Little Osama

How the murder of a Muslim boy in Houston fanned the flames of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.

Published March 3, 2003 7:55PM (EST)

They convicted young Osama's murderer a few weeks back. The Pakistani boy had died in Houston over a year ago, but the crime got sparse attention at the time. After all, homicides occur by the thousands in American cities; even murders of small children are not rare. I'd been troubled by this case for months, though, ever since I first heard of it in Pakistan.

A few weeks before the first anniversary of Sept. 11, I was in Islamabad reporting on Pakistanis' views about America. One of the first people I talked to was a defense specialist named Shireen Mazari, director of a think tank that advises President Pervez Musharraf. Shireen, who's round and loud, boasts a degree from Columbia, speaks fast, sardonic English, and delights in brash debates on public policy. The revelation that she brought me, though, had barely anything to do with politics. And everything to do with what it feels like to be American now.

Her country's alliance with the U.S. didn't impress her, Shireen started. We were sitting in her office. A young woman in a fluttering kameez, or tunic, offered tea. A crisp map of Kashmir unfurled beside me like a high school teaching aid. After the Cold War, Shireen continued, the United States lost interest in Pakistan; likely this would happen once again, and to her country's disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Americans were killing Muslim immigrants.

"I just wrote a column on a case in Houston, Texas," she continued. "A 6-year-old boy named Osama, a Pakistani immigrant, was stabbed to death inside his house just because of his name."

"What?" I asked, looking up sharply from my little notebook. I was shocked. I live in Houston. And because I often write on immigrants, I thought I would surely have heard of this. "Did the Houston newspaper report it?"

"I don't know," Shireen said. "I got an e-mail about it from someone who knew the family, asking for help. The boy's father was attacked too. He now is in intensive care. The boy was killed, the father's throat was slashed -- and the police did not cooperate at all. They didn't want to investigate." And when the neighbors heard the boy was dead, added Shireen, "they celebrated. They distributed sweetmeats."

"Sweetmeats?" I echoed. It's a British term for bonbons. But the custom she described was pure subcontinent: Indians and Pakistanis both give sweetmeats to their friends when there's a wedding, boy baby, or something else to celebrate.

"I thought you might not want to hear this, because you're American," Shireen said.

No, no, I tried explaining. The story just didn't sound right.

Shireen shrugged, promising to send a copy of the e-mail.

True to her word, the fax arrived at my hotel the next day. It said exactly what she said it was, even including a contact person and a Houston phone number.

Over my next few days in Pakistan, I brooded over Shireen's story. Well, "brood" is not quite right. I kept picking at it, feeling a childish triumph each time I spotted an inconsistency. First of all, I told myself, Americans don't distribute candy, no matter how happy we feel. Generally speaking, police follow procedure when investigating murders. And though we certainly have done so in the past, Americans don't tend to kill kids for political reasons. I thought of 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi almost 50 years ago. His murderers, acquitted, later smiled and bragged about their crime. But lynching culture has long since died. Even when they killed schoolboys, moreover, lynch mobs pretended they were actually attacking sexually mature adults.

Today, we kill children collaterally, or by accident, in other countries. We kill them by neglect, bad policy and abuse in the United States. But despite other forms of violence that saturate our culture, harming children for political ends just isn't our tradition. It is more common in other cultures, including some immune to more typically American pathologies. Ansar Haroun, an Indian- American psychiatrist who writes about communal hatred, thinks children become targets in communities where people still identify with tribe or caste more than with a larger state. Metaphorically and literally, attacking children shatters a rival group's future.

Just a few weeks before I met Shireen, a remote tribal council in Pakistan ordered the gang-rape of a young girl. It was punishment for a crime her brother supposedly committed against a higher caste. To many Pakistanis, as to Westerners, what was most appalling was not even the rape: It was the higher caste's consensus that it was just.

But targeting children is not in any way a Muslim trait. Far from it: One of the most horrifying of these kinds of attacks recently victimized Muslims. The same summer I visited Islamabad, I also worked in India, writing about a pogrom in which Hindu extremists killed more than 1,000 Muslims. Some rioters, survivors told me, took special pains to catch and burn alive Muslim infants and children. In the aftermath, some police protected the killers by refusing to record victims' complaints.

Stonewalling police, the moblike Houston neighbors, the singling out of a small boy -- it seemed obvious to me that some fabulist had shellacked details from another culture onto a pip of truth from Texas.

Perhaps a yahoo beat up an adult named Osama. Maybe school kids bullied a young Muslim. Maybe, I thought uneasily, something worse had happened -- like the murder of a Sikh in Arizona, soon after Sept. 11, apparently because his killer mistook him for a Muslim. "I stand for America," the murderer barked as police led him away. Such cases may be isolated, duly handled by authorities. But there's nothing implausible about Americans acting on their hatreds.

So I opened my laptop in the Islamabad hotel and typed. "Osama - murder - Houston, Texas."

I blinked with surprise. The story popped up instantly. Just as Shireen told me, a Pakistani boy named Osama Nasir, 6 years old, was murdered at his home in January 2002. His father, Mohammad Nasir, was found in the house with his throat slit. The mother was in another city. Another story followed, shorter: Mohammad Nasir was a suspect. One final article appeared, very brief indeed: Police had charged Mohammad Nasir with the murder of his son Osama. Trial pending.

"That's impossible," Shireen told me when I reported what I'd found. We were at a cocktail party in a house with a silk carpet on the wall. Did I really think the police had told the truth?

"Well, yes. I know the reporter who wrote about it and ..."

"What parent," Shireen cut me off, "would kill his son?"

I had to smile. Actually, I said, that happens not infrequently in my country. Houston, in fact, recently tried a notorious case of this kind. The parent's name was Andrea Yates.

"Well, a Pakistani parent couldn't do it," Shireen said flatly. And the conversation ended. Her gaze drifted toward the middle distance, as if I'd proved an uncomfortably dull party guest.

But somehow my own thoughts, instead of drifting elsewhere, kept returning to Shireen's account. Why did I care so much about it? I went home, wrote other pieces about Pakistan, yet couldn't shake this slight tale from my mind. I repeated it at dinners or over margaritas, trying to find out why it stayed with me. One friend said it proved that xenophobia is borderless. Another thought it showed the irrationality of America's critics. A third just found it sad.

What about the political implications, suggested Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Muslim studies at American University, when I called to ask him his opinion.

"Tell me," Akbar, a Pakistani, said. "How did professor Mazari react to what you told her?"

"She didn't, really," I said.

"You'll never win that discussion," he replied. "We are seeing the worst trend among Muslim intellectuals right now: a self-inflicted blindness. Xenophobia, paranoia and half-truths are passing for reality. There are many examples in Pakistan where fathers kill girls for the most minor of reasons," he added. "How can they say this happens only in the United States?"

Houston Police Officer Muzaffar Siddiqi, who translated into Urdu at the crime scene, agreed. On the day of the murder, he told me, police had already investigated two 911 calls from the Nasir house, and found the doors all locked. When they answered a third call, they found the door ajar, and 6-year-old Osama dead on his bed. Someone had stabbed him, slashed his throat repeatedly, then laid him on his Pokémon bedsheets.

Osama's father, Mohammad Nasir, was bleeding from a slit throat.

The murder occurred outside Officer Siddiqi's jurisdiction, but as Houston's liaison for Asian and Middle Eastern residents, he came to the scene to help. Siddiqi has served for a decade on Houston's police force, and recently was named Officer of the Year. Before he moved to Houston, though, he was a policeman in Karachi, Pakistan. And contrary to Shireen's claim, Siddiqi said, there is a great deal of family violence there, including parental homicide. Yet in eight years, he didn't conduct one domestic violence investigation.

"The thing is," he said, "over there, women are not independent ... A lot of times the husband will be abusive, but the wife won't complain because women think: What happens if I complain? He will divorce me, I'll have to go back to my dad and mom, and people will make fun of my parents."

Siddiqi did testify repeatedly in one kind of domestic homicide in Pakistan. "It's financial -- not because they've gone crazy," he explained. They all involved a rural father, despairing over a failed crop or overwhelming debt, who killed his entire family and then himself.

Maybe young Osama's death was not so different. We'll never know, because although the trial took place in January 2003, the narrative was never clear -- even to the prosecution.

"There's no way to know exactly what happened," Vic Wisner, the prosecutor, told me. "There was evidence that Nasir had threatened suicide in the past. There was evidence he had financial difficulties. Another theory was that he might have done it to get even with his wife, that he had been fighting with her before the incident occurred." During the trial, Wisner said, he hadn't even attempted to promote one specific theory.

"I think it was just an isolated act," he said, "by a man who was cursed by many personal demons and took it out on his poor son."

In any case, after Mohammad Nasir confessed, he retracted his confession. In the later version, he and Osama both were attacked by an intruder, though there was no evidence of forced entry. The assailant, Nasir claimed, was Mexican.

Nasir's wife also made a statement that she retracted. A naturalized U.S. citizen, 30-year-old Zareen Fazilat told investigators the family had been in a state of conflict, and that her husband beat her. Later, at the trial, her hair in a clean white head covering, she took her statements back. What she'd meant, she said in accented English, was that her husband had just pushed her. About the murder she testified, "He could not do that, because he loves his son more than me."

Instead, she said, she believed an intruder killed Osama because of his explosive name.

Ironic, all this -- and how American, I thought. From our predilection for brown bogeymen to our strategies of jurisprudence, the Nasirs learned this culture well.

But justice finally was done. After fewer than two hours deliberating, the jury sentenced Mohammad Nasir to life in prison. Even his attorney praised the trial as fair. Through a fluke, Houston Mayor Lee Brown -- an African-American -- had landed jury duty on this otherwise low-profile case, and he fulfilled his obligation.

"I think having Brown, an African-American, on the jury calmed ethnic concerns," Mohammad Nasir's lawyer told the Houston Chronicle. "We had potential jurors who could not believe a man named Mohammad after 9/11. I wanted Brown in there to head off potential problems like that."

So why was I still brooding over Shireen's half-baked story?

The whole week I spent in Pakistan, I scribbled many more far-fetched assertions. A mullah claimed the Taliban were moderate toward women. Destitute farmers said Israel attacked the World Trade Center. Unemployed young men maintained that the U.S. kept Osama bin Laden in a safe house, because we wanted a pretext to bomb Muslims. At the party with the silk rug on the wall, a doctor whispered that a few more terrorist attacks would level America's economy. His eyes danced when he said it.

All these accounts I dismissed at once. I understood what they were -- expressions of political resentment -- and I understood whom they were coming from. It took me longer to see how such a tale could come from someone like Shireen. Here was someone who could easily research the truth, who had a reputation to defend; someone, above all, with whom I rather identified. She was an outspoken woman in a man's culture. She attended the same graduate school I did! And she had a say in life and death issues, where accuracy -- you'd think -- would count.

It all came down, I decided, to the importance of fine points.

To many people like Shireen, with a list of grievances against us, the details of how Americans may tempt and bulldoze other cultures are finally uninteresting. So I'm wrong on this one, I imagined Shireen thinking. I know I'm right on lots of others.

But for me, fine points signify a lot these days. It's not self-hating to acknowledge the harm Americans have helped unleash pursuing national or corporate objectives: the El Mozote massacres, the Bhopal poison clouds, the Guatemalan coups. To the contrary, willingness to own up to dark acts of our leaders, and sometimes of our fellows, is perhaps this culture's saving trait.

Right now, I'm trying hard to judge which critiques of us are just. It's not easy at a time when America seems so dangerous to others, yet faces genuine perils itself. Maybe this is why I felt that odd, triumphant energy when I learned the truth about little Osama. I knew for sure what Americans do not do. We don't eat sweetmeats, and we don't celebrate when a child is killed. Regardless of his name.

By Claudia Kolker

Claudia Kolker is a writer who lives in Houston.

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