and military invasions overseas.

Vis-à-vis Kashmir, saber rattling by the representatives of two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, is futile, and there will be no headway until the process of political negotiations and accommodation begins. The prevalent uncertainty in South Asia leads to the institutionalization of corruption, and opportunists make hay while the unpredictability remains unresolved.

The youth in this country and in other parts of the world as well clamor for more democratic rights, access to education without debt, global exchange, and a political system that recognizes diversity and human rights. The electoral principal, as we all know, is discussion, not autocratic decisions.

Our young people are beginning to recognize the influence that the local community can exercise, and to think constructively about change within organizations and institutions. Politics should no longer be an abstract notion for young people, but a concrete method to bring about long-term reforms, which younger generations could build on. In politics, the only viable way is forward, not a constant looking back. And policies and methods must be revisited, revised, and readjusted in order to meet today's needs.

The truth is that it is time to summon up the courage to initiate a politics of construction. Can we build common ground to lessen polarization? A fragmented society cannot accomplish anything, either politically or socioeconomically. 

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

So, with faith in the values of the wonderful people I work with, who have made time and a consistent effort to standing up for growth, education, and justice, I knowwe will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. My mantra is building bridges and communities, not walls.


Nyla Ali Khan is the author of “Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism,” “Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir,” “The Life of a Kashmiri Woman,” and the editor of “The Parchment of Kashmir.” Khan has recently been appointed as a member (commissioner) on the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women. She can be reached at Khan is the recipient of the 2017 Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance Award, and she was recognized as a trailblazer by the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma City. She gives public lectures on thinking through historical issues, women’s rights, restitution of democracy and human rights, and youth empowerment across the country.