How the US Congress can make friends and help people

What is the role of US Aid in developing contexts?

A panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies sought to answer this fundamental question, as part of the Global Development Forum meetings.

While the question and its answer seem simple, it does have enormous implications on how foreign aid impacts various levels of development – both domestically and internationally. It shows us how we think of America’s role in the world.

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Photo credit : http://www.humanosphere.org

This question is also important, as it reflects the attitudes that American publics have towards helping those who are vulnerable and weak. It goes to the deeply held beliefs of what the United States is about, its ‘manifest destiny’ is and how other nations are to interact with it. Looking at this question from the inside-out, one can gain incredible insights into what the future of multi-lateral relations will be.

So, who does this question impact? Immediately, in the D.C circles, it impacts the ‘belt-way bandits’, those organizations that are the direct beneficiaries of the government contracts – whether in the International Development space or other indirect forms of ‘capacity building’ through International NGOs. It also impacts foreign governments, whether they are those such as Pakistan, Israel or Egypt, that get a substantial chunk of their aid – to the tunes of billions of dollars from the U.S. or others, such as India, that have sought a more technical partnership and have moved away from accepting large aid.

Looking at the current political climate, where the focus is on ‘making America great’ again and this reluctance to ‘help’ other poorer nations is frowned upon. At the same time, one must not forget that US Aid has been a key part of not only US foreign policy, but also one of its diplomacy or ‘soft-power’ as Joseph Nye has argued.

They key tensions that the panel debated revolved around: Presidential authority vs. congressional mandates, ideological rigidity vs. bipartisanship and focus on alliance building ( abroad) vs. focusing on a domestic agenda. There is no movement purely in one direction, as all members of the panel, which comprised of Michael Millere, Diana Ohlbaum, Les Munson and Talia Dubovi – all veterans of Capitol Hill.

Munson argued that there is bi-partisanship in action, even today; despite what the media headlines say. He pointed to several bills such as Global food security Act, Power Africa Act and others, which have been carried to passage, through sheer bi-partisan support.

On the other hand, the gridlock between both parties is visible in the fact that the Foreign Aid Assistance Act has not been revised in over 30 yrs, pointed out Ohlbaum. At the outset, the Act recognizes that “Furthermore, the Congress reaffirms the traditional humanitarian ideals of the American people and renews its commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance.” This is not surprising that post WWII, the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, and in this role, was also saw itself as an upholder of greater and nobler humanitarian principles, of which humanitarian aid is a key part.

This humanitarian impulse is seen in the event of major natural disasters that occur. Americans gave, for instance over $350 billion, in philanthropy, in 2015, according to Giving USA. Speaking about giving to International Affairs, Dr. Una Osili points out that the slight drop, by 3.4 % compared to previous years could be because of increasing attention to domestic causes. Also, there hasn’t been a huge natural disaster, that has occurred internationally; for Americans to be involved, she added.

Development, as anyone who studies it, or is involved in, knows,  is a complicated business. There are several intervening factors that go into making a country develop and grow out of poverty. There are also movements and ideas that call for ‘de-growth’ and for reexamining the current modes of ‘development.’

Not least of which is political stability and a responsible government, at the helm. The U.S. being a country that has a lot of leverage in many areas that impact global trade, commerce and flow of goods does have a big say in how the processes that impact development are conducted.  The next presidency will determine if foreign aid will just amount to charity, or if the U.S. Congress, working with the next President, will create an enabling environment for all countries to participate, in the global community of nations.

 

 

How to make a political statement by learning Spanish

SpanishClub3
Photo credit : bhs.burlesonisd.net

We are living in interesting times. Times when xenophobia, racism and suspicion of the ‘other’ are going mainstream, at least at the level of political rhetoric. While one can excuse this as the misguided logic leading up to the primaries, one cannot ignore the amount of confusion this is causing- both domestically and across the world. President Obama had to clarify recently at a high level ASEAN leaders’ summit that this trend of xenophobia does not represent America and it will pass[i].

Culturally, this phenomenon of xenophobia also challenges the very idea of what the U.S. is about – the ‘land of opportunities,’ an enduring myth that has survived centuries[ii]. The complexity in the idea of ‘land of opportunities’ is that it is true under certain circumstances, for certain people. While being challenged by nativists and others, who resisted immigration, this idea has survived; thanks to the generosity, wisdom and plain common sense of the American people and (some of) their law makers.

Additionally, this 2016 Political campaign is challenging the very idea of a culturally plural America. This divisive campaign is also bringing up a lot of issues that I deeply care about, both culturally and politically. I am both surprised and shocked at the level of bigotry against ‘Hispanic’ people, in particular. Language is at the heart of this battle, as well.

Let me clarify: My wife is a Spanish speaker –she is Mexican-American- and I was only vaguely familiar with the language. When we dated for four years, before getting married, I would add ‘o’ to every English word, to make it ‘Spanish’ sounding. Initially, I thought it was funny, but later on realized that I was being facetious and outright ignorant, not to mention offensive, as well. I love my (new) Mexican family as much as my (inherited) Indian one and it pains me to see the kind of narrow-mindedness that is characterizing American public sphere.

So, how does a brown, Indian born Muslim, with a Catholic Mexican-American wife tackle such bigotry? By learning Spanish, of course.

Keeping in mind the common wisdom of ‘happy wife, happy life’, I decided to learn the language. Well, that wasn’t the only motivation. I have always wanted to learn Spanish. As someone who knows four other languages – I grew up in India: where being a polyglot is the norm, rather than the exception- I thought that learning Spanish couldn’t be that hard. But boy! have I been wrong. Spanish grammar is hard. And tricky. And extremely nuanced. But it is a challenge worth overcoming and I am enjoying the journey. This process is also helping me map my own limits, of learning as well as expanding my skills of observation.

I have no delusions of grandeur and no great ambitions of mapping the cultural and administrative landscape of the U.S. like Alexis De Tocqueville did, when he wrote Democracy in America[iii]in 1835. But I do think there is a need for closely examining the changing contours of what America is ‘becoming.’ Tocqueville, who, until today is cited in scholarly and popular books and articles is considered one of the great chroniclers of American life. His greatest insight was that America was very ‘equal’ in many ways. The trends of aristocracy were long over, given that Americans resisted the ‘old world’ ways of doing this. He says “ Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance[iv].”

Tocqueville went on to argue that equality of social condition translates into equality in political opportunities. The equal political rights that are given to everyone are a gift of democracy and it also means that everyone who is in this country ought to be treated in a similar manner. The current political rhetoric by Mr. Trump seems to be challenging this very idea – by clubbing blacks, gays, Muslims, Mexicans and others are ‘undesirables’ and shutting them out of ‘respectable’ American society. Even if it means doing so, rhetorically.

For me, learning Spanish is also proving to be a ‘border crossing’ phenomenon – quite literally. You can reach across and touch people’s hearts with the language and make them feel that you are ‘one of them.’ Partaking in a ‘linguistic community’ is being part of a culture, a way of life and a way of thinking. It goes merely beyond the ability to string a few words, together. I am learning this, each day. I did visit Mexico City with my wife, over Thanksgiving and learnt that my Spanish flows much better in Mexico, for some reason. Something about ‘full immersion’ perhaps?

At the same time, Spanish is proving to be my inspiration and a test of what I can push myself through. It is also teaching me that we are constantly borrowing and learning from one another. Look at words such as ‘Bastante’ (enough) and ‘Alfil (Chess piece) among others; which have been borrowed from Arabic. Besides, Spanish itself has Latin roots and shares ‘family resemblances’ with many other European languages.  There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in Spanish. This language of the conquerors – yes, let’s not forget the Spanish colonial history – did assimilate from other cultures and languages. In this regard, Spanish is very open and embracing. In addition, I am able to appreciate the intermingling of the other part of my heritage – the Muslim one – when I watch Destinos and look at the architecture and linguistic influences of the Moors on Spain[v].

Language, like other aspects of life is not insular. As a student of Spanish I am learning this and appreciating the increasing complexity of thought, learning. ‘Effort’ has taken on a new meaning – though I learnt that lesson well, when I was finishing up my dissertation writing. Nuance – both in thought and in speech-is another aspect of language that I am learning. Just a small change of accent or word can make a lot of difference.

Learning a language as an adventure ? One of the bigger insights I have gained personally since I started learning Spanish is that one needs to have a sense of adventure and also courage, to succeed. While the rudiments of a language, its grammar may be known, a learner does not know ‘all’ the rules or even the words necessary to form a fully coherent sentence. At the beginning stages at least! As one progresses, with trial and error; one’s confidence grows. It happened with me too. I am at what my teacher; Claudia calls ‘basic-intermediate’ level, where I am forming some coherent sentences and am beginning to understand much more than 50% of all words spoken to me.

Language in use – What Wittgenstein tells us about language? He is considered the greatest philosopher of the modern era. As this BBC podcast says “the limits of my language are the limits of our world[vi]”. While I will not indulge in the intricacies of Tractacus Logicus Philosophicus, his magnum opus; I will however, point to one of his key arguments – that language must be understood in how it is used. Not merely in terms of the symbolism that it denotes. ‘Language and logic also point to the limits of our world’ would be a good way to summarize one of his key arguments. I would argue, by way of Wittgenstein that having a broader ‘spectrum of logic’ can open up more ways of seeing the world. Better linguistic skills can enhance reasoning and ways of imagining the world.

Finally, language can unite us more than divide us. Just look around the world – there are more than 400 million Spanish speakers around the world[vii]. That is more than the population of the U.S. Learning Spanish can also diminish the world’s ignorance a little bit. Adding an additional speaker of another language is a good thing – and I say this as the son of two language teachers, who grew up in India, that has more than 23 ‘official languages[viii].’

With over 41 million native speakers of Spanish, the U.S. has more Spanish speakers than in Spain, according to a study by Instituto Cervantes[ix]. Besides, there are 11.6 million bi-lingual speakers. This is not counting people like me, who are learning their fifth language. So, how can one ignore or at worse malign these people, who speak other languages? By 2050, there are going to be an estimated 150 million Spanish speakers, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. How can one fight this natural diversity of languages and cultures? If the founding fathers had the wisdom to avoid this issue, keeping in mind the diversity, why should we tinker with the existing order? Why fix something that is not broken and also why fight against the order of how our world is becoming global – through trade, commerce, better communication technologies? And of course, the growth of appreciation of Latin American culture. As my wife asks ‘Why hate Mexicans, when you love Mexican tacos’?

On that note, it makes sense to ask: Does the ‘English only’ movement even make any logical sense? Obviously, Wittgenstein would disagree[x].  Such racist and rhetoric narratives are the border-line where logic stops and bigotry begins.

 

 

[i] http://dailycaller.com/2016/02/16/obama-slams-trump-and-rubio-foreign-observers-are-troubled-video/

[ii] http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8140.html

[iii] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm

[iv]  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#link2HCH0006 Chp.3

[v]  https://learner.org/series/destinos/

[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9jYaTCn8vw

[vii]  https://www.ethnologue.com/statistics/size

[viii] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Languages_of_India

[ix] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country

[x] http://www.iperstoria.it/vecchiosito/httpdocs//?p=547

Indian hospitality, American lives

As I am saying my good byes to people in Blacksburg, where I currently live, and moving to NoVA, I ran into an old acquaintance of mine. This professor of religion –the son of American Methodist priests was born in India – and knows Telugu, among other Indian languages. We got talking about a mutual acquaintance, an Indian scholar, who is constantly traveling. He told me that his family hosted this Indian scholar for a week, even though he didn’t know him at all. “Quite a common Indian expectation, isn’t it,” I asked him. And then the conversation turned to Indian expectations of hospitality, the topic of this brief post.Indians do tend to have high expectations of themselves and of others. As guests and hosts, there are particular rituals, traditions and norms that are followed. Living in a Western society does change this norm a bit, but not radically; there is a constant negotiation going on, in terms of how much ‘tradition’ the family will  uphold and I believe how one treats a visitor is a key part of this negotiation.indian-hospitality-HC62_l

Indeed, there are sayings in various Indian languages such as “Atithi Devo bhava,” which is a Sanskrit aphorism that roughly translates as “The guest is God.” Quite a big claim, isn’t it? As a host, we are expected to treat the guest with everything that we are capable of. I remember this, as a matter of upbringing. Every time someone would visit us, my mom taught me to check if they had eaten, would want some water and offer some snacks, at the very least. These were the basics of being a good host. As a guest, it was one’s duty to refuse anything that was offered, and it was the duty of the host to force them to change their mind. This seems to be a nuanced cultural game that Indians learn to play, at an early age. Eventually, one of the parties wins. Either the host wins and the guest ends up eating, drinking or staying for longer than they anticipated, or the guest wins and leaves.

At the root of this persuasive behavior seems to be the need to please the other, and for the host to feel that they are indeed generous. At the risk of generalizing, I would claim that this is common across various cultures and religious traditions in India. I have been to very few homes in many parts of India where this isn’t true. Of course, with changing societal norms, people are becoming less generous with their time and other resources. But what about Indians living in the U.S.?

Indian-Americans live a schizophrenic life. This roughly translates into living ‘American lives’ but being expected to behave like ‘Indians in India.’ This means attempting to follow much of the same rules of hospitality as one does, in India. Many India-Americans I know are incredibly generous people, who try to uphold their traditions of hospitality, but at the same time; are aware of their own sense of freedom and time-commitments. They would not offer the same kind of attention, time or resources to a host that an average Indian host would. Again, this is based on anecdotal evidence and I don’t intend to generalize.

I am reminded of another incident, where a group of visiting bureaucrats from India were hosted at Syracuse University. I was helping with the program management of this particular group and spent some time with the 30 plus group of officers. One of the complaints I heard from them during their two week stay was “Why aren’t the professors inviting us to their home.” This expectation that they would be invited to the ‘hosts’ home is quite natural, in an Indian setting, but for an American to invite you home for dinner, you’d have to be someone special, and not just a regular trainee in a two-week program, who one’d just met. So, there was a matter of being lost in cultural translation.

As generous as Indians are expected to be, there is also wisdom in curtailing over-staying guests. As much as some traditions can be burdensome, there are others that check this behavior, as well. This saying, which is quite popular in India, captures the spirit:  “On the first day, the guest is bhagvan (God), the second day, the guest is insaan (human) and on the third, the guest is Shaytaan (devil),” reminds us that the hosts should be mindful of not over-staying. Finally, my professor friend reminded me that, growing up in India, he noticed a peculiar custom: Of the host offering to pay the return ticket to the visiting guest, once they had stayed for a few days. “This  was, perhaps a way of telling the guest that it is time to leave,” he pointed out. Some wisdom in that generosity, indeed!

Social Development in India – What do We Know?

USIPII met Dr. Abusaleh Shariff about a year ago, through a common friend. We kept in touch and promised to connect the next time I was going to be in D.C. It turned out that I was able to meet him just yesterday and spent a good hour chatting about various initiatives at the US India Policy Institute, a think-tank that he heads, as the Executive Director. As someone who is leading expert on Indian development sector former Chief Economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), Shariff is one of the most important thinkers on issues related to development in India. We spoke about his background, work on the Sachar Committee Report and work at the USIPI. His take on social development seems to be on of proactive rights, where civil society groups and individuals secure what is due to them from the state, by means of concerted action, using procedures and programs that are part of the government mandate. This is the new social contract that needs to be renewed, he seemed to suggest. While economic liberalization and a new discourse of privatization as the panacea for all ills seems to have become the norm, Dr.Shariff’s work suggests otherwise.

Speaking about the condition of minorities in India, in particular, the Muslims in India, Dr. Shariff says in an Op-Ed in The Hindu, “Empirical analysis of process indicators (literacy, higher level education, formal employment, access to banking and credit, political participation, etc.) according to religious communities excluding Hindus, confirm Muslim placement below the line of average. If the SCs/STs are singled out and compared with religious groups, one finds Muslims in most of the measures about the same or even lower. With adjustments for initial conditions, the conditions of Muslims relative to the SCs/STs have worsened over the years.”

So, is Affirmative Action (reservations) in India the only way out? It seems that this is the solution that follows from the arguments that he makes. Dr. Shariff argues that there is a systematic bias in the way that government programs benefit specific communities and leaves out others. He argues that the “The only way to eliminate such bias is to ensure equal opportunity and access to programs which generate benefits proportional to the size of the population. Naming programs specific to the deprived community even if has to be done by caste and religious identity must be the public choice. It is clear that there is no catch-22 situation as has often been made out to be and it is not even ‘unconstitutional.”

These ideas are not absolutely new, in the sense that there has been an appreciation of the idea of ‘human development’ indices, since Amartya Sen and other scholars popularized it. While the notion of development indices itself is not new, what is new is the formulation of these ideas in the context of upliftment of minority communities in India. Politically, this is a lightning rod, as those opposed to benefits reaching the minorities have historically called this ‘minority appeasement’, a pejorative word to describe bribing the minorities to vote for the ruling party. But as Dr. Shariff’s research and other pioneering scholars work demonstrates, there are huge disparities in income, wealth and health indicators that need to be fixed. It seems that the only way to do this is for the state to intervene. For all the talk of the private sector filling in the gap left behind by the state, it seems like the state withdrawal has actually left many poor and vulnerable even more vulnerable.

As the Social Development Report 2012, produced by the Council for Social Development argues, despite the acknowledgement by the government that socially, India is extremely ‘unequal’, in economic and social terms, recent policy changes don’t seem to get to the heart of addressing the challenges. As the report argues “According to the HDR, malnourishment in Indian children is twice higher than children in Sub-Saharan Africa.” It suggests further that the problem is not the lack of resources, but no perceptible change, despite more resources being allocated to the problems. So, the devil is actually in the details; in this case. The problem is not of allocating the needed resources, but making sure that they actually reach the intended beneficiaries. Economic liberalization and state withdrawal from provision of infrastructure and health facilities seems to have only deteriorated the reach and scope of services, according to the report. While the quality of services may have improved, in certain segments such as healthcare service delivery, the reach of these services for the poor and marginalized is minimal, as they cannot afford to pay for these services.

The challenges to including minorities in development seems to be an ongoing one. In a recently released District Development and Diversity Index, Dr. Shariff argues that “Given the vast geographic expanse and high population concentrations across India a meaningful development strategy that address acute poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, ill-health must occur at the level of the districts. Further, hitherto development policy decisions were made using a combination of district level per-capita averages and a small set of indictors such as average rainfall and agricultural productivity; little information on the quality of life and human development were available.” These are not ‘wicked’ problems, though policies at the district levels and access to the services provided by the government is the key to addressing them.

Amidst all this data and discourse of minority rights, one must not forget that the story of India’s minorities is also the story of India. How a country treats its weak and vulnerable is a reflection of the country’s moral and ethical compass.

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.

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.