Creating a positive ‘identity’ for refugees?

In most media discourses, Refugees are constructed  as pathological creatures. The entire discourse of refugees and their plight is portrayed as something of a ‘problem to be fixed.’ While it is true that most refugees are in need of desperate help and do, over a short period of time, burden the economy of any host country; but research has shown – and common sense should tell us – that over a long period of time, refugees are a boon to any place where they go.

As this OpEd in NY Times points out, refugees contribute to the revitalization of economies. As a former resident of upstate NY, I saw the impact of this phenomenon. Most of the refugees settled there are independent, self-sufficient and actually quite wealthy, all in a matter of less than 20 years. That is just one generation. Bosnians fleeing the Balkan war are among the refugees who live in this region and are among the prosperous communities there.

photo credit : womenoftheworld.org
photo credit : womenoftheworld.org

Similarly, when media accounts of refugees portray them as helpless victims, who are in perpetual need of assistance, the reality is quite different. As they are fleeing persecution, they are also deeply conscious of the need to re-build their lives and are eager to take up any opportunity that comes their way. As the NYT OpEd mentioned earlier points out “A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.” This goes against our popular understandings of what refugees do, and how ‘dependent’ they are on welfare.

This bias is not only present in media discourses, but also scholarly literature on Arab-Americans in general and refugees in particular. I came across this phenomenon, as I was researching the issue for a policy brief, that I am writing, as part of my work at ACCESS. Why is this cognitive bias present? Is it because the dominant framing of refugees is set? It is set – in terms of framing them as helpless, without agency and will power? – as essentially victims who are not capable of shaping their destiny? While this is part of the story, it is not the entire story. True, they are helpless ( for the time-being) but are not without agency or will power. The Syrian refugees, for instance, are taking enormous risks, putting their lives in danger, to move to a safer area, to live and prosper. This shows not only their resilience and determination to fight against all odds, but also their imagination and ability to think outside of the box.

America should embrace this positive energy and will to live. It is what has made the U.S . a great country and it is what drives innovation and change. It is time we all re-examine the dominant narratives of the refugees as a burden and look at them for what they are – victims of circumstances, who will thrive, in the right environment. It is our duty, as decent human beings to help them find this environment.

Renewing Islam through service?

Popular discourses about Islam don’t normally include the ‘service’ component of the faith. Even though Islam considers charity to be central part of faith. Charity is very broadly defined in Islamic terms – for instance, there are prophetic Hadith that suggest that even a kind word or smile to a stranger can be considered an act of charity. Given this, how are we to understand contemporary discourses of volunteering, service within the context of Islam. And how can we make sense of the service component of movements like the Hizmet movement (also known as the Gulen movement)? This was the central discussion that was part of Prof. Pim Valkenberg’s talk at the Rumi Forum, yesterday.

His book titled Renewing Islam by Service is an investigation into why the volunteers who serve people through the Hizmet movement do so. Seems like a simple question to answer, but the answers that he found surprised Valkenberg.

Valkenberg spoke of the impressive volunteering done by the Hizmet movement followers. He said “I quickly realized that this is called Hizmet movement (volunteers) rather than Gulen movement, because even though it was inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, he is really not the center of attention.” Mr.Gulen would rather people focus on the groups or cemaats of volunteers. Speaking of his own interest and how he came to study the movement in Europe, he said that his earlier interactions with students who were part of this movement were his first introduction.  This motive of working for the ‘pleasure of Allah’ was the interpretive key to understanding the work of the Gulen movement volunteers, he pointed out. He pointed out to the massive amount of charity that occurs during Ramadhan and also throughout the year, among Turks as an illustration of this charity. The current efforts of the Turkish government to rehabilitate the Syrians can be (broadly speaking) understood from this perspective of hospitality for the stranger.

While most narratives of revival or reform of Islam usually center on discussions of Islamism or political Islam, this perspective of looking at practices to reexamine Islam is an interesting one. It was refreshing to hear Valkenberg address the theological understanding of charity among the members of Gulen movement. Several scholars, religious preachers and reformers have addressed this question of reform. Among the more controversial manifestations of this ‘reform’ is Salafism, which seems to get a lot of bad press. While politics and religion get entangled in this debate, Volkenberg’s work suggests that it is possible to focus on the ethical and religious dimensions of these practices, while examining why these volunteers do what they do.

Their very public charity and manifestation of their values may seem controversial in a society such as the U.S., given the discomfort many have about talking about religion in public, but Volkenberg doesn’t see this as a problem. “As a Catholic, I also see that there is role for religion in addressing public issues, so I am all for movements like the Hizmet movement,” he said; arguing that perhaps Christians can learn something from such groups.

During my own visit to Turkey 2007, I saw large volunteer groups raising money for charity. I have also been consistently impressed with the scale as well as commitment to service among the Turkish diaspora I have encountered in India and the U.S. This book will certainly add to our understanding of the motivations, both religious and civic, among the Hizmet movement followers.

Photo credit : The Rumi Forum
Photo credit : The Rumi Forum

“Where there is learning, there is change.”

With election season making immigration and immigrants a hot-button issue, the question of their education has not come up, in a substantive way. On the contrary, there is much noise and talking points about the supposed ‘burden’ that immigrants pose to the American economy. In this insightful interview, we talk with an expert on this topic, about the issue of adult education, with a focus on education of recent immigrants and the untapped potential that can be harnessed.

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez is an Ed.D with a focus on adult education. In this short interview, he outlines his motivation for studying this population group and what drives him. As he points out, adult education is one of the most neglected areas of education and needs more attention and funding, to help adults realize their full potential. As he says in his doctoral dissertation “There is an inextricable link between the robustness of the American economy and competitiveness and the strength of the educational institutions and their educational leaders in preparing the new workforce with the skills they need to compete, to follow a clear pathway into the middle class, and continue to prosper.”

Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez
Dr. Gustavo Lara-Gonzalez

 

  1. What motivated you to go into adult education? Why this population group?

Gustavo Lara: I selected this population for two reasons: (1) a brief “conversation” with the school principal at the beginning of my career, and (2) during my first class as an instructor for adult learners, I observed every one of my students, evaluated their needs and concluded that adult education should be first class education.

In my first day as a K-12 adult educator, my school principal called me just a few minutes before the beginning of my class and said: “Mr. Lara, everything you need is in the classroom; therefore, I do not want you to ask for anything else.” She continued her monolog, “This is adult education and adult education is second class. Your adult students are not our priority. Our energy and resources are dedicated to our K-12 students.”  After this monolog I went directly to my classroom. When I got into my classroom, I scanned it just to make a mental inventory. I began with all the technology. I noticed three items.  I saw an old T.V. set hanging on the wall. A very, very, very slow computer. It took me half an hour from the moment I turned the computer on to call the last person in my roster. Lastly, an old printer connected to another device out of my classroom.

According to my first school principal, adult education is second class education but the needs of adult learners are numerous that requires a first class education. We, as instructors, are not only helping them to accomplish their modest academic aspirations, but also we are helping them to become self-sufficient individuals with the ability participate and contribute to their society where they live in.

  1. What challenges did you face as an adult learner? 

GL: One of the main challenges that I encountered in the beginning of this long journey was time. We came to this country with absolutely nothing, but with a big sack of hope and dreams. In my case, which is similar to those who traveled from the South to the North, the first thing we have to do find a job. Once I found a job, I had to decide between work extra time and consequently earn additional money to feed my family or attend the local school and learn English. Most of the time I chose the former. As immigrants, we know that learning the language is vital to succeed in this country but family always comes first. Now as an instructor, my students are facing the same dilemma, feeding their families or earning their GED diploma, learning English, or attending institutions offering technical careers. In the same way I did it in those days, they usually choose the former.

 

  1. What do you think can be the role of adult education in empowering immigrants in the U.S.?

GL : I believe integration should be the main role of adult education. The result of this integration is participation. The population we are serving come with a wide range of abilities and educational and cultural background. Some come from traditional educational paths, having performed poorly in high school and are anxious to return and pick all the pieces up and continue their educational journey. Others have discontinued their education for diverse reasons, intending to return, but work family, financial need, or lack of academic success of lack of information prevented them to return.  Finally, some others take advantage of adult education programs to acquire new skills to stay competitive in the workplace and improve their employability, or to prepare them for a career change, and consequently increase their earning power.

The dynamic of today’s marketplace is creating a perpetual evolving economy; therefore, the role of adult education should be on providing adult learners with the necessary tools, not only intellectual, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, but technical skills to successfully transition from the classroom to the workplace or to any institution of higher learning and compete and succeed in this new economy and live a productive and satisfying life.

 

  1. Tell us a bit about your family, the values that guide how you have educated your daughters

GL: I was raised by three exceptional individuals, two women and one man. They were my mothers and he was my Father. Although they did not possess a formal academic education, they knew the value of education. They instilled in everyone of us the love for learning, passion for sharing and serving others, and the importance of education as an instrument to reach our dreams and aspirations. We, my brothers and sisters, constantly listened to the same song over and over: education is the key that open the door of opportunities. Like my parents, and with the same level of intensity and determination, I sang the same song to my daughters.  

 

  1. What is key to helping recent immigrants reach their potential? 

GL: I believe that education is the vehicle to help newcomers reach their potential. Coming from the South to the North, the color of immigrants has never changed nor their dreams and aspiration. However, the new immigrants are arriving with new tools to reach their dreams. One of those tools is education. The new immigrants are more educated; therefore, we have the social and professional responsibility to integrate their knowledge and professional experiences in the curriculum of adult education and in our instructional practices to transitioning them into the workplace or institution of postsecondary education.

In my dissertation, I mention that despite a projection made by Carnevale, Jayasundera, and Hanson (2010), forecasting the creation of 47 million new jobs by 2018, and that 30 million will require postsecondary education, a report presented by the US Department of Education (2012) indicated that college completion rate is falling today, particularly among young Americans. This trend threatens to undermine the nation’s global competitiveness and further exacerbate inequality in the nation’s income distribution.

  1. What are your thoughts on the recent controversy about Mexican immigrants, in regards to Donald Trump’s remarks? 

GL: If someone asks me to summarize these remarks in one word, I would say IGNORANCE. Ignorant can lead only another ignorant. This individual does not know that we have been in this land before his ancestors. He does not know that a large number of Mexican immigrants and their descendants either volunteered or were drafted into the armed services during World War II. It is estimated that about 500,000 Mexican Americans joined the armed services during the war. Despite the continued discrimination and racism at home, hundred of thousands of Mexican immigrants and their descendants joined the armed services to defend the democratic principles of his great nation.  He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants make up 12 percent of the immigrants that own a small business. Around 570,000 businesses in the United States, more than 1 in 25, are owned by a Mexican immigrant, and together they generate over 17 billion dollars in revenues per year. He does not know Mexican immigrants have contributed between 3.7 to 4.1 percent to the U.S GDP in the 2003 – 2011 period, according to a new report by BBVA Research. He does not know that Mexican immigrants and their descendants occupy a more significant place in the American cultural life than ever before. He can find Mexican immigrants and their descendants serving as high government officials in the three branches of government, as well as governors, local mayors, sheriffs, school leaders, and school boards members.  He does not know that the nation’s clothing, music, sport, art, literature, academia, science, and food have all been influenced by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. I wonder if this person knows the history of this nation. Based in his remarks, it seems that he does not know we are an important pillar sustaining the greatness of this nation. We are not leaving; we are in its blood.

 

  1. What should adult instructors do to empower their students, in spite of the negative stereotyping of Mexicans and other immigrants? 

GL:  Where there is learning; there is change. Where there is change; there is learning. Classroom is an important platform to change and transform individuals. We, as instructors, have the moral and professional responsibility to incorporate these social issues, negative or positive, into the curriculum and into our instructional practices. Yes, we are responsible to prepare them academically and equip them with the tools to succeed in the workplace or continue successfully their educational journey, but also, we are responsible to create agents of social change.

 

Is religious nationalism relevant today?

Is Zionism relevant today? Or for that matter Hindutva or Islamism?  Whether it is India, with its ruling party – the BJP, which has a strong Hindu revivalist motif or Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, after a debacle of sorts, religion and religious parties continue to challenge our understanding of politics and public life. The question that is of interest to me is: Are these religious nationalist parties relevant? Is the idea of religious nationalism – by which I mean a political party or group that uses strong religious symbolism to create its nationalistic identity – relevant? What sort of a world does this lead to and more crucially, can we all live with a ‘plural’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of a country?

Recent scholarship has challenged our understanding of public religions. For instance, Jose Casanova, a prominent scholar of sociology of religion has written extensively about the phenomenon of ‘Public Religions in the Modern World,’ where he argues that our understanding of privatization of religion perhaps needs revision, given that it evolved in the context of Western Europe’s enlightenment. The battles fought between the Church and the ‘enlightened’ were real – and often bloody- before the Church gave in and realized that religion had to be a ‘private’ issue. But we are once again, seeing the ‘return to religion,’ across the world. Or is it that religion never really left the public sphere, but scholars and observers just didn’t write about it or frame the discussion of religion using that understanding?

Casanova himself argues that his own understanding of public religion was flawed primarily because it was ‘Western-centric’ and also that there needs to be a more ‘global comparative’ component to transnational religions. This means that one cannot directly apply the ideas of how religion is supposed to operate in the West on the non-Western world.  As he suggests, religion and ‘secularism’ themselves are constructs that emerged in a Western model of society and one that may call for reexamination, given the historical development of how this model of the world has changed.

As a Muslim who grew up in India, I am always surprised in ways that my own understanding of Islam – as a force for social organization – differs from that of others who grew up in Muslim majority countries. I have had discussions, debates and arguments with folk who want to see Islam as a ‘perfect’ system that doesn’t need change. I fail to understand how they don’t see their ‘Islam’ as a constructed reality, not an immutable and unchanging idea. Which ‘Islam’ one follows is truly a matter of one’s social circumstance? And I don’t mean to simplify this by alluding to the cliché of ‘extreme’ or Salafi Islam and ‘Sufi’ Islam – that is Islam for Dummies and I will spare you more of those simplistic generalizations.

When I hear of Hindu nationalists trying to ‘save Indian culture’ or Islamists trying to ‘preserve Islam’ or Zionists trying to be the guardians of Israel, they are all talking about roughly the same thing – how do we project and preserve our version of our religion in the public domain. While many Western style democracies (including India and Israel) allow for ‘pluralism’, the challenge really is preserving this plurality of voices. Each time a leader or idea is criticized; there is often a hue and cry, as if the entire religious edifice is being questioned. Questioning Mr.Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India is not questioning Hinduism. Hindutva is not Hinduism. It is a political manifestation (and a rather recent one) of what some Hindus think it is.

Similarly, calling to doubt the ways that Zionism operates today doesn’t mean that one is attacking Judaism – the problem with religious nationalism is that it wants us to conflate the groups ideology with that of the nation – and vice versa. This is where the real danger is. This uni-dimensional narrative of ‘One India’ or ‘One nation’ leaves out the many narratives that have shaped the nation. This muzzling of power to dominate the narrative is what most religious nationalist organizations attempt. While there is no real reason to discriminate against them, only for this reason, there is a need for caution and vigilance. As much as I dislike the aggressive nature of Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to grab power, it is a fact that they are part of the political framework of Egypt (or at least were). To deny them participation in the public sphere is to deny them a constitutionally mandated freedom. The same applies to political parties in India or religious groups in the U.S. – as odious as their rhetoric may be.

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This brings us back to the question I started with: Is religious nationalism relevant today? I think not. While religion gives us meaning, and I certainly don’t have a problem with that, politics in today’s world should be about a vision for our society, as a whole. Not just for one’s community or group. This narrowing of vision can lead to what William Connolly has called ‘miniaturization of human beings.’  While religion can be a force for social good– through philanthropy, social activism etc- there is also danger in this identity based politics can become majoritarian. I am fine with religion and OK with politics. To mix them in together seems to be a heady cocktail, most modern nation-states cannot tolerate, too well. We have Egypt, Israel and to some extent India as examples, before us.