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.

So, you want to get a Ph.D ?

About half a dozen friends have reached out to me, over the last two and half years since I have been in a Ph.D program (in the U.S.) to ask me what it is like. While it is impossible to fully describe what it is to be a full-time student, and the joys of going through this process, I’ve tried to condense a few key issues into the points below. Much of what I have written here applies to American academia. I hope it helps those who are sitting on the fence or are undecided if a Ph.D is for them. Here goes:CaH

  1. You will be poor – for a long time: While the glamor of being surrounded by intellectuals, really smart professors and access to (quite literally) all the books in the world is sexy, remember that unless you have a lot of savings of your own, a significant other who is supporting you financially or are from a rich family; you will be poor. And this means, deciding between indulging in a $5 pizza or saving it for a book, that you need. It can be depressing, at times. And this could range from between three or five – at times ten years, depending on how quickly you can finish your work and how cooperative your committee is.
  2. You will be terribly lonely – also for a long time: This is another fact. Unless you have a super-high IQ and a photographic memory, you’ll have to read, re-read and discuss ideas, books and films that will form you as an intellectual. This means that you will have to spend time alone. By nature, I can be reclusive, while maintaining a social personality, so this has been easy for me. But I do wish my program had more social events/ gatherings and occasions to meet people. Remember that in your undergrad or Masters level courses, there are dozens of likeminded people you can meet, but in a Ph.D program the cohort is typically small, sometimes as small as six people, three of whom you may not like. The other two may be whackos. So, good luck making friends.
  3. Get used to feeling stupid – hopefully not for ever: The first year is the hardest. I felt incredibly stupid in my first year in the Ph.D program. But I have started feeling better, incrementally. Remember that almost all the people you will interact will have a Ph.D and may not necessarily understand your work, unless they are all in the same field, which is unlikely. So, putting a bunch of very high IQ people together, who don’t understand each other makes for an interesting situation. Much of the time, you may end up being the most junior person around and as a consequence, feel like you don’t know anything worth knowing. Unless you are a cocky son of a bitch! In which case, everyone will hate you.
  4. You will be criticized, called out and perhaps attacked – All in good spirit, though! Academics are notorious for tearing each others ideas apart, telling you that none of what you are researching makes sense. I have been told more than once that I should consider an alternate career, rather than research and teaching. We’ll see what comes of this process…on the other hand, there have been people (academics) who are incredibly supportive and think that I will ‘re-define the field of research on Islamic philanthropy’. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Only time will tell. The point is, that everyone is trying to finetune their ‘critical thinking’ and being critical of others intellectual output  becomes second nature. I am much more critical of issues in general now, than when I started the program.  But this also means that you need to find a group of supportive, faithful friends who will see value in your work and help you grow intellectually.
  5. Your life will change : As one of my mentors at the Maxwell School said: “If you are single, you’ll get married, if you are married, you (may) get divorced and if your parents are alive, they’ll probably die, during your Ph.D program.” A sobering reality indeed. And yes, in my case, some of his predictions are turning out to be true.

Now that i’ve delivered the bad news, here is some good news, some of the  redeeming factors:

  1. It can be the most intellectually rewarding experience of your life– The process of thinking through, debating, writing on issues that you care about deeply can transform you, as a person. Also, I’ve been terribly lucky to have met, worked with and hung out with some of the smartest people in the world.
  2. You will start feeling smart about yourself, after some time – I’ve gained some of the confidence that I lost in my first year in the program. Once you start realizing that there are few people who are as focused as you are, in your area of research, your confidence will (usually) grow. That is, if you are putting in the effort, getting ‘peer review’ that is positive and getting published in peer-reviewed journals – a sure sign that you are doing ‘something right’.
  3. You will perhaps be the only person in the world who will know (almost) everything there is to know about your topic. An economics professor shared this wisdom with me, about a year ago. Her words still ring in my ear. She said “Once you finish your Ph.D, you will probably be the only person who knows the most about your topic, in any room you enter.” Think about that for a minute.
  4. You will probably end up in a very stable and rewarding career, after the struggle is over.
  5. June, July August: As one of my other mentors said, the best reason to get a Ph.D and enter the Academy – June, July and August. You get three months off work. And if you are lucky to get a tenured track position, this means you get to write a book, research or travel during these three months. Which other job allows you to be so free and independent? I can think of a few…

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.

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

Do We Need a New Civil Rights Movement for Religion?

 

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, it is relevant to ask: Has religion taken the place of race in American society? What I mean by this is whether the taboos and other aspects associated with race in the 1960s and earlier have started to be associated with religion. While Dr. King and his contemporaries, most notably Malcolm X framed the civil rights discourse and used racial equality as a tool to achieve rights for the dispossessed, their discourse was infused with religious tone. While there has been a civil rights movement to include people of all races, there hasn’t been one for religious inclusion in the U.S. As several civil rights activists have pointed out, do we need a ‘new civil rights movement’ for this purpose?

Legacy of Dr. King, Malcolm X civil-rights

The simmering discontent that existed for decades before the civil rights movement burst into the scene and culminated in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, that ended the ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ and set in place new laws that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Two key figures who shaped much of the discourse around these issues in the 1960s were Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. While Malcolm X’s legacy is seen largely as one of segregationist, this is a misinformed reading, as later on in his career, he moved strongly towards a civil rights approach and this ultimately led to his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, as I have written about this in my earlier post here.

            While both these leaders were at odds, with Malcom X calling for stronger segregation (at least in his earlier career) and painting Dr. King and others who sought integration as ‘house niggers,’ a term he used to define those who were bought over by the white man, he changed his views later on to become more inclusive. Dr. King on the other hand was an integrationist, and believed in the model following that set forth by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (who became a nonviolent advocate only later on in his career). The goals of both these leaders were the same – equal rights for all and opportunity, irrespective of race. It is interesting to see how religion played a role in each individual’s life. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, and Dr. King was a Baptist minister while Malcolm X became a follower of Nation of Islam and later on, mainstream Sunni Islam.

 

Photo credit : NPR.org
Photo credit : NPR.org

The landscape of religion in the U.S.

Scholars of Sociology of Religion point out that the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing. And changing drastically. With the demographic shifts in the country, led lower birth rates among whites and other immigration related changes, Hispanic and Asian population is expected to rise and by 2050, the racial profile of the U.S. will look very different from what it is today. This is a fear that has been magnified by right-wing and fear-mongering groups to stoke up anti-immigration and anti-minority feelings both in Europe and the U.S. This is also leading to a change in the number of adherents of the more conservative American forms of Christianity, as this article points out how Evangelical Christianity is giving way to Catholicism.

This shift is also having a predictable reaction with the conservative camp clamping down on ‘progressive’ ideas. As this article points out about the recent changes in Arizona, : “The New Civil Rights Movement reported last year, the bill could also be considered the religious version of a “Stand Your Ground” law, allowing anyone’s practice or observance of religion to be an automatic “out.” In other words, it would give Arizona residents and businesses the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason, including because they are LGBT.” While the progressive movement is taking hold in the U.S. there has also been an equal push by the conservatives, led by the G.O.P., to oppose marriage equality, LGBT rights and other progressive agendas. malcolm-x-1

The gradual shift in the religious landscape is noticeable among the ‘new religions’ that have come into the U.S. (at least into the American public consciousness) – The Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as analyzed by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociologist of Religion. He points out that these new entrants face a new challenge – that of being unknown in the country – and calls for greater dialogue and interaction between the majority Christians and these ‘new immigrant’ religions. This narrative places the ‘emergence’ of the new religions in a post 1965 context, where looser immigration policies made it possible for greater number of people from Asia and Middle East to enter and live in the U.S.

            While there is no doubt that the number of people of these religions is rising, the amount of knowledge about them is not increasing proportionately. There is evidence to point out that ignorance, bigotry and discrimination against minorities in the U.S. is on the rise. Growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of other minorities is a fact of life in the U.S. despite the best intentions and efforts by activists and educators. As these FBI crime rate statistics point out, the majority of the hate crimes reported have been against Jews.  As the report points out, race still is a dominant theme when it comes to hatred and attacks related to them. In summary, the report points out:

An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:

  • 48.5 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race.
  • 19.2 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
  • 18.7 percent were victimized because of a bias against a religious belief.
  • 12.1 percent were victimized because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
  • 1.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a disability. (Based on Table 1

 

As Dr. Carl Ernst points out in this introduction to a book on Islamophobia in the U.S., the various trends in Islamophobia can be seen as part of the ‘othering’ of Muslims, similar to other groups such as Catholics, Jews, Mormons. As opinion polls show, over 50 percent people in the U.S. have a negative view of Islam in 2011, as compared to a lesser number in years preceding 2001. The phenomenon of Islamophobia can be understood in the context of political discourse, he seems to be pointing out, with examples of the Park 51 project and the burning of the Qur’an controversy both becoming salient in 2010, an election year. This is not a surprising fact, as this pattern seems to occur in other democracies as well- India being the most egregious example.

 

Finally, there seems to be the need for a new revolution for greater understanding of religion in the U.S. While there is a trend among certain sections of society to shun religion altogether, this is an impractical and impossible strategy, given how religiously observant Americans are. As Jonathan Benthall, the scholar of religion has pointed out “You may throw religion out the door, but it comes back flying through the window.” Religion is here to stay and we better make peace with it. And as in the case of the civil rights movement and many other movements before it; religion has made a positive contribution to make to society.

A Life of Reinvention – Malcolm X: Book review

 

Is America a ‘melting pot’ today? Has Martin Luther King’s dream of a post-racial society come true? Or are we still closer to the America that Malcom X saw, one that is segregated, racist and inherently unequal? While the answers to these are not simple and certainly not easy, looking closely at the inequality in our society, the demographic shifts taking place and the real problems that Blacks face, one is forced to acknowledge that despite coming across as abrasive and at times hostile, Malcom’s ideas did have relevance in his time and still do. A Life of Reinvention by the late Dr. Manning Marable, professor at Columbia University adds to the literature on Malcom X’s fascinating but short life and offers us a perspective that is missing. With new sources drawn from his letters, FBI documents that were recently de-classified; Marable offers new insights into his character. The book provides a detailed account of his troubled childhood, delinquent youth and eventual imprisonment that led to his discovery of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a remarkable turn of events that was to be life-changing.

Photo credit : Malcolmx.com
Photo credit : Malcolmx.com

                The title of the book is a reference to the various transformations that Malcom X’s life underwent. If life before prison made him a hustler, pimp and a petty criminal, who learnt to survive; life after prison opened his mind to the possibilities that lay before him – as an enlightened black man. This was a phase that brought him great fame and reach. This was followed by the final phase, when he broke from the NOI to found his own organization. Marable devotes quite many pages outlining the split as resulting from the corruption that he saw, including Elijah Muhammad’s illicit relationships with many of his secretaries that resulted in many illegitimate children being born.

One of the most striking things that I found in this study is that Malcom X’s diagnosis of the problems of African-Americans was not too off the mark. While there were problems with his polemic and solutions to ending the racial problems- he did propose a separate state for the Blacks- his views moved towards more mainstream ones, later on. After the pilgrimage to Mecca, he seems to have become a ‘reformed’ man, not to say that he fully embraced multi-racialism. But his views on racism (within the context of Islam) were altered profoundly and he started seeing ‘beyond the skin color’. Proof that Malcom X was not entirely wrong about stressing on Black solidarity to improve their lot is another theory that was propounded around the same time was that by New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathaniel Glazer, who argued in their book Beyond the Melting Pot, where the authors studied New York city and pointed out that the ethnic identities played a large part in the solidarity and eventual uplift of the communities. While Moynihan and Glazer were for assimilation, they realized that the ‘melting pot’ hypothesis had not worked. It was a myth at best and profoundly flawed at worst. They stressed the importance of ethnic (and racial) identities and its importance in ensuring that the minorities are not forced to give up their identities in the rush to ‘improve their lot’.

The arguments for segregation may seem simplistic, but it seems to be occurring, as we speak. As this article in The Atlantic points out, our schools are more segregated than they were ever. “In the 1968-69 school year, when the U.S. Department of Education started to enforce Brown, about 77 percent of black students and 55 percent of Latino students attended public schools that were more than half-minority. By the 2009-2010 school year, the picture wasn’t much better for black students, and it was far worse for Latinos: 74 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students went to schools that were more than half-minority. More than 40 percent of black and Latino students attended schools that were 90 percent to 100 percent minority.” While the rhetoric of integration has been dominant, economic forces and other social factors have played a critical part in separating people – perhaps on the basis of their class, more than race. With the influx of immigrants, say from Mexico and other relatively poorer countries, this situation has just exacerbated. I witnessed this during my recent trip to Southern California, where schools in Rialto, CA are almost 90 percent Hispanic. The challenges to these schools are similar to those that face any other schools in downtowns of major American cities – less resources, crime, unstable families and dropout rates of almost 50 percent.

                Marable’s book also brings into focus the differing discourses of Black Nationalism within the African American community. While King stood on the side of integration, Malcom was clearly opposed to it and clearly attracted a sizeable number of organizations to align with him – though not fully – these included the CORE, progressives in several Christian denominations, labor unions, Northern inner-city communities.

                Another aspect that the book throws light on is the apolitical nature of the early Muslims. Given that the NOI was not active politically and Elijah Muhammad made sure that they would stay that way, Malcom X’s increasing involvement in politics can be seen as a the precursor to the growth of political involvement of Muslims in America. While this is not too well known, another Muslim group formed during that time, the Muslim Students Association, that exists today and morphed into Islamic Society of North America also did not participate in politics. There is a striking similarity in their positions, though they were drawn from two different ideologies. The MSA group believed that since the American government did not function in an Islamic state, they should not participate in politics. This has since then changed and today, both MSA and ISNA are very active politically. But this is an important fact we must remember.

                There is also an interesting documentation between Malcom X’s and Muhammad Ali’s relationship. The turning point between their relationship was the fight between Ali and Sonny Liston. Malcom rightly predicted that Ali would win this fight and would go onto become a great spokesperson for Muslims, throughout the world. This was a well thought out strategy that paid off, at least for a while. But when Malcolm officially left the Nation, Ali would stay with the organization.

                 Malcom’s involvement and interest in tying Black Nationalism with struggles in Africa and the third world were the final phase of his own reinvention. The Hajj and subsequent trip to the Middle East, where he met leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, heads of states from African countries was significant in shaping his ideas. His ideas of race seem to have moved beyond that of the NOI, and the concept of ‘Asiatic man’, and he recognized that the ‘white man’ was not just about skin color, but rather about attitudes and ways of thinking. Witnessing white Muslims during the Hajj, performing their duties as sincerely as other Blacks reinforced this belief in him. His words “I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same god…with fellow Muslims whose skins was the whitest of the white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue…(for) the first time in my life…I didn’t see them as ‘white’ men.” Came to define his new outlook, a total turn about from NOI’s philosophy.

                His subsequent assassination was the handiwork of the NOI, Marable points out and FBI’s documents also point in this direction. While Malcom X is no more with us, his ideas, passion and insights into the condition of the Blacks in America and perhaps world over remain as relevant today as they were in his time. Marable does a good job bringing this complex character to life and this book is definitely worth your time.