Part Two of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”
I suggested in the first part of this blog piece that the place of Indians and more broadly South Asians within the fabric of Asian America Studies remains uncertain. How, then, should we deliberate over Moustafa Bayoumi’s call for a conception of Asian American Studies that is still more inclusive and responsive to the increasing presence of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans? “The complexity of the Muslim American experience”, he avers, “is something that Asian American studies has never really grappled with, I believe.” One can hardly disagree, except to ask if there is any other field of study, or discipline, that has “grappled with” the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”? And this notwithstanding the fact that the academic industry around Islam and Muslim societies has shown a phenomenal increase: the study of Hinduism, by contrast, falls under the ambit of a very small number of scholars. The American university is chock full of courses on Islam, Muslim societies, Middle Eastern history, and the contemporary politics of the Middle East. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has 60 institutional members, testifies to the growth of Middle East and Near East studies departments at American universities. There are, of course, a good many reasons for these developments, which extend from American political and economic interests in the Middle East to the archaeological interest in the Fertile Crescent and the kinship that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity as an ‘Abrahamic’ religion. It is during the time of George H. W. Bush that one heard the remark that if Iraq—and obviously the same holds true for the area as a whole—was broccoli-rich rather than oil-rich, saving Iraq from itself and ‘securing’ the roots of democracy in this part of the world would never have struck the Americans as a desirable objective. All this is apart from the consideration whether Western scholarly attention has been good for countries in the Middle East; nor am I, at present, inquiring into the politics of knowledge which has long enabled the study of the rest of the world by the West.
Sadly, as the remarks that follow will suggest, even Islamic Studies programs in the American academy do little to reflect the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”, judging at least from the narrow conception of Islam peddled by such programs. Whatever the shortcomings of Asian American Studies, and there are many, they may be less egregious than the sins of omission and commission with which Islamic Studies programs and other sectors of the American academy have engaged Muslim Americans. At least some Asian American scholars will balk at Bayoumi’s suggestion that their field encompass the histories and experience of Muslim Americans, even if one takes to heart his plea that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia, really, but about the ways in which people are interpellated and organized and come together within the United States as different types of ‘Asians.’” He means to say that the place where one is has no necessary or even any relationship to geographical determinism: that place is really a function of the psychogeography to which one has habituated oneself. Yet, the geographical coordinates are not altogether indeterminate, and so we find Bayoumi suggesting, in contradiction to his previous avowal that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia”, that Asian American Studies should “at least include those Arab Americans who hail from West Asia and those Muslim Americans who hail from Asia generally”. It thus appears that Asian American Studies both is and is not incipiently about “the geography of Asia”.
Before we speak of Muslim Americans, whether they be Arabs, North Africans, or South Asians—all candidates, it seems, for being viewed as “Asian American”, no doubt alongside Muslim Americans with origins from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere—it would be fruitful to advert to the problems that inhere in speaking of Islam as such. In the United States, especially, the Middle East, or what is otherwise called West Asia, is assumed to be the ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ home of Islam. It comes as a surprise to most Americans to be told that South Asia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, and that India, where fewer than 15% of the people are Muslims, and Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly a Muslim-majority state, each have around 180-200 million Muslims. Demography has its own politics; but numbers aside, by far the more germane consideration is that Islam developed in South Asia over a course of a millennium along considerably different trajectories than in West Asia. The tendency in the West, noticeable even in the works of distinguished scholars of Islam such as Ernest Gellner and Stephen Humphreys, has been to altogether ignore Islamic South Asia. The tacitly held view is that Islam in South Asia is something of a deviant form, an inauthentic and bastardized version of the true faith housed in the Arab world. When the “Islamic World” is referenced, it is at once the Middle East that is being called into attention—and then Indonesia, North Africa, and other Muslim-majority societies. As an experiment, I invite the reader to put “map of Islam” into the Google search engine: what it brought up at once was “the Islamic world”, which is defined as the 57 countries that belong to the “Organization of the Islamic Conference.” This is the default view of Islam in the West, replicated in thousands of books, web sites, media platforms, and in the opinion pages of journalists, policy makers, and so-called experts.
The consequence of this disposition is not merely that one becomes oblivious to what we might call the varieties of Islam. The more disturbing implications of such ignorance become apparent when one turns to an assessment of the turn that Islam has taken in Pakistan since the late 1970s. Pakistan is assuredly a part of the Muslim world, but it is as much, however difficult it may be for orthodox Muslims in Pakistan to concede this, a part of the Indic world. Over the course of the second millennium CE, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that was forged in the Indian sub-continent led to the brilliant efflorescence of music, architecture, cuisine, art, literature, and religious expression. Moreover, contrary to the commonplace view, Muslim-majority Pakistan was not explicitly forged as an Islamic state—which is not the same thing as a Muslim-majority state—when it was carved out of India in 1947. But Pakistani Muslims have increasingly been drilled with the idea, most particularly following the Islamicization policies of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, that their practices of Islam have been contaminated through centuries of close proximity to Hinduism, and that in turning their gaze westward, towards the historic homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, they will be liberating themselves from the cunning tyranny of effete Hindus. It is not even remotely surprising that the Islamic terrorists who have been wreaking havoc on the streets of Pakistan have been targeting not just religious minorities but also, just as ominously, those Muslims who in various ways have defied the creeping drumbeat of a Wahhabi-infused Islam which has now taken a vise-like grip over growing arenas of Pakistani society. One of the most prominent victims of the extremists last year was the great exponent of Sufi music, Amjad Sabri, killed in broad daylight after being accused of blasphemy—effectively a death sentence.
(To be continued)