In 1992, Naeem Fazal, a recent immigrant from Kuwait of Pakistani descent, encountered Jesus in his brother's apartment just weeks after arriving in the United States. Fazal, who grew up Muslim and who once threatened to kill his brother after the elder sibling converted to Christianity, spoke recently with The Christian Post about his terrifying conversion story, Kuwait's "caste" system, and his family's passion for CrossFit. An overview of the book is available here and the second part of this interview will be posted on Thursday.
Fazal and his wife Ashley are parents to a son and daughter and currently live in Charlotte, North Carolina where he pastors Mosaic Church.
CP: What was it like growing up in Kuwait?
Fazal: There are so many things about it. My son, who is 10, he's reading the book Ex-Muslim right now and he came up to me yesterday and he was like, "Hey dad, did you really make a drink from Pepsi and milk? That sounds disgusting." And he starts asking why Pepsi, why no Coke. Growing up in Kuwait was so different. Before the gulf war in 1990, there were no Coke products there. I think Coke was banned or something for some reason. Pepsi was the only product there.
I grew up in a metropolitan, kind of a mix of cultures, international melting pot, it seemed like. Kuwait — at the time, even now I think — 60 percent of its population is made up of immigrants. And so, I grew up with Filipinos, Indians and Arabs from different countries and Pakistanis, everybody was international.
I also grew up where racism and class systems were very true in real life. If you stand in line in the grocery store, if a Kuwaiti comes in, he gets in front of the line regardless. No one was against it. No one was shouting about rights or anything. It felt like it was a privilege for us to be in the country and they kind of knew that. Every immigrant has got to be sponsored by a Kuwaiti to be in the country; if the Kuwaiti sponsor has issues with you, he just won't stamp your visa the next time. It was a lot of people-pleasing.
My family was Pakistani. I was born and raised in Kuwait, so I did not experience the Pakistani culture —only one that my mom and dad created. We were conservative Muslims and my mom and dad, they wanted us to have a better education, and so they didn't enroll us public school system. If I would have enrolled in there, I would primarily speak Arabic and not English; and they did not put me in a Pakistani school, they put me in Indian school.
In Indian school you had to learn Hindi, the curriculum was in English, and you had to learn Arabic, and then obviously my parents spoke Urdu at home so I kind of had a crazy childhood learning all these languages and I wasn't really good at any of them.
It's not a third world country, it's a first world country, so it's not like images of people that are extremely poor; that wasn't the case. There were people that had a lot of resources and people who didn't. There wasn't a lot of begging or homelessness, partly because you couldn't really be homeless. The government had all the Kuwaitis on an allowance. They were all on welfare. The immigrants, if you didn't work, you wouldn't be sponsored.
CP: What was it like being Muslim but not Kuwaiti?
Fazal: It depends on what race you're from. It was a serious caste system. The highest at the time, before the Gulf War, I mean everything changed after the Gulf War. If you were Palestinian, Kuwaitis liked Palestinians. They were like the number one Arab.
There were different classes. Number one, if you were Muslim you were in a different category. For instance, if I was a Pakistani Christian, I would be in a different category. Indians were in a totally different category. They were kind of like the Latinos or the Mexicans even in terms of Kuwait. They were cheap labor, they were from south India, they were pretty much slaves. Pretty much. They would bring the women in or the men in and make them work their villas and do whatever with them. They were earning money and sending it back home and they needed to stay. They knew it was either this or go back to a third world country.
Me being a Pakistani Muslim helped because I was Muslim. You had the Palestinians, Egyptians, most of the Arab races first and then Pakistanis, because we're kind of in the middle. We are obviously to the subcontinent and India, but there's much Arab in our culture. Obviously, Pakistan is a Muslim country, so we were treated a little better.
CP: What types of experience did you have with Christianity as a child?
Fazal: I didn't really hear about or realize Christianity. I knew America. I knew America from "Night Rider" and I thought it was a cool society, cool culture, a lot less rules. People look different, acted different, I thought it was great. I just knew that we would never be that. My sisters covered up the entire time so my sisters didn't look like the girls on TV. My mom didn't look like that. My friends didn't. So I never thought I would be that.
I just wasn't really tuned into Christianity. My brother was probably more a spiritual seeker, I was just out there. I was like, whatever. I heard of Christianity when my brother went to the States and got accepted to college in South Carolina. When he came back that's when I started hearing about Jesus.
CP: Were you intrigued or did you just write it off as something your brother was interested in?
Fazal: I was interested a little bit. The first year he came back and he was a Christian. He didn't tell us that, now I know, but he would just want to talk about spiritual stuff. He brought a Bible and mom and dad just thought that's America, that's probably going to happen. We were used to having Kuwaitis having immigrants and them having their religious festivals.
I celebrated Diwali with my immigrant friends. I went to their functions. I had Catholic friends. I actually did communion as a Muslim. It's crazy. I just said okay, I didn't want to be left out.
So the second time that my brother came back was when he basically told us, as in me and our brothers and sisters, that he was a Christian and that's when I flipped out. I tried to kill him because he was going weird on us.
CP: From the book, it sounds like all your brothers and sisters have become a Christian.
Fazal: Yes they have.
CP: You ended up immigrating to the United States. How did you encounter Christianity here?
Fazal: I came here knowing that my brother had turned weird and religious. For me, it was very different because Islam is a nationality, in some regards, to Muslims, and so when you convert — that's why they call us traitors — there's a sense of you betraying your country and the nation of Islam.
I knew that he would try to talk to me about Christianity, he was pretty aggressive, but he did not talk to me. The only friends he had were Christians. They used to go to Fellowship of Christian Athletes group and I stayed with him.
I went to my brother's in the U.S. because I, in fact, got a visit visa, because after the Gulf War, Kuwait was pretty devastated and I was probably in the ninth or 10th grade, and he was like, "You gotta do something. You need to stay in Kuwait and start working or you can try to go American and make it happen."
I just got a visit visa and my dad was like, "Don't come back. Do whatever you can, just don't come back. There's nothing here for you." I knew that I had to get here, put up with my brother, get into college, get legal, get some kind of status. That was my goal, and so the thing was I had left everything. Everything. I think I was 17, 18.
When my brother invited me to come and hang out with his group, I didn't know anyone. I started going to FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and that's when things started changing. I got exposed to Christianity and the message, the Gospel of Jesus and thought it was nuts, and that led to the encounter that night and that kind of changed everything.