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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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Lebensraum for the 'Maratha Manush': Thackeray and Hitler, Soulmates

The Shiv Sena are at it again.  This band of troglodytes and common thugs cannot rest for more than a few months without causing a huge stir.  Many things animate their passions, many are their grievances and the imagined humiliations that arouse their hostility.  They have some steady targets against which they fire away at will, but there is also an equally steady stream of moving targets.  In recent years, their most sustained agitations have been against those deemed foreigners, by which the Shiv Sena means non-Maharashtrians.  Indeed, one suspects that non-Indians (barring, of course, Pakistanis and all Muslims, whatever their country of origin) pose no problems as such for the Shiv Sena, since the Sena reserves its animus for those, such as Punjabis, Biharis, and others from the great Gangetic plains who are suspected of having ‘stolen’ jobs from Maharashtrians.  Some months ago, India’s supreme cricketing icon, Sachin Tendulkar, himself a Mumbaikar, received a stinging rebuke from the Sena for daring to suggest that Mumbai belonged to all of India rather than to Maharashtrians alone.  One can say, then, that the Sena is democratic in at least one respect, resolutely upholding the law of equal opportunity.  The mighty and the low, the famous and the obscure – none are spared if they do not meet the exacting standards of xenophobia, prejudice, and outright hooliganism established by the Sena.

Shahrukh Khan, often described as the reigning star of Bollywood, is the most recent enemy of the nation identified by Bal Thackeray, the aging and agitated but still agile leader of the Shiv Sena.  The sin with which Shahrukh is charged is none other than the suggestion, aired by some others as well, that the cricket teams which comprise the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have done an injustice to the Pakistani players by failing to make a bid for a single Pakistani player.  Why the IPL teams did not make any such bid is an interesting question in itself, and what it says about the sentiments which predominate among the truly moneyed classes in India, is a matter that I shall have to leave aside for the moment.   Shahrukh is alleged to have betrayed the nation by his remarks, but of course the matter is more complex.  As a Muslim, he has always been suspect; and one of the canards to which the Sena subscribes is the view that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation.  Shahrukh and the other Khans of Bollywood, Salman and Aamir, and now Saif Ali, have long been resented for their domination of the Hindi film world.

Many people in Mumbai are anguished that the threats to Shahrukh reflect poorly on the city often imagined as India’s greatest metropolis.   There are many considerations that are germane to this discussion.  It is less important whether the reputation of Mumbai is diminished in the eyes of outsiders, or whether Mumbai will fail to make the grade of a ‘world-class city’.  Mumbai has survived many indignities and assaults, and, much as New York did in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings, it attempted to respond in one voice and assert ‘the spirit of Mumbai’.  These appear to be laudable sentiments, though they disguise the indignities to which millions in a city such as Mumbai are subjected every day. Of perhaps more lasting significance is the fact that the Indian state appears to be powerless and certainly unwilling to reign in lawless elements and subject Shiv Sena cadres and their leaders, not least of them Thackeray and much of his thuggish clan, to the rule of law.   The public sphere cannot be held hostage to those who perceive themselves as beyond the reach of law, and the fact that must be faced squarely is that the Shiv Sena represents the most fundamental repudiation of the very idea of democracy.

Only a few months ago, on a visit to the US to promote his film ‘My Name Is Khan’, Shahrukh was detained at Newark airport and held for questioning.  That created uproar in India, though one wishes that there would be similar umbrage when lesser-known people are harassed or deprived of their liberties.  As Shahrukh’s film is released in India, the Sena has promised to disrupt screenings of ‘My Name Is Khan’.  That would be a fitting tribute to Shahrukh, and surely an unintended endorsement of the film which is an exploration of the travails of being a Muslim in the post-9/11 world.  The recent incidents, however, suggest that the Shiv Sena, which has competed in elections but is most in its element when its members and hired guns are out in the streets terrorizing common people and creating disorder, is in its death throes.  Its electoral support has diminished over the last few years and, as is well known, Thackeray’s family is exceedingly dysfunctional.  Like bullies elsewhere, the Shiv Sena’s cadres have no appetite for a real fight, and the most ample sign of their cowardice is the indisputable fact that in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai they quickly went into hiding.  It is much too late for Thackeray to return to cartooning, an art in which he excelled and where, had he persisted, he might well have made a name for himself as India’s most imaginative cartoonist.  Now he should be happy if, in a few years from now, he it at least remembered as a character somewhat out of cartoons.

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