Singapore, Dubai and the limits of Freedom?

ON March 23rd, the founder of modern day Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew died – and with him, an era of change and reform in Singapore passed. While the man is remembered for ‘building’ Singapore, he is also known as the man who brought into sharp focus the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘Asian values’. The discourse of Liberal Democracy got its strongest challenge from him, in South East Asia. Even his arch enemies acknowledge that he did well, both for himself and for his country. By imposing order, discipline and a level of authoritarianism; he brought the country prosperity and recognition. But the question really, in my mind is, what does LKY represent. Does he represent the possibilities of a repressive regime, or the

limits of democracy?LKY

Most people who live in democracies take them for granted. I grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and not until I moved to live in Dubai, UAE in 2008 did I begin to appreciate the value of what it is to live in one. For the first few months, all I could see was the dazzle and glitter of Dubai. Remember, it was 2008, Dubai at its best. The real estate market was still booming – though there were signs of slowdown in the U.S.- this had not hit the Middle East market yet. Life was good. People talked about buying apartments, moving to new jobs, taking vacations in Bali. In casual conversations with taxi drivers, they would tell me things like ‘The King cares about the country. What if he rules forever? The corrupt politicians back home (India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) care about their own good and not the country’. This was repeated time and again.

While media and intellectuals in the West talk about the greatness of liberal democracies, they also often do not mention that in most countries, including the U.S. – considered the oldest democracy in the world – it is still an experiment of sorts. In many cases, it works, but there are also egregious cases of violations of the very spirit of democracy. Consider the idea that powerful groups of people or institutions controlling all the decisions being made in a country, as in the case of interest groups lobbying for their interests and the notion of ‘common good’ being relegated to the backburners. What sort of a democracy would that be? We see this exact phenomenon occurring in the U.S. and other advanced democracies. While in the developing and emerging democracies, corruption is an issue; the same problem manifests itself when we speak of interest groups and oligarchies. Concentration of power, nepotism and lack of transparency are endemic issues that every society has to deal with. Just having a form of government that promises it is not sufficient. Anyone who has worked in or with a bureaucracy closely will testify to this phenomenon.

Do Singapore and Dubai offer a high standard of living? Yes, for many of those who choose live there. If you are educated, middle-class and of a certain disposition. But if one is not so educated, is a laborer or a low-income earner, then Dubai and the Gulf can be living hell. The visa sponsorship system, combined with the potential to abuse power is rather high in such societies that place ethnic loyalty over other norms. These societies are in that sense ‘illiberal democracies’ as Fareed Zakaria called them. There are local elections to the Federal National Council in the UAE, but who gets to run and who decides that is extremely restricted. Zakaria argues that countries that have elections, yet have a lot of restrictions, that go against the spirit of democracy are not helpful in maintaining ‘order’, as eventually they give rise to dissent and chaos. They offer us the illusion of freedom, but in a restricted way. Saying the wrong thing, acting in the wrong way and expressing oneself in a certain way or going against the ruling elite can cause one to lose one’s job or even worse. This is the price one pays for the comfort of living in these societies.

This brings us back to the point: Do societies such as Singapore and Dubai (which is modelled after Singapore, as a city-state) offer ‘freedom’?. Is choice defined in terms of economic liberty and freedom; in terms of being able to live lavishly and in comfort. What about those who cannot afford this? Or is a society about the greater common good – if one even believes in such a thing- these are questions that one has to grapple with, when analyzing the role of society and form of government, that one seeks to build.

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: beautifultrouble.org
Photo courtesy: beautifultrouble.org

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.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially 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.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Why Gandhi is Relevant in 2014

Indians around the world celebrated Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2, his birth anniversary. It is a solemn day, often marked by social gatherings, politicians saying something banal about Gandhi’s life and legacy and talk-show hosts debating his life. While the question whether Gandhi’s life lessons are relevant is taken seriously by few, a vast majority seem to have created a myth around the Mahatma’s life and are happy to live by platitudes. I believe there is an urgent need to look at Gandhi’s life and the lessons he offered us.

Nehru_with_Gandhi_1942-Churchill Firstly, Gandhi’s life is a testament to the struggles that oppressed people have to go through to achieve freedom. Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as a struggle and his life, an example in sacrifice. As Arthur Herman writes in Gandhi and Churchill – The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age, Gandhi had undergone a spiritual transformation in the decades he had spent in South Africa and had found his life mission. This mission was to ‘transform the character of his fellow Indians by bringing them closer to God.’ “By doing so, he intended to undercut the foundations of British rule in India and set his people free.” (p.215). Gandhi’s life mission was rooted in self-transformation and transformation of society at large, missions that most ‘value driven’ organizations and institutions espouse and aspire to.

Secondly, the techniques that Gandhi promoted – Satyagraha being the key one – is still being used by nonviolence activists around the world, from the U.S. to Palestine. As a model of resistance, nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation are tactics that forced the British Empire to the negotiating table, more than once. Time and again, Gandhi deployed this tactic, both in South Africa and in India and despite some failures, it did succeed. In a situation where a powerless people are faced with a majority, that is armed, mighty and powerful, passive resistance did prove useful. Whether it was fighting for the miners rights in Johannesburg in 1908 or for self-rule or Swaraj years later, in India – similar tactics were in play. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist seems to have been using Gandhis’ methods for years now. Martin Luther King in the U.S. considered himself a protégé of Gandhi’s methods.

Thirdly, with globalization, increasing consumerism and a general increase in materialism in India, perhaps it is time for Gandhi’s message to make a comeback. While economically, the Mahatma proposed self-rule and self-reliance, it may be next to impossible to roll back the Neoliberal framework that came into play in the 1990s, with the opening of India’s economy.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Gandhi made to the Indian ethos is that of embracing pluralism and rejecting casteism. As a self-conscious Hindu, he practiced his religion throughout his life, but was against caste and its de-humanizing influence on the Indian mind. An anecdote that Herman quotes in his book is relevant here. In 1916, Gandhi took in an untouchable family at the Sabarmati Ashram. As Herman says, this set off a domestic pitched battle, with Kasturba threatening to leave immediately. “However, Gandhi’s will prevailed. He had deliberately broken the greatest Hindu taboo of all, the prohibition against any contact with dalits or untouchables. It was part of his war against the India he detested most: the India hidebound by ceremony and meaningless tradition split by ancient religious feuds, festering in its own filth, the India without compassion or pity.” (p.221).

While Indians are justifiably proud of the progress that the country has made since 1947, much remains to be accomplished – not only in economic and monetary terms, but also in terms of achieving basic dignity for the poor and oppressed. While there is growing pride in India’s ascent on the global stage, this must be tempered with a realization that India is also home to the world’s largest number of poor people. A mission to Mars may have demonstrated to the world that India is home to capable Engineers, Scientists and technocrats, but facts such as the above demonstrate that India has a long way to go before being truly a ‘regional power’, much less a ‘super-power’. India is the inheritor of a great civilization, hat has contributed much to the world, but also has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. Recent attempts to vilify Gandhi and his life are a danger not only to India’s legacy but are also part of a campaign to distort Indian history. For sure, Gandhi was not a perfect human being, nor was his life perfect by any means. Nevertheless, his life and message were a moral force that moved millions. While we must not fall into the trap of worshipping our leaders uncritically – something that most contemporary Indians seem to be doing – we must, at the same time embrace the best that our tradition has to offer. Towards this, Gandhi’s life lessons are exemplars that can be emulated.

Two models of Community Engagement – Co-optation or Exclusion?

Hamza Yusuf is arguably the most well-known American Muslim (after Muhammad Ali- the former heavyweight boxing champion) alive. As a spiritual leader, his influence goes beyond the Muslim community to the White House, and the Obama administration. He enjoys wide influence (and receives some criticism) but overall, he is a respected man, who is seen as representing Muslims in America, though some may argue on theological or other grounds about his positions on policy etc… On the other hand, Tariq Ramadhan, the Swiss Muslim scholar, who teaches at Oxford University is perhaps the most reviled Muslim intellectual in Europe. He has been called at various times: a Muslim brotherhood member, a terrorist sympathizer and worse. The treatment of these two leaders is emblematic – at least symbolically- of how the governments of these two regions treat Muslim leaders. While North America seems to have learnt to tolerate and even embrace its Muslim leaders, Europeans seem to not only shun, but actively cast a shadow of suspicion on its Muslim population and their leaders. What does this imply for leadership and prospects for Muslim engagement in both continents? I will try to address this question in this short piece.

Differing histories, divergent perceptions

Muslims in Europe and America are at opposite spectrums when it comes to many issues – level of education, where they stand in terms of per capita income, their personal histories. While American Muslims are- on an average- wealthier, better educated and tend to come from solidly middle class backgrounds, European Muslims are overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds, lesser educated and seen as dependent on ‘welfare’ of the European system. While the backgrounds and histories of these groups of immigrants is very different, what makes American Muslims ( who are the most diverse racial and ethnic group in the country) unique is their internal diversity. According to a recent PEW Research study, American Muslims are the most diverse racial group in the U.S. This is not true of many Muslims in Europe. According to a recent article in The Economist, most immigrants to European countries tend to be from one or two dominant ethnic groups. The Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain etc. This makes it easy to stereotype them into a single category. The article mentions the assimilation of Muslims in the U.S, by pointing out that “The Islamic Boy Scouts had a stand, as did a Muslim liberal-arts college from California. People discussed how to erect mosques without infringing America’s arcane building regulations, or swapped business cards in the food court. The star turn was a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter (whose grandson is in the news, too: see page 42). The only overt hostility to Israel came from two Hasidic Jews in fur shtreimel hats, who had come from Brooklyn to announce their solidarity with the people of Gaza.”

Islamophobia is a growing phenomenon that has exacerbated in Europe and the U.S. after a few key incidents. In Europe, one can consider the Iranian Revolution, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed almost 200 people, the Paris metro bombings earlier in 1995 and the recent London tube bombings as key turning points for the growth in ambivalence and negative attitudes towards Muslims, while in the U.S., September 11, 2001 stands out as the single paradigmatic event that changed everything for Muslims, argue Yvonne Haddad and Nazir Harb, in their paper Post-9/11 : Making Islam an American Religion. They argue that “When the government was trying to define the ‘enemy’ in the Global War on Terror, Muslims were placed under the microscope,” pointing to the institutionalized scrutiny that thousands of Muslims went through after 9/11 and that continues in some ways, even now.

The Economist article further says “America’s Muslims differ from Europe’s in both quantity and origin. The census does not ask about faith, but estimates put the number of Muslims in the country at around 1% of the population, compared with 4.5% in Britain and 5% in Germany. Moreover, American Islam is not dominated by a single sect or ethnicity. When the Pew Research Centre last tried to count, in 2011, it found Muslims from 77 countries in America. Most western European countries, by contrast, have one or two dominant groups—Algerians in France, Moroccans and Turks in Holland.” The article argues that mixing of religious traditions within Islam breeds tolerance – arguably true – in the case of U.S., while a dominance of one or two ethnicities does not promote it – as in the case of European countries.

In the U.S. the ‘Islamophobia industry’ has taken various forms, including attacks on the personal law that Muslims follow i.e., Shariah and positioning it as ‘medieval and barbaric’. There is a clear attempt to map Muslims as ‘moderate vs. extremists’ and cultivate the ‘moderate’ ones as being ‘loyal’ to the U.S. This false dichotomy and tactics to associate practice of Islam with violence and terrorism has been ongoing for a while and well-funded by extreme rightwing groups. The trend has been well documented by a Center for American Progress Report Fear Inc.

Coming back to the example of Tariq Ramadhan, who has argued for a nuanced understanding of violence and its role in our societies. As he argues in an Op-Ed in The Guardian, “The problem today is not one of “essential values”, but of the gap between these values and everyday social and political practice. Justice is applied variably depending on whether one is black, Asian or Muslim. Equal opportunity is often a myth. Young citizens from cultural and religious “minorities” run up against the wall of institutionalized racism. Rather than insisting that Muslims yield to a “duty to integrate”, society must shoulder its “duty of consistency”. It is up to British society to reconcile itself with its own self-professed values; it is up to politicians to practice what they preach.” For this, Ramadhan has been called a terrorist sympathizer, a Muslim brotherhood member and worse. If this is an indication of how the Europeans react to demands for reflection and critical thinking, then something is surely wrong. The problem in Europe seems to be one of excluding the Muslims and their leaders from public discourse. There have been some attempts by Muslim leaders in the US and Europe to amend some of stereotypes about them – the supposed anti-Semitism in some Muslim societies being the most egregious one- by visiting Auschwitz, as this newsitem shows. One must also remember that Jews, despite being a minority seem to be thriving, in an environment of Post WWII awareness of the horrors of Holocaust. Germany in particular is rather sensitive to any charges of ‘anti-semitism’ and this trend seems to be prevalent in Europe. There is no comparable movement to address Islamophobia, which seems to be growing by the day.  This is a welcome move as it would demonstrate, rather publicly that Muslims don’t have anything per se against the Jews. But such attempts seem to be few and far in-between and they could also be seen as reactionary, rather than proactively thought through.

As an example of the kind of discourse that French and (some) American media have created about him, see here, here. These are but two examples – a simple google search will demonstrate the amount of vitriol and negative propaganda against a leader, who is trying to showcase the diversity of opinion within the house of Islam in Europe. And mind you, he is a professor at Oxford University and an accomplished scholar. If such a scholar is reviled and guilt by association is used as a tool to link him with all forms of organizations, that are violent; it seems like there is a conscious attempt to delegitimize him as an individual and also as a leader of the community.

Further, as Talal Asad argues in his essay “Muslims as a ‘religious minority’ in Europe”, the very identity of Europe is built so as to exclude those who are not ‘European enough’, ethnic Muslims from other countries, for instance. This situation is exacerbated by a history of conflict between Europe and the East – Ottoman Empire for instance, that conquered a part of the continent. Despite the geographic proximity, Bosnia is not ‘one among the European nations’ though it is in Europe, it is not entirely European. The same holds true for Turkey’s attempts to enter the E.U. He quotes from a 1992 Time magazine article “ However it may be expressed, there is a feeling in Western Europe, rarely stated explicitly, that Muslims whose roots lie in Asia do not belong in the Western family, some of whose members spent centuries trying to drive the Turks out of a Europe they threatened to overwhelm. Turkish membership would dilute the E.C’s Europeanness”. This quote captures more than sufficiently the anxieties and the thinking that underlies the paranoia of ‘Muslims taking over Europe’. The current media representations about Muslims in Europe are not very helpful either, relying as they are on stereotypes of Muslims and fear mongering by even mainstream media about the immigrant threat etc.

American Muslim Leadership and co-optation by the establishment

‘Civil Religion’ is a framework that can help us understand how religion in general and Islam in particular has been coopted by the American state, to serve its purpose. Given the relatively high religiosity among people in the U.S. and a general tolerance of religious rhetoric, it is interesting to study how the ‘new religions’ have been accommodated in the American landscape. Before that, let us understand the notion of ‘civil religion’. Scholars such as Robert Bellah have pointed out that one can find a ‘civil religion’ in the U.S. that pervades our society, and it is more a cultural rather than a dogmatic view of religion (Bellah, 1967). Using the example of President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, where he used the word ‘God’ three times, Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all? .”(p.1). The answer, he argues, is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. There has been a strong trend of accommodating religious rhetoric in politics, Bellah further adds. He further defines Civic Religion as: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion[i].” Bellah says that Kennedy’s whole address can be seen as an address that argues for man’s obligation to others, and that this obligation transcends any political affiliation or hierarchy.

I would argue that there is a conscious attempt on part of the American Muslim groups to reach out to the political establishment – especially since 9/11 – in an attempt to gain legitimacy. Several scholars have made this argument too and it is a testament to this efforts that religious leaders and organizations have access to the White House, sections of the Obama Administration and some Congressmen and Senators. In turn, there has also been a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to work with and embrace some of the organizations, who seem to legitimize the actions of the state. Historically, there has been an antagonistic relationship with muslim groups – think Nation of Islam and others in the 1960s’. It was with the arrival of new immigrants in the 1970s onwards that this trend shifted and there was a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to reach out to the Muslim groups and vice versa.

Presently, American Muslim organizations tend to include messaging about religious tolerance, equality in an attempt to address this ‘Civil religion’ in America. While some scholars and activists have denounced this as ‘appeasement’ by the establishment, one can argue that this forms a bulwark against demonizing the entire community and could function as an important lever for negotiating the fragile relationship of Muslims and the state apparatus.

Bellah, like others such as Robert Wuthnow (2005) points out that trend of mixing religious messaging in the public sphere can be understood in a sense to be a deeply American tradition, an obligation of carrying out God’s will on earth. This, manifest destiny, he argues, was the spirit that motivated those who founded America and it has been present since. Bellah is right in examining this aspect of a strong sense of civic religion in the U.S., but the changing demographics, religious landscape in the country presents a different picture of religion in the U.S. than one of a uniformly religious country. Demographic, socio-economic changes in the last four to five decades have complicated the religious landscape in the country and this has also in effect made the situation more complex. The inclusion of Muslims in America can be argued for – and has been argued – using this very notion of Civil religion, apart from the constitutionally mandated notion of religious freedom. This notion is also one that allows Muslims to practice their religion freely – and issues such as the headscarf etc. seem to be nonissues in the U.S. (for the most part, at least). There are rare occasions when it does become an issue, but mostly, American Muslims are able to carry on with their lives, with no major hindrance.

So while Muslim leaders on both continents are grappling with similar issues – one of stereotyping, Islamophobia and also growing youth unrest and perception that the law enforcement authorities are not treating them well, the reactions and approaches taken by each are different. One can argue- based on what I have also learnt this from conversations with a dear friend who is German, being originally from a Muslim country – that no matter how ‘European’ one is, it is never enough. This includes assimilation efforts in terms of acquiring the native language, following the social customs of the adopted country etc.

The American approach seems to be one of co-optation and working with the establishment to gain legitimacy, while in Europe, this doesn’t seem to be possible. In Europe, the minorities and their leaders don’t seem to be welcome in the public sphere, and the only position they seem to be offered is one of the ‘other’, with no agency or will to determine their future.

[i] Bellah Robert, Civil Religion,. Accessible at http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm Accessed on Jan 29, 2013

Want to fix America’s education? Focus on parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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