Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami, a review

Vijay Prashad, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today

New Press, 2012

That south Asians in the US face Islamophobia and racism was made clear on August 5th of this year when Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist who was being tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, entered a Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI and killed 7 people, most of them Sikhs.  While the media went into overdrive trying to convince everyone that this was a “mistake,” that the real targets were Muslims and not Sikhs, as if this was supposed to be some consolation to anyone, it was quite clear that the problem was in fact the long and persistent demonization of Islam and the omnipresent xenophobia to which all immigrants are subject.

Sikhs were attacked not because Page mistook them for Muslims, but because Muslims, in general, are seen as a fifth column in the US.  As a result, anyone who happens to look like them becomes necessarily a casualty of the racism that has been mobilized against Muslims in general.  Even though the media attempted to portray this as the consequence of individual ignorance or misrecognition, the events of Oak Creek are better understood as the result of widespread propaganda which cautions fear by arguing that all Muslims are possible terrorists.

But Sikhs in the US are victims of Islamophobia in different ways than are Muslims, and that was at least part of the reason that the massacre at Oak Creek happened.  So desperate are non-Muslim immigrants to prove their American loyalty that they repeat the humiliating refrain over and over again—“But we are not Muslims!”—in the hopes that this will relieve some of the pressures that they face.  South Asians become mascots of Team Docile Immigrant and then are pitted against Arabs and Muslims (even though many South Asians are Muslims) in the never-ending process of racializing “terrorism.”

The production of “good” or “model” minorities in the United States has always been connected to a process of isolating the “bad” or “criminal” races.  If from the 1970s to the 1990s South Asians were seen as the ideal immigrant population (hardworking, law-abiding, upwardly mobile), it was because that depiction of them was convenient as a stick with which to beat African Americans and Latinos in the US.  Today, it is convenient for the Global War on Terror.

One more thing went unnoticed, though.  Unlike Muslims and Arabs who are subject to intense scrutiny by law enforcement and are asked to make themselves available to intelligence agencies all the time, Sikhs have not been subject to state surveillance.  Law enforcement agencies have undergone countless hours of training in learning how to deal with Muslims and the issues that surround Muslim communities (not all of this learning has been salutary, one has to add), but this has not extended to learning about or reaching out to the myriad other communities that are affected by the twin problems of Islamophobia and anti-terrorism.

One of the strange consequences of this is that while most mosques have video and security equipment installed outside and have direct lines to law enforcement agencies, most Gurudwaras do not.  In some ways, then, the attacks on Gurudwaras and Sikhs are not mistakes: they happen because Sikhs are vulnerable and visible in ways that most Muslims have learned not to be.  One needs to add, though, that countless mosques are routinely attacked and vandalized with almost no media attention; the singular and exceptional focus on Oak Creek is one more indication of how much Islamophobia is tolerated in the US.

But understanding the complex and contradictory ways that many south Asians have both suffered from and been cheerleaders for Islamophobia requires having a historical understanding of the divide-and-rule racial politics of American society.  This is the task that Vijay Prashad sets out in his new book, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, a survey of many of the important trends and issues facing South Asians in the US since 9/11.  In it, Prashad elegantly captures the contradictory pressures on South Asian Americans as they navigate the crucible of domestic racial politics, India-US political and economic relations, and internal divisions with the South Asian American communities in the US.

This book picks up where Prashad’s previous book, The Karma of Brown Folks, left off.  In that book, Prashad demonstrated, in part, how many South Asians were recruited in the United States to participate in the discourses of anti-black racism in exchange for ethnic inclusion into larger public spaces.  At the same time, Prashad showed, smaller groups of South Asians became involved in important community organizing campaigns in the US and developed as important leaders in anti-racist and international solidarity work.  A deep sensitivity to the push-pull forces that affect South Asian immigrants as well as an understanding of transnational movements of peoples into and out of the Indian subcontinent marked some of the best features of the earlier book.

But the new project is best understood as one of comparative racial formations in the US.  He argues, “In my own earlier work I argued that the fear factor of ‘blacks’ created the conditions for the construction of the Indian American as the model minority, whereas I will now argue that this is insufficient.  It is the terror factor of the ‘Muslim’ alongside antiblack racism that provides the political space for Jewish Americans and Hindu Americans to mitigate their cultural differences from the mainstream, but crucially to put themselves forwards as those who, because of their experience with terrorism, become the vanguard of the new, antiterrorist Battleship America.”

That integration of Indian (Hindu) American identity with antiterrorist politics has taken a number of different but parallel tracks in the US.  The first is the creation of the “India Lobby,” which explicitly argues for the interests of Indian capitalism within the halls of American power.  Two simultaneous processes helped to grow the India lobby and the India caucus within the American Congress.  The new opportunities opened by India’s economic liberalization beginning in 1991 meant that India was seeking new partnerships with the US and American capitalists were looking for ways to penetrate Indian markets.  The resulting convergence of interests paved the way for the lifting of sanctions on India and for closer military collaboration.

The second is the construction of a South Asian (more precisely, Hindu and Indian) identity as victims of terrorism, and so like the Israelis and the Sri Lankans, natural allies in the Global War on Terror.  Military connections and arms trades between India and Israel were already extensive when Indian Americans also launched the US-India Political Action Committee (explicitly modeled on AIPAC).  But the myth of “American-Israeli-Indian” victimhood was predicated on another myth of a singular “Islamic” enemy launching terrorist attacks on all three nations.  Despite the fact that the groups and organizations that each nation is organizing against are all different, this mythology has been convenient at creating the impression of a global jihad launched by a monolithic Islam.  It has also meant that India has not had to answer in the US for its ongoing occupation and brutalization of the people of Kashmir.

The third has been the transformation into celebrities of certain right-wing Indians who have risen to important political posts.  The likes of Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Sonal Shah, and Dinesh D’Souza have all been lionized in the Indian American press as signs of Indian American accomplishment without ever interrogating the political content of their vision.  At the same time, the fact that the majority of South Asian Americans are a part of the Democratic Party and usually left-of-center gets overlooked in the ways that certain Indians have been used to advance a neoliberal agenda in the US.

The most nefarious aspect of all of these processes has been the mainstreaming of a right-wing Hindu chauvinist ideology (called Hindutva), which has both been used against Muslims in the subcontinent as well as against linguistic, ethnic, and caste-based minorities.  In the US, the Sangh Parivar, the coalition of the Hindu right in India, uses American multiculturalism to its advantage to advance a particularly narrow understanding of Hinduism, one which whitewashes its long legacy of sexism and caste chauvinism, in particular.  This process, what Prashad calls “Yankee Hindutva,” has allowed for the growth of right-wing organizations in the US in exchange for Indian cover for American aggression abroad.

Prashad’s book is an important contribution to the understanding of how race and ethnicity are always tied up in a larger understanding of the historical flows of capital across national boundaries and the devastating effects of imperialism on people all over the world.  If there is one place that the book falls a little short it is in its call for an ethics of compassion, modeled around Gandhi in the concluding chapter, rather than fleshing out a politics of solidarity modeled around internationalism in the working class.  Indians have, as Prashad shows, participated in spectacular movements of international solidarity, and the growth of these tendencies inside the working class in the subcontinent and in the US will play no small part in challenging the American imperium.  By drawing our attention to the politics of race and ethnicity in the US, though, Prashad’s book serves an important function by highlighting just how deeply connected the fights against racism and imperialism are.

New Red Indian in Deutsche Welle on Zardari’s speech to the UN

Asif Ali Zardari has denounced an anti-Islam film in his address to the UN General Assembly and called for an international ban on it. Analysts say that the Pakistani president’s demand is hypocritical.

On Tuesday, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari began his General Assembly speech by denouncing the US-made anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” and asked world leaders to ban the controversial movie and other “hate material” against the Prophet of Islam.

The low-budget movie sparked violent protests in many Muslim countries. Apart from protests in the Middle East, Islamic parties in many South Asian countries held rallies to speak out against the video and the US government.

In Pakistan, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party’s government – led by President Zardari – announced an official holiday on Friday, September 21, to show solidarity with the Prophet of Islam and to protest against the film. At least 19 people were killed during these protests as violent mobs set public property on fire, also torching a church in the northern city of Mardan, and various US establishments.

Read more here

University of Insecurity

The bomb threats that were delivered to five American universities (UT Austin, North Dakota State, Valparaiso, Lousiana State, and UT Brownsville) in the last five days should be an occasion to consider the world that we live in and how it affects us.  College campuses have never really been immune from broader historical forces nor have they been protected from violence.  But what is striking about the conversation that has emerged in the tense atmosphere following what were largely hoaxes or impossible bomb plots is how remarkably flat it is.  Once the terms “Arab” or “Islam” or their synonyms are thrown around, there seems to be little need to think about what is going on here or why.

This last part bears underlining because it is the one claim that few are willing to concede in liberal America.  “Islam” and “Arabs” seem only to appear in the media or in conversation when the subject is about violence or terrorism with the effect that the terms have all become interchangeable.  Intelligent conversation then stops, the participants nod in agreement: of course, those Muslims are always up to something.  It was perhaps convenient that angry Arabs were on the streets protesting as fake bomb threats were being made.

But even when it came to the protests in the middle East, we encountered the same flat narrative.  Angry Muslims responding irrationally to the liberal values of the West, with the repetition of the vague “anti-American” label.  Few were talking about the film and the provocative circumstances of its production (the connections of the producer to far-right, Islamophobic organizations, for instance).  Even fewer were talking about the cynical way that certain marginalized Muslim organizations were using the controversy around the film to reignite their celebrity.  These protests, like the bomb threats, were supposed to be proof of the truism that passes for scrutiny: Muslims are illiberal and dangerous.

That such intellectual laziness happens is not surprising.  We live in a country where one Presidential candidate will not be photographed next to a Muslim and the other cannot be bothered to learn how to pronounce a single Arab or Muslim name correctly.  Both are in favor of bombing almost any country that dares to have a Muslim majority.  That mosques are routinely vandalized and torched without any mention only serves to highlight the quiet acceptance of this convenient political equation.  Muslims are merely tolerated here: they suffer American multiculturalism at their own peril.

That such intellectual laziness happens at a college campus is simply maddening.

At two different University of Texas campuses, the specter of Islam was raised as the source of two very different plots.  In Austin, a caller identified by one UT staff person as having a “light Middle-Eastern accent” and connections to al-Qa’ida made a bomb threat.  Despite recognizing early on that the call was likely a hoax and taking emergency measures only as a precaution, the university still released details about the caller’s supposed identity.  The possibility that the hoax could have encompassed the accent and the al-Qa’ida affiliation did not stop the administration from defending their racial profile of the caller.

At the University of Texas, Brownsville, another bomb threat, also a hoax, was made by Henry Dewitt McFarland, a veteran of the US Marines who served time in Afghanistan, when he called into the National Veteran’s Crisis Hotline.  McFarland, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was considering conversion to Islam.  He threatened to blow up a classmate, who made derogatory comments about his new religion, with a plate bomb that he claimed to have in his apartment.  The authorities found nothing in his apartment to suggest that the threat was serious.

In both instances, the story required the sensationalism that only Islam and Muslims could provide.  Neither the story about exam-related hoaxes (incidentally, earlier in the week fire alarms were pulled in eight buildings at UT Austin) nor the story about soldiers returning with PTSD from their time abroad are the way that we talk about our state of permanent insecurity on college campuses, even though those stories better help to unpack the new realities of college life.  Sans Islam, we would be forced to ask much harder questions about the skyrocketing costs of higher education or about the conditions under which American soldiers labor.  We might be forced to ask why American drones violate national sovereignty and kill with impunity.  Much easier that we talk about Muslims.

These stories stopped asking questions at a certain point because the mistaken belief that Islam and terrorism are synonymous means that there is no more story to tell.  And when critics raise the problems with this interpretation—that it eliminates the deadliness American foreign policy, that it lumps all Arabs and Muslims into one impossibly large category, that violent protests are almost always the work of fringe groups—we are accused of naively pandering to the protocols of political correctness.

Most  bomb threats at college campuses are usually connected to two things: exams and major (usually sporting) events.  Most colleges and universities have well developed protocols to deal with bomb threats because they have been a regular part of their operations.  One University of Texas official explained that UT gets 4 or 5 of these every year.  Most go unannounced.  In the four years that I have worked at UT, I have only been evacuated once.  This is not to say that we ought not take bomb threats seriously.  But we ought to ask how we determine which ones we do and why.

The majority of the insecurity that we face on college campuses has very little to do with Islam.  The events of Virginia Tech a few years ago serve as a constant reminder that colleges and universities are not ivory towers disconnected from real issues.  We might add that the incessant cuts to university budgets and the rising costs of tuition have also produced new, difficult conditions for everyone on campus.  That there are fewer health and psychological services to deal with the problems that these create is at least part of the problem, too.

There is another story that we are not telling, as well.  Since 9/11, every Muslim organization on a college campus has been audited by the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security at least once; at UCLA, Muslims are the subject of constant law enforcement surveillance.  Most Muslim students keep to themselves and associate only with other Muslims as a way to defend themselves from the racism that comes from unexpected areas.  Few speak out about it because law enforcement has been woefully inadequate about doing anything.

Later this week, the ACLU is testifying at Congressional hearings about the failure of law enforcement agencies to do anything when credible threats were made against Muslims and mosques.  In one incident in Antioch, CA, authorities were notified of threats against the mosque but failed to do anything about it.  It was then set on fire in 2007.  The authorities have even refused to call it a hate crime.  In the interests of full disclosure, I am named in the ACLU’s documents.  In 2007, death threats were made against me.  The ACLU discovered that my political activism was ostensibly the reason that law enforcement did not investigate the death threats or take them seriously.  There is a reason that we don’t have good numbers on the real harassment, discrimination, violence, and fear that Muslims and Arabs in the US feel.

There are real stories to tell here and real questions to ask, questions, which when answered, might lead to real solutions to the insecurities we all face on college campuses.  But the story about Islam and terror is too convenient.  It lets everyone off the hook.  And it keeps everyone permanently insecure.