by Naeem Mohaiemen
"Go West, young man, and grow up with the country."
[John Soule, Terre Haute Express, 1851]
A few months after the Afghan war, I was sitting in the Dhaka office of Sajjad Sharif. Sajjad is an art critic and associate editor of Prothom Alo (progressive newspaper often under attack from Islamists). The regular tea cicle was assembled (artists, poets and journalists all end up in Sajjad's office), talking about the "Muslim street" (that elusive beast!).
For two decades, my personal dual existence between New York and Dhaka had been fairly unremarkable and unremarked. Now, there was a desire to boil down everyone to their "essence". I was supposed to be some sort of stand-in for "the American street" -- a farcical concept that I usually deflect.
In the middle of a heated debate, Sajjad lightened the mood with a popular street saying of the time:
"Tomorrow, if Osama said, 'all my jihadi brothers come and join me!'"
"10% of Bangladesh would cross the border into Afghanistan."
"Bolen ki bhai?"
"Yes, it's true."
"But if the next day, Bush announced 'jobs for everyone'..."
"90% of Bangladesh would line up in front of the American Embassy!"
It reminded me of many, more prosaic, encounters, in "living rooms" of various Dhaka uncles and aunties that I have to visit as an obligation. The conversation always veers to, "Oi desh e pore thako kibhabe baba?' (how do you live in that place?). This is often followed a little later with the revelation that their eldest son or daughter is taking the SATs next month. "Do you have any advice about applying to American colleges?"
This strand is not to, in any way, minimize or trivialize the varied oppositions to the new Imperialism project. But we can at least complicate the conversation by looking to the revulsion and fascination projected on the same surface. A similar sentiment seems to be at play in the European obsession with the idee fixe vis-a-vis American power and culture.
Things are not of course quite so simple. Nor will they stay the same. Obsession with the American dream will be replaced by other foci, including the idea of India Shining, China Rising, and all the rest. Al Jazeera may yet replace CNN as the most watched channel (actually, CNN is already not the most watched channel anyway). Then again, certain shifts may be temporary (recall the total obsession with Japan for a minute in the 80s). Only a fool or Nostradamus makes predictions without caveats.
I was thinking of all this as I was reading a new data released by Homeland Security (they are also responsible for immigration). It shows that, contrary to all expectations, Muslim immigration to America has increased, after an initial drop, since 9/11. In 2005, more people from Muslim countries became legal permanent US residents (green card), nearly 96,000, than in any year in the previous two decade. More than 40,000 arrivals from Muslim countries were admitted into US in 2005, the highest annual number since 2001.
One of the photos that illustrates the report is taken on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, once again a bustling center of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. This is the same Coney Island Avenue targeted when "Special Registration" and Immigration raids went after Pakistanis (Bangladeshis were lesser targets). At that time, writers evoked Germany 1939, a comparison that raised hackles but also pointed to shared struggles between Jewish and Muslim migrants. That same Coney Island wears a hopeful look in this photo. Fluttering American flags in background, hugging Musollis in the foreground. It looks for a moment like a moon alignment that brought Eid and July 4th on the same weekend.
Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan has explored a new definition of dar al-harb (also dar al-shirk, but not to be confused with dar al-kufr). In the older consensual view, a country is dar al-harb when the legal system as well as government is non-Islamic. Dar al-harb translates in one formulation to "Abode of War". The Hanafi school says that this is a territory where Muslims are neither protected nor able to live in peace. If law and political systems define this, then even a nation like Bangladesh, which is majority Muslim, is still dar ul-harb (as are Indonesia, Malaysia, etc).
A competing vision argues that it is the condition of population, and safety of that same, that defines dar al-harb. Ramadan argues that
"Muslims may actually feel safer in the West, as far as the free exercise of their religion is concerned, than in some so-called Muslim countries."Thus America and Europe, having large Muslims populations that maintain (even after all recent events) some measure of religious freedom, can also be defined as dar al-islam.
If Muslims feel safe in the West, Muslim immigration will continue and will create a new form of hybrid Islam, as postulated in Ramadan's "To Be A European Muslim." But there is another aspect to consider. If the West is not dar al-harb as per the old definition, militant groups' manifesto to attack the West loses a key theological underpinning. This is not to say that militants will read Ramadan and change their key strategy (and many scholars debate Ramadan on this). But it can outline the beginnings of a counter-debate, one that looks at the roots of Islamic theology to counter the bastardization of the same.
We have two visions on display in this week's newspapers.
One is the dark, apocalyptic view in Roger Cohen's essay:
"But like the world it still claims to lead, the United States has grown darker. Two wars lurk on a leafy street. Fear haunts the political discourse. A century that dawned brightly now offers conflict without end. Beyond U.S. borders, no longer those of a sanctuary, the fanatical group called Al Qaeda that turned planes into missiles has morphed into a diffuse anti- Western ideology followed, in some measure, by millions of angry Muslims. They are convinced the United States is an infidel enemy bent on humiliating Islam. Anti-Americanism has become the world's vogue idea."Now if "millions" had already joined the jihad, there would be very few buildings left standing. But never mind, the man is writing with a flourish, allow him a moment of hyperventilation.
Let's turn instead to Andrea Elliott's lead article in yesterday's Times:
"[Muslims] have made the journey unbowed by tales of immigrant hardship, and despite their own opposition to American policy in the Middle East. They come seeking the same promise that has drawn foreigners to the United States for many decades, according to a range of experts and immigrants: economic opportunity and political freedom. Those lures, both powerful and familiar, have been enough to conquer fears that America is an inhospitable place for Muslims."Today is the 5th anniversary of 9/11. In years past, in a more navel-gazing state of mind, I wrote pedestrian, sentimental entries about biking down to Tribeca to look for my then-partner (she had been evacuated), tracking down Bengali victims' families, losing a fond memento at airport security, etc, etc. These are not unique, nor are they (after thousands of memorial stories) particularly emotive. I wrote as an ideological naif about the end of technology in the face of box cutters. It is time to look beyond only these stories. Time to also feel the pain of others outside these borders. Time to formulate theory, trajectory and a vision for a more humane future. A shared world beyond wars without end.
Naeem Mohaiemen/Visible Collective
Cohen: Darker Landscape
Elliott: Muslim Immigration Up Since 9/11