Blood, belonging and the Internet

Isfandiyar Shaheen
3 min readSep 23, 2022

Today I took oath to become a U.S. citizen and in doing so, renounced my allegiance to the state of Pakistan.

At 13, I was certain I’d join the Pakistan Army because my dad and brother were both in the Army. But then the Internet happened.

The Internet helped me talk to the “other”, which included:

  • People from India
  • Hindus from anywhere
  • Jewish people
  • Bangladeshis

Speaking to the other was fascinating because their beliefs were so different, and like me, they too were certain that they were right. At 14 I began wondering:

“What is nationalism?”

In the process I read Blood and Belonging by Michael Ignatieff, he described 4 forms of nationalism:

  1. Regional
  2. Religious
  3. Ethnic
  4. Civic

I figured mine was a version of religious nationalism. But which version of religion?

Within Islam there are a few versions.

I am Sunni and because we are majority in Pakistan we would say there’s only one Islam, and that there is no such thing as “Shia Sunni”. We basically denied that sects existed. This was strange because, well, they did exist.

As I got to know more Pakistanis I realized how privileged I was and how my beloved state was failing many of my country men and women. Internalizing this reality made me very sad.

The Internet made it possible for me study on scholarship at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. It also set me up to make meaningful contributions to Pakistan. I got my degree, some experience on Wall Street and moved back to Pakistan in 2009 to be an entrepreneur.

By 2016 I was 33 and convinced that the best way to serve my country was by bringing affordable Internet to all. But no one would fund such a crazy stunt anywhere but San Francisco Bay Area.

So I migrated, but this time I arranged my own green card so I won’t be beholden to an employer.

I made good progress, built a deal with Facebook, got to work with a brilliant engineer (who incidentally is from India and now a very good friend), he made a robot that could wrap fiber on power lines but then we ran into delays.

In parallel, I became a dad to two girls who are U.S. citizens. As such now my allegiance is to my wife and daughters.

Will Pakistan interests always be at odds with US interests? Probably.

But is there any way in which I could harm Pakistan now that I am a U.S. citizen? I think not. My work isn’t political.

But even beyond politics and identity and nationalism, Im at a stage where I don’t feel like my identity stems from my religion, language or country.

This has been very lonely and difficult.

I used to be very religious and then lost touch with religion. My mom jokes with me that I replaced religion with the Internet. She has a point.

All this feels so strange.

Mainly because I recall SO many things I was SO certain about but no longer feel SO certain about today.

This makes me wonder about my current certainties and how many of them will change. Certainty is important for entrepreneurs to do daring work. But it’s also a crutch.

I am almost 40 and no longer “certain”, but I still seek some constants. Those constants have been a set of values and my family.

Allegiance ultimately goes to a system that can take care of our families and people who don’t have the capabilities, resources and means.

Today I got a chance to read the Declaration of Independence properly. It made me appreciate how idealistic and daring these very young guys were.

It also made me wonder what the founding fathers would say about the US Govt today?

While the oath requires renouncing allegiance to other countries I find the Declaration of Independence is not at odds with Pakistani interests.

The Declaration aligns with my basic view that

“you owe yourself an incredible life”

Im super grateful to have lived one so far and I pray that with whatever is left, that I first continue to do no harm and hopefully leave this place in a better condition for my kids than the condition it is in right now.

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