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Archive for the ‘Politics of Knowledge Systems’ Category

PunjabAssemblyMarch2017

Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh and other ministers and MLAs at the Vidhan Sabha [Punjab Assembly], Chandigarh, March 2017.  Photo & Copyright: Keshav Singh, Hindustan Times.  

The Cabinet of the Punjab Government has approved an amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code and will place a bill before the Assembly to secure passage of legislation that would impose a life sentence upon those convicted of desecrating religious texts.  Sec. 295A presently stipulates a prison term of no more than three years for anyone found guilty of outraging, or attempting with malicious intent to outrage, the religious sentiments of the practitioners of any faith.  A number of commentators have in recent days objected strenuously and with passionate conviction to legislation that is unquestionably liable to abuse and will almost certainly further undermine the already endangered secular structure of the Indian polity, but their arguments, as I shall suggest shortly, do not go far enough; indeed, their arguments do not as much as recognize the principal intellectual shortcoming of the proposed legislation.

Before a consideration of the immense difficulties that inhere in this proposed legislation, let it be said that most of the commonplace arguments that have been raised against this extremely foolish and dangerous gesture on the part of the Congress government are not insignificant.  First, it must be recognized that there was a spate of incidents in late 2015 involving the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib and police firing in Faridkot against aggrieved demonstrators.  Consequently, the concern with desecration of religious texts is not without substance. There is, secondly, the question of political expediency: the country will be going to elections in much less than an year, and the Congress is keen to remind voters in one of the few states where it has a real presence that it has done more than the Akali Dal to defend the religious sentiments of the Sikhs. This would scarcely be the first time, of course, that the Congress would be attempting to position itself as a champion of religious minorities. Judging from its previous forays in this direction, one can hazard the speculation that the outcome on this occasion will once again do no credit to the Congress.

GuruGranthSahibDesecration

Demonstration by SGPC [Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee] activists agains the allleged descration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Punjab, 2015.  Photo copyright: Agence France-Presse (AFP).  

Thirdly, the Akali Dal government in 2016 did pass legislation that sought life imprisonment for desecrating the Sikh holy book, as well as an enhanced prison term of ten years for offenders against other religious faiths, but the Central Government returned the legislation both on the grounds that the prescribed punishments were “excessive in law” and, more importantly, in violation of the principles of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The violation was construed as emanating not even remotely from the fact that the state had no business in using its coercive powers to enforce religious belief, but rather from the curious fact that in prescribing a higher penalty for desecrators of the Guru Granth Sahib than for those had insulted the holy books of other faiths, the Centre charged the state government with elevating one religion over another and thereby violating the central tenet of Indian secularism which insists on parity for all religions.  It is for this reason that the proposed amendment to Sec. 295A stipulates that “whoever causes injury, damage or sacrilege to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Srimad Bhagwad Gita, Holy Quran and Holy Bible with the intention to hurt the religious feelings of the people, shall be punished with imprisonment for life”.  What was deemed as “excessive” punishment is now sought to be imposed with uniformity upon an offender found guilty of the said offence, regardless of religion.  Apparently, barbarism towards all is to be preferred to a barbarism that is partial.

Much else has been said, and with due reason, against the amendment to the IPC.  The application of “blasphemy laws” in neighboring Pakistan, about which I shall have much more to say in another essay soon, demonstrates the extraordinary hazards of such legislation:  people often falsely charge others to settle personal scores, and those alleged to have committed an offence have sometimes been killed in acts of vigilante justice by mobs acting at the instigation of religious zealots.  Existing laws in India are sufficient to deal with whatever cases of the desecration of religious books or sites of worship might arise; in this matter as in in nearly every other, such as for instance the entire question of ‘lynching’, the laws are rigorous enough and it has long been recognized that the problem resides rather in the fact that there is no will to enforce them.  There is also the equally substantive issue that the threshold for what is deemed ‘religious hurt’ continues to be lowered.  The three dozen retired civil servants, many with considerable standing in Indian society, who have addressed an open letter to the Punjab Chief Minister quite rightly point to the “ill-founded prosecutions” that are likely to arise from such legislation, and they are doubtless right in arguing that “blasphemy laws are a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression, a fundamental right.”

While all these arguments have merit, they nevertheless occlude the most fundamental problem not only in the framing of the new legislation but in the interpretation of Indian society.  Let us note the use of the phrase, “blasphemy laws”, common to nearly everything that has been written on the subject.  The legislation in question does not use the word “blasphemy”, but all commentators have understood the gist of it as prescribing penalties for blasphemy.  Like many of the categories that inform our intellectual discourse in India, “blasphemy” is part of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that was handed down to India in the wake of colonial rule.  Moses is told by the Lord to tell the Israelites, “When any man whatever blasphemes his God, he shall accept responsibility for his sin . . . . all the community shall stone him; alien or native, if he utters the Name, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:15-16).  Moral theologians regarded blasphemy as a sin; some, such as Aquinas, held it as a sin against faith.  The Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian I, decreed the death penalty for blasphemy, and in large parts of the Christian world blasphemy remained punishable by death until comparatively recent times.

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A cartoon by the Brazilian Carlos Latuff.  Copyright:   Carlos Latuff.  Source: https://theintercept.com/2015/01/09/solidarity-charlie-hebdo-cartoons/

What is absolutely striking, and germane for us in India, is the fact that the idea of blasphemy has no point of reference or analogue in Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism. The idea is absolutely foreign to at least the adherents of these religions.  Indians, whatever their religious faith, understand the reverence in which holy books are to be held, or the respect that is to be paid to religious shrines, but it is questionable whether most of them would be moved by arguments about “blasphemy”.   What does blasphemy mean to a Hindu, and what is “the holy book” that is being blasphemed against?  On whose authority does the Punjab Government pronounce that the Bhagavad Gita is to the Hindu what the Bible is to the Christian or the Quran to the Muslim?  How did the view of a certain, and to a considerable extent Anglicized, element of the Hindu middle class about the Gita, come to represent the view of all Hindus?  How does one even begin to understand that every faith, and not only Hinduism, began to be shaped in the image of Protestant Christianity commencing in the late 18th century?  We have here, in the present debate about “blasphemy laws”, another instance of how our thinking takes place without any reference to the categories produced by Indian thought and without any awareness of the fact that the intellectual legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition are unthinkingly deployed to frame very different experiences.

HinduBlasphemy?

So should we view this as “Hindu Blasphemy”?  The cover of Business Today shows cricketer M. S. Dhoni, one of the many new Gods of modern India.

I am reminded, finally, of an anecdote from the life of Vivekananda.  It is reported that on a visit to Kashmir, some of Vivekananda’s followers were both despondent and angry at seeing the broken images of the goddess strewn over the countryside.  They swore that henceforth they would not permit the images of the goddess to be defiled. Vivekananda turned to them with a retort, “Do you protect the Goddess, or does the Goddess protect you?”  The Chief Minister and the other self-appointed guardians of religion can usefully take home a lesson from this story.  It is arrogant for them to believe that the great faiths of India require the protections of the Indian state; and this is, of course, apart from any consideration of whether the Indian state, which has more often than not shown reckless disregard for the citizens of this country, has any moral standing to uplift these faiths.  On nearly every ground that one can think of, the Punjab and Central governments would be well advised to withdraw the contemplated amendment to Sec. 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

(A shorter version of this was published as “A Foreign Offence” in the Indian Express (print edition), 11 September 2018.

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Part III of “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal”

PNOakPhoto&TajPamphlet

Preposterous as P N Oak’s arguments doubtless are, scarcely worthy even of rebuttal, the position adopted in recent months by BJP hardliners and their supporters, as outlined in the first part of this article, compels us to move towards a history of the Taj Mahal that would be more sensitive to considerations which are far removed from those who marvel at the architecture and the design of the entire complex or who are entranced by the idea of romantic love.  Oak’s popularity is not of recent vintage: his claims generated a controversy that was, as I had written fifteen years ago in my History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2002; 2nd ed. with postscript, 2005), carried out in the “Letters to the Editor” column of the English-language daily Indian Express over a period of four months in 1987-88. Historians have felt bound to rebut his claims, which suggests how Hindu nationalists have been able to shift the grounds of the debate.

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This is from a website called “The Truth Behind Taj Mahal (Tejo Mahalaya).”  It offers what is claims are “103 Facts” about the Taj.  Source:  https://www.moviemint.com/the-truth-behind-taj-mahal-tejo-mahalaya-lord-shiva-temple/

In December 1989, to take one illustration, the monthly magazine Seminar, which has at times occupied an important place in the intellectual life of the country, devoted an issue to the theme of “Mythifying History”.  One of the contributors, R. Nath, then a historian at Rajasthan University, penned a piece called “The Taj:  A Mausoleum”.  Nath, who had devoted many years of his life to the study of the Taj Mahal, sought to show conclusively that Oak does not have a shred of evidence to support his various allegations that the Taj Mahal was earlier a temple devoted to Shiva, or even a palace built or owned by one of Akbar’s generals, Raja Mansingh (1550-1614).

DomeOfTheTajMahal

“The dome of the Taj Mahal bearing a trident pinnacle made of a non-rusting eight-metal Hindu alloy. The pinnacle served as a lightning deflector too. This pinnacle has been blindly assumed by many to be an Islamic crescent and star, or a lightning conductor installed by the British. This is a measure of the careless manner in which Indian history has been studied till now. ”  This is part of the caption that appears with a photograph on one of many websites, following P N Oak, which claims to offer proof that the Taj Mahal is Tejo-Mahalaya, a Shiva Temple.  Source:  http://www.krishnapath.org/photographic-evidence-taj-mahal-a-vedic-temple/

There is little doubt that the political preeminence of the BJP at present has given Oak’s ideas a fresh lease of life.  On 26 March 2015, a petition was filed in the Agra District Court by six lawyers acting on behalf of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindutva’s principal ideological organization.  I should say rather that the petition was filed on behalf of Lord Shiva himself, since this deity is named as the plaintiff:  it is alleged by Mahadev [Shiva] that the Taj Mahal complex, which has long been under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India, is its lawful property.  The petition, where the lawyer Harishankar Jain appears as “friend” of the deity, states that “during the 12th century, Raja Paramardi Dev had built [the] Tejo Mahalaya temple palace, which at present in common parlance is known as Taj Mahal. The temple was later inherited by Raja Maan Singh, the then maharaja of Jaipur. After him in [the] 17th century, the property was held and managed by Raja Jai Singh but was annexed by Shah Jahan (1632) during his regime.”  The deity therefore sought lawful restitution of his property—and also protection from encroachment, defilement, and usurpation.  “The property is not a burial ground and has never been so in the past”, the petition continues, and it therefore requests that the use of the property for “purposes” other “than Hindu ‘pooja’ of the deity”—these other purposes being the offering of prayers by Muslims—be barred as “unconstitutional”.

There is much that is marvelously interesting in this petition:  as I have had occasion to remark to my students on many occasions, Hinduism suggests a continuum between asuras [demons], humans, demi-gods, and gods.  If gods and goddesses can be born and reborn, there is no reason why they cannot ‘appear’ as plaintiffs in courts of law. Hinduism is nonpareil, as far as religions go, in its homage to the element of play.  The admixture of an invocation of the prerogatives of the deity and rights guaranteed under the constitution is likewise more than worthy of comment.  But let us leave aside all the fecund possibilities that come to mind. The Agra court in its wisdom admitted the petition, directing the central government, the ministry of culture, the Archaeological Survey, and the home ministry to file their replies within a month.  In November 2015, the Minister for Culture addressed Parliament and made it be known that in its opinion the Taj Mahal was a “tomb” and not a “temple”; more recently, on 17 August 2017, representatives of the Archaeological Survey appeared before the Agra Court and flatly rejected the claim that the Taj Mahal had ever been a Shiva temple.

There may be, it has been argued by Ebba Koch in her 2006 book on the Taj Mahal, a longer history of Hindu misgivings about the Taj.  She notes that despite the monument’s worldwide fame, it has been little studied—except perhaps by architectural historians.  Koch contends that the Archaeological Survey, which has been in existence since 1861, has never published a guidebook to the monument.  But Koch seems to puzzle little over this omission, if indeed she is right about the ASI’s failure to publish a guidebook to the most famous site under its care, and seems rather certain about what this failure portends.  Thus, she writes: “The image of the Taj Mahal has been reproduced more often that of any other building. It has become a symbol of India, despite India’s uneasiness with its Islamic past and despite being a tomb, which has no place in the Hindu tradition.”  Has India always been uneasy about its Islamic past?  Are some communities rather more uneasy than others?  “That the Taj was founded as a Hindu temple is now the firm belief of many a visitor,” Koch argues, “who is at pains to put his foreign fellow visitors right about the origin of the building”: “The Taj Mahal is really ‘Tejo-Mahalaya’, a Shiva temple.”

Dwight Eisenhower, Jawaharlal Nehru

President Dwight Eisenhower on a visit to the Taj Mahal with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, 13 December 1959.

So perhaps, whatever the Archaeological Survey or the Culture Ministry might say, P. N. Oak and his acolytes have triumphed after all.  But perhaps we should also be less hasty in reaching such a conclusion.  I have not read Koch’s book and have only seen excerpts from her book in reviews, and I am unable to say what led her to the view that the communal history of the Taj has now become part of Hindu commonsense and that the Taj-as-Tejo-Mahalaya is now part of “the firm belief of many a visitor”.  Did she speak to the so-called guides who roam the Taj’s grounds in the hundreds? Has she read pamphlet literature in Hindi which would lead her such a view?  The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti [literally, ‘Organization for the Reawakening of Hindus], set up for the “Establishment of the Hindu Rashtra” [Hindu nation-state], has already deified “Pujya [Venerable] P. N. Oak” and given over an entire web page to the “Shocking Truth of the Taj Mahal”, but do these Hindutva enthusiasts reflect the views of common Hindus?  As I have argued so often before, Hindu nationalists have been, from the inception of the internet, ardent advocates of the digital rewriting of Indian history.

And yet Koch’s reading is not entirely communal, even if she doesn’t pursue the further implications—about Indian Islam—of her own argument.  The Taj Mahal poses problems for Muslims as much as it does for Hindus—perhaps even more so.  As Koch points out, “tombs were from the beginning a controversial issue” in Islamic traditions:  the devout have held tombs “to be irreligious, heathen, and non-Islamic”, and there are hadiths which unequivocally forbid worship at tombs as a form of idolatry and polytheism. Certainly, if India had been under Wahhabi rule, the Taj might well have been reduced to rubble by now.  The Saudi religious establishment is nothing if it is not full of ferocious anti-idolaters, and we should remember that they have not even spared the mosque of Fatima, the grave of Muhammad’s mother, the tombs and graves of early martyrs of the religion, and so on. Ziauddin Sardar is among many scholars who have documented the wholesale desecration of Mecca in recent years—not by infidels, but by those who describe themselves as Islam’s most zealous votaries.  I doubt, however, that there are more than a handful of Muslims in India who would call for the destruction of the Taj Mahal as ‘grievously un-Islamic’.  Indian Islam has not been reduced to this state—not yet, in any case.

(To be continued)

For Part I, “Ruckus over the Taj Mahal:  Monumental Love–and Lunacy”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/ruckus-over-the-taj-mahal-monumental-love-and-lunacy/

For Part II, “Hindutva’s History of the Taj Mahal”, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/04/hindutvas-history-of-the-taj-mahal/

Part IV:  Towards Another History of the Taj:  Rumors, Legends, Longings

Part V:  A Political History of the Taj Mahal:  A Few Thoughts for Researchers

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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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(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)

 

A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

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/

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

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IX

 It is not surprising that a good portion of even mainstream America should have unequivocally condemned the display in Charlottesville of right-wing terrorism.  President Trump cannot be counted among those who came down swiftly on the neo-Nazis and their kinsmen.  He did not merely prevaricate but, in a scarcely veiled attempt to exonerate “white supremacists”, took it upon himself to condemn “all extremist groups”—though even this disapprobation was late in coming—before, on August 15th, stating with greater conviction in his pathetically juvenile English that “there is blame on both sides”: “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent.”  To take only the examples of prominent public figures who cannot remotely be accused of having a liberal disposition, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan described the white supremacists as “repugnant”, while Senator John McCain called them “traitors” on his Twitter account.  Even Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, whose own commitment to civil rights is, to put it mildly, exceedingly questionable, but who as the country’s chief law-enforcement officer must at least put forward the semblance of some respect for the rule of law, was moved to admit that “the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice.”

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Street clashes in Charlottesville, 12 August 2017. Source:  Los Angeles Times.  Photograph:  Michael Nigro / Pacific Press.

The widespread outrage over white extremist violence that followed has doubtless been genuine.  The liberal constituency in the US is considerable, and most people in that community do not condone violence, at least not right-wing violence directed against other Americans.  Moreover, one can even subscribe to racist sentiments and yet forswear violence.  In the frenetic world of social media, the hashtag #thisisnotus was at once embraced by thousands.  They may have done so to bring to mind the better possibilities that reside in the American self and to invoke a necessary political solidarity for the present.  And yet I have the inescapable feeling that the crass affirmation, “this is not us”, creates a much smaller place for reflection and dialog than the unthinkable:  #thisisallofus.  One could invoke, of course, “the hooded Americanism” that historians of the KKK have documented in such meticulous detail, or the lynchings that were invitations to Sunday picnics in Jim Crow South[i]; one could also point, if one stretched one’s canvas beyond the cruel deprivations to which black America has been subjected, to the genocidal tendencies that have conspicuously been part of the grand design of making and keeping America “great”.  Just how do these disingenuous expressions of outrage permit whiteness to remain unscathed even as white supremacists are banished, as they should be, to the realm of the barbaric and the unforgiveable?

LynchingAJollyGoodShow

Lynching:  What a Jolly Good Show!  This lynching took place in Duluth, Minnesota, not in the Deep South.  Source:  https://sherielabedis.com/2015/03/29/new-report-on-lynchings-in-jim-crow-south/

White supremacism necessarily entails a profound adherence to whiteness, but (to borrow a phrase from the scholar George Lipsitz) “the possessive investment in whiteness” runs deep through American culture and only manifests itself as white nationalist ideology or outright fascist-style violence occasionally.  A large and increasingly growing body of commentary by liberals and left-leaning scholars has now made the idea of ‘white privilege’ a familiar part of American political discourse.  Such white privilege takes many forms, some obvious and others scarcely so, commencing with the assumption that is tantamount to the original sin, namely that America belongs to white people just as white people can rightfully, naturally, and preemptively call America their own.  The white American, unlike the African-American, Japanese-American, or Chinese-American, has never had to be hyphenated:  as Roland Barthes would have it, he belongs to the realm of the exnominated, those who never have to be named, those who can be universalized and whose rules become everyone else’s rules (Mythologies, 1972, trans. Annette Lavers [New York:  Farrar, Straus & Giroux]).  There are other less transparent forms of whiteness, though with even a little prodding they can be easily excavated.  Such, to take one example from studies of environmental racism, is the notion that non-white communities should have to bear the burden of toxic and nuclear wastes, pollutants, and the garbage produced in everyday life.

White privilege is perhaps best witnessed in the mounting critiques over US immigration policy and affirmative action in higher education.  The Trump regime has, contrary to common opinion, little interest in stemming illegal immigration; by law, those who are in the US “illegally” can be summarily deported.  This is apart from the consideration that illegal immigrants are an invaluable asset to the American economy.  To understand the true import of pervasive anti-immigrant sentiments, it is sufficient to understand that the slogan, ‘Take America Back’, means nothing but taking America back to the period before the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 which made possible Asian and African migration into the US and thereby slowly but surely altered the social fabric of American life. “Make America Great Again” is not only a slogan calling for the revival of manufacturing in the United States and once again turning the country into the predominant industrial power in the world:  it is also a call to make American white again.  It is thus legal, rather than illegal, immigrants who pose by the greater problem for those who would like to see the US restored as a principally white dominion.

Similarly, the massive white unrest over affirmative action occludes two facts.  First, as every study has shown, and as is confirmed by a recent New York Times analysis extending to 100 universities, including Ivy League institutions and the flagship public universities, black and Hispanic students are today more rather than less underrepresented at such institutions than they were 35 years ago.  More significantly, it is almost never conceded that the entire system of higher education is effectively the consequence of an unwritten code of affirmative action over decades on behalf of white students. It is white entitlement, not supposedly the lower bar for admission for blacks and Hispanics, that has kept Asian Americans from predominating in elite American institutions.

In speaking of “the possessive investment in whiteness”, George Lipsitz was adverting to something more than white privilege; indeed, the more compelling part of his argument resides in the claim that “all communities of color suffer from the possessive investment in whiteness, but not in the same way.”[ii] Immigrant communities have, in their own fashion, sought to claim whiteness, or at least an approximation to it; whiteness has entered into the sinews, pores, arteries of American society.  Ironically, much of white America hasn’t quite fathomed its own overwhelming success; if it had, white Americans would not be staging, as they are today, a new secessionist movement.  Robert E. Lee, at least, would have understood the animated and largely cliché-ridden dispute over Confederate statues as fundamentally a proxy war over whiteness.  Even as he might have looked askance at having his own statues knocked down, he would likely have been pleased that the idea of secessionism continues to thrive.

 

[i] On the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in the US, I would point readers to a few works, among them:  Leonard J. Moore, Citizen KlansmenThe Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928 (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1971, reprint ed., 1995); David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism:  The History of the Ku Klux Klan, 3rd ed. (Durham, North Carolina:  Duke University Press, 1987); and Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond, ed. Anne P. Rice (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003).

[ii] See George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in WhitenessHow White People Profit from Identity Politics Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1998), 184.

 

(Concluded)

The two pars of this article were first published as a single piece in somewhat shorter form as “Whiteness and Its Dominion:  Letter from America”, in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) 52, no. 35 (2 September 2017).

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics VIII

“The problem of the twentieth century, wrote the African American intellectual W. E. B. DuBois in 1903, “is the problem of the color-line.” Nearly every book on race relations in the United States that has been published since, especially over the last several decades, has dwelled, if implicitly, on the prescience of DuBois’s observation.  Writing on the 40th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which pronounced the slaves as henceforth free and thus entitled to lay claim to the Jeffersonian formula of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, DuBois saw instead that the “very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair.”  That shadow, which the white man called “prejudice” and no more—something that could be undone, presumably, with education, cultivation of the virtues, goodwill, informed legislation, and social engineering—condemned the black person to “personal disrespect and mockery”, “ridicule and systematic humiliation”, indeed “the disdain for everything black.” (See W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk [1903], Mineola, New York:  Dover Publications. 1994), v, 6, 9, 111).

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W. E. B. DuBois, 1868-1963.  Source:  The Poetry Foundation.

However emboldened black people in the slave-owning slaves may have felt at the end of the Civil War and through Reconstruction, a period that some unrepentant whites characterized as one marked by ‘Negro swagger’, their liberty, such as it was, did not last very long.  Black America had to be brought to its knees, a project that still continues however disguised the forms in which such oppression takes place, however loud the voices clamoring for diversity, multiculturalism, respect, and tolerance.  Though DuBois would have been scarcely alone in his assessment of how the black person had become disenfranchised and consigned to what he unequivocally termed “a second slavery”, he deployed a striking metaphor to characterize what had befallen America and “the souls of black folk” (p. 7).  Early in life, he says, it dawned on him that he was shut out of the white world “by a vast veil”. This “veil” is something like Churchill’s “iron curtain”, but DuBois pushes the metaphor much further.  The numerous 18th century slave revolts, which suggest that “the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves,” had the effect of “veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection.”  And yet more, since “the Negro” is himself born “with a veil”:  in what is the book’s most arresting insight, albeit one where the language is anticipated by Hegel in his discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Phenomenology of the Spirit, DuBois describes the veil as one which “yields him no true self-consciousness”; the Negro can only see “himself through the revelation of the other world”, through the eyes of the other.  DuBois termed this phenomenon “double consciousness” (pp. 3, 28, 7).  Malcolm X was among those who drew on this idea in drawing a distinction between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro”:  though the former was able to maintain some, howsoever indistinct, form of autonomy, the latter was profoundly colonized, unable to see the world except through the eyes of the master.

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Kenza Drider, wearing a niqab, was detained Monday by undercover police officers at a demonstration in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, 11 April 2011.  Source:  New York Times; see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/12/world/europe/12france.html

DuBois’s metaphor of veiling remains apposite for our times, and may have yet ever greater salience, and not only because much of contemporary political discussion, and white anger, in the United States and Europe has swiveled around the figure of the veiled Muslim woman.  The ban on veiling, or more precisely on covering one’s face, in public has been in effect in France since April 2011.  Muslim women are not necessarily the only ones who are affected by this ban, nor are Muslim women mentioned explicitly; indeed, besides the burqa and niqab, the ban also covers masks, scarves, and helmets.  But, of course, the ban is targeted mainly at the practice of “Islamic veiling”.  Offenders are fined 150 Euros, or about US $165-180 depending on the rate of exchange.  Remarkably, one man, Rachid Nekkaz, had by April 2016 paid the fine on behalf of 1300 women charged with illegally veiling themselves in public, thus incurring a personal expense of 235,000 Euros.  This is in itself an extraordinary story, one that compels us to think anew about notions of tolerance and charity, and the ethos of hospitality:  but a story for another occasion.

The United States has no such ban on “Islamic veiling” or, more broadly, on covering one’s face in public.  Yet, it is white America that shrouds itself in a veil, unable to look upon itself, incapable of the self-reflexivity which would suggest both maturity and a capacity to confront the naked truth.  To unveil America’s unshakable grounding in a virulent and diseased whiteness, we can do little better than turn to the events that transpired not too long ago in a picture-postcard town in the state of Virginia, which housed the principal capital of the Confederacy.

 

What Happened at Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia, a two-hour drive from the nation’s capital, was home to two of the country’s “founding fathers”, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.  Each served as the Governor of Virginia and as President of the United States, but Jefferson also has the distinction of being the founder of the University of Virginia and the architect of the university’s signature building, the Rotunda.  In recent years, Charlottesville, perhaps in keeping with the notion of a ‘university town’, acquired something of a reputation as an outpost of liberal thought in a state that has long been a bastion of conservatism.

In July 2014, the US National Bureau of Economic Research pronounced Charlottesville the “happiest” place in America.  In the received view, it is a small town with most of the assets and none of the liabilities—traffic gridlock, pollution, social anomie—of a big city.  The scenic Blue Ridge mountains are nearby, the climate is temperate, and paeans there are many to the town’s supposed gastronomic refinements.  (This is surely one of the many ways in which the US has changed over the last few decades:  not only are tofu and yogurt widely available, and these were virtually ‘foreign’ foods in late 1976 when I first arrived in the US, but there is the cult of the chef and much hullabaloo over ingenuous culinary creations.  Universities lure students and faculty with the promise of gastronomic delights—one of many recruitment tools.)

Happy are those who know little of the past, one might say: Charlottesville, not unlike the state of Virginia, has ugly racial antecedents.  Its black population was not permitted to build their own church until 1864, not coincidentally in the thick of the civil war; even more ominously, considering that the US had partaken of two global conflicts to save the world from fascist tyranny and enshrine democracy as the supreme value, in 1958 the city responded to federal court orders to integrate white schools, issued in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) that declared segregation unconstitutional, by closing all its white schools as part of a concerted strategy of resistance.  A similar strategy was pursued by other cities and school districts in many of the southern states.

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Downtown Charlottesville, VA. (Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr)

If the town has indeed become more liberal, or more receptive to diversity, Charlottesville’s black people appear to be thinking otherwise.  The black share of the population has fallen from 22 percent in 2000 to 19 percent at present [Eligon 2017]. Many will put this down to gentrification and rising rents, but of course those have precisely been some of the ways in which black people have been run out of town and excised from the white world.

It is in this pleasure dome of happiness, then, that white America erupted recently as it does every now and then.  The ancient Greeks and Indians were among two people who understood that happiness is ephemeral; as the lawgiver Solon informs the vain king Croesus, “But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end:  for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”  On the night of August 11th, as a prelude to the call by the white supremacist Richard Spencer to “Unite the Right”, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through the campus of the University of Virginia bearing torches and swastikas, all to the accompaniment of slogans such as “blood and soil”, “White Lives Matter”, and “You will not replace us”.

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White supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally at the University of Virginia, 11 August 2017.  Photograph by Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty

The following day, they gathered in force at a public park in Charlottesville.  The ostensible reason for this gathering was a decision by the town council to remove an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who unsuccessfully attempted to lead the slave-holding states in secession from the Union.  These exponents of white terror found themselves facing a vigorous and much larger opposition comprised of liberals, left activists, ordinary citizens—a motley crowd of decent people.  Clashes ensued; the police stood by:  much of the world, but not most of gun-loving America, would have watched in astonishment at the sight of people openly flaunting assault weapons, automatic rifles, and handguns. Before the day was over, a young neo-Nazi sympathizer had, with intense deliberation, plowed his car into the crowd of protestors, thereby killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.

 

(To be continued)

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Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century:  The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.”  Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title.  A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable.  He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural:  in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such.  It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities.  In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation.  This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much.  To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications.   As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.

That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic.  Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine.  The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971?  Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves.  Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.

Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”.  Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example.  56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them.  To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted:  the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site.  It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice.  Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’.  The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars.  Every American life counts, as indeed it should.  Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.

Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives.  Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead.  But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit.  What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount?  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47)  There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead:  if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered?  Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?

The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering.  But of this I shall speak some other time.  For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed.  But what exactly is to be remembered?  Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror?  Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others?  If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering?  Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view?  Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.

 

 

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