Boston University Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future

Center News

February 18, 2008

Boston Globe profiles "Global Citizen" Adil Najam

Prof. Adil Najam in The Boston Globe

Prof. Adil Najam in The Boston Globe

The Boston Globe calls Pardee Center Director, Prof. Adill Najam, "The Moderator" and describes him as a "Global Citizen" who has "gone from sharing a Nobel Prize to starting a blog where Pakistanis can share views peacefully.

The feature profile of Prof. Adil Najam, written by Omar Sacirbey of The Boston Globe talks about how the Pardee Center Director brings a global perspective to the issues he studies and the things he does, including running the popular Pakistani blog All Things Pakistan (read full article here).

From The Boston Globe, February 18, 2008

The Moderator

'Global citizen' Adil Najam has gone from sharing a Nobel Prize to starting a blog where Pakistanis can share views peacefully

Aboard a Pakistan International Airlines flight bound for Logan Airport 16 years ago, Adil Najam sat in his seat and thought, "What have I done? Why would I leave all that?"

Sports reporter, TV talk show host, national environmental expert, Najam was a celebrity in the south Asian nation of 165 million by his mid-20s. "I was quite happy there. Pakistan was good to me," said Najam, now living in Boxborough with his wife and three children. Rather than riding his good fortune, he was off to MIT for the more secure but seemingly staid pursuit of an engineering degree.

But instead of vanishing into technocratic anonymity, Najam, 42, has emerged as a rising star in the international environmental movement, earning a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore and other scientists on an international climate change council, while also becoming a go-to expert on the Muslim world for NPR, CNN, and other news outlets. Most recently he has reentered the political debate in Pakistan with his blog, which has become a must-read for Pakistan-watchers as the nation, a critical American ally in the war on terror, simmers with political violence heading into national elections today.

Those who met Najam when he first arrived in Boston in 1992 recall a tall, well-spoken, but humble figure. "He was active in student groups, and I could see the leadership qualities that he had," said Barry Hoffman, Pakistan's honorary consul general in Boston. "Whenever I have distinguished visitors, I always try to make a point that they meet Adil. He's wise, he's articulate, and he makes me look good."

While Najam, who in November was named director of Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, has built his career in Boston and Cambridge, he traces his interests to experiences growing up in Pakistan.

In 1971 Najam's father was captured by Bangladeshi troops during the nine-month war between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and remained a prisoner of war for two and a half years. The violence and his father's absence left their mark on Najam. "My childhood was informed by this notion of the wastefulness of conflict," he said.

After his release, Najam's father resumed his career in the Pakistani civil service, and the family moved frequently. By the time Najam had graduated high school, he had been through nine schools. One constant wherever the family went, however, was Pakistan's poverty. "You understood what poverty looked like," Najam said.

In high school, Najam landed a teenager's dream job as a sports reporter for one of Pakistan's national newspapers and later contributed "city life" columns. He was eventually hired by a national television network to host a talk show, "Special Guest," in which a young, smart-alecky moderator - Najam - would interview national legends such as Imran Khan, the star-cricketer-turned-politician. For another news program, he interviewed Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader who was assassinated last December after a campaign rally.

"In that environment, they were celebrities, and by touching them I was a minor celebrity," he said.

But Najam traded the flash of television for engineering school in Lahore, "because that's what everyone did. That's how you got a good job; that's what your parents told you." He did well, and after graduating was tapped by Pakistan's government as one of three experts to draft the country's first national environmental policy - a new concept in the developing world at the time. It was that experience that, for Najam, cemented the connection between environmental sustainability and poverty.

"Environmentalism came to different places through different directions," Najam said. While people in the industrial world were drawn to environmentalism through campaigns to save animals, people in developing countries worried about the environment because of humans. "The Western view of environmentalism is that the environment has to be protected from people. My view is the environment has to be protected for people. Both are true."

It was that ability to elucidate a developing world point of view that most appealed to Nadaa Taiyab, who took Najam's class when he taught at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy between 2003 and 2007.

"He really changed my thinking about environmental issues and the difference of perspectives of the North and the South, some of the unfairness and inequality in environmental regimes," said Taiyab, now a researcher with the Pardee Center. "He provided the developing countries' perspective on environmental issues; that was kind of unique."

Najam's efforts in the classroom haven't gone unnoticed. He's won MIT's Goodwin Medal for Effective Teaching, and the Fletcher School Paddock Teaching Award.

The extensive traveling that Najam does for his work, his varied expertise, and his Pakistani-American-Muslim background all play a part in what he calls his identity as a "global citizen."

"When you leave one place for another, you don't drop one identity and take another. You don't stop being Pakistani because you are here, but nor does it mean you are less of an American. You can be 100 percent of both," he said. "Having multiple identities is a good thing."

Pushing this global perspective is now the focus of Najam's work at the Pardee Center, where he studies high-profile issues like the war on terror and global warming, but also less-covered subjects like senior care in poor countries and new trends in philanthropy.

Despite his global outlook and role on the international stage, Najam keeps close ties with Pakistan, traveling there for work and to visit family. More recently, Najam has waded back into journalism with his blog of "All Things Pakistan." Launched in June 2006, Pakistaniat now gets 10,000 visitors daily and is cited in both the Pakistani press and Western newspapers such as The Guardian in the United Kingdom.

Pakistaniat's biggest success, Najam said, is creating a forum where rivals can face off with words instead of violence.

For example, when Pakistani security forces laid siege to hundreds of Islamic extremists in an Islamabad mosque last summer, some of the extremists posted comments on Pakistaniat from inside the mosque, while supporters of either and neither side argued with each other in the comment section.

"The real flavor of Pakistaniat is the fights between liberal Pakistanis and religious Pakistanis," said Najam. "What makes the blog special to many people is that it's one of the very few places anywhere where the extremes talk to each other."

When Bhutto was assassinated, hundreds of readers responded to Najam's articles by writing their own expressions of grief, turning Pakistaniat's comment section into an online condolence book.

Many Boston-area Pakistanis have become devoted readers, especially as political violence has flared in recent months and today's elections have neared.

"Every Pakistani here is tuned in to what's happening in Pakistan," said Malik Khan of Boxborough, who has been active in Boston's Pakistani community since arriving here in the 1970s and reads Pakistaniat daily. "Things are so uncertain and changing every day."

While his Pakistani identity is important to Najam, it's not something he wants to force on his three school-age children. But it hardly matters.

"Being Pakistani, not being Pakistani, it's not my choice, and they will make the choice they will make. There is a part of their Pakistaniness they will never be able to let go of," Najam said. "It's not my job to choose who they are. It's their job to become whoever they want to become."

Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.