Ibn Battuta, Malcolm X and the tradition of student travelers in Islam

Rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is an Islamic tradition, whose roots extend as far as the Prophet Muhammad himself, who prioritized learning and knowledge. His famous Hadith “Learning is from the cradle to grave” has inspired billions of people to travel, seek knowledge, over the last 1400 years of Islamic history. This tradition of learning and traveling for knowledge is epitomized by two scholars and student travelers, whose lives I will discuss here, in brief: Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X. In this article, I seek to answer the question: Are we losing this tradition of student-travelers, in an age when travel is so easy and relatively cheap. What lessons can we learn from the personal histories of student-travelers such as Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X?


I heard a lecture about Ibn Battuta’s travels (starting in 1325 C.E), a few weeks ago at the Upenn Museum and the blog post about that lecture is here. The gist that is relevant to us here is that travel in the era of Islamic Empire was easy. No passports, no visas or even travel documents. There were hostels for travels along the path where weary travelers could stop by to rest. This however came at an enormous cost: travel was harsh, dangerous and very slow. Ibn Battuta traveled for months on the road and his sea voyages lasted a longer time. From the time of the Islamic conquests from 7th century uptil about 15th or even 17th century; one could travel anywhere between Africa to China and beyond with relative ease, provided one had the means and the right connections, with the Islamic Empire providing one vast area of interconnected routes through which traders, travelers, pilgrims and scholars could pass through. And knowledge networks were formed this way, point out many scholars, who have studied this phenomenon of how travel influenced the flow of knowledge. His travels were dangerous, adventurous and at times fun. Ibn Battuta’s knowledge and scholarly standing helped him enormously, as it helped him earn a living as he traveled – he was a qazi or a judge, trained in Islamic jurisprudence, a valuable skill to have in those days.

As the Oxford Islamic Learning portal points out: “Religious travel in Islam reflects an extraordinary degree of intercontinental cooperation among constantly intersecting groups that perform overlapping functions. The general pattern resembles a web of interlacing and autonomous networks instead of a rigid hierarchy, spontaneous collaboration rather than central direction, and fluid process over fixed structure. This vast web encompasses Muslims in every part of the world, helping to create a universal Islamic identity that transcends nationality, race, gender, and class. The Hajj has always been the most powerful expression of Islamic unity and egalitarianism, and today its unprecedented size and diversity make it more important than ever.” In contemporary times, with the growth of technology, while the tradition of traveling on such a scale to learn may have been reduced, or rather the purposes of travel changed; pilgrimage to perform the Hajj does remain significant.

While travel for Ibn Battuta began as a spiritual quest, he in fact wanted to go to the annual pilgrimage i.e., the Hajj, but eventually ended up traveling for over 23 years of his life; for Malcom X, it came towards a much later stage of life, also inspired by the desire to go to Hajj. While for Ibn Battuta, it expanded his knowledge networks, increased his understanding of the world, for Malcolm X, travel transformed him. It made him question the narrow mindedness with which he had approached other human beings, up until then, having been taught a racist ideology by his mentor Elijah Muhammad. It was his Letter from Mecca that really shows his transformation. Malcom X’s letter reads:

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.” Malcom X goes on to point that America needs to understand Islam because “This is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”

He was reacting to the profoundly warm welcome he received as a state guest in Saudi Arabia and many other countries that he visited during this trip. This sojourn was not only professionally rewarding, in that he met many heads of state and formed very strong networks that would serve him for the next few years of his life; but also personally transformative – in that he realized that his racism towards whites was misplaced. This trip, more than anything else, changed his mind from being a racist to one who realized that he was in the wrong and that white man indeed, can be benevolent and kind towards others. Not all white men were devils, as he had previously imagined.

This theme of traveling and spiritual transformation is also explored by Zareena Grewal. In her book Islam is a Foreign Country (2014), Grewal, professor at Yale University contextualizes the contemporary travels of American Muslim youth, who travel around the world, to seek ‘authentic’ Islamic knowledge. Malcolm X, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are examples of this phenomenon. Both are considered iconic ‘student-travelers’ who went to the Arab world and Africa in search of spiritual and religious insights and learning, she points out.

Grewal further traces how the moral geography for Americans has moved over the decades – it was different for the Black African Muslims, than it was for those in the 1960s’ onwards, when the Arab and South Asian countries became part of the dominant diasporic imagination. They were seen as racial utopias and the core of Ummah’s moral and political core. This, she adds has significantly shifted since the 1990s’, with the examples of spiritual leaders such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who, like Malcolm X is an iconic Muslim student-traveler. This rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is also a result of specific set of historical ruptures.            She argues rightfully that the shift in religious leadership that occurred in the U.S. from the 1960s onwards- from the indigenous African Americans towards a more educated, elite South Asian and Arab professional class of people is part of this shifting moral geography.

In contemporary American society, these travels are also inspired by those who are aware of the lack of religiously trained scholars, since most of the mosque leadership is taken up by those who have a ‘secular’ education and are professionally successfully, either as doctors or engineers. In her analysis, Grewal points out that of the hundreds of students who have left the U.S. to study in the Middle East and returned, most are disappointed with the results they produce after they return. The communities expect them to play roles as Imams at mosques at best and also to be ‘role models’ for youth here. While this is an expectation that is normal, she points out that the public discourse of crisis in the U.S. does not allow them to play a constructive role in society, often relegating them to passive positions. They become ‘carriers rather than mediators of the tradition.’ As she points out.

Malcolm in mecca

The biggest lesson one can draw from both these travelers’ lives is that travel is transformative by nature. Leaving one’s home, the comfort of the familiar and the known can expose us to dangers, unknown people and situations. Overcoming them can help one gain new knowledge, sharpen one’s instincts and also transform one’s thinking – if one approaches it with an open mind. As countries are clamping down their borders and restrictions on travel are beginning to become much more than they ever were, one could be forgiven for asking whether we are regressing as a people. While the means to travel, technology and access has definitely increased, we have erected other boundaries in the name of national security, borders and imagined threats that stop us from traveling and exploring the world that is yet to be discovered. Perhaps this tradition will help us realize the rich promises that travel for learning holds.

American Muslims – A Racial, Ethnic or Religious group?

Are American Muslims a racial,ethnic or religious group? While this may seem like a rhetorical question, the very definition of who a ‘Muslim’ is in the U.S. has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last four decades. In other words, the transformation of American Muslims as a category from a racial group – in the 1960s to an ethnic group since the 1980s’ – comprising of Arabs, Asians and African Americans has made them more ‘foreign’ than they really are. While terms such as ‘Black Muslims,’ were popular in the 1960s, to refer to the most salient group of the era – The Nation of Islam, the term denotes just one of the many groups that are present in the U.S. today. This is also a reflection of the change in demographics, economic and political power of American Muslims; but more than anything else, this is a transformation of an entire group identity, with very significant consequences for the followers of Islam. The transformation of the category ‘Muslim’ from a racial to a religious and then subsequently ‘national’ group is under examination here. American Muslims

Who are American Muslims? Are Muslims indigenous or ‘immigrants’ in America? With a population estimated to be between three to seven million people, representing literally the entire world, the American Muslim population is anything but homogenous. It may even be surprising for some Muslims in the Arab world or Asia to know that many groups such as The Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple are considered to be ‘Muslim.’ An orthodox Sunni or Shii Muslim would balk at the idea of such a group, with ‘heretical’ ideas being considered part of the ‘Ummah’, but this is precisely the case. The reasons for this are both historic and cultural. Leaders such as Elijah Muhammad, used Islamic symbolism and their own understanding of indigenous roots of spirituality to forge an ‘Islam’ that their followers could comprehend. The fact that their teachings were in contradiction with Orthodox Islam did not matter much.

While some scholars claim that Islam has been present in North America since the time of Columbus, it is more reasonable to place the history of Islam in the ‘encounters and exchanges’ between America and the rest of the Muslim world, as Kambiz Ghaneabassiri points out in his book A History of Islam in America. Ghaneabassiri’s argument is that the encounters between the West and Islam shaped the other and these two should not be seen as mutually exclusive categories. These encounters, he places in Antebellum America. There has been a long process of give and take between Islam and other religious and cultural traditions, similar to the transformation of Islam in Indonesia and India.  Ghaneabassiri points out that between 1890 and 1924, over 10-15 percent of the immigrants who came to the U.S. were Muslim and they contributed to various sectors of society, including entrepreneurship, labor force and trade. The conflation of race, religion and progress in this period formed a crucial part of the narrative of immigrants in America. These early migrants sought to integrate in the American social fabric through an ethnic, rather than a religious mode of self-identification, he adds.

Muslims became salient as a group in America in the 1960s’ with The Nation of Islam. Until then, arguably, Muslims were largely unknown, though they were recognized as a community, by the founding fathers. Muslims were associated with the ‘Ottoman empire’ or were popularly known as the ‘Turks’. Denise Spellberg, in her book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an points out that despite holding some negative views of Islam, as was common in that era, Jefferson had the vision and foresight to defend the rights of Muslims to their faith. In ensuring that all religions would have freedom in the newly formed country, the founding fathers showed not only extraordinary vision, but also courage. This was because Islam was vilified as a religion in much of popular literature. Most Muslims in America until the nineteenth century were former slaves from West Africa, who had preserved their religion. There were a few immigrants from Arab countries and Asia too. But it was only after the immigration act of 1965 that Muslims started to arrive in the country in large numbers and gained salience, as a community.


Emergence of ethnic identity

Post 1965 was a phase when Muslims emerged as an ethnic group, rather than a racial one. Speaking of the importance of ethnic origins, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer point out in their book Beyond the Melting Pot: “ Ethnic groups owing to their distinctive historical experiences, their cultures and skills, the times of their arrival and the economic situation they met, developed distinctive economic, social and cultural patterns. As the old culture fell away- and it did rapidly enough- a new one, shaped by the distinctive experiences of life in America, was formed and a new identity was created. Italian-Americans may share precious little with Italians in Italy, but in America they were a distinctive group that maintained itself, was identifiable and gave something to those who identified with it, just as it also gave burdens to those who did not identify with that group.” They analyzed the Irish, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in their book and their insights are valid, to a large extent, for the examination of American Muslims, as well.

Most academic and scholarly works point towards the rough division of American Muslims as being about one third of each group: Arab, Asian and African American. While this is somewhat accurate, what this classification does not capture is the complexity in opinion and diversity of thought within the group that we collectively called ‘Muslims.’ The emergence of political consciousness of the newly arrived immigrants coincided with the civil rights movement and subsequent growth of social and political organizations. Many of the national organizations that we see today, including Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Students Association, CAIR etc. were formed in this phase. Interestingly, most of them are founded by recent immigrants and there are tensions between African American groups and Arab and South Asian groups, though they do not manifest themselves very often. The immigrants are generally more educated and considered ‘elite’ while the African Americans are not so well off. The narrative of immigrants is the narrative of America, as the historian Oscar Handlin remarks.The defining factor that brings all these diverse groups is religion and the rituals that make participation in the religion meaningful. Islam has been considered an ‘orthopraxy’, i.e., a religion rooted in practice rather than an ‘orthodoxy.’ This insight may be helpful in analyzing and understanding the diversity of Islam in America.

Post 9/11 and American Muslim exceptionalism

September 11, 2001 created a different discourse in the American Muslim community- that of an ‘Exceptional American’ Muslim identity. Patriotism towards the country became paramount and any association with the Arab or Asian diasporic moral imagination was played down, points out Zareena Grewal, in her book Islam is a Foreign Country. This discourse was made popular by the policy advisers, spiritual and religious leaders as well as national organizations in the country, such as Progressive Muslim Union among others, Grewal points out. This ‘exceptionalising’ narrative continues in some ways, even today and is often loaded with suspicion and self-hatred of groups that are seen as ‘Fresh off the Boat (FOBS) and culturally not ‘American’ yet. This group sought to place the collective guilt of the Muslim community on social conservatism and gender inequalities pervasive in Mosques around the U.S. With provocative and attention grabbing campaigns such as ‘gender-jihad,’ this group sought to address these issues. The in-fighting and lack of a clear vision and strategy to pursue their goals led to the organization’s demise.

While we may look at the U.S., as a ‘melting pot’ or alternately, as a conglomeration of people with different ethnic origins, the discourse of American Muslims and Islam in America is steeped in ethnicity. While this is a natural consequence of changing demographics, I believe this has also had a somewhat negative impact on the group identity, especially post September 11, 2001, when all Muslims were lumped together in a single category. The development of this eclectic group of people, who are the most racially diverse group in the country is sociologically relevant. We need to move simplistic notions of race or ethnicities if we are to better appreciate and understand the dynamics that shape this group of people that is part of the global Muslim community, rooted in its own local traditions.

Egypt and the Challenge of Islam in the Public Sphere

“Know that you can have three sorts of relations with princes, governors and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest that you stay far from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.” – Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazzali. (d.1111)

While Ghazzali’s advise seems apt for all those Islamic leaders who are interested in ‘preserving Islam’ and ‘Islamic ethics’ in any society, the reality is quite different. Almost every time a religious group has come to power, it gravitates to acquire more power, hence becoming more ‘worldly’ than spiritual. This trend has remained somewhat consistent: from the Catholic Church to Islamist parties in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest, though some are more restrained than the others. The question that is on several people’s mind is this: Should Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still be part of the political landscape in Egypt? Despite the ban on MB and being labelled a ‘terrorist’ outfit, should the group and its cadre be allowed to participate in the political sphere? These are some questions that will continue to haunt both the Egyptian people as well as the international community. While the ground realities in Egypt preclude any rational dialogue and much of the decision making seems to be taking place in the realm of realpolitik and the struggle for survival is dictating the tactical steps that the Egyptian ruling elite is taking; strategic foresight in this case requires a different approach.

Photo credit : Muslimvillage.com
Photo credit : Muslimvillage.com

As the New York Times reported about the bomb blasts in Cairo today, “A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of General Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.” The mood in the country is anything but calm and factions supporting the General and those on the side of MB have become more entrenched.

Jose Casanova, one of the most eminent theorists of Sociology of religion points out, the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion is one of the key points of contention from a secular perspective. But he is careful to delineate the differences between the types of secularizations, which he identifies as being of three kinds: secularization as separation of state and religion, secularization as decline of religious practices and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. He has argued for the public inclusion of religious parties in the political sphere. His is a slightly complicated argument, but one worthy of examination.

I quote Casanova at length, where he points to the benefits of public religion: “The public impact of religious critiques should not be measures in terms of the ability of any religion to impose its agenda upon society or to press its global normative claims upon the autonomous spheres. In modern differentiated societies it is both unlikely and undesirable that religion should again play the role of systematic normative integration. But by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous pretentions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral norms or human considerations, public religions may help to mobilize people against such pretentions, they may contribute to a redrawing of boundaries, or, at the least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Like feminist critiques or like republican virtue critiques of modern developments, they will have functioned as counterfactual normative critiques.” This is a critique that many secularists in Egypt are not able to heed. Perhaps the atmosphere has become too vitiated and the camps so entrenched in their views that any discussion of alternatives seems impossible.

As Casanova points out further, the fusion of the ‘Church’ and ‘State’ that took place in the Christian domain is exceptional and the only case. Once the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, it became a salvation religion with the political structure of an imperial state. There is no reason to believe that Islam or any other religion will go this route, even with the establishment of religious communities in charge, politically. Casanova argued for the maintenance of Secularism in terms of differentiation between religion and state, and institutions and religion. Within that religion can have a role to play in public sphere, with some conditions.

New York Times also reported in a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings. While this may be seen as a way to wash their hands off any blame, there is growing suspicion that the MB was in some way involved. While these debates are ongoing and it will be years, if not decades, before there is any consensus on how best to deal with opposition parties in the country; it is important to remember, that, as Talal Asad points out the history of how Secularism came to be part of the discourse in the Muslim world. In Egypt, the introduction of European laws, in lieu of Shari’ah in the 19th century was a precursor that finally lead to the total unification of state power and abolition of the dual structure of courts, in favor of European-derived laws. This, he points out was partly as a result of European coercion and also Egyptian elite’s infatuation with European ways. The Islamists urge to gain power of the state and bring back the Shari’ah laws should be understood in this context. There is also great anger that the democratically elected government of Mr.Morsi was ousted by a coup. So, it is back to square one, for the Egyptians.

This is not to say that there is just one conception of Islam and the state. There are also devout Muslims and scholars, who have called for a ‘Secular state.’ Abdullahi An’naim, another scholar of Islam has pointed out in Islam and the Secular state that by a secular state, he means “A state that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’ah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” He further points out that it is perfectly possible for a Muslim majority state to be secular and yet remain true to Islam. In fact, this is what is needed in our modern era, when pluralism is a fact of life and homogenous populations in most countries is a thing of the past. “As a means to being religious, I need the state to remain secular,” he adds. An’naim has argued that the future of Shari’ah law is a secular state. By this he means that a state that represents Islamic ethos is one in which there is no fear of favor of any one particular religion and this in essence means a secular state.

An’naim’s is a radically different take on Islamic societies. His vision may be more applicable in our times, where any mention of religion in the public sphere is bound to raise suspicions. Although this vision requires buy-in from all parties, he does see a role for Islamist parties to participate in the political sphere. Afterall, they should not be barred from the political sphere, just because of their religious affiliation. This would be truly un-democratic and against the liberal ethos that the secularists are supposedly upholding.

Do We Need a New Civil Rights Movement for Religion?


As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, it is relevant to ask: Has religion taken the place of race in American society? What I mean by this is whether the taboos and other aspects associated with race in the 1960s and earlier have started to be associated with religion. While Dr. King and his contemporaries, most notably Malcolm X framed the civil rights discourse and used racial equality as a tool to achieve rights for the dispossessed, their discourse was infused with religious tone. While there has been a civil rights movement to include people of all races, there hasn’t been one for religious inclusion in the U.S. As several civil rights activists have pointed out, do we need a ‘new civil rights movement’ for this purpose?

Legacy of Dr. King, Malcolm X civil-rights

The simmering discontent that existed for decades before the civil rights movement burst into the scene and culminated in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, that ended the ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ and set in place new laws that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Two key figures who shaped much of the discourse around these issues in the 1960s were Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. While Malcolm X’s legacy is seen largely as one of segregationist, this is a misinformed reading, as later on in his career, he moved strongly towards a civil rights approach and this ultimately led to his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, as I have written about this in my earlier post here.

            While both these leaders were at odds, with Malcom X calling for stronger segregation (at least in his earlier career) and painting Dr. King and others who sought integration as ‘house niggers,’ a term he used to define those who were bought over by the white man, he changed his views later on to become more inclusive. Dr. King on the other hand was an integrationist, and believed in the model following that set forth by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (who became a nonviolent advocate only later on in his career). The goals of both these leaders were the same – equal rights for all and opportunity, irrespective of race. It is interesting to see how religion played a role in each individual’s life. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, and Dr. King was a Baptist minister while Malcolm X became a follower of Nation of Islam and later on, mainstream Sunni Islam.


Photo credit : NPR.org
Photo credit : NPR.org

The landscape of religion in the U.S.

Scholars of Sociology of Religion point out that the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing. And changing drastically. With the demographic shifts in the country, led lower birth rates among whites and other immigration related changes, Hispanic and Asian population is expected to rise and by 2050, the racial profile of the U.S. will look very different from what it is today. This is a fear that has been magnified by right-wing and fear-mongering groups to stoke up anti-immigration and anti-minority feelings both in Europe and the U.S. This is also leading to a change in the number of adherents of the more conservative American forms of Christianity, as this article points out how Evangelical Christianity is giving way to Catholicism.

This shift is also having a predictable reaction with the conservative camp clamping down on ‘progressive’ ideas. As this article points out about the recent changes in Arizona, : “The New Civil Rights Movement reported last year, the bill could also be considered the religious version of a “Stand Your Ground” law, allowing anyone’s practice or observance of religion to be an automatic “out.” In other words, it would give Arizona residents and businesses the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason, including because they are LGBT.” While the progressive movement is taking hold in the U.S. there has also been an equal push by the conservatives, led by the G.O.P., to oppose marriage equality, LGBT rights and other progressive agendas. malcolm-x-1

The gradual shift in the religious landscape is noticeable among the ‘new religions’ that have come into the U.S. (at least into the American public consciousness) – The Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as analyzed by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociologist of Religion. He points out that these new entrants face a new challenge – that of being unknown in the country – and calls for greater dialogue and interaction between the majority Christians and these ‘new immigrant’ religions. This narrative places the ‘emergence’ of the new religions in a post 1965 context, where looser immigration policies made it possible for greater number of people from Asia and Middle East to enter and live in the U.S.

            While there is no doubt that the number of people of these religions is rising, the amount of knowledge about them is not increasing proportionately. There is evidence to point out that ignorance, bigotry and discrimination against minorities in the U.S. is on the rise. Growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of other minorities is a fact of life in the U.S. despite the best intentions and efforts by activists and educators. As these FBI crime rate statistics point out, the majority of the hate crimes reported have been against Jews.  As the report points out, race still is a dominant theme when it comes to hatred and attacks related to them. In summary, the report points out:

An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:

  • 48.5 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race.
  • 19.2 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
  • 18.7 percent were victimized because of a bias against a religious belief.
  • 12.1 percent were victimized because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
  • 1.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a disability. (Based on Table 1


As Dr. Carl Ernst points out in this introduction to a book on Islamophobia in the U.S., the various trends in Islamophobia can be seen as part of the ‘othering’ of Muslims, similar to other groups such as Catholics, Jews, Mormons. As opinion polls show, over 50 percent people in the U.S. have a negative view of Islam in 2011, as compared to a lesser number in years preceding 2001. The phenomenon of Islamophobia can be understood in the context of political discourse, he seems to be pointing out, with examples of the Park 51 project and the burning of the Qur’an controversy both becoming salient in 2010, an election year. This is not a surprising fact, as this pattern seems to occur in other democracies as well- India being the most egregious example.


Finally, there seems to be the need for a new revolution for greater understanding of religion in the U.S. While there is a trend among certain sections of society to shun religion altogether, this is an impractical and impossible strategy, given how religiously observant Americans are. As Jonathan Benthall, the scholar of religion has pointed out “You may throw religion out the door, but it comes back flying through the window.” Religion is here to stay and we better make peace with it. And as in the case of the civil rights movement and many other movements before it; religion has made a positive contribution to make to society.

Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

Almost everyday, we read about a new report or another, comparing America’s poor education performance, as compared to the rest of the world. And almost always the comparisons bring up the usual suspects: poor infrastructure, lower education funding and lack of involvement from the parents in their children’s success. While all these are valid and important points, one crucial issue often gets overlooked – the stability of the family and its impact on young adults and their learning. I learnt this harsh reality, on a recent trip to a public school in Rialto, CA. While this is a ‘wicked problem’ that brings together issues of race, poverty, unemployment and housing segregation; I believe that with concerted education, greater sensitivity on part of the parents, these problems can be addressed.

Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org
Photo credit : childrenscoalition.org

As this recent Op-Ed in NY Times titled Sex is Not Our Problem points out, “about half (51 percent) of the 6.6 million pregnancies in the United States each year (3.4 million) are unintended” and “the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate is significantly higher than the rate in many other developed countries.” While the topic of this Op-Ed is about sex education and its role in forming healthier adults, the key arguments are relevant to the discussion here too that social issues need to be addressed and blaming one gender (in this case shaming of girls) won’t solve anything. With this, the writer is alluding to distracting tactics that are often deployed rather than focusing on the real issues at hand. I believe the same is occurring in the case of families and their role in educating children. Added to this, conflicts in welfare reform, education funding get in the way of actually addressing the issues at hand.

While I am not making the conservative argument that we need more families, and lesser single parents; though there is some wisdom in that argument – I am definitely calling for greater involvement on part of the parents. As someone who has had all his primary and part of his higher education in India, I can point out one insight that may be missing in all our policy debates: How to make parents more involved. For one, Indian parents, much like their Chinese and Korean counterparts are extremely engaged in their children’s education. Some going too far, I would argue. In a conversation with Mrs. Lara, an Assistant Principal, I learnt that many of the parents in this school district are either not too engaged, or just not present. This is the unfortunate consequence of some of them being deported back to Mexico, where many of them are from. “When the recession hit, you could see hundreds of abandoned homes, and when the parents left, many of the kids were left with foster parents. And one can only imagine the amount of attention these poor souls received from them.” She pointed out.

It is well known that higher educational achievement means better job prospects and greater productivity, as this Op-Ed points out: “From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year — enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.” The real economic gains and productivity have slowed down remarkably and with the recent recession, this has exacerbated the problem. As Mr.Gordon goes on to point out further that “the gains in income since the 2007-9 Great Recession have flowed overwhelmingly to those at the top, as has been widely noted. Real median family income was lower last year than in 1998.” Several factors have contributed to this including the retirement of Baby Boomers from the workforce, slowdown in innovation. The growing cost of education, reduced graduation rates from high school and those with bachelor’s degrees, all contribute to the problems that are outlined above.

Greater family involvement means lesser absenteeism, better grades and better changes of success, as this research paper points. While it may be stating commonly held beliefs that parents are crucial for the success of their children’s education – these factors are impeded in the U.S. by several factors, one of them being cultural and linguistic. Some parents may not feel comfortable or welcome in an environment where they cannot use their native language, which may not be English, in many cases. Cultural sensitivity on part of the school is key, in these cases, an insight that Mrs. Lara also shared.

While improving education standards and measurement techniques seems to be one of the ways to improve ‘quality of education’ as some organizations and policy institutes advocate; the real challenge may be more elementary and perhaps harder to fix, i.e., ensuring that the students have a stable and secure base from which to launch their careers as scholars. Families provide that in most cases and perhaps if we bring our attention back to where it matters, this insoluble problem won’t be so insoluble, after all.



A Life of Reinvention – Malcolm X: Book review


Is America a ‘melting pot’ today? Has Martin Luther King’s dream of a post-racial society come true? Or are we still closer to the America that Malcom X saw, one that is segregated, racist and inherently unequal? While the answers to these are not simple and certainly not easy, looking closely at the inequality in our society, the demographic shifts taking place and the real problems that Blacks face, one is forced to acknowledge that despite coming across as abrasive and at times hostile, Malcom’s ideas did have relevance in his time and still do. A Life of Reinvention by the late Dr. Manning Marable, professor at Columbia University adds to the literature on Malcom X’s fascinating but short life and offers us a perspective that is missing. With new sources drawn from his letters, FBI documents that were recently de-classified; Marable offers new insights into his character. The book provides a detailed account of his troubled childhood, delinquent youth and eventual imprisonment that led to his discovery of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a remarkable turn of events that was to be life-changing.

Photo credit : Malcolmx.com
Photo credit : Malcolmx.com

                The title of the book is a reference to the various transformations that Malcom X’s life underwent. If life before prison made him a hustler, pimp and a petty criminal, who learnt to survive; life after prison opened his mind to the possibilities that lay before him – as an enlightened black man. This was a phase that brought him great fame and reach. This was followed by the final phase, when he broke from the NOI to found his own organization. Marable devotes quite many pages outlining the split as resulting from the corruption that he saw, including Elijah Muhammad’s illicit relationships with many of his secretaries that resulted in many illegitimate children being born.

One of the most striking things that I found in this study is that Malcom X’s diagnosis of the problems of African-Americans was not too off the mark. While there were problems with his polemic and solutions to ending the racial problems- he did propose a separate state for the Blacks- his views moved towards more mainstream ones, later on. After the pilgrimage to Mecca, he seems to have become a ‘reformed’ man, not to say that he fully embraced multi-racialism. But his views on racism (within the context of Islam) were altered profoundly and he started seeing ‘beyond the skin color’. Proof that Malcom X was not entirely wrong about stressing on Black solidarity to improve their lot is another theory that was propounded around the same time was that by New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathaniel Glazer, who argued in their book Beyond the Melting Pot, where the authors studied New York city and pointed out that the ethnic identities played a large part in the solidarity and eventual uplift of the communities. While Moynihan and Glazer were for assimilation, they realized that the ‘melting pot’ hypothesis had not worked. It was a myth at best and profoundly flawed at worst. They stressed the importance of ethnic (and racial) identities and its importance in ensuring that the minorities are not forced to give up their identities in the rush to ‘improve their lot’.

The arguments for segregation may seem simplistic, but it seems to be occurring, as we speak. As this article in The Atlantic points out, our schools are more segregated than they were ever. “In the 1968-69 school year, when the U.S. Department of Education started to enforce Brown, about 77 percent of black students and 55 percent of Latino students attended public schools that were more than half-minority. By the 2009-2010 school year, the picture wasn’t much better for black students, and it was far worse for Latinos: 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students went to schools that were more than half-minority. More than 40 percent of black and Latino students attended schools that were 90 percent to 100 percent minority.” While the rhetoric of integration has been dominant, economic forces and other social factors have played a critical part in separating people – perhaps on the basis of their class, more than race. With the influx of immigrants, say from Mexico and other relatively poorer countries, this situation has just exacerbated. I witnessed this during my recent trip to Southern California, where schools in Rialto, CA are almost 90 percent Hispanic. The challenges to these schools are similar to those that face any other schools in downtowns of major American cities – less resources, crime, unstable families and dropout rates of almost 50 percent.

                Marable’s book also brings into focus the differing discourses of Black Nationalism within the African American community. While King stood on the side of integration, Malcom was clearly opposed to it and clearly attracted a sizeable number of organizations to align with him – though not fully – these included the CORE, progressives in several Christian denominations, labor unions, Northern inner-city communities.

                Another aspect that the book throws light on is the apolitical nature of the early Muslims. Given that the NOI was not active politically and Elijah Muhammad made sure that they would stay that way, Malcom X’s increasing involvement in politics can be seen as a the precursor to the growth of political involvement of Muslims in America. While this is not too well known, another Muslim group formed during that time, the Muslim Students Association, that exists today and morphed into Islamic Society of North America also did not participate in politics. There is a striking similarity in their positions, though they were drawn from two different ideologies. The MSA group believed that since the American government did not function in an Islamic state, they should not participate in politics. This has since then changed and today, both MSA and ISNA are very active politically. But this is an important fact we must remember.

                There is also an interesting documentation between Malcom X’s and Muhammad Ali’s relationship. The turning point between their relationship was the fight between Ali and Sonny Liston. Malcom rightly predicted that Ali would win this fight and would go onto become a great spokesperson for Muslims, throughout the world. This was a well thought out strategy that paid off, at least for a while. But when Malcolm officially left the Nation, Ali would stay with the organization.

                 Malcom’s involvement and interest in tying Black Nationalism with struggles in Africa and the third world were the final phase of his own reinvention. The Hajj and subsequent trip to the Middle East, where he met leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, heads of states from African countries was significant in shaping his ideas. His ideas of race seem to have moved beyond that of the NOI, and the concept of ‘Asiatic man’, and he recognized that the ‘white man’ was not just about skin color, but rather about attitudes and ways of thinking. Witnessing white Muslims during the Hajj, performing their duties as sincerely as other Blacks reinforced this belief in him. His words “I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same god…with fellow Muslims whose skins was the whitest of the white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue…(for) the first time in my life…I didn’t see them as ‘white’ men.” Came to define his new outlook, a total turn about from NOI’s philosophy.

                His subsequent assassination was the handiwork of the NOI, Marable points out and FBI’s documents also point in this direction. While Malcom X is no more with us, his ideas, passion and insights into the condition of the Blacks in America and perhaps world over remain as relevant today as they were in his time. Marable does a good job bringing this complex character to life and this book is definitely worth your time.