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 the Dhaka-based Prothom Alo, a progressive newspaper often under attack from Islamists. The regular tea circle was assembled (artists, poets and journalists), talking about the ‘Muslim street’ (that elusive creature!).
For years, my personal dual existence between New York and Dhaka had been fairly unremarkable and unremarked upon. Now there was suddenly a desire to boil everyone down to their ‘essence’. I was supposed to be some sort of reflective surface for ‘the American street’ – a farcical concept that I rejected.
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 percent of Bangladesh would leave for Afghanistan.”
“Bolen ki bhai?
“Yes, it’s true.”
“But if the next day, Bush announced ‘Jobs for everyone’…”
“90 percent of Bangladesh would line up in front of the American embassy!”
This joke reminded me of many more-prosaic encounters in the houses of various Dhaka ‘seniors’ that I am obligated to visit. The conversation always veers to, “Oi desh e pore thako kibhabe baba?” (How do you live in that country?). But soon after cha-biscuit, there is also the revelation that their eldest son or daughter will be taking the US college entrance SAT in the near future. “Do you have any advice about applying to American colleges?” they ask.
These observations are not meant to minimise or trivialise the varied opposition 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 idee fixe about American power and culture.
Things are of course not quite so simple. Nor will they stay the same. Thoughts about America will be replaced by other focuses, including India Shining, China Rising and all the rest. Al-Jazeera or Zee TV may yet replace CNN as the most-watched television channel; indeed, CNN is already not well-watched in many parts. Then again, certain shifts may be temporary. Recall the obsession with Japan for a brief moment during the 1980s, when Japanese buying sprees of American institutions inspired paranoid fantasies like Sean Connery’s Rising Sun – 007 always knew where to go for the next big threat. Only a fool, or Nostradamus, makes predictions without caveats.
I was thinking of all this as I was studying new data released by the US Department of Homeland Security, which is also responsible for immigration. A new report shows that, contrary to many expectations, Muslim immigration to America has increased, after an initial drop, since the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Of course, not every statistic gives a full picture. Professor Moustafa Bayoumi points out that other factors, such as the post-9/11 overhaul of the immigration system, may have allowed for faster processing of new immigration applications. But the numbers are still startling. In 2005 nearly 96,000 people from Muslim countries became legal permanent US residents — more than in any year in the last two decades. More than 40,000 arrivals from Muslim countries were admitted into the US in 2005, the highest annual number since 2001. The greatest number of admissions came from Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Muslim immigration to the US initially increased during the mid-1960s, after immigration quotas were removed. In contrast with Europe, Muslims who came to the US tended to be more educated, reflecting an immigration system that also had preference for white-collar migration. A larger portion of immigrants from Muslim countries had graduate degrees than did American citizens, and their average salary was 20 percent higher. This trend paralleled the high levels of achievement of other educated immigrant groups, as well.
A photo that illustrated a recent New York Times story on this topic was taken on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, once again a bustling centre of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. This is the same Coney Island Avenue targeted when ‘special registration’ and immigration raids went particularly after Pakistanis, and to a lesser extent Bangladeshis. At that time, writers evoked Krystallnacht, the German anti-Jewish pogrom of 1938 – a comparison that raised hackles, but also pointed to shared struggles between Jewish and Muslim migrants. That same Coney Island now wears a hopeful look in this photo. Fluttering American flags in the background, hugging Musollis in the foreground. It looks for a moment like a moon alignment that brought together Eid and the Fourth of July.
What is the social position of Muslims in these countries, where they are in the minority? Swiss philosopher Tariq Ramadan has explored a new definition of dar al-harb. In the consensual view, a country is dar al-harb when both the legal system and government are non-Islamic. Dar al-harb translates in one formulation as ‘Abode of War’. If law and political systems define this, then even a country like Bangladesh, the majority of which is Muslim, is still dar al-harb, as are Indonesia, Malaysia and the like. This is meant to infer a territory where Muslims are neither protected nor able to live in peace.
A competing vision argues that it is the condition of populations, and safety of the 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.”
Ramadan’s view can be interpreted to say that America and Europe, having large Muslim populations that maintain – even after all recent events – some measure of religious freedom, can also be defined as dar al-islam. This is also a partial conflation of freedom of speech with other freedoms. Ironically, some of London’s most fiery preachers would not have the same leeway back ‘home’. Political Islamist theologian Sayyid Qutb, who inspired many generations of radical groups, was brutally tortured by the Egyptian state. It was, in fact, this experience that expanded his focus from the West – an object of loathing after his time in America – towards advocating assassination of Muslim leaders who failed to follow traditional doctrine.
If Muslims feel at least some form of safety in the West, Muslim immigration will continue and will eventually create a hybridised 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’ manifestos to attack the West loses a key theological underpinning. This is not to say that militants will read Ramadan and change their strategy. But it can outline the beginnings of a counter-debate, one that looks at the roots of Islamic theology to counter the bastardisation of the same.
We have two visions on display in recent discussions of 11 September’s legacy. One is the dark, apocalyptic view encapsulated in a recent essay by the US journalist Roger Cohen:
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 US 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 truly joined the jihad, there would be very few buildings left standing. But never mind that – the man is writing with a flourish, and can be allowed a moment of hyperventilation. Let us turn now to an article written by another US journalist, Andrea Elliott, about the new report on Muslim immigration:
[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.
In years past, in a more navel-gazing state of mind, on every 9/11 anniversary I found myself writing pedestrian, sentimental entries about my own experiences as a New York resident: biking downtown after the towers collapsed to look for my then-partner (she had been evacuated), tracking down Bengali victims’ families, losing a fond memento at airport security, and the like. These are not unique experiences, nor are they – after thousands of memorial stories – particularly emotive today.
I wrote in a naive state of mind about the end of technology in the face of box-cutters. That sense of a frozen history has been blown away by subsequent wars, detentions, rising tensions and revenge attacks. On the fifth anniversary of that event, it is time to look beyond only these stories, and to formulate theory, vision and trajectory for a more humane future – a shared world, beyond wars without end.