US Muslims and the politics of identity

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US Muslims and the politics of identity

Monday, 29 June 2020 | Nadeem Paracha

Instead of finding roots in Pakistan, the second generation was handed explanations in this context by Islamist evangelical outfits that mushroomed in the US

While watching TV footage of the recent race riots in the US, I recognised one of the many African American protesters being arrested in Washington DC. The protester was Ahmad Farooq, whom I had met in 2018 when he approached me after a talk I had delivered at the International Forum for Democratic Studies, where I was stationed as a Research Fellow.

After the talk, Ahmad invited me for coffee. All I knew about him was that he lived in Virginia and was a retired college professor. A week later, while visiting the area for something entirely different, I decided to visit Ahmad. We met at a bar just behind his office and had lunch there. Ahmad told me that his ancestors were some of the first Muslims to come to the US, over 500 years ago. This wasn’t some fancy talk. In her 1998 book, Servants of Allah, American historian Sylviane Diouf writes that among the first batches of African slaves brought to the US by Europeans in the early 17th century, were many Muslims. But according to historian Sam Haselby, a former faculty member of the American University of Beirut, there was, in fact, a Muslim presence in the US even before European Puritans set up their first colony in the region in 1607. In an essay for the May 2019 issue of Aeon, Haselby writes that Muslims regularly arrived in the Americas with Spanish expeditions in the 15th and 16th centuries, sometimes as slaves and sometimes even as advisers.

A majority of them were from Granada, a Muslim stronghold in Europe before it was overthrown by the Spanish in the 15th century.

According to Diouf, the majority of African slaves brought to the US, especially during the cotton boom in the 18th and 19th centuries, followed traditional African religions and many were also Muslim. Both Diouf and Haselby write that a large number of them converted to Christianity and those who didn’t, managed to remain Muslim. According to the Encyclopedia of American Religious History, there were no mosques in the US until 1921.

Ahmad told me that his ancestors belonged to Senegal in Africa and arrived in South America as slaves in the late 16th century on a Spanish ship. They escaped and reached Mexico, from where they moved to what became Arizona in the US.

The history of South-Asian Muslims in the US is equally interesting. Professor of Religious Studies Kathleen Moore writes that the first Muslims from South Asia arrived in the US in the late 19th century. They were all from areas constituting present-day Pakistani and Indian Punjabs.

According to Moore, these early immigrants from South Asia were mostly Sikhs, but some among them were also Muslims and Hindus. However, Moore adds that they were all clubbed as Hindus by the Americans who believed they followed the same faith. They largely worked as hired hands in agriculture and factories. Around 6,000 such South Asians migrated to the US between the late 19th century and 1917, when the US Congress placed restrictions on migrations from India. In 1923, the US Supreme Court declared that Indian migrants were not eligible for US citizenship because they were not White. Moore writes that since they continued being called Hindu and faced racial attacks, some moved the courts to plead that they were descendants of ancient Aryans, and therefore should be treated as Whites. The ploy did not work. Restrictions on immigration from South Asia were lifted in 1946. From 1947 onward, a majority of South-Asian Muslims in the US arrived from Pakistan. According to Moore, approximately 1,800 Pakistanis migrated to the US between 1947 and 1965. Almost all of them were men. And since they were unable to bring wives and children with them, many married Latin-American women in the US. When US immigration laws were further relaxed in 1965, the number of Pakistanis migrating there increased manifold. These also included young Pakistani men and women interested in higher education in American universities and colleges. According to Moore, these first groups of Pakistani migrants did not exhibit any outward displays of their faith and quickly adopted “the American way of life.”

However, things in this context began to gradually change from the early 1980s. Palestinian Professor Bishara Khader writes that one of the factors that instilled a greater role of religion in the lives of Muslims in Europe was the fact that more and more Muslim migrants began to acquire wives from home. When the wives arrived in Europe and had children there, both parents began to adopt religiosity, especially when their children entered their teens. They felt this would help them keep a check on their children growing up in “permissive” societies. A similar thing happened in the US.

Moore writes that even though the first groups of Pakistani migrants were not very demonstrative about their faith and had either become entirely Westernised or placed more emphasis on their ethnic customs and cultures, the last batch of this generation of migrants became conservative when their children reached school-going age. Impacted by the growth of the “politics of identity” in the US, the children grew up looking for their roots. But instead of finding these roots in Pakistan, as such, the children were actually handed explanations in this context by Islamist evangelical outfits that mushroomed in the US, especially from the 1980s onwards.

Another factor behind the transformation was when the American Government adopted the idea of multiculturalism in the 1990s. This meant that a group could exist with its own cultural ethos within a larger meta-culture, without fully integrating. So the question of identity, Islamic evangelism and multiculturalism combined, especially in the post-9/11 scenario, for second generation Pakistani migrants, who began to signal their identity through Islamic symbols.

This actually played out during my lunch with Ahmad. Later he informed me that the bar we were in was started by a Pakistani named Humayun. He had migrated to the US in the 1960s, and started the bar in the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, he suddenly sold the bar because of  “community pressure.” So what happened to Humayun? “No, he didn’t end up in Afghanistan. He’s still here in Virginia. But I don’t think his children know that daddy once owned a bar”, Ahmad smiled.

 (Courtesy: Dawn)

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