With this column, I reach the 500 mark. I have, since 1994, appeared in this space 500 times. This column has helped me understand the world around me and in the process has provided a vehicle for self-discovery.
When my friend John Robinson Block, the publisher of The Blade (and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) offered me a spot on the op-ed pages, I accepted it with trepidation. Until then, I had written occasional stories for Toledo Magazine, a supplement of the Sunday Blade, had written news analyses, and had reported from Afghanistan for The Blade.
Writing an opinion column was liberating and confining at the same time. It was liberating because it allowed me to express my opinion, no matter how controversial or outrageous. It was confining because unlike fiction, where a writer gives flight to words to paint an imaginary picture, an opinion column has to be factual, accurate, and respectful. The privilege to write is not a license to insult, demean, or belittle.
Over the past 20 years, I have written about current events, politics, religion, and history. I have written about the mundane and the ordinary. I recall writing about computers, genetically altered mice that glow in the dark, and the vagaries of the English language.
There have been hot-button issues such as Palestinian rights and the disputed territory of Kashmir. These two subjects always elicited immediate and often vitriolic responses.
In the former category, extreme right-wing sympathizers of Israel have called me an anti-Semite, a label that is used loosely and rather carelessly.
On India-Pakistan relations and the thorny issue of Kashmir, I have earned the derisive label of a militant Pakistani. I merely hold up the mirror. I do not create the image.
This column became a stumbling block in the way of my appointment to the board of trustees of the University of Toledo in 2007. After the usual vetting process, I was cleared for appointment, but my column writing was a hurdle for then-Gov. Ted Strickland’s office.
Administration officials went through all of my columns and decided that because of my strong opinions, they could not take a chance. I was offered a choice: Stop writing columns and we will appoint you. I refused. In an apparent change of heart, they went ahead with the appointment.
Over the years, I have spent a lot of ink trying to explain the genesis of radical Islam. Some of my readers have difficulty understanding that out of 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, hard-core jihadists and Islamists constitute a minority.
The Taliban, Chechen militants, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and other terrorist organizations do not represent mainstream Islam, their claims to the contrary aside.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist for eight years in the 1990s, but could not persuade Afghans to toe their line. Their ouster was widely celebrated by Afghans.
I am asked whether the newspaper has any say in the subjects and contents of my columns. Mr. Block has not interfered with my freedom to write on any subject I chose.
Over the years, The Blade did censor two of my columns: One was about a Hooters restaurant in Florida, and the other offered my observations at a nude beach at St. Martin. Tom Walton, then the editor of The Blade, determined that such musings should not be printed in a family newspaper. I think he saved me from embarrassment.
Readers have been frank and candid in expressing an opposing viewpoint to mine. Some — a very few, I hasten to add — are not averse to getting down in the gutter and spewing hate.
They wish to enter into a contest that is best suited to the exuberant activity of teenage boys by the woodshed. And some suggest that I should limit myself to performing surgeries.
The journey I embarked on 20 years ago has been exciting and rewarding. Along the way, I discovered the beauty of written words and the meanings they convey.
It has been a journey of discovery. It still is.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org