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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
In my ongoing series of interviews with Asian American academics that highlight new books and research that illuminate different aspects and details related to the Asian and Asian American experiences, I am very happy to present an interview with fellow colleague in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Assistant Professor Fareen Parvez, highlighting her new book Politicizing Islam: The Islamic Revival in France and India. Her book explores the political, social class, gender, and religious dynamics of Muslim communities in Lyon, France and Hyderabad, India within the context of growing anti-Muslim sentiments locally and globally. The book’s description:
Home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia, France and India are both grappling with crises of secularism. In Politicizing Islam, Fareen Parvez offers an in-depth look at how Muslims have responded to these crises, focusing on Islamic revival movements in the French city of Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad. Presenting a novel comparative view of middle-class and poor Muslims in both cities, Parvez illuminates how Muslims from every social class are denigrated but struggle in different ways to improve their lives and make claims on the state.
In Hyderabad’s slums, Muslims have created vibrant political communities, while in Lyon’s banlieues they have retreated into the private sphere. Politicizing Islam elegantly explains how these divergent reactions originated in India’s flexible secularism and France’s militant secularism and in specific patterns of Muslim class relations in both cities. This fine-grained ethnography pushes beyond stereotypes and has consequences for burning public debates over Islam, feminism, and secular democracy.
Can you elaborate on your initial motivations for studying this particular topic in these two specific nations, France and India?
The initial motivation was to see how Muslim minorities in secular democracies were responding to the war on terror and what their politics (if any) looked like. France and India have very different models of secularism, so I was also able to compare how this difference between states affected the types of politics minority Muslims could pursue. When I first started, this seemed like an odd comparison. But today more scholars are talking about what Europe might learn from India’s history of managing diversity. Social class has also always been an important lens for me, so I wanted to look at two places where most Muslims were at the bottom of the class structure. Besides these intellectual motivations, as an ethnographer you have to think about your skills and connections. In this case I spoke enough French and Urdu to carry out the research.
In the course of doing your fieldwork, what was your most notable memory or personal observation when you were in either Lyon or Hyderabad?
I have two very negative memories, though now, they make me laugh! In Lyon, France, I had a lot of trouble gaining access to a field site in the banlieues (suburbs). I didn’t realize at the time how much surveillance people were under and how fearful they were as a result. So I naïvely walked right up to someone working at a café in a housing project building and told him about my research. When I asked if he might help me, he started yelling at me for asking questions. He went on for several minutes, and I felt traumatized. The second memory, in Hyderabad, India, was at a regional conference of the women’s wing of the Islamic association, Jama’at-i-Islami. It was a scorching hot day, and 40,000 women attended the gathering. The speeches were intense (about the rights of women in Islam and all the problems with western feminism) and terribly loud, and I became overwhelmed. I collapsed in the heat, until a group of village women came to help me. Even ethnography has its occupational hazards!
Even though your research focuses specifically on France and India, what might be some ways in which your findings can be applicable to Muslims in the U.S.?
On a broad level, comparing French and Indian secularisms puts American secularism into sharper perspective. American secularism is relatively flexible, and religious liberties are robust. But they also cannot be taken for granted, especially in the current climate. As Muslim identity in the U.S. becomes an object of political debate, it might become harder for Muslim activists to focus on issues of class and economic justice. This is what I observed in the French case. Also, one of the themes of the book is that Muslims do not necessarily want to make a public issue of their faith. In fact, faith is something deeply personal and private. But because the state has politicized them, they have to deal with the consequences of that. In part that means having to always define and defend what it means to be Muslim, which is invariably constraining and oversimplifying. I think this process of having to define (and thus, reduce and simplify) what it means to be a Muslim is well underway in the U.S. too.
In your analysis of the intersection of religion, social class, and gender, do any of these points of focus seem to be emerging as more significant in terms of their impact on Muslims communities as we move forward in the 21st century?
Since inequality has risen across the world, issues of class and gender justice are critical for most communities. And these might interact deeply with religious faith. My book in some ways highlights how concerns for social and/or economic transformation become sidelined, as communities face the urgency of mobilizing specifically around religious identity.
Clearly, these are very challenging times for Muslims around the world, particularly those in western nations such as the U.S. What are some points of connection between Muslims and other racial, ethnic, or cultural minority groups that might allow them to work together to achieve social equality and justice?
This is an interesting and important question. Personally, I think there is so much to learn from the powerful vision put forth by Black Lives Matter activists. And actually, there are some exciting coalitional events and conversations happening, bridging issues like respecting faith, dismantling racism, and supporting Native resistance. The main unifying point across these groups is that people are looking to protect their communities in a context of surveillance, violence, and rise in hate crimes.
What are some pieces of advice that you can give young Muslims around the world as they try to balance asserting their religious identity, while also integrating themselves into mainstream society as much as possible?
Well, I grew up in a time and place where staying quiet about religious faith and ethnic identity was the default way to stay safe and avoid judgment and harassment. But remaining silent also carries a psychological cost. I admire young people today, of whatever persuasion, who have the courage to not be ashamed of their histories and traditions and to stand up for others who are marginalized. My advice is to find a supportive community and have faith that you belong — even when xenophobic nationalists tell you to “go home!”
Below are a few more recently-released books that highlight Asian Americans, immigration, and/or other racial/ethnic groups along a variety of historical and contemporary sociological issues. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
South Asia occupies a very interesting position in the field of Asian Studies and Asian American Studies — countries and cultures such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh share many similarities with those in East Asia and Southeast Asia but at the same time, such South Asian countries and cultures feature very unique histories and characteristics. South Asians here in the U.S. frequently disagree among themselves about whether they should be part of the larger “Asian American” category as well. To help us examine these intricacies in more detail, the follow books focus on the histories, experiences, and identities of people from South Asia.
Through a lyrical narrative of her journey to Tibet in 2007, activist Canyon Sam contemplates modern history from the perspective of Tibetan women. Traveling on China’s new “Sky Train,” she celebrates Tibetan New Year with the Lhasa family whom she’d befriended decades earlier and concludes an oral-history project with women elders.
As she uncovers stories of Tibetan women’s courage, resourcefulness, and spiritual strength in the face of loss and hardship since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, and observes the changes wrought by the controversial new rail line in the futuristic “new Lhasa,” Sam comes to embrace her own capacity for letting go, for faith, and for acceptance. Her glimpse of Tibet’s past through the lens of the women – a visionary educator, a freedom fighter, a gulag survivor, and a child bride – affords her a unique perspective on the state of Tibetan culture today – in Tibet, in exile, and in the widening Tibetan diaspora.
Gracefully connecting the women’s poignant histories to larger cultural, political, and spiritual themes, the author comes full circle, finding wisdom and wholeness even as she acknowledges Tibet’s irreversible changes.
Providing a useful analysis of and framework for understanding immigration and assimilation narratives, anupama jain’s How to Be South Asian in America considers the myth of the American Dream in fiction (Meena Alexander’s Manhattan Music), film (American Desi, American Chai), and personal testimonies. By interrogating familiar American stories in the context of more supposedly exotic narratives, jain illuminates complexities of belonging that also reveal South Asians’ anxieties about belonging, (trans)nationalism, and processes of cultural interpenetration. jain argues that these stories transform as well as reflect cultural processes, and she shows just how aspects of identity, gender, sexual, class, ethnic, and nationality are shaped by South Asians’ accommodation of and resistance to mainstream American culture.
Mohanty has assembled an innovative volume of essays situated at the intersection of at least three multi-disciplinary fields: postcolonial and subaltern theory; comparative literary analysis, especially with a South Asian and transnational focus; and the study of “alternative” and “indigenous” modernities. This definitive new work grounds the political insights of postcolonial and subaltern theory in close textual analysis and challenges readers to think in new ways about global modernity and local cultures.
Terrifying Muslims highlights how transnational working classes from Pakistan are produced, constructed, and represented in the context of American empire and the recent global War on Terror. Drawing on ethnographic research that compares Pakistan, the Middle East, and the United States before and after 9/11, Junaid Rana combines cultural and material analyses to chronicle the worldviews of Pakistani labor migrants as they become part of a larger global racial system.
At the same time, he explains how these migrants’ mobility and opportunities are limited by colonial, postcolonial, and new imperial structures of control and domination. He argues that the contemporary South Asian labor diaspora builds on and replicates the global racial system consolidated during the period of colonial indenture. Rana maintains that a negative moral judgment attaches to migrants who enter the global labor pool through the informal economy. This taint of the illicit intensifies the post–9/11 Islamophobia that collapses varied religions, nationalities, and ethnicities into the threatening racial figure of “the Muslim.”
It is in this context that the racialized Muslim is controlled by a process that beckons workers to enter the global economy, and stipulates when, where, and how laborers can migrate. The demonization of Muslim migrants in times of crisis, such as the War on Terror, is then used to justify arbitrary policing, deportation, and criminalization.
Here are some more announcements and links out that have come my way relating to Asians or Asian Americans. As always, links to other sites are provided for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of their contents.
Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts invites submissions for the first issue of its fourth volume that will focus on “Intersections of Race and Gender.” Race/Ethnicity uses a classic piece as a point of departure for treatments of critical issues within the field of race and ethnic studies. While the classic piece establishes the thematic parameters of each issue, authors are under no obligation to actively engage the arguments posed by that work.
The issue will explore the multiple points where race and gender intersect across the globe, the range of consequences that meets those intersections, and the dynamics that occur at those intersections. Our focus on race and gender recognizes that there are numerous ways in which racialized and gendered identities intersect and that their intersection is often influenced by a variety of other cultural factors. We also welcome the viewpoints of practitioners working in the field. Deadline: February 28, 2010. Contact: Leslie Shortlidge at firstname.lastname@example.org; www.raceethnicity.org/coverart.html.
The editors of Law & Social Inquiry announce a competition for the best journal-length paper in the field of socio-legal studies written by a graduate or law student. Direct submissions as well as nominations of student work from faculty are invited.
The winning paper will be published in Law & Social Inquiry and the author(s) will receive a total cash prize of $500 (US). Law & Social Inquiry publishes both empirical and theoretical studies of socio-legal processes from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Deadline: March 1, 2010. Contact: (312) 988-6517; email@example.com; www.blackwellpublishing.com/LSI.
The American Institute of Indian Studies announces its 2010 fellowship competition and invites applications from scholars who wish to conduct their research in India. Junior fellowships are awarded to PhD candidates to conduct research for their dissertations in India for up to 11 months. Senior fellowships for scholars who hold the PhD degree are awarded for up to nine months of research in India. Deadline: July 1, 2010. Applications can be downloaded at www.indiastudies.org. Contact: (773) 702-8638; firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Ky Truong from San Jose, Ca. I recently started a line of Vietnamese inspired t-shirts called 3 Stripes Clothing. We are in the process of launching the line, but we decided to do something unique and let the people dictate what designs get printed by holding a poll on our Facebook fan page.
The reason why I started this line of t-shirts was because I felt that the Vietnamese community, especially those that are 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation Vietnamese lack representation on the apparel market. When you look at the Filipino community, there are an abundance of shirts that represent their culture and pride. I would like to achieve that within the Vietnamese community.
The other day, I was flipping around the network evening news broadcasts and landed on CBS News. Apparently, they have a regular segment titled “Everybody Has a Story” in which they randomly pick a location in the U.S., travel there, and then the reporter takes out a phonebook and randomly flips to a page and puts his finger on a name on that page, and then they profile that randomly-chosen person and tell his/her story.
Also apparently, CBS News expanded this segment to “Everybody in the World Has a Story” and enlisted the help of an American astronaut to randomly point to a location on a globe where they would go and repeat the same procedure to profile the randomly-chosen person. In the segment I watched the other day, they ended up in Rewari, India (just outside Delhi). The video of their segment and the person they profiled is below:
As seen in the video clip, the person they profiled is Khushi Ram Goyal, a 78 year-old patriarch of a four-generation family who all live in the same house. Mr. Khushi also happens to be blind. But instead of being debilitated and resentful (although I am not suggesting that all blind people feel that way), Mr. Khushi actually leads a very fulfilling life. This is possible because his children and extended family members share everything — one house, one bank account, and one set of eyes as family members take turns watching over Mr. Khushi, not to do everything for him, but to give him a hand in case he needs it.
In watching this segment, I was very touched by Mr. Khushi, his family, and how they work together to share in their collective success as a family. Although it’s a different matter to generalize one example to an entire society, I suppose Mr. Khushi’s life does reinforce the notion that traditional Asian cultures such as India do indeed place a higher priority on familial duties and the importance of the family unit over the individual.
Nonetheless, in this case, Mr. Khushi’s story is a nice example that sometimes, there are more important things in life than maximizing an individual’s economic success. Instead, his story shows us that the sharing of success and responsibilities throughout an extended family can be just as rewarding and nurturing for a person’s soul.
For those who follow the automotive industry, you may have heard about Tata Motors — India’s biggest automaker. Corresponding with the political and economic rise of India in general in the past decade or so, Tata Motors is also emerging as a major international automaker. As one example, in 2008, it purchased the Jaguar and Land Rover luxury car businesses from Ford Motor Company.
Another reason Tata Motors has been making the news is that last year, it created a sensation when it announced that it would mass-produce a car for emerging countries called the Nano that would sell for about US$2,000, making it the cheapest new car available in the world. Speculation was rampant that it was technically and financially impossible, or that the final product would be nothing more than a rickshaw with bumpers.
Well, Tata’s Nano is finally here and as Edmunds Motor News reports, it is a real, legitimate car that in many ways, is a technical marvel:
The 2009 Tata Nano has the hopes and dreams of all India riding upon its tiny fenders. With a starting price of only $2,000, the Nano has been built to provide affordable all-weather transportation to those who might have never before been able to afford a car. . . .
When you see the 2009 Tata Nano in person, the first shock — other than its incredibly low price — is that the car looks, well, exactly like a car! . . . Media reports have run rampant with rumors that the Nano’s body is plastic, the chassis is glued together, or that the motor is powered by a hamster in a wheel. None of these are true. In fact, the Nano is remarkably simple in terms of how it’s built.
The body and chassis are constructed of steel; only the bumpers are plastic. Traditional spot-welding is used to fabricate the car. Computer-aided design has helped the engineers trim weight from the body and chassis. . . . The Nano has obviously been built to a price. But . . . Tata Motors didn’t skimp when it came to adding a little style. . . .
During a mix of city and highway driving, the Nano will average around 47 mpg. . . . Surprisingly, the engine emits only 101 g/km of CO2 emissions on the European driving cycle, which puts the Nano among the cleanest cars on sale anywhere. . . . The Nano’s cabin is remarkably quiet considering the car’s cost constraints. At top speed, the hum from the engine is never excessive or annoying. . . .
So the Nano is pretty clever in the way it saves costs. You expect this. But you might not expect how fun the Nano is to drive.
From an environmental point of view, many have questioned the wisdom of adding millions of Nanos onto India’s already-crowded streets and the pollution it’s bound to cause. As someone who is trying to consciously reduce my carbon impact on my environment, I would say that’s a fair question to ask. At this point, I only point out that in terms of pollution levels and resource consumption in proportion to its population, India is still significantly behind the U.S. and other industrialized nations, who pollute and consume many times more than India per capita.
Other people would probably also point out that at this point and in its current form, the Nano is not suitable for the American market. True, but we need to remember that it was never intended for the U.S. Instead, it was designed to provide reliable, inexpensive, all-weather transportation for average families in developing nations. And that’s where I detect the first hints of ethnocentrism regarding the criticisms about the Nano.
That is, much of this initial skepticism and criticism reminded me of when Tata Motors was in the process of purchasing the Jaguar and Land Rover brands from Ford. Back then, and similar to what people said regarding the Nano, many people in the automotive establishment and elsewhere questioned the ability and even appropriateness of Tata to buy and properly maintain such prestigious brands.
As I wrote back then, it seemed to me that much of controversy revolved around the fact that Tata Motors was owned by Indians, not Americans, Europeans, or Whites. As such, I hypothesized that many did not think it was “right” for prestigious British car brands like Jaguar and Land Rover and their overwhelming White workers to be owned and controlled by non-Whites from a developing country. As it turns out, Jaguar and Land Rover are doing just fine these days (or at least as well as most brands in this recession).
Similarly, much of the skepticism and criticism about the Nano also strikes me as a little ethnocentric, premised on the idea and stereotype of India and Indian companies as backward, undeveloped, and inferior. Certainly, not everything is perfect in India and it still faces many political and economic difficulties as it continues to modernize, just like China does and “developed” countries like the U.S. did when they were at this stage in their history.