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On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.  He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:

            Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.

DougSchifter

Doug Schifter, a New York livery cab driver.

Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life.  He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.]  He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter.  But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services.  Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.

Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City.  A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city.  At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another.  The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets.  Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.

When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs.  Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars.  The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market.  Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.

Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent.  One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew:  “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall.  There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society.  A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.

Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping.  Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.)  Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services.  The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.

DaniloCastillo

Danillo Corporan Castillo, a livery driver, in a photo  taken before he jumped to his death on 20 December 2017.  Source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/distraught-driver-killed-weeks-city-hall-suicide-article-1.3803684

Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street.  Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness.  This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”:  Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill.  As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”

The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later.  And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent.  Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands.  There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement.  What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS?  In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.

 

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Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.

(concluded)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

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Part Three of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

The Hindu nationalists whose writ runs large in much of India today have amply demonstrated that Islamic extremists are scarcely alone in their vicious instrumentalization of religion to political ends.  And India is by far from being the only example of a country where the virulent disease of nationalism has brought what are called “strong” men into power and emboldened their followers, who more often than not exhibit extreme forms of xenophobic conduct, to terrorize and intimidate political opponents as well as those who are, on one account or another, deemed alien to the nation.  In the United States, at least, evangelical Christianity has played a considerable if understated role in stoking the fires of xenophobic nationalism.

 

It is, however, the subject of Islam and American Muslims with which I would like to stay as I turn my attention from Pakistani Muslims to Indian Muslims.  What these days is termed the “radicalization” of Muslims is increasingly on display in India as well, and both the indifference of the state to the marginalization of Muslims, as well as the provocations to which they are subjected by belligerent Hindus, are likely to accentuate the trend toward such “radicalization”.  Kashmir is often pointed to as the most blatant example of the marginalization of the Indian Muslim, and Kashmir has long appeared in the manifestos of radical jihadi groups as among those Muslim-predominant places that need to be liberated from the rule of the infidel.

 

Nevertheless, as many commentators in and outside India have noted, Indian Muslims themselves have remained strikingly unreceptive to calls to global jihad.  More Muslims have been enlisted in various Islamic terrorist organizations from Britain, where they number in the vicinity of 3 million, than from all of India.  “India, with 180 million Muslims, has produced almost no jihadis.”  So ran a recent headline in the Indian Express, a major English-language daily, which continues in this vein:  “Muslims here see stake in political system.”  If one is perhaps inclined to dismiss such a view as propaganda from an Indian publication, we may consider that the stodgy and highly respected The Economist, which cannot be accused of being partial to India, ran an article in 2014 entitled, “Why India’s Muslims are so Moderate.”  While noting that “India’s Muslims generally have reasons for some gloom”, enduring, for example, lower levels of education, poorer employment prospects, and diminished representation in government jobs in comparison with Hindus, the article also highlights the repudiation of violence across a broad swathe of Indian Muslim communities and their engagement with members of other religions.  “The contrast with the sectarian bloodletting, growing radicalism and deepening conservatism in Pakistan next door”, states the author, “is striking.”  This is much the same conclusion reached by the New York Times correspondent who shortly thereafter wrote on “Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized.”

 

I am aware, I think, as much as anyone else of how much of the present political discourse has pivoted around the ‘Good Muslim’ vs. ‘Bad Muslim’, or around the ‘extremist Muslim’ vs. the ‘moderate Muslim’.  So, I am cognizant of the perils of such discourse, and likewise of how the ‘Good Muslim’ is really a cloak for anti-Muslim sentiment that cares not to reveal itself as such.  There is, for those who decry or lament the very presence of Islam in their midst, some capital to be derived from speaking of the ‘Good Muslim’ with approbation.  The discourse of the ‘Bad Muslim’ is, in the present political climate, here to stay: the question is whether we might derive a different kind of politics from the figure of the Muslim who is not merely an object to be appropriated into the framework of a conservative or liberal politics.

 

The anomalous figure of the Indian Muslim in contemporary politics to which I have adverted thus deserves much greater attention than anyone has been lavished on him thus far.  One would not know any of this from a reading of contemporary Western ‘authorities’ on the politics of Muslim societies.  Gilles Keppel’s The War for Muslim Minds:  Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004), makes absolutely no reference to India:  apparently, on this, rather not uncommon reading, India partakes neither of the West nor of Islam and thus has no say or investment in this matter. I fear similarly that when “Muslim Americans” are invoked, it is a certain kind of Muslim, the supposedly “authentic” Muslim who is of ‘Middle Eastern’ provenance, who is generally being brought to mind.  There is little if any cognizance of just who these Muslim Americans are and very little acknowledgement that they are the inheritors of a great many different, and often conflicting, traditions and histories.

Early_American_Ahmadis

Early converts to the Ahmadiyya movement. Two missionaries, Sufi Bengalee and Khalil Nasir, are sitting at the center.  Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahmadiyya_in_the_United_States

 

Ten percent of the Asian Indian population of around four million in the US is comprised of Muslims, though there is virtually no mention of them in the voluminous commentary on Muslims that appears in the press every day.  If they are to any degree representative of the strands of Indian Islam to which I have very briefly alluded, should we say that they are perhaps uniquely positioned to mediate between Asian Americans and Muslim Americans, as well as between Muslim Americans and American society at large?  While Moustafa Bayoumi’s attempt to briefly complicate the history of Muslim Americans is commendable, and he is entirely right that “Muslim Americans” are not just a “post-2001 population”, South Asian Muslims appear nowhere in his commentary.  Consider this:  if we are to speak of the beginnings of organized Islam in the United States, and the possibilities of multiracial coalitions between South Asians, Arabs, and American Muslims, how can we possibly overlook—as he does—the role of Ahmadiyya preachers, who had arrived in the US in the 1920s from what was then undivided India, in giving Islam in the US a new lease of life and in overcoming, as Junaid Rana has put it trenchantly, “racial and ethnic separation that existed not only in the Muslim community, but the U.S. and globally”? (See “Islam and Black America:  The Story of Islamophobia”, Souls 9, no. 2 (April-June 2007), 156.)

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV,  see: https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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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)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Part III of North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation

38thParallel

he dividing line between North and South: United Nations forces are seen retreating from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 1950, across the 38th parallel.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JHYydbZ 

The commonplace narrative of the Korean War renders the North’s surprise attack on the South on 25 June 1960 as a desperate attempt at land-grabbing and unification by a ruthless dictatorship.  Such accounts obfuscate a number of critical developments between 1945 and 1950. The Russians quit North Korea in late 1948; the Americans did likewise, leaving South Korea around the same time.  Forces from both Koreas frequently violated the border, and a series of incursions into North Korea from the South preceded the North’s invasion of June 25th.  Thoughts of unification were ever present among political leaders both in the South and the North:  as Kim il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and the founding father of the country’s political dynasty, wrote in January 1950 to the Soviet Ambassador to his country, “Lately I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country.” [See John Gaddis, We Now Know, 1998: 73]

CapturedNorthKoreans1950

Enter a captionUS Marines guarding three captured North Koreans in a picture believed to have been taken in 1950.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JITdQjk 

South Korea, for its part, was determined to seek unification on its own terms.  More importantly, the allegedly democratic regime installed in South Korea was scarcely less dictatorial than the one in the North.  The leading American historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cummings, speaks of the ferocity of anti-Communist sentiment and “an orgy of state violence” in the South, suggesting that “between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands of either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces.” “In short,” he has written in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (18 May 2017), “the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work—and were then put back into the power by the Americans.” It is not difficult to understand, however opaque such considerations may be to successive American administrations, why North Korea fears the axis of South Korea-Japan-United States, and why the Kim dictatorship appears to the subjects of the North Korean state as the heroic champion of revolutionary nationalism that slayed the dragon of Japanese imperialism.

If much in occluded in the commonplace narratives of Korea’s history between 1945-50, the pulverization of North Korea from the air during the war constitutes perhaps the most gruesome chapter in the global history of aerial bombing.  The “U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm”; in comparison, 503,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the US in the Pacific Theatre, an area vastly greater than North Korea, in four years during World War II.  On “an average good day”, according to an US Eighth Army chemical officer quoted in a recent study of napalm by Robert M. Neer, American pilots dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm, which US Marines cheerfully nicknamed “cooking oil”, over North Korea (see Napalm:  An American Biography [Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2013]). The sadistic Curtis Le May, one of the architects of the American fire-bombing of Japan and the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, quite casually admitted some years later, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population” (New Yorker, 19 June 1994).  Secretary of State Dean Rusk described what may be thought of as the formula that the United States put into practice in choosing targets: “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” According to the North Koreans, as reported by one historian, “by the end of the war” there were “only two modern buildings” that “remained standing in Pyongyang”, and by the fall of 1952 “every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed.” [See Charles K. Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960”, The Asia-Pacific Journal 7 (16 March 2009), 1-9.]

Pyongyang1953

Pyongyang in 1953, after the sustained aerial bombing by Americans.

 

NorthKoreaBombing1950

An elderly woman and her grandchild walk among the debris of their home in Pyongyang, in the aftermath of sustained aerial bombing by the Americans.   Source:  Keystone/Getty Images; see:  https://theintercept.com/2017/05/03/why-do-north-koreans-hate-us-one-reason-they-remember-the-korean-war/

The ‘forgotten’ war, when it is at all remembered, still remains in the American imagination a ‘limited’ war.  North Korea, however, experienced it as a ‘total’ war, a war of genocidal intent.  A handful of journalists and scholars have mustered the courage to speak of American war crimes in Korea, but no one has thought that the Kim dynasty in any manner stands exonerated of its own unspeakable crimes in North Korea.  Indeed, a recognition of the American role in killing close to three million civilians, the greater majority of them in North Korea, in wiping out the industrial base in North Korea, and in making impossible for some years agricultural production beyond subsistence levels, should not preclude one from recognizing the stranglehold that the Kim family dictatorship exercises over the lives of common people.  No defense of the brutal dictatorship of North Korea, which has obliterated thousands of lives and sent millions more into poverty while a handful of elites, led by the comical “Great Leader”, squander the country’s wealth to indulge in unspeakable luxuries, is implied in any criticism of American foreign policy.  What is transparently clear is that political discussions in the United States around Korea remain spectacularly oblivious both of the psychological effects of the war that persist into the seventh decade after its end and the purchase—in political, social, cultural, and educational terms—that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as little more than a concentration camp.

Beyond all this, however, is the one unpalatable truth that is not recognized in the laws and conventions that govern relations between states and shows how much further international law still has to evolve if the notion of being ‘civilized’ is not to remain a sham.  To threaten a sovereign state with genocide and nuclear annihilation, and that too under the roof of the United Nations, should itself be construed as a crime against humanity.  It is an indubitable fact that the United States has on several occasions, since the end of World War II, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.  In November 1950, President Truman had revealed at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea had always been “under consideration”.  Ever since, North Korea has lived under the shadow of that threat, and numerous American politicians have called for the nuking of the country: it is an intolerable burden for any country to shoulder.  There is but no question that the calls for dialogue and negotiation must be heeded, but the admission that constructive conversation, or whatever other anodyne term one prefers, is an indispensable requirement for ensuring that the Korean peninsula is not engulfed in unquenchable flames may not have much traction in the years ahead unless the notion that no country has a legitimate interest in nuclear weapons is seriously entertained.  Nuclear weapons ought not to be a matter of inheritance; if countries insist on that privilege, that alone should be enough to render them into pariahs.

(concluded)

[A slightly shorter version of this 3-part piece was first published as a single article as “North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation”, Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol 52, no. 45 (11 November 2017), pp. 20-223.]

 

For Part 1, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/north-korea-and-the-threat-of-nuclear-annihilation/

For Part 2, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/the-present-iteration-of-a-long-simmering-war/

 

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Part II of:  North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation 

The present escalation of the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong-un commenced after a series of missile tests over the summer of 2017 by North Korea.  North Korea’s missile testing program commenced in the late 1970s using a Scud-B from the Soviet Union and remained confined to Scuds until the late 1980s.  It is now nearly 20 years since it fired its first ballistic missile, but between 1999 and 2004 North Korea observed a moratorium on testing.  In 2005-6, testing was resumed:  perhaps not coincidentally, this is the period that followed the decisive defeat (and, eventually, execution on 30 December 2006) of Saddam Hussein, from which the father of Kim Jong-un may have drawn some lessons.  Kim Jong-un, at any rate, appears to be banking on his missile and nuclear programs to keep him from having to kowtow to the United States.  Since February 12 of this year, until its last test on November 29, North Korea has fired 22 missiles over 15 tests. On May 12, Kim presided over the launch of a Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of 3,000-5,500 kilometres; the same missile was tested again on August 29 and September 5, launched over Japan on both occasions.  Kim Jong-un is nothing if not unmindful of the place of July 4th, which marks Independence Day, in the American political imaginary: he chose that day to launch the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile which has a range that exceeds 5,500 kilometres and that Kim boasts could reach anywhere in the world.

NorthKoreaMissileTest

A woman at a train station in Seoul walks by a TV screen showing a news report about North Korea’s missile test, March 6, 2017.  Source:  https://www.voanews.com/a/seoul-says-north-korea-fired-ballistic-missiles-into-ocean/3751034.html

Trump took the bait.  On September 19th, at his maiden address before the United Nations General Assembly, he issued a warning to a small band of “rogue states” that the US would not stand by idly as they violated the rights of their subjects and the sovereignty of other nations.  Had he only condemned “the depraved regime in North Korea” for the “starvation deaths of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more”, Trump would have been following in the footsteps of other American Presidents; but he chose to go beyond, caricaturing Kim thus:  “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”  The United Nations was set up, in greater part, to enhance the prospects for global peace and cooperation:  and it is from this platform that Trump unabashedly declaimed on the possibilities of a legitimate genocide: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

Trump&Kim

Kim took little time in responding in kind. He ridiculed Trump as “a gangster fond of playing with fire”, adverting to the “totally deranged behavior of the U.S. President”.  The “Supreme Leader” of North Korea, one of the many epithets by which the country’s despot, the “Dear Respected Comrade” and the “Beloved Father”, is known, has his own way with words: he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” This missive would send Trump, who commands a vocabulary which is as small as his mouth is big, scurrying for the dictionary—only to find that “dotard” is nothing more than an old person, especially one who is weak and senile. And if there is anything that Trump ferociously dislikes, it is the suggestion that he is “weak”.  Promptly Trump tweeted back: “Kim Jung Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”  Kim Jung-un fired back—not just with words, but with an ICBM that traveled for 50 minutes and reached a height of 2800 miles:  with a potential range of 8000 miles, the Hwasong-15 can reach nearly any target in the continental United States.

A view of the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15's test that was successfully launched

The firing of Hwasong-15, November 29, 2017.  Source:  https://news.sky.com/story/us-north-korea-will-be-utterly-destroyed-in-war-11149752

The so-called “Forgotten War”

What has made possible an American consensus on North Korea such that its leader is never anything but a madman, a ruthless dictator who cares little for his people and even less for the rest of the world, and who may be “loony” enough to initiate a nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan, or—if the technology facilitates such an outcome—the United States?  What is elided in representations of Kim as the very picture of irrationality?  The Korean War is commonly described in the United States as “the forgotten war”, though it lasted three years, 1950-53, and led to upwards of 36,000 American casualties; it certainly takes a back seat in public discussions and collective memory to the Vietnam War, which lacerated American society and led to upheavals the reverberations of which are felt to the present day.

It is from Vietnam that one of the many enduring myths which have since informed American military intervention emerged, namely the idea that the war was only lost because the generals were compelled by supine politicians to fight it with one hand tied behind their backs.  The Korean War, on the other hand, has always appeared to have something of the insipid and the indecisive about it in American common understanding: three years after fighting broke out, the status quo was affirmed.  No Patton-like figure emerged from battles over a land which, if it is known for anything at all in the US, is synonymous with kimchee and barbecued meats; no stories are told in the vein of ‘Custer Died with His Boots On’; and neither is there any iconic photograph, say of soldiers gallantly and adamantly hauling the Star & Stripes to a victorious installation.  Three years gone by:  the Cold War had gone hot; it would revert to being cold. In these cold-blooded calculations, nothing is made of the immense loss of lives on the Korean side. No American monument to the dead in Vietnam, not even Maya Lin’s celebrated national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, even mentions that some 3.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the war, including 2 million civilians on both sides; but much worse is the national apathy about the Korean War, where the civilian count was higher, at around 2.73 million, and that too over a much shorter period of time.

The history of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and likewise the history of the American bombing of North Korea are both germane to the present situation.  For well over a thousand years, Korea remained a unified country.  Japanese incursions into Korea began around 1870, but Great Power politics enabled the Koreans to stave off colonization for a few more decades before Japan finally annexed Korea in 1910.  Resistance to Japanese rule intensified with the advent of communism, and the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 led to the declaration of Korean independence. The Soviet Union was not a force in the Pacific theatre of war; it had played no direct part in the liberation of Korea. However, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, and a day before a second nuclear weapon incinerated Nagasaki, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan. The consequence was that the spoils of war were, upon Japan’s surrender on August 15th, now to be divided between the victorious Americans and Russians, who carved out zones of influence.

Japan&KoreaOne1910NewspaperHeadline

The headline is self-explanatory.  Source:  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2010/08/22/general/uneasy-neighbors-across-the-sea/

Korea might well have remained a unified country, had either the United States or the Soviet Union lavished any real attention on it; but Korea was, at that time, not part of the calculus of global domination and neither country paid much attention to Korea [Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, 2001, Paras 237-38, 244-45].  Unlike Germany, Korea did not appear to have any strategic importance for either superpower; as the historian John Gaddis has written, “American and Russian forces remained there more to restrain each other than from any strong conviction, in either Washington or Moscow, that the territory itself was significant.” [We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1998: 70] It was along the 38th parallel that two countries came into existence in 1948:  the American zone became South Korea, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with its capital in Pyongyang, was formed in North Korea.

(To be continued)

For Part 1, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/north-korea-and-the-threat-of-nuclear-annihilation/

For Part 3, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/bombing-and-nuking-north-korea/

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I:  An American Consensus on North Korea  

(First of three of four parts)

If there is anything that has been established with absolute veracity since the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump to the White House, it is that the American President is a consummate liar.  The man who has been shouting himself hoarse with denunciations of ‘fake news’ is by far the most profligate proponent, initiator, and consumer of fake news.  (He denies being hooked to television, and more particularly to that den of troglodytes known as Fox News, but all the evidence points to the contrary.)  But all this is no news at all, not nearly one year into his presidency.  He has made liars of others as well, which is not a lesser offense and is certainly more ominous in its implications. The Washington Post on October 10th reported that, in the 263 days since he had held office, Trump had advanced 1318 false or misleading claims; that number of “false claims” now most likely stands at 2000, though, considering that Trump has only to open his mouth and out comes a lie, it would make more sense to keep a count of the non-falsehoods that have emanated from him.  Any other exercise would be superfluous.

DONALD-TRUMP-CNN-fake-news

Source:  http://washingtonstarnews.com/trump-to-cnn-you-are-fake-news/

Senior members of his own party, whose own ideological disposition tends towards the extremely conservative, have castigated him as wholly unreliable and a miniscule few have taken the step of declaring him as unfit for office. Never mind the fact that the Republicans who have denounced Trump—the more diplomatic-minded, perhaps mindful of what is described as Trump’s “base”, describe him as ‘unhinged’ for office—are something like the pieces of sausage, if I may paraphrase the great Austrian wit Karl Krauss, who balk at being described as pigs.  His last Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had once appeared to most liberals as a nightmare: Barack Obama, we have only to recall, received the Nobel Peace Prize merely for not being Bush.  Given how the winds are blowing, it is not inconceivable that Trump may a few years hence receive the Nobel Peace Prize, merely—no mere mere, this one—for not having initiated the nuclear annihilation of another nation-state.  If that should happen, that will not be fake news, either.

FakeNews&Trump

Source:  http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/02/24/wash-post-stands-behind-9-source-story-after-trump-calls-it-fake-news

Tragically, some liberals—it is not difficult being a liberal in the United States, even in these rugged times, if one accepts that minimally it only requires that one not be deranged, intellectually imbecilic, and morally bankrupt—are now beginning to think of the 43rd President, who has recently attacked Trump without mentioning him by name as someone who is leading the country into a precipitous decline as a respected world power, as a “decent” man.  They have evidently forgotten, or think it of no consequence, that Bush and his cohorts celebrated bombing Afghanistan, as they would say, into oblivion; if this savagery was not enough, the fiction of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) was deployed to enlist “the international community” in an illegal war against Iraq, the consequences of which can be seen in the incessant turmoil into which Iraq and much of the Middle East has been plunged since early 2003 and the birthing of that Frankenstein monster called by various names, among them ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.

It says something about the United States that the war-mongering George W. Bush has now been rapidly elevated as a voice of moderation and prudence. However, whatever the supposed differences between Bush and Obama, or between the Republican establishment and what is commonly and mistakenly described as its radical “fringe”—which, it must be said unequivocally, is far more than a fringe—comprised of white supremacists, xenophobic nationalists, militarists, and Tea Party ideologues, there are a number of issues on which there is an unanimity of opinion, none as important as the threat that North Korea is purported to represent to the United States.  True, a great many American politicians and commentators have criticized Trump for his intemperate use of language in discussions around North Korea, and some thought his use of Twitter to threaten war against a sovereign state was injudicious. Something as mighty as the annihilation of a nation-state should surely not be promised through a Twitter feed, no?

kim-jong-un

Source:  https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/kim-jong-un-sips-hennessy-while-the-north-korean-people-starve.html/?a=viewall

Why Trump should have been expected to display more restraint in this matter than in any other is something of a puzzle, unless of course one holds to the view that on the matter of North Korea Trump ought to have been more calculating since the stakes—outbreak of nuclear war—are infinitely higher than on the various other matters where Trump has chosen a path of conflict. There is thus a current of feeling that Trump would be better advised to negotiate rather than issue naked threats.  But none of this signals any substantive difference of opinion even among Trump’s critics and detractors about the existential threat that North Korea is thought to pose to the US or world security, or the characterization of North Korea as a wholly “rogue” state run by a bellicose madman. On North Korea, at least, there is an overwhelming American consensus—not about how to ‘handle’ this ‘rogue state’, but rather on the unmitigated evil that this tin-pot nuclear-armed dictatorship singularly poses to the free world.

(To be continued)

For Part 2, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/the-present-iteration-of-a-long-simmering-war/

For Part 3, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/bombing-and-nuking-north-korea/

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