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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the U.S., ‘Where are you from’ can be a loaded question. It took me a while to realize this. It could range from : a) genuine curiosity about your origins b) ignorance about who you are OR c) An arrogant assumption that you are an ‘outsider,’ even if you are more ‘native’ than the person who asked you this question. The question also is an exercise of power – especially when the question is posed to someone who seems ( apparently, at least) is member of an ethnic or racial minority group. Roger Shimomura’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery last night brought to fore this question. As someone who is interested in ethnic identity issues, I was curious to hear what Shimomura had to say.
Shimomura is an artist who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp and this experience, more than any other seems to have shaped his thinking. As a consummate collector, he seems to have collected not only items – which he introduced us to – but also experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. The paraphrenalia that he collected, ranging from salt and pepper shakers to miniature shoes and also mannequins, one of which adorned his bathroom all seemed to introduce us to the mind of an eccentric artist; who is not afraid of being ‘himself.’
Shimomura recounted several anecdotes but one stood out in my memory. This involved a stranger approaching him in Lawrence, Kansas and asking him ‘Where are you from,’ to which he replied ‘Seattle.’ Not to be undone by this innocuous answer, the stranger again asked him ‘No! That is not I meant, what I meant was, ‘Where are your parents from.” To this query, Shimomura replied ‘Seattle’ again, given that his parents were second generation Japanese-Americans and he was a ‘Naesae’ Japanese, a third-generation one. His grand-mother arrived to the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century, as a ‘picture’ bride and she, more than anyone seems to have instilled in him the need for documenting one’s identity and personal narrative. Speaking of the line of questioning of this stranger, Shimomura pointed out that no matter how long one lives in the U.S., sometimes, one is always a stranger – particularly, if one is a minority – or Asian American in his case. This persistent ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that seems to be at the heart of his work.Whether it is kicking the mickey-mouse characters or donning the Superman suit, Shimomura’s art has it all.
All of his work seems to challenge our stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian, an American and also how one can break away from this ‘framing.’ While he did not talk much about how one can move away from such framing, that is imposed by others; he did allude to the exoticization of one’s identity and the need to challenge it. One example he offered is that of ‘Yellow Rat Bastard,‘ brand of clothing. This slang term was used during WWII to refer to the Japanese, at the height of suspicion about Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to America. This term has stuck and it is surprising that the most avid consumers of this brand of clothing in NYC are Japanese tourists, mused Shimomura. Ironic? Perhaps so, or is it just that racism, when made to appear ‘cool’ seems to take on life of its own.
One of the more subversive one of his paintings is titled ‘Shimomura crossing the Delaware,’ based on George Washington’s famous crossing the river. Speaking of the original painting of the founding father, Shimomora asked “How might American history have been different, if it was the Japanese who were founding fathers of the U.S. or if those accompanying Washington were Japanese?”.
Shimomora’s oeuvre seems to have a strong message of battling stereotypes. Whether it is the plays/ performances based on his grandmom’s diaries or his own art-work that is very strongly reminiscent of Andy Warhol – improvizational, eclectic and very pop culture inspired, this artist forces us to re-look at the images and stereotypes that we hold in our minds.
I came away with a few ideas and a better appreciation for the Japanese-American experience and also a more nuanced understanding of what identity really means. As an immigrant myself and also as the husband of a first-generation Mexican-American woman, ideas of ethnicity and identity are constantly making the rounds in my mind. Shimomora added a dash of color and style to these perspectives and I am glad we went to his talk. More importantly, I will perhaps stop asking ‘Where are you from,’ unless it is absolutely necessary. That question, as I learnt last night, carries more power than we realize.
I received an email from a relative in India, requesting me to speak with his niece, who is considering grad school in the U.S. She wants to specialize in International Relations. This is perhaps the fifth or so request I have received in the last year. So, I thought of writing a blog post for her and also fellow scholars/ learners who may be interested in issues of International Development/ Affairs.
As someone who graduated from the top Public Policy program in the U.S., I feel (slightly) qualified to talk about this topic. I think it had more to do with timing, luck and perhaps a few other factors, including my work experience; rather than sheer talent. Nevertheless, I will attempt to outline a few things for wannabe IR professionals. I believe I have done a few things right and feel confident in sharing what I have learnt, along with way. While these are not literal rules to follow, here are my ‘Ten Commandments,’ for an IR professional. Here goes:
Start with an end in mind – Why do you want to study what you want to study? This may seem counterintuitive to the whole philosophy of education, but in the case of an applied field such as IR/ Public Policy/ Development Studies, it is almost mandatory that you start with this in mind. If not, you will drift aimlessly. As much as you should ‘learn for the sake of learning,’ a professional degree such as International Relations/ Public Administration should be approached with a clearer focus. Have a vague ambition, at the least. Do you want to work for an International NGO/ the U.N./ Your government? Or pursue a Ph.D? What impact do you want to make in this world, through your work?
For instance, I wanted to work for the United Nations, before I came to Syracuse University. My goals have changed, since. But at least, I knew why I wanted to study at Maxwell School.
International development is messy – You will quickly realize this, if you haven’t already. The whole ‘development’ talk can be very glamorized and ‘done up.’ You must read widely, intern during your course-work and also possibly try to spend some time in the country you see yourself working (if it isn’t you home country), to see the realities ‘on the ground.’
It is not what it is made out to be – Related to the point above, you will also realize that development/ diplomacy/ administration of organizations is very different, once you start doing it. Skills that you think are important can become redundant and you may be called upon to use other skills that you have not developed too well. For instance, during my previous job as the Executive Director of a small NGO in Washington D.C., I realized quickly that managing people, their anxieties, concerns were equally important, as running the NGO itself. As an NGO that had undergone a crisis, both the donors and those who wanted to work with the organization had deep doubts. I had to address many such issues, before I could focus on performing my task. Watch Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, for a good laugh about this issue.
Be careful about wanting to ‘change the world’ – A bit of humility will help. Look around the countries that the U.S. and E.U. have tried to develop – Iraq, Afghanistan can be two examples – to see the complications and challenges involved. Sometimes, the best of intentions can have extremely negative consequences.
Be aware of the politics involved – As much as ‘technical’ skills are involved in the process of ‘development,’ and ‘diplomacy,’ the processes are deeply political. This is the nature of the game and it would be wise to be conscious of it.
There are no free lunches – Nations, like individuals are motivated by incentives. Is it all about ‘Carrots and Sticks?’ On a lighter note, watch this.
Read critical development studies – It is not all good news, throughout. Read critical theorists, they will expand your mind about what can (and often) does go wrong. But don’t let their cynicism stop you from pursuing your work. Encountering Development by Arturo Escobar is a great start.
Be humble, about what is possible – Studying and working in the U.S. can make one feel that the U.S. is literally the center of the world. In some ways, it is. People in Washington D.C. do feel like it is the global capital. But this ‘American exceptionalism,’ is a myth, like many other myths. Learn some humility, along the way.
Learn to network – People underestimate the value of knowing people. Network not to just ‘get a job,’ or schmooze, but to genuinely connect with people, who will help you: to think clearly, to collaborate, to work with and also to guide you. You can and must have a wide range of people, who you will reach out to, and who should be able to reach out to you for advice, help or guidance. Most people will help you, if it doesn’t cost them much. Also, genuinely help people when you can. All it takes to land a job is one good connection. Remember this.
Don’t stop dreaming – Finally, never stop dreaming. Imagine a better world, both for yourself and for those who you ‘serve,’ whether it is an organization, national/ state government or even your community. Be aware that human agency and your own actions can change a lot – for the better or for the worse – and that ultimately, politicians, leaders are human: just like you and me. Even the president of the U.S. is human and makes mistakes. As one of my colleagues in Dubai used to say about celebrities: Their shit smells just as bad as mine.
Over the last two weeks, I have had a few interesting discussions on ‘development,’ both in the context of local community development and international development. One can see conflation of security discourses, humanitarian and related concerns in each of these debates. The dominant narrative about ‘development,’ in the context of Asia and Africa seems to also stem from the need to ‘contain’ problems arising from lack of development. People are violent, anti-government etc. because they are poor, the theory goes. Only if we give them ‘goods,’ or wealth will they behave better, seems to be the governing logic. But is this true? Is poverty and lack of development really causing the ‘chaos’ that we see around us. Or is it ignorance, lack of dialogue or wrong geo-strategic decisions, by the powers that are involved – including the local actors?
While it is easy to brand someone we don’t agree with as ‘anti-national’ or ‘against our interest,’ I suggest that we must pay particular attention to the power dynamics involved on who gets to legitimize what sort of ‘development,’ a country needs and how it will be carried out. In the absence of this awareness, we may be led into arguments that are faulty at best.
A recent example of ‘anti-development’ rhetoric being used as a platform to shut down a civil society organization is the case of Green Peace in India. While the specifics of the case can be found here and here, the point at stake is the vision of what sort of ‘development,’ does the government of India want. While it is the right of every Indian to know and question the policies being formulated, it is a deeply anti-democratic measure to shut down a reputed NGO just because the government disagrees with its position. By this account, most (if not all) media outlets in India should be shut down, as they regularly print articles that are critical of the government. In fact, it is the job of civil society and media to hold elected officials accountable. This very crux of a pluralist democracy – which India is – by all means. Democratic pluralism demands that dissenting views be heard, incorporated in the planning processes. To want the goods of globalization and not want the criticism that comes from it, both from local and global organizations is not exactly an ‘open’ way to do business.
The context of international development also brings up questions of how ‘development’ is defined. Who are we ‘developing’ and why? What is at stake? Who gains and who loses and also, fundamentally; development at what cost? These are some questions that need to be asked, suggests Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) speaking of the role of social scientists, in uncovering and understanding human action in a social context.
A recent conversation I was part of, involved an expert, who spoke of ‘fixing Africa,’ with his technical expertise. While to a trained social scientist / development expert, this may sound like the worst nightmare come true; in his mind, this idea of ‘fixing Africa’ was as natural as having one’s breakfast – you just do it because you can – there was absolutely no consciousness of the power dynamics involved, with the ‘American’ expert and the ‘poor, African,’ at the receiving end. The politics of what I just have pointed out notwithstanding, there are real power differentials here that need to be acknowledged. This often means that the ‘best solution,’ for the African context may end up not being what they actually need, but perhaps what the American or European (or Chinese) may think they need. This is one big problem in the discourse of development. The one with the dollars often get to decide how the discourse of development is shaped.
Similar critiques of development have come from other scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) places the discussion of development in his book Encountering Development, this in the context of the ‘Truman doctrine’ of the late 1940s and early 50s. The ‘discovery’ of poverty and ‘lack’ of material goods in Africa and Asia was made then, which completely ignored the way that the natives understood community, frugality, he further points out. He argues that it is with the massive onslaught of marketization that led to the pauperization of people and eventual creation of massive levels of poverty.
This idea of ‘developing’ the world by infusing capital, industrializing the poorer countries and measuring their progress by the standards became the standard operating procedure, he argues. This ‘Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism,’ continues, unabated and relies mainly on the standards, metrics and systems devised as part of the discourse of creating a representation of the ‘underdeveloped’. At stake are issues of representation, autonomy of those who are at the receiving end of this development. (Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 1988). While the critique of development that Escobar offers is valid in the context of the discourses of development, what it ignores are the local, indigenous formulations of how this development impacts the receivers of ‘aid.’
Flyvbjerg (1998) argues in his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice that we must pay special attention to power dynamics in the ‘rational’ planning processes. What passes for ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge can often be deeply dogmatic and convoluted, that reinforces certain ideological ideas. This aspect of focusing on power dynamics, relations of how the parties being ‘developed’ and those doing the ‘development,’ need to be kept in mind simply because without this awareness; we cannot have a mature and critical look at ‘who gains and who loses.’ Intended development projects may end up causing more harm, than actual benefit.
So, are International NGOs working against India’s interest when they try to stop a mining project, or do all Western ‘experts,’ have Africa’s best interest , when they plan projects in Africa? I don’t think the answer to this is straight-forward. While donor relations normally dictate what gets done in a target country, I suggest, following scholars such as Escobar and others, which we need to radically re-think development. Asking some basic questions such as the ones outlined above may be a good start.
Critical questioning and thinking are the bedrocks of any democratic order, and I would argue that media, civil society organizations and active citizenry should be the ones ensuring that this function takes place, on a regular basis. In the absence of this, we would end up with massive levels of propaganda posing as actual knowledge, with media becoming the mouth-piece of those in power – both politically and other wise- and a plutocracy that serves only those in power.
Since Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, there has been a renewed national conversation about race in America. While most thoughtful analysts agree that there is a wide racial divide in the country, no one has come up with a definitive answer as to how to solve it. Despite decades of government, non-government and civil society efforts, the issues of racial discrimination, racial tension persist. While different racial groups have responded differently to this situation, the response by American Muslims is of particular interest to me, given that Islam is supposed to be ‘race-blind,’ according to popular understanding. A related question that is important is: How do Muslims make sense of black suffering, fully believing that God is beneficent and merciful?
‘Does Islam ‘do’ race?’ asks the scholar Sherman Jackson, one of the most well-known scholars of Islam in America. Even if at face-value, Islam does not address race as a question, since most Muslims argue that race is a ‘social construct’ that the white man came up with. Even if Islam does not do race, ‘Islam does reality,’ Jackson reminds us, urging us to be aware of the vast differences between the race-neutral languages that most Muslims use versus the presence of racially discriminatory practices and ideas around us. Jackson argues in his book Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering that universalizing tendencies of many immigrant and overseas Muslims about ahistorical truths and ‘race-free’ discourses won’t help and that we must engage with the discourse of race, instead of ignoring it.
Jackson points to the work of William R.Jones, whose bookIs God a White Racist? has brought to fore the question of how to make sense of black suffering in the world. This question becomes relevant to those religions that insist that god is benevolent and merciful – a fact that Islam endorses, time and again. If God is all powerful and benevolent, then the protests of Blacks against their condition could be considered a revolt against the will of God and the only appropriate answer to this situation would be ‘quietism,’ argues Jones. Jones’s critiqued all existing Black theologies in favor of secular humanism or humanocentric theism, which he believed offered a solution to Black suffering. The biggest critique of Jones has been his complete negation of Jesus, the central figure in Christianity, who is supposed to embody suffering of all mankind. But Islam does not suffer from this problem. While considering Jesus as a prophet, Islam rejects the notion that he died for the sins of all humans.
Consider the following: Every Surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase ‘In the name of Allah, the beneficent and Merciful.’ The question that Jackson is bringing up is how can Sunni tradition, or rather Blackamerican Sunni tradition make sense of this dichotomy between reality of Black suffering and the claim that God is all loving and merciful? A powerful and important question indeed. The challenge before Blackamerican Muslims has been how to overturn these structures of oppression, rather than just accept them passively, within the theological framework that Islam offers, says Jackson. This is similar to the struggles that Malcom X went through after his break with the Nation of Islam, says Edward Curtis in his book Islam in Black America. Curtis argues, against conventional understandings of Malcom’s life that he sought to separate out religion from his politics – post his break from the Nation of Islam (NOI). One may recall that the NOI was a racist, black supremacist organization that believed that Allah did not have a place in heaven for the ‘blue eyed devil’, i.e., the White man. This followed his realization that while Islam sought a race-blind adherence to the religion and universal brotherhood, the problems of Blacks in America were real. So, Malcom sought to align with Pan-Africanism to address this specific issue, before he was assassinated, argues Curtis.
So, how does mainstream Sunni theology reconcile Black Suffering with the belief a merciful god? Before we authoritatively answer that question, Jackson suggests that we look at the way Muslim theology developed. He offers a rather insightful look into the evolution of various schools of thought – Muta’zilite, Ash’arites, and the Mutaridities. While the first group of scholars are the ‘rationalists’ the latter two are ‘traditionalists’ operating in the rational tradition. Questions of anthropomorphism, the createdness of the Qur’an and related areas are where they differ and this has important implications on how they view reality. For instance, whether the Qur’an is a created word of uncreated can have implications on the extent to one which can have flexibility in interpreting the text- versus using it literally. Of course, there are verses in the Qur’an such as “O mankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Qur’an. 49: 13). Tariq Ramadhan, another well-known scholar tells us that such reminders are handy, when one has to reconcile between the daily realities and the larger principles on which one has to base one’s life. Muslim jurists have worked hard to explicate the challenges of dealing with vast diversity that we find amidst ourselves, while staying true to our religious ideals, Ramadhan suggests. But Jackson seems to be taking this argument one step further by arguing that a Blackamerican Muslim theology must be developed to address these challenges, while remaining conscious of the universal arguments made by mainstream Sunni Muslims, around the world. A uniquely Black response is needed, as it addresses specific issues of Blackamerican Muslims, he contends.
In discussing the evolution of the four traditions of Islamic theology, Jackson says that the key principle that is important to understand Theodicy is one of divine omnibenevolence – meaning that God could ‘neither sponsor human evil nor reward people or punish them for actions over which they had no effective control’. (p.51). In other words, this means that humans have free will to decide what they want to do. To quote Jackson “This demanded in turn, that humans be endowed not simply with freedom of choice but also with the actual ability to translate their choices into actual physical reality. In this way, no evil committed by humans could be attributed to God, and God could not be deemed unjust for holding humans accountable for their evil actions.” (p.52). This strategy of positioning man in a position that is ‘rational’ and one with agency to decide his/her fate, Mu’tazalites paved a way for a certain interpretation of suffering in this world. This notion of free will or ikhtiyar has come under considerable attack, as Jackson reminds us.
Finally, Jackson reminds us that despite differing in the amount of agency that each school of theology gives to humans, they all agree that there is an element of power in the human hand. “For if humans petition God to instantiate their will to do good, God will inevitably respond,” he says. From this, it seems that be clear that God is not seen as a white racist by any of the schools of Islamic theology and there is also no need for quietism – since racism and any violent oppression is against God’s will – and must be resisted by all people of conscience.
To William R. Jones’s question on whether ‘God is a white racist’, the simple answer, is that he is not a racist. The problem is of course, human will – which in Islamic theology accounts for much corruption that we see amidst us.