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

Should We Get Rid Of The ‘Southern Mystique’?

There’s an old joke I heard in India, that the Southerners tell about the Northerners (I am a Southerner, from the city of Bangalore) and it goes: The only culture up North is ‘Agri’ culture.

Photo credit : www.art-prints-on-demand.com -
Photo credit : http://www.art-prints-on-demand.com

While seemingly innocuous and said as light-hearted banter, it does capture the stereotypes South Indians have about the Northerners. The Northerners have their own versions of this joke, some are more blatant. I see this phenomenon in the U.S. as well. While there is no history of a Civil War in India, as in the U.S., these stereotypes run deep. There is a bloody history in the U.S, that perpetuates some of the stereotypes and antagonisms that exist between the regions in this country. I will focus on the U.S. in this short article and try to answer the following question: In the U.S., should we learn to speak of each other in a different way and go beyond this ‘Southern mystique’? This ‘Southern Mystique’ often paints the American South as an exotic land, full of violence and sensuality and is patently a creation. One could go so far as to say that this is similar to the Orientalist portrayal of the former colonies in Asia and Africa. While historical facts do support many of the assertions of violence, racial hatred and bigotry, the exoticization of the South in literature, as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams have done is arguably just that – an exotic fantasy of a land and people who are subject to similar, if not the same forces that the ‘Northerners’ are subject to.

Howard Zinn in his short book The Southern Mystique (1964) argues against this continuation of the ‘Southern mystique’. The key argument of his book is that this ‘Southern Mystique’ can be gotten rid of. What is needed is not new legislation, but new conditions, where the White and Blacks interact and deal with one another more. Also, coupled with this, there must be realization that people are motivated by current circumstances, values that they hold dear and also economic incentives. While one of these values is racial attitudes and sometimes, superiority of the white race, this can be changed, over a period of time. I would suggest, taking this a step further that perhaps we can start by how we talk about the South. While this in itself may not solve anything, it is a good start.

A recent incident in Blacksburg, though minor, demonstrates the continuing differences that exist in the popular imagination in the South. I went for a haircut just the other day and witnessed something strange. Well, almost hilarious, if it were not for the tension that was inbuilt into the narrative. The incident I witnessed involved a roughly 40 year old man getting a haircut and giving some advice to the young man, who was cutting his hair about the banality of education, how ignorant almost all professors are etc. “Most of these professors are like politicians, I tell ya. They just talk because they can, I bet no one ever listens to them.” To this the young man nodded and kept cutting his hair. Sitting next to this gentleman was another young man, who was conversing with the lady, who was cutting his hair – conversation is a very Southern thing I am learning, and I am completely for it. While he mentioned that he was from the North, this older gent remarked “Oh yeah, this town is now flooded with them Yankees. Not sure what they’re doing down here.” While this could be seen as just blabbering from a not-so-intelligent person, it does capture some of the tensions in popular imagination that Southerners have for those in the North. Radical groups such as the Tea Party have and continue to exploit these differences and historical narratives that pit the North against the South.

This narrative of South vs. North could be considered a popular culture version of the ‘culture wars’, a phenomenon that comes up time and again. While very present in popular discourse, if not in Confederate Flag raising incidents such as this, or the debate about the ‘overstretching’ mandate of the Federal government. The sentiment against big government is pretty high in the South, as most people would be aware. The underlying factor that drives all of this seems to be fear. The fear of unknown, known and the anxiety to preserve what little there is left of the privilege that the ‘old order’ provided. As this NY Times Op-Ed points out, “The potential for multiracial coalitions to address these issues (poverty and lack of economic opportunities) is made less likely by the rightward drift of white Southerners and their aversion to potential African-American partners.” Ms.Dowe, the author of the Op-Ed further argues that “Historically, the racialized social order of the South has granted whites what Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible package of unearned assets” of privilege. This package included economic advancement, social esteem and access to better occupations and opportunities. After the Civil Rights movement extended these privileges to African-Americans, whites sought other means of privilege.” This shift to the political Right seems to be working against their own interest, as the Republican Party has consistently worked to undermine Social Security and other welfare programs such as the Food Assistance program, which benefit the poor – irrespective of race. There is data that shows that there are more poor white folks in the South than African Americans.

The American South does have a reputation for being more insular, closed off to rest of the country and prone to more racism. While the first two accusations seem quite prevalent, the allegation of racism prevailing is quite an egregious one to make. Yes, there has been a strong history of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups operating out of the Southern states and they still do. This notwithstanding, as with other ways of thinking of the ‘other’, can we use this logic to think of the nation – the Union as one, instead of dividing and mentally dissecting the country into North and South? Or is this too much to ask for? The North is not a race-free haven. The challenges of racism, ethnocentricity and religious bigotry exists in New York too. It is the degree that matters. While political points can be scored by keeping up these divisions, it may actually be a prudent move to address these issues for what they are – deep insecurities and political wranglings going hand in hand.

The pride, the focus on community and rootedness of many of the people in the South are truly admirable. The anger, hurt and misplaced rhetoric of ‘othering’ anyone not from their local communities should be placed in this context. Poverty, a focus on history that places the Southerners as the ones who lost and a perpetual sense of deprivation are some of the root causes of this continued ambivalence that the Southerners feel for the Yankees.

Zinn advocates a strategy that it lead by strong leadership and economic plans that ensure that those actions that facilitate integration bet incentivized. He says: “ But the specialness of the Southern mystique vanishes when one sees that whites and negroes behave like human beings, that the South is but a distorted mirror image of the North and that we are powerful today, and free enough to retain only as much of the past as we want. We are all magicians. We created the mystery of the South and we can dissolve it.” These differences are false dichotomies, propped up by those interested in keeping a certain history alive. These are also tied to certain relations of power, as a discourse analyst would say. While keeping one’s heritage is all well and good, remembering the defeats, humiliation and subjugation of the past – the Civil War in this case- and interpreting it as a continuation of the struggle is not only counter-productive, but seems to be ludicrous.

 

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time

 

He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.