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Anxious Nations React Fearfully To Rapid Influx Of Migrants, Hamid Says


And I'm Steve Inskeep with the History Of Our Time. We're asking writers, thinkers and political leaders to help us define how the world is changing.


FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: The problem, I think, really is in the polarization, that there's so much anger and distrust.


MARY ROBINSON: But I think we do have a very, very unequal world. And it's getting worse.

INSKEEP: Former Irish President Mary Robinson and writer Francis Fukuyama began our talks on this disorienting time.


And this morning, let's meet a writer who calls this a hinge moment. Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani novelist. His novels explore the tensions in the lives of people who move from one country to another. And Hamid knows those tensions well. He was a kid when his family moved from Lahore, Pakistan, to San Francisco. Later, he lived in New York and London before raising his family in Lahore.

MOHSIN HAMID: I've been travelling so much that when I'm in one place for a long time, I start fantasizing about wanting to leave. And so in terms of how I've been shaped, it's very difficult for me to look at things as just a Pakistani or just an American or just a British person, which makes me suspicious of the idea that those viewpoints can exist at all.

GREENE: Mohsin Hamid insists that migration is inevitable. And it's changing all nations, including the United States, whether we like it or not.

HAMID: A majority of public school children entering elementary schools in the U.S. are nonwhite. Countries are becoming much more diverse. And so the idea that we can all go back to this one pure notion of what we were I think is a minority view, even if it's politically ascendant right now.

GREENE: And Hamid knows it is ascendant.

HAMID: There's a growing sense of anxiety that people feel really all over the world. Places are changing. Their cultures are being diluted, that mixing is happening. But the fact is cultures have been changing and mixing has been going on since the beginning of human evolution.

But change is getting faster and faster. Technological change is intensifying. We're becoming terrified by social media, by information. And in this state of high anxiety, we're looking to attach that anxiety to something. And cultural change, demographic change is what we're attaching it to.

GREENE: Then what is the answer? I mean, what is the ultimate answer if you don't have borders, if you don't put up some walls? I mean, is it a world with no borders, no cultural national identities? Couldn't that lead to anarchy?

HAMID: Well, certainly it could lead to anarchy, although many parts of the world feel pretty anarchic already. But the first problem to solve is how can we reduce levels of anxiety creating consistently bad political outcomes and political decisions by populations - by Democratic populations?

So if people feel so anxious that they think that, you know, the murder rate in America is going up or that world standards of living are falling, these are factually not true. The truth is we are at danger of being so terrified by our sense of what reality is that we're going to make some very bad decisions.

GREENE: You know, one thing we've often talked about is that the threat from ISIS, for example, these horrific acts in cities like, you know, Paris, Istanbul, they feel terrible and it stokes fear. Many people argue that this is an extremist group that is actually losing territory and becoming less powerful and that we should always put attacks like that in perspective.

Is that the sort of thing you're talking about, we as a society need to do a better job of not exaggerating, being honest about what the actual threats are?

HAMID: Yeah, I think that's it because, you know, there are certain kinds of threats that we don't seem particularly frightened about, you know, climate change, that are potentially catastrophic for our species. Other kinds of threats like terrorist attacks are, of course, horrific and terrible but will affect one in a million of us. And we have lost all sense of proportion.

The first line of defense in terrorism - and I say this as somebody who lives in Pakistan which has suffered much terrorism. And I know people who have been killed. I know them personally. The first line of defense against terrorism is very simply courage.

You have to conduct yourself in this world in a way where you are not overwhelmed by anxiety by things that frighten you. That's what terrorists are trying to do is that they're trying to frighten people and take a very weak position because they can't do all that much to change society.

GREENE: Then what - where do you see us being as a world, as a planet, say, 200 years from now? Will there be borders in the ideal world that you imagine?

HAMID: I always think it's useful to look back 200 years when we're imagining forward 200 years. So think of America 200 years ago. It had just been founded as a country. It was a bunch of colonies on the Eastern Seaboard. And now look at America today. It is profoundly different in geographic scope, economic scope, culture and the degree of diversity and intermixing that occurs.

I think that 200 years from now, things will be as different from today as America is from 200 years ago or as Pakistan was from 200 years ago. We're likely to see enormous amounts of migration. Billions of people are going to move. And countries will be transformed. And cultures will be transformed. And that's the way of the world. And we shouldn't expect it to stop.

GREENE: OK. So if you see a world in two centuries with movement happening everywhere, borders that are much looser, what role is this moment playing in that evolution?

HAMID: Well, I think that in some senses you can imagine that America set in motion an example of how this can play out, that you can have enormous amounts of migration and people mixing. And you result in these incredibly successful countries like the United States.

But now you see people moving away from that belief system because we haven't articulated a way for this world of increased mixing to feel better to us. It might feel better to us if actually we are in the process of this mixing able to have social, cultural, spiritual forms of engagement that make us less terrified. And so I think this is a kind of hinge moment.

GREENE: I'm struck because I don't hear any blame from you or anger from you directed at people who are afraid right now in the United States and France, elsewhere, people who are afraid and have this instinct to want to wall off borders. You're not blaming them or angry at them.

HAMID: No, not at all. I mean, I think it's entirely understandable. We are terrified. And if we're terrified, it's entirely understandable that we'll vote for people, you know, like Marine Le Pen in France who wants to create walls. I think that's an entirely understandable reaction. I don't blame people like that.

For all of us who believe in a more cosmopolitan world, we are singularly failing to articulate what that world should look like and how we can get there. And because we're failing to do so, people are frightened.

GREENE: Mohsin Hamid, it has been a real pleasure. Thanks so much for your thoughts, we appreciate it.

HAMID: Thank you.

GREENE: Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, the author of "Exit West," spoke to us via Skype from his home in Lahore, Pakistan. We'll hear more takes on the History Of Our Time each week this spring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.