Against a backdrop of Islamic dictatorship under Pakistan's General Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq and a growing sense of religious homogenization, Abid Imam grew up with a strong belief in the need for separation of ‘mosque' and state. His parents, intellectuals and agriculturists who were members of Pakistan's Shi'a minority, were politicians who struggled against one-party religious rule.
In 1985, when the first elections were held against Zia-ul-Haq, Mr. Imam's parents ran in opposition to the pro-military government. His father was elected speaker of the Assembly. Three years later, his mother defeated a religious cleric to win a seat in the National Assembly. (When the latter was later killed, his mother was added to the list of suspects.) So dangerous was the climate that, for several years, Mr. Imam was required to travel with bodyguards, undoubtedly contributing to his aversion to the persecution of those who disagreed with the religious mainstream.
Mr. Imam attended Yale University, where he majored in history and international studies. One of his more interesting non-academic pursuits was working as an archivist at Yale's Sterling Library, where he watched videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors in an effort to verify details of the various locations they mentioned. "While the project was depressing, it was inspiring to hear the tales of those who had survived," he says. "I remember distinctly watching the testimony of a Greek Jew from Salonika, today called Thessaloniki, which had had a vibrant Jewish population under Muslim rule."
After college, Mr. Imam taught junior high school English and history in Morocco. Next, he moved back to his mother's farm, where he managed the dairy and horses, harvested a cotton crop, and sowed wheat for the winter—an experience he describes as "a completely different pace of life and exposure to a different, parallel world."
Mr. Imam's interest in law stems primarily from his observation of the difficulties facing Pakistan as the result of its having two legal systems—one religious and one secular. "I'm a fervent believer in separating the two as a way to achieve progress," he says. Although his family is made up of lawmakers, he will be the first lawyer.
It was the great diversity of Columbia Law's student body, as well as the chance to live in "the most exciting city in the world," that attracted Mr. Imam to Columbia. He was not disappointed. "My friends who are minorities at other law schools are envious because of the racial, international, and cultural diversity in the JD program," he adds. Balancing a busy extracurricular life with his studies, Mr. Imam serves on the boards of the Columbia Society for International Law, the Muslim Law Students Association, the South Asian Law Students Association, and Students Speaker Series. Courses he has taken include International Law, International Trade Law, Transnational Litigation and Arbitration, and a seminar on Foreign Direct Investment.
Will Mr. Imam follow his parents' footsteps into politics? Like many law students, he says he is keeping his options open. On the public-interest side, he had completed a Human Rights Internship with the organization InterRights in London, where, among other projects, he researched a land-dispute case from Niger to see whether it could be brought for resolution to the African Commission. Yet, he also desires the intensive training that one receives at a law firm, and worked at a law firm during his second summer. Whether he will return to Pakistan is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: if he does, his legal education will be very useful there.