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 :
photo credit :

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.

“Where are you from” and other questions

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 Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit :
Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. Photo credit :
photo credit :
photo credit :

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.

  Do we need to re-think the meaning of Tradition ?

In International Relations, Development theory as well as cultural analysis, often one hears that ‘tradition’ ideas are evil, and must be gotten rid of, on our way to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, if one looks at the development of the West, on is way to Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the tension was between ‘tradition,’ exemplified by the Church and ‘modern’ ideas, that were ‘secular,’ ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ Especially, in liberal, progressive circles, tradition is a taboo word; that connotes backwardness, illiteracy and a lack of ability to ‘move with the times.’

In America too, this tension has played out and continues to animate itself in media discourses, popular debates and everyday scenarios. But the question is,  is ‘tradition,’ really all that it is made out to be? And is ‘modernity’ all that ‘modern.’ And how are the two linked together, in contemporary ethical life? I will try to answer this, in this short post.india-culture-heritage

Two scholars are helpful in understanding the notion of ‘tradition’ and its relation to modernity. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Philosopher and the second being Talal Asad, an Anthropologist, who is most well-known for his writings on Islam. Both are considered authorities in their field of study and have contributed much to our understanding of the world we live in. First off, let us start with the definition that each offers of tradition. Asad says that tradition consists of ‘discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate to a past, and a future, through a present.’ (1986, p.14). His definition of tradition is one of inherited discourses, and he goes on to build the idea of a ‘discursive tradition,’ meaning one which is constantly in dialogue with the others and with itself and hence, is ‘alive.’

On the other hand, MacIntyre argues that a tradition is a shared conversation between a set of people and one that is often born into. I did not choose to be born into an Indian, Muslim family and inherit the traditions that came with it. I may have adopted a few others, along the way, through travel, reflection and life-experience; but the ones that I most closely relate to, are the ones that I am deeply ingrained in. Tradition, then, according to MacIntyre is a ‘shared conversation through time about the rule, ends and overall direction of a given set of practices,’ (Hannan, 2012. P.394).

So, between Asad and MacIntyre’s definitions, we have a lot of similarities in how they understand the role of tradition. Both see it as something that one is born into, one that one inherits. How does one deal with it, then? MacIntyre develops his notion of tradition to talk about one’s ‘narrative self,’ as embodying the stories that one tells and how  these impact our sense of our own self, own sense of our ‘traditions,’ and how we keep them alive. Similarly, Asad talks about a ‘discursive tradition,’ as being a dynamic formulation of tradition, in that, one seeks to relate one’s tradition to current practices, based on how one understand how things were done in the past. This necessarily doesn’t mean that one kowtows to what was done in the past and preserves everything therein. A ‘discursive tradition,’ in Asad’s view is ‘alive’ and ‘active’, in that it seeks to question both the present and the future, and also the past.

Both scholars make a very important point that no matter how ‘modern.’ Our conceptions of our life, they are deeply rooted in some ‘tradition.’ For example, all talk of ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘progress,’ are not just Western constructs that are post-Enlightenment ideals, but have evolved over centuries and under certain specific historic conditions. To deny this is to lie to oneself, both Asad and MacIntyre seem to be saying.

The difference between them seem to be in the amount of focus that each puts on the power relations. While Asad words in a Foucaldian tradition, that seeks to understand power-relations between those who create knowledge and those who are at the receiving end of it, MacIntyre seems less interested in these aspects and he is interested more in the ethical dimensions of the problems at hand.

These two formulations of tradition challenge us to re-think what tradition is. In a classical Burkean sense, tradition is seen as something that had no scope for disagreement or reasoning. Asad shows, through his work that this is not the case and in the particular case of Islamic tradition, there has been and continues to be contestation, debate, arguments – in the realm of tradition. Even in the ‘Western tradition,’ for instance, one can see that our conceptions of justice, equality and law and order have evolved and continue to evolve, making it ‘discursive.’


Hannan (2014) Ed. Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication: With a Foreword by Richard J. Bernstein and an Afterword by John Durham Peters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Asad, T (1986). Towards an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.

Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

Do Scholars have a social responsibility?

The amount of b&%* shit that I see in the ‘public domain’ on a regular basis makes me want to cry. Really.I am researching Islam in the U.S. and one can only imagine the amount of non-sense that there is, out there, along with genuine, credible scholarship. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the stuff on internet, about Islam is wrong or misleading information. That is another story, but in this piece, I want to focus on what responsibility scholars have, if any, to correct this anomaly.

Take the story of the Pythagoras theorem being an Indian invention or that Indians inventing flying and that they had airplanes over 7000 years ago. Absurd? Well, for some, in the hallowed corridors of power, in India, this is the ‘truth’, as absurd or illogical as it sounds. And there are well-meaning people who will point out that this is part of making India a ‘great nation’. What? A great nation, based on falsehoods and myth? One cannot build self-esteem by claiming thing that one has not done or by outright falsifying history.

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

To be clear, my beef is not with Indian culture. I love my country of birth and have no issues with my ‘identity’. I am very secure in who I am and have a lot of affection for my people and our ways of life. Thankfully, my identity is fully formed, despite having moved around, a few times. I do not place myself in the category of the self-hating Indian who wants to diss on Indian culture, while extolling the ‘West’. The West has as many problems as the East and we can talk about this till the cows come home. That is not the point.

My problem is with this self-congratulatory attitude of attributing all good exists in the world to some Indian scientist or mathematician . The same sort of myth making is at place here that exists when one speaks of the Israel/ Palestine conflict, an issue I am intimately familiar with, having studied it during my MA in International Affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I do believe, on the contrary that tradition is important, culture is valuable and that we should draw inspiration from our past. But how do we do that?

Let’s first start with the question: Do scholars have a social responsibility? I have been thinking about this for a while, as I prepare to enter the hallowed field of the American academy. I must admit, I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with, studied and spent a great deal of time with some world-class scholars, who have contributed to the study of American society, religion, nonprofit management, international relations etc. in the past four years and have nothing but enormous respect for the time, energy and dedication that they bring to their work. But the question remains: beyond the three core responsibilities of – teaching, service and research, do University professors /scholars have a broader social responsibility? When debates of race, religion and war and peace come up, are academics supposed to provide only their ‘scholarly opinion’, i.e., specialist knowledge and not ‘take sides’ or actively jump into the fray and help the lay man make up his/her mind? Not an easy answer, that one.

In a debate of this sort, there are several large and small-scale issues involved. I list just three here,

  1. The State’s legitimizing of certain forms of knowledge
  2. Scholars own careerism and search for legitimacy
  3. What counts as ‘knowledge’

Each of these is a configuration and does not stand on its own. What the ‘state’ apparatus denotes as ‘valid knowledge’ is key. Think of the times of war and peace, when propaganda becomes ‘truth’ and all versions of truth that do not match up to this are considered ‘lies’. McCarthyism and Bush era propaganda are enough proof to show anyone that this has happened in the past, and will occur in the future. Sometimes, scholars get too cozy with the powerful, especially if they legitimize one’s knowledge. Think of Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, in the recent past and their relationship with the Bush administration. They have been discredited in part because of the policies of the government, but they also gained legitimacy and power through the regime, when their ideas were being converted to policies and these policies were being implemented. A more recent instance of blowback is that of John Yoo, who wrote the torture memos, for the Bush administration.

For a more theoretical and nuanced take on this, see Michel Foucault, here.

As the article points out, power and knowledge are not seen independently but linked – knowledge is an exercise of power and a ‘function of knowledge.’ Further:

Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of “sexuality” had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge.”

Applying this to any form of knowledge production, one can see how a ‘regime of truth’ produces the kind of knowledge necessary.

So, in the case of India’s glorious past or that of Israel being the ‘promised land’, power/knowledge do come together to create myths and ideas that legitimize state policy. As the ‘New Historians’ in Israel Israel’s Ilan pappe and Benny Morris have shown, Palestinians did not ‘voluntarily’ leave the region, but were forced out in 1948 and the years following. Many of the myths held by Israelis as ‘truths’ have been debunked, with recent scholarship by these two scholars. Then there is Shlomo Sand, whose book The Invention of Israel

As this Guardian article points out:

“In 2009, Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, in which he claimed that Jews have little in common with each other. They had no common “ethnic” lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken at the time of Jesus. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. So what is left to unite them? Religion? But religion does not make a people – think of Muslims and Catholics. And most Jews are not religious. Zionism? But that is a political position: one can be a Scot and not a Scottish nationalist. Besides, the majority of Jews, including many Zionists, have not the slightest intention of going “back” to the Holy Land, much preferring, and who can blame them, to stay put in north London, or Brooklyn or wherever. In other words, “Jewish People” is a political construct, an invention.”

Myths, truths and half-truths

Then there are articles such as these that speak of airplanes in ancient India that went from one country to another. Myth and facts don’t seem to be separated in any of these accounts. While fantasy, myth and the like have a role to play in life, I think we cannot base the teaching of history on these ideas. The article, in a prominent Indian magazine says “Aeroplanes existed in India 7,000 years ago and they travelled from one country to another and from one planet to another, the Indian Science Congress was told today in a controversial lecture that examined ancient aviation technology in the Vedas. The hosting of the lecture, presented by Captain Anand J Bodas, a retired principal of a pilot training facility, had recently attracted criticism from some scientists who said it undermined the primacy of empirical evidence on which the 102-year-old Congress was founded.”

Where does myth end and facts begin? For the faithful, doubt has no place in mind. Blind-faith in any ideology can be harmful – be it nationalism, religion or science. In this case, Indian nationalism is being revived with utmost force and I am guessing the consequences are not going to be good. Each time this has occurred, there has been a war or a mass murder. Think of the partition of India, Wars with Pakistan, China and of course the countless ‘communal riots’ that take place in India, on a regular basis – that pit the Hindus and Muslims each as a ‘nation’, fighting it out. It looks like some people never learn their history right. And if they do, they do it in a way that boosts their own self-image and ego.

Scholars such as Shlomo Sand, Edward Said, Michel Foucault have all challenged, questioned the existing discourses of power that have legitimated certain forms of ‘knowledge’ as being true. Countless others continue to do so, in the academy and through their writings. Teaching of history, arts and social sciences is inherently a political exercise and one can take ‘sides’, while being honest about it. But I argue, what one should not and cannot do, is to be so blind to facts and one’s own biases. One cannot  blindly follow the path that legitimizes one’s world-view without seeking out alternative modes of reality, or reality, or peddling one’s own ideology as the ‘truth’.

To sum up, here is my take on whether scholars have a social responsibility. In short: Yes. They do. They do, because they are ‘powerful’ in that they have invested a lot of time, energy and money to acquire knowledge that is not accessible to all. They also have the power to legitimate a discourse. To misuse this power, either for personal gain or for gaining others favors is not only irresponsible, but also unethical. To ensure that one acts responsibly and ethically is the greatest responsibility that a scholar has. And this, I believe will be the test of true scholarship. Scholars are supposed to produce good, credible knowledge that advances our knowledge of the world, or questions injustice. Everything else is irrelevant.

Top ten books I read this year

I read a lot of books this year. Like a LOT. Part of the reason is that I am preparing for my prelim exams (part of the PhD process) where you prove to your committee that you know your stuff. Additionally, I presented a few papers at a few conferences, many of them outside my ‘field’ of research. This meant reading new scholars, people that I didn’t know much about. Also, I went back to some books that I had read in the past, to revisit them and have a ‘conversation’ with them, so to say. Here is a short list of about ten books I read – all of them related to religion and philanthropy – two areas of intersection, that come together in my own work. In no particular order of importance, I list them here, with a short blurb. Good books are like a good conversation with a person you wouldn’t (normally) meet. Also, the fact that some of these books have endured the test of time are a

testament to the wisdom they contain.beyond the veil

  1. Beyond the Veil – This is one of the most provocative, mind-bending books I read this year. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, during my visit this summer. She is considered the pioneer of Islamic Feminism and she makes some ground-breaking arguments in this book. The key argument is that Islam is an egalitarian religion, with respect to women’s rights and it gives them equal opportunities to partake in public life. The problem of women’s rights seem to have arisen with the manipulation of hadith and sacred texts by later day scholars, who sought to keep the patriarchic societal framework ongoing. She argues that Islam views gender segregation as a key component of maintaining social harmony, as female sexuality is viewed as an active ingredient, rather than as a passive one.
  2. Zealot – This is a fascinating book that offers a perspective that is not well known to most people, except scholars of religion – that Jesus the man was a political figure, who was made apolitical by Christians, after his death, to make his message more acceptable. This is an interesting book by Reza Aslan that also generated quite a bit of controversy, after an interview on Fox news. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. My connection with Reza is also that I did some research for him last year, and also got to meet him in person.
  3. The Conservative Soul – If you are looking for a book that explains the current debates in American conservatism, pick up this book. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most prominent bloggers in the U.S., who initially supported George W Bush and his war on Iraq, but later became critical of it. The book is a conversation with the reader on where conservatism stands today, and what its future looks like. While the book is a bit polemical, it could have done with a bit wider reporting of the conservative movement and more nuanced scholarship. He could have looked at Red State Religion, a fascinating book by Robert Wuthnow, for instance. Overall, this is a popular book that brings a lot of discussions to the fore, but there are flaws in it, as the NYT review point out. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely yet.
  4. The Sociological Imagination – This book, written by C Wright Mills, a motorbike riding Sociologist from the 1960s is sure to make you pause and re-think the way much Social science analysis is carried out. Mills’ key argument in the book is that we need more ‘Sociological imagination’ in analyzing our society. A purely ‘rational’ model of analyzing situations won’t work, he suggests.

The key argument of the book is that Social Sciences must evolve a new lens or a vision for analyzing the world and this must include History, biography (of the individual) as well as social conditions. A merely one-dimensional analysis or study of the individual does not yield the right picture or a complete understanding of what is going on in the world.

He argues that for a complete and true picture of social reality, one must try to connect the personal struggles of the individual with that of the broader society. While not many people do this, he believes that this is the right way to study social sciences. Pointing towards the need for this he says: “What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend that journalists and scholars, artists and scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the Sociological Imagination”. Inter-disciplinary research, which is a mantra on college campuses nowadays, was what Mills called for.

  1. Habits of the Heart – This book is considered a classic in American Sociology by Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the heart tells us the story of four Americans – Brian Palmer: the corporate exec. Joe Gorman: The communitarian in MA, Margaret Oldham, a therapist and Wayne Bauer: Community organizer in CA- a hippie of the 60s’.

He says “Brian, Joe, Margaret, Wayne each represent American voices familiar to all of us. One of the reasons for the arguments they would have is that they draw from different traditions. Yet beneath the sharp disagreements, there is more than a little consensus about the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public good. This is because, in spite of their differences, they all to some degree share a common vocabulary, which we propose to call the “first language” of American individualism in contrast to alternative “second languages” which most of us also have.( P.20). Based on over 200 interviews, they offer a typology, based on four types of character among Americans: the independent citizen, the entrepreneur, the manager, and the therapist.

The book complicates the notion of individualism and suggests that is it not all bad. The individualism of a Cowboy or that of a firefighter may be seen as being purely selfish, but it is selfishness at the service of others, argue Bellah et al. “One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination.” The growing sense of individualism and lack of collective identity among Americans is a problem, the authors suggest. In response to this, a number of scholars such as Amitai Etzioni and others have come up with models for working out ‘communitarian’ ideals that would ultimately bind people, together

6. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam – This book is a new interpretation of the role of Ulema, or religious scholars in Islam. Mohammed Zaman offers us an insight into the ways and means that the Ulema in India used, to resist colonial occupation in pre-Independence India. He makes the case by looking at archives, historical work as well as commentaries of the Qur’an, written by various scholars, belonging to different strands of Islamic thought – the Ahl I Hadith, the Tablighi Jamat etc.. each one of which approached the Qur’an and Sunnah in a particular way.

7.A History of Islam in America – This is a scholarly examination of a topic that has been written about, from many perspectives. Ghaneabassiri offers an in-depth look at the origins and growth of the American Muslim community and places their history in relation to that of America. As a scholar of religion, his perspective is quite nuanced and he offers a penetrating analysis, which is hard to dispute. He argues that there are three million Muslims in the U.S, per Pew and Gallup poll results (pg.2). Given the enormous diversity found within the Muslim population in the U.S, no one narrative can capture the varying experiences of American Muslims, as there is no single American Muslim experience. “Muslims who found themselves in this country whether as slaves, immigrants, or converts have had to define themselves and to interpret their varying religious undertakings and practices in relation to the dominant laws, conceptions of religion, and political and cultural structures that have shaped American society through the years.” ( pg.3

8. Islam and the Blackamerican – Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican is a tour de force for understanding the question of Black Americans in America. He offers a compelling narrative, grounded in American History, Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic texts that offer us the story of what he calls the ‘ideological encounter between Islam and Blackamericans, from the proto-Islamic black-nationalistic spin-off movements of the early twentieth century through the rise and preponderance of orthodox Sunni Islam by the century’s end.’ Jackson offers us insights into how issues of racial inequality in early period of development of Blackamerican consciousness were replaced with concerns of problems of the Muslim world – Palestine, Kashmir and Egypt. He does a nice job of tracing the relations between ‘immigrant’ Muslims and the Blackamerican Muslims, while placing it in the context of theological debates and the power relations that emerged out of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islamic tradition.

9.Making Social science Matter – This book by Bent Flyvbjerg offers a compelling reason to reject completely ‘rational’ explanations in favor of those that are intuitive. He calls this methodology as ‘phronesis’, based upon the methods of intuitive and arational analysis developed by Aristotle. This style of reasoning is needed in today’s world, as it is becoming increasingly complex, multi-layered. Further, this method of analysis is important, as the main strength of social science is its reflexivity and ability to offer a critical perspective. This does not necessarily include prediction, which is what pure science is supposed to do, he suggests.

10.Strategic Giving – This is a great book if you want to understand the transformation of philanthropy in America, both from a donor and recipient’s perspective. I was privileged to attend a summer fellowship with Dr. Peter Frumkin, who teaches at Upenn, so also know the backstory to how this book was written. This is a great study of the growth and transformation of American philanthropy and in the book, Frumkin offers an in-depth investigation of how foundations changed, over a period of time, and how this can be seen as a part of the change of American landscape of giving. His argument is that one should look at philanthropy as a value driven enterprise, rather than just purely instrumental. Hence the use of the word ‘strategic’. His framework in suggesting this is a prism of giving, a five point mantra, if you will of giving. These five elements of giving include: deciding which vehicle to use for giving away the donor’s money; clarifying the purpose of the gift; setting a time frame for giving; choosing the level of donor engagement with grant recipients; and assessing the impact the contributions will have.

What a 19th century French Aristocrat can teach us about America


This is perhaps the most cited book in the world. I have seen it cited even when there is no need to do so, because the aura of quoting Tocqueville, the 19th century French aristocrat is irresistible. With his magnum opus Democracy in America, written after his visit to America in the 1830s’, Tocqueville entered the hall of immortals and this book is widely considered both by liberals and conservatives as an authoritative book on American history. While there is deep questioning in America regarding democracy and its efficacy and study after study showing that components that build democracy are in decline, this book is a peek into the past that offers us rich insights and lessons.democracy

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” These are the words with which Tocqueville begins his book. Here, he is talking about the equality that he saw among ‘free White men’, of his era, given that slavery was still very much part of the American social makeup. One can forgive him for this and look at the where he is coming from – the nobility of France, a deeply hierarchical society. This is one of the most significant takeaways from this book. This insight into the equality of Americans is also one of the most insightful observations that he makes. While inequality in America did exist in his time and it seems to have only increased in our times, the absence of  aristocracy and a perception of equality among all people is  part of the psychological makeup that is hard to find in any other part of the world.

He goes on to say “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” This goes to elaborate his earlier statement about the equality of conditions in America. He did note that the paradoxes in America were quite obvious. Racism while proclaiming equality. A great sense of individualism and the presence of conformist ideas alongside, a deeply religious society that was also extremely materialistic. The sense of local governance and direct democracy that Tocqueville witnessed in his travels across the states was something he marveled at, while there was a Constitution that was over 50 years old at that time. He made a careful note of all these paradoxes and  analyzes them.

The key problem that he wanted to solve, by writing this book is how democracy could survive and thrive, without falling to the changing mores of a majoritarian agenda. He felt this could be the antidote for France, with its hierarchical society. Having emerged from the French revolution only a generation ago, France then was in clear danger of falling back to autocratic leanings.  Not only France, but the whole world could learn from America’s experience, he wrote. He also undertakes a careful review of the judicial system of America, as it forms the backbone of the democratic system. “The courts correct the aberrations of democracy,” Tocqueville points out. He gives a detailed breakdown of how the local courts are aligned with the courts higher up and those are in turn responsible for the national jurisdiction. The system of checks on the Executive branch of government through the judiciary is made amply clear through his analysis.

Probing into why Americans thought of each other as equals, he writes “It may safely be advanced, that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had in general no notion of superiority over one another. The happy and the powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune. It happened, however, on several occasions, that persons of rank were driven to America by political and religious quarrels.” The immigrants who made America their home were in exile, often fleeing religious persecution. This, combined with the English language and customs made them tolerate each other. The Founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson personified this notion of equality in all forms – including enshrining it in the constitution as the First Amendment, that sought to restrict the establishment of any one religion and also barring the state from prohibiting the practice of any particular religion. The wisdom of this basic clause cannot be overstated. When many countries around the world are grappling with issues of secularism, separation of religion and state and the role of the ‘state religion’, such problems are present to a much lesser degree in the U.S. than anywhere else. While it is hard to distill all the key points that Tocqueville made in a short essay, suffice it to say that this book deserves to be read, as it provides us a glimpse into the soul of America of the 19th century.

What lessons, if any does Tocqueville’s analysis have for us? I would argue that by relooking at the character of America in its formative years, we get a glimpse of the struggles that the nation and its people went through. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a mirror – in that it offers us an opportunity to look at our country yet again, with fresh eyes. Despite the historical element, many aspects of his analysis still hold true. While essentializing the ‘American character’ is not my purpose and I presume that Tocqueville also did not set out to find this, one can read into his work this quest for how the average American made sense of his life, his country and his or her own surroundings. To this extent, this is a powerful sociological document that offers us rich insights into how ordinary people, priests, criminals, tradesmen and

He does critique the institution by saying “Slavery, as we shall afterwards show, dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.” (p.47)

A comparison with that era and our times can offer us benchmark of sorts. As a student of philanthropy, I was intrigued to learn of the history of civil society organizations. Americans are constantly forming self-help groups or some sorts of associations, Tocqueville pointed out. This trend seems to have continued, as we see the nonprofit and civil society sector to be one of the most vibrant in America. Americans given about $300 billion, as individuals to charity every year. Of this, about $100 billion goes to religious institutions, further demonstrating the importance of religion in the American public imagination. This is shifting slowly, but despite the demographic shifts, decreasing influence of Church on individual and societal morality, there is still a general understanding that religious institutions are key to American social life.

As America is changing and its fundamental values are being questioned by various discourses related to immigration, wealth inequality, gender relations etc. this book offers us some insights into how America has dealt with these issues in the past and what wisdom this holds for the future. Despite its formidable size, at over 800 pages, this is a book worth your time and attention.