Insiders and Outsiders

In a recent exchange about the Israel-Palestine issue with a friend,  he informed me that as an ‘outsider’ to an issue, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. As someone who has academically studied this issue, I do have strong convictions. As a fellow human being, I have sympathies. Finally, as an intellectual, I believe that I have (an informed) opinion of the topic.

On a similar note, as a Non-resident Indian, I am an outsider in India and the U.S., where this in-betweenness can create not only legal challenges – not being able to vote – for instance, but also put one in a strange situation, where speaking ‘on behalf’ of a particular idea or conception is suspect, simply because of one’s positionality.paper-people

This line of reasoning of insider-outsider can lead one on many slippery slopes.  For instance: Can I, as an Indian born Muslim really ‘understand’ Arab-American issues? Or for that matter, can I truly appreciate what a right-wing Hindu nationalist feels about India?  Finally, can I ever know what it is to be an ‘American’ or ‘Mexican’? Does belonging to a group give special access to knowledge or insights?

As Robert Merton points out in his classic essay Insiders and Outsiders, Merton points out that an extreme manifestation of the ‘insider’ doctrine can lead to arguments such as: only Blacks can understand Blacks and only women can understand women. He calls this extreme manifestation as the ‘credentialism of ascribed status.’ This, he contrasts with the credentialism of acquired status, on which meritocracy is based. In essence, this means that our brahminical attitudes are not well-founded and extreme ‘insiderism’ – the belief that you must be one to truly understand one – is fundamentally flawed. I tend to agree.

In today’s world, we are all insiders and outsiders, to some extent. The notion of a ‘community’ is changing so rapidly that academics may have to throw out many of the old stodgy definitions of ‘place-based’ community and the like. What is the ‘community’ of internet users, what about a refugee? What is his or her community? What about diaspora communities?

With an Indian background, lineage going back to the Middle East (from my mother’s side) and Afghanistan (from my dad’s side) I realize I am an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in more ways than one. I am currently in the U.S. and married to a Mexican-American woman. Though my Spanish leaves much to be desired, I believe our kids will inherit a far more complex lineage than mine and my wife’s. This is not to throw up my arms and say ‘We are all one’ or something similarly banal, but to actually carefully examine what all of this means. Does it mean that I have greater ‘authenticity’ when speaking of Mexican-American issues or those of the Middle East?

 The other extreme manifestation of this idea is to claim to know ‘everything’ about the other groups or individuals, by virtue of educational or other qualifications. While having indepth scholarly or professional expertise about other communities or groups may give us a lot of depth and gravitas, it does not fully give us an appreciation of what it means to live as the others do. Which is another way to say that there are limits to what we can ‘know’. Tacit knowledge cannot be gained by reading a book or just thinking about an issue.

One has to also live and experience a particular way of life, to truly appreciate it. In other words, we all need a measure of humility, before rushing to judgment about the ‘other’.

Two jobs I Could Never have….like ever!

I dropped off my wife, who is a Catholic, to her colleague’s house on the  morning of Sept 23, at 4 am. Together, they, along with a few other colleagues were going to meet the Pope and the President at the White House.   On my way back, I was thinking to myself: Those are the two jobs I could never have – Being the Pope or the President of the United States. As a Muslim man, born in India; it may perhaps be the ultimate fantasy to be in either position. An impossible one at that.

Photo credit : parade.com
Photo credit : parade.com

Well, I did have ambitions of a monastic life, at one point in my life. My ambitions of (Muslim) priesthood died out when my hormones kicked in.  Unholy thoughts replaced holy aspirations. But again, those ambitions wouldn’t have taken me to the Vatican, unless I converted. At best they would’ve taken me to the backwaters of Malakka in Malaysia or the theological seminaries of Oil rich Saudi Arabia. Neither appealed to my cosmopolitan upbringing. I was happy being a ‘regular’ Muslim, doing ‘regular’ things. Nothing spectacular or holy for me, please.

Conversion to any other religion never appealed to me, at any point of my life. And I have always believed that Islam is a very ‘open’ and ‘all embracing’ religion. Islam sees itself as truly Christianity 2.0 and Judaism 3.0, as in, a continuation of the monotheistic tradition that started with Abraham. Ask any Imam. He’ll confirm what I am saying. Even the Salafis will concede that point, theologically speaking. As the second son of two high-school teachers, teaching and being pedantic comes naturally to me. Ask my wife.

Anyway, back to the President. The (poor) President Obama has been pilloried since 2008 for being a ‘secret Muslim,’ and most recently the tactics used by Donald Trump to rev up emotions against Muslims in general have brought back this issue. This debate is about whether Obama is ‘truly’ American and ‘truly’ a Christian. The reasoning being that if he is not either, then he is obviously not eligible to be President. And of course, we know by now that being Muslim means that you are guilty unless proven otherwise, in certain circles. The Muslim identity is unfortunately ‘problematic.’ Even after writing my dissertation about American Muslim identity and its relation to philanthropy; I am looking for answers on how to ‘fix’ this issue. Perhaps no one knows. Neither the President nor his advisors. The media is merely a spectator, which spews out whatever is thrown at it, only amplified, many times over.

Anyway, having reconciled myself to the fact that I cannot be in either position, in this lifetime, at least; I came back home. I came back humbled and thankful for the life I have. Thankful and grateful that we have two sane people, who are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Both are men of faith and hope, who bring reconciliation, where others cause strife. Both embody a work-ethic, which I could hardly keep up with, even if I am a good 40 years younger than him. Both are deeply Christian, without being unnecessarily dogmatic or close-minded.

Can they do better? Yes, of course. But at least we don’t have people in positions of power that will jail, kill, persecute or maim others, for the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. I took a nap, knowing fully well that even if I can’t have the Pope’s job, I can rest assured that he is doing his, well.  And I can take a nap whenever I want. Neither the Pope nor the President have such luxuries.