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.