Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall Teaching: "Global English" and "Converts and Rebels"

This post is partly inspired by Tim Burke's recent post, asking why more web-oriented academics don't post drafts of their syllabi on their blogs or websites.

I'm teaching two undergraduate-oriented classes this fall. One is called "Global English," and it's a senior "capstone" course, while the other is a more general, upper-level course called "Converts and Rebels: Debating Religion in Modern British Literature."

1. "Converts and Rebels" (English 395)

Here is the course description for "Converts and Rebels":

Though the modern period was generally a time when religious institutions were in decline, several major British writers from the early twentieth century had intense religious conversion experiences, leaving an impact on the literature of the period as a whole. These conversions, many of which involved Roman Catholicism, were seen as controversial by mainstream English society. Analogously, and just as importantly, several important writers found themselves falling out of religious faith in dramatic fashion, suggesting that the period as a whole was one of intense religious ferment. Is it possible to view religious conversion as a "subversive" activity? How might religious conversion relate to the aesthetics and ideological premises of literary modernism, which is so central to our understanding of this period? Writers whose work and lives will be explored in this course include T.S. Eliot (poems), James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist"), Oscar Wilde ("Salome"), John Henry Newman ("Loss and Gain"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), Graham Greene ("End of the Affair"), and Iris Murdoch ("The Bell").

In this course, I'll be building on ideas related to my first book ("Literary Secularism"), and using James Wood's "Broken Estate" as a conceptual jumping off point.

In terms of period, I decided to start with a little material based in the Victorian period. Though he's not talked about very much outside of Catholic circles, it seems to me like John Henry Newman is a key figure -- someone who had influence on quite a number of writers who converted to Catholicism, or thought about it.

I have been debating whether to bring in people who converted out of minority faith traditions to Christianity. Benjamin Disraeli seems like an obvious figure to consider, though in his case he never appeared to be especially passionate in his Anglicanism. As far as I know, he never directly addressed his personal experience of conversion, though some of his novels are clearly about figures who might be described as "crypto-Jews" (I'm using the term along lines described by Michael Ragussis). I'll also be using Ellis Hanson's "Decadence and Catholicism" to help triangulate some of the interesting questions about sexuality and religious conversion (especially Catholic conversion) circulating in the fin de siecle.

I decided against assigning C.S. Lewis for this course, though I may use a few short passages from "Surprised by Joy," and I will certainly mention his conversion experience as an important one. I haven't found his non-fiction writing related to his conversion interesting enough to have something to say about it in a classroom.

I was strongly tempted to assign The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, but decided against it at the last minute. If I do a version of this course again, I might do both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Golden Compass -- thinking of the latter as a kind of refutation of the former.

This is a new course for me. Though I know a fair amount twentieth-century writers like Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch, Victorian figures like Newman are a bit of a stretch. I'm open to suggestions for biographical and critical sources that might be relevant -- as well as primary texts or authors readers would recommend for a course like this.

2. "Global English" (English 290/Senior Seminar)

Here is the course description for this course:

The English language has traveled, and found a home in many parts of the world that were formerly colonized by Great Britain, especially Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With the rise of English as a literary language in those areas has come a new slate of anxieties and questions. Some writers have noted the uncomfortable fact that English seems to be tied to the history of colonial domination; it is the 'master's' language, and should be rejected. Others (like Joyce) have expressed their discomfort with English, but have nevertheless written in English with affection. It need not be an either/or proposition, and this course will aim to explore the global embrace, not without its anxieties, of English as a literary language. Along the way, a few critical terms and concepts related to linguistics will be introduced (i.e., slang, dialect, creole, patois, acrolect, and basolect, to name just a few). Authors will include a mix of short and long works by James Joyce, Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things"), Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus"), Amitav Ghosh ("Sea of Poppies"), Brian Friel ("Translations"), G.V. Desani ("All About H. Hatterr"), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, J.M. Synge ("Playboy of the Western World"), and Ken Saro-Wiwa ("Sozaboy").

The reading list could be much longer than it is; indeed, one could easily have a whole semester's worth of material just based on language questions in any of the particular national literatures that will be at issue here -- including Ireland, Anglophone West Africa, the Caribbean, and India, respectively. I decided to make the approach of the course comparative because the overlap between different national experiences of "Englishness" seems like it might be interesting to a broad group of students. I was also tempted by Junot Diaz's "Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," though in the end bringing in the Dominican diasporic experience seemed to a bit too far afield. (Again, perhaps next time.)

We'll be using scholarship by David Crystal ("English as a Global Language"), and also Dohra Ahmed's anthology, "Rotten English." I would be grateful for any suggestions on criticism or theory here as well.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: A Few Reflections

As many readers may be aware, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last weekend. Her friend Cathy Davidson has a tribute, and Duke University Press has noted it as well on its internal blog. I'm sure there will be much more to come from Eve's friends, colleagues, and students in the months to come.

I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).

I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular, and here is a little bit as to how.

1. Variations of "the closet."

First and foremost, Eve Sedgwick’s work pretty much directly inspired my dissertation project, which I originally titled (for myself), “Epistemology of the Religious Closet.” The actual title I used in the finished dissertation was “Post-Secular Subjects.” I later decided I didn’t like the term “post-secular,” and abandoned it, opting instead to a develop the argument that secular authors who engage religion in modern life articulate a distinctively literary approach to secularization, one which cannot come close to abolishing religious the influence of religious texts or practices (in short, a complex genealogy of secularism rather than a “post-secularism”). I published a version of the dissertation in book form in 2006, as “Literary Secularism”; though the top-level argument had changed, it was in many ways still a close version of what it was when I first conceived of it.

The idea came to me, like a shot, while reading Epistemology of the Closet, a book I still think of as perhaps the best example of politicized close reading I have ever encountered. The paragraph that set it off was the following:

Vibrantly resonant as the image of the closet is for many modern oppressions, it is indicative for homophobia in a way that it cannot be for other oppressions. Racism, for instance, is based on a stigma that is visible in all but exceptional cases . . . ; so are the oppressions based on gender, age, size, physical handicap. Ethnic/cultural/religious oppressions such as anti-Semitism are more analogous in that the stigmatized individual has at least notionally some discretion – although, importantly, it is never to be taken for granted how much – over other people’s knowledge of her or his membership in the group: one could ‘come out as’ a Jew or Gypsy, in a heterogeneous urbanized society, much more intelligibly than one could typically ‘come out as,’ say, female, Black, old, a wheelchair user, or fat. A (for instance) Jewish or Gypsy identity, and hence a Jewish or Gypsy secrecy or closet, would nonetheless differ again from the distinctively gay versions of these things in its clear ancestral linearity and answerability, in the roots (however tortuous and ambivalent) of cultural identification through each individual’s originally culture of (at a minimum) the family. (75)

In subsequent pages, Sedgwick goes on to use an example of a kind of Jewish closet in Racine’s adaptation of the Book of Esther, in Esther (1691), as a powerful contradistinctive tool. She uses the similarities and differences between the Jewish closet of Racine’s play and the homosexual closet to limn what is in fact the ‘proper’ subject of her analysis.

Reading Eve at that time, I had no ambition or hope of adding anything to what seemed to be an exhaustive consideration of how the closet is central to thinking about the modern discourse of homosexuality. But I couldn’t help but be interested in the idea of a Jewish closet she was alluding to, and mapping it to yet other frontiers: what about other religious closets in other cultural spaces? One thinks, first of all, of the complex embodied expression of religious identity in the Indian subcontinent, and of how fraught that identity can become at times of communal violence, such as the Partition, or the many incidences of communal riots that have followed. Much South Asian literature (and cinema) exploring the legacy of Partition marks this problem; there are numerous scenes where writers describe men being forcibly disrobed by mobs to establish whether they are circumcised or not (Muslims are traditionally circumcised; men from other religious communities traditionally are not). Though this is a very different space from the Victorian prose fiction Eve Sedgwick specialized in, the analytics she developed in Epistemology of the Closet can be a productive starting point for thinking about the strange crossing of sexuality, religious ritual, and raw violence in those South Asian scenarios.

2. Politics; the culture wars

Both during her most productive phase and more recently, a few scholars under the “anti-theory” aegis have attacked aspects of Eve Sedgwick’s work. She was attacked by Roger Kimball, for instance, in Tenured Radicals, after she gave an MLA paper called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” in 1990. (She opens the final published version of that essay, in Tendencies, with a response of sorts to Kimball; see this blog post at The New Yorker.) This was the peak of the culture wars moment, and Eve ably responded to those sorts of kneejerk cultural conservative criticisms, both in her academic work, and in public venues like NPR and even, occasionally, on television.

More recently, I remember seeing a more respectful criticism from Erin O’Connor, in her “Preface to a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” essay in Victorian Studies, which still reflected some doubts about Eve’s latter turn to affect and texture:

Some scholars have begun to question the governing paradigms of the field, most notably Amanda Anderson and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. But as a rule, critics of interpretive paradigms have tended to avoid concluding that paradigms are themselves the problem; instead, they make their analysis of faulty paradigms into the basis for proposing new, ostensibly improved ones. Anderson, for example, devotes her most recent book to promoting "detachment" as an alternative to the popular theoretical rubric of "cosmopolitanism," while Sedgwick concludes her remarkable skewering of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" that dominated 1980s and 1990s criticism by recommending a new-age psychoanalytic approach derived from Silvan Tompkins's little-known cybernetic work on shame. But as the far-fetched quality of Sedgwick's peculiar solution shows, the quest for a perfect paradigm is a quest for a methodological grail.

Here O’Connor is referring, approvingly, to Sedgwick’s essay introducing her anthology, Novel Gazing, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction is About You” (1997). She’s obviously less enthusiastic about “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Sylvan Tompkins” (1995), an essay she co-authored with Adam Frank. I’ll say a bit more about that in the following section.

I vaguely recall other people saying, in various settings (including the Valve), that they find Eve Sedgwick’s writing opaque and impenetrable, along the lines of the “bad theory writing” charge that is often levied (sometimes, admittedly, by myself) against theorists like Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak. Though I sometimes have to run to a dictionary to look up the words Eve throws out (“saltation”), I actually don’t find Eve’s writing to pose the same problems as Butler or Spivak do.

There is, granted, a slipperiness that sometimes enters in at moments of peak intensity in Eve’s later close readings, and some prodigiously long and complex sentences. But one never feels she is evading the question she’s posed through jargon. Indeed, some of Eve’s more declarative moments, addressing legal matters (see, for example, her engagement with Bowers v. Hardwick in the opening section of Epistemology of the Closet) are models of clarity and intellectual rigor. Eve Sedgwick, in short, uses literary theory jargon appropriately, to engage difficult conceptual problems and make complex arguments, not to hide what might be seen as straightforward assertions behind terminology derived from Lacan/ Derrida/ Foucault. In her later essays, Sedgwick made a pronounced effort to nudge her fellow progressive academics to rethink how our established terminology can in fact be a crutch.

It might seem strange to bring up all this intellectual argument just after Eve Sedgwick has died. But in truth, if you read her works, it's clear that Eve was a gifted and inspired polemicist (a "fighter") in addition to being a brilliant reader of Victorian literature. It seems like a mistake to only acknowledge the people who liked her; in fact, Eve Sedgwick was a fairly controversial figure for many people. Let's not gloss over that.

3. Affect and Texture.

Though I've always found the texture material fascinating, for years I agreed tacitly with the spirit of Erin O’Connor’s response to Eve’s work on shame and affect. The bits and pieces of Sylvan Tompkins’ “Affect, Imagery, Consciousness” Sedgwick and Frank quote in “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold” sounded like beautiful psychoanalytical poetry to me, but hardly the seeds of a post-paranoid critical method:

If you like to be looked at and I like to look at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship. If you like to talk and I like to listen to you talk, this can be mutually rewarding. If you like to feel enclosed within a claustrum and I like to put my arms around you, we can both enjoy a particular kind of embrace

It wasn’t until this very spring that I had a good opportunity and excuse to read Tompkins at greater length, and see better what Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank were interested in; I also came across a good many passages that sound nothing at all like the one above. As I see it, it’s not just Tompkins as a theorist who might potentially be more friendly to gay, lesbian, and queer analyses than are Freud and Lacan. Rather, with his emphasis on “weak theory,” and his ability to autochthonously generate concepts to insightfully describe interpersonal dynamics, Tompkins is a good model (though by no means a “methodological grail”) for how we as critics and teachers can respond to the representation of psychological nuances and embodied emotion (“affect”) in modern fiction, without having to lean on the questionable edifice of Freud/Lacan.

(I would say more about what I’ve been getting from Sylvan Tompkins’ work as I’ve been reading it this spring, but that might be the subject of another post, for another time.)

My project on secularism & religion is perhaps over (though I keep writing things that branch off of it in some way; there’s this essay on E.M. Forster, for instance). But I seem to have started building towards another project that is substantially inspired by Eve Sedgwick’s work, on texture. I posted some early thoughts along those lines a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve sat down with John Lawler’s essays on Rime- and Assonance-coherence (did I ever thank you properly, Bill Benzon?), and I’m starting to expand further into “phono-semantics” -- with a hope of writing up a publishable essay early this summer.

A big challenge remains the fact that texture, unlike most of the other concepts Eve Sedgwick is credited with contributing to literary studies and queer theory over the course of her career, does not seem to have an obvious or essential political application. One can certainly study texture and affect in modern fiction as a “queer” alternative to the repressive hypothesis, as Renu Bora does with Henry James' The Ambassadors, or as Eve herself does with James' "Art of the Novel." But one might also be inclined to pursue it simply because it’s interesting to see how George Eliot, Thomas Hardy (or, in "my own" 20th century, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce) represent the textures of the material world in their works.

Thank you, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For everything.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Wajiha Ahmed: A Second Take on Pakistan's "Long March" Protests

In addition to regular comments to blog posts, I often get emails from readers expressing all manner of opinions. This week, following my recent post at Sepia Mutiny on the protests in Pakistan, I received a note from a graduate student in Boston named Wajiha Ahmed that was intelligent enough to provoke me to spend a little time replying. Wajiha had also, a few days earlier, published an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (it was written while the protests were just beginning). Wajiha's response to my response was essentially a full-fledged essay. I asked her if she would slightly revise her comments in defense of the Long March protests into something for Sepia Mutiny [and, by extension, this blog], as a sort of one-off guest post. She agreed, and the following is a one-time guest post by Wajiha Ahmed.

The comment Wajiha most objected to was actually made by me in the comments of the original post. I said, "I think there are some people looking at this that are thinking that what is happening is not simply the expression of free speech, but a rather naked attempt at a power-grab by Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Given the security crisis in the country, a protest movement like this could be seen as irresponsible." In my first email to Wajiha, I also wrote:

What prompted me to suggest that Sharif was acting irresponsibly was a personal conversation with a friend here in Pennsylvania named [KC], who comes originally from Lahore. [KC] said to me last week that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in particular left him feeling extremely depressed, since it's beginning to seem that the militants are increasingly coming down out of the hills, and their kind of Islam is increasingly driving the agenda of the country. Given what has happened in Swat and NWFP in the past few months, it may be that the real cultural-political undercurrent that needs to be addressed is the growth of that militancy. Not because of *America's* war on terror, but actually for Pakistan's own internal security and stability.

Below is Wajiha's response to those points.

Guest Post by Wajiha Ahmed

I’m writing this post in response to Sepia Mutiny's reporting on the second Pakistani Long March to restore a deposed independent judiciary and Chief Justice. The sentiment has been that a) it was irresponsible and could have possibly destabilized Pakistan, and b) energy should have instead focused on the ‘real’ problem Pakistan faces: growing ‘sympathy’ for militants. As I see it, however, we just witnessed one of the largest broad-based, secular, non-violent movements for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan’s history. Of course, one event is not going to change everything. But democracy is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, rather than being reported with cynicism, this important civil disobedience movement should instead have been encouraged and celebrated. In the past year, Pakistanis have successfully forced out a military dictator (Musharraf) AND compelled an authoritarian leader (Zardari) to listen to their voices – a rare, uplifting story in these trying days.

I’ll try to address the above-stated points, starting with the latter.

1) As far as the security situation, Pakistanis will agree that it’s a major problem. Almost half of the worldwide victims of terrorist attacks last year were Pakistani! And of course, the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the subsequent death of eight Pakistani police officers triggered deep anger, shame, and sadness. While this threat is very real, I think we may have missed a few fundamental points.

First, some media outlets reported that terrorist groups took part in the march – this is false. Militant al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban elements who crossed the border after US-led strikes in Afghanistan are not ‘religious extremists.’ Rather, they are terrorists with an Islamic veneer. Why is this important? Because there is a common misperception that Pakistanis are sympathetic to these so-called militants—but those leaving in militant-occupied areas, whether FATA or SWAT, have left if they have been able to afford to do so. Those who lack the means are living under constant fear. During my time in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore this past summer, I met not a single Pakistani sympathetic to these terrorists –- and rightly so, since they are the ones suffering the most from these attacks.

So why is the perception of popular Pakistani support for terrorism so prevalent?
This belief may be due, in part, to an overall emphasis by policy-makers and media outlets alike, on linking the notion of "Muslim terrorists" or "Islamic violence" with religious and cultural explanations about Islam and Muslim culture, and thereby sidelining political ones. Implicit in this view is that every Muslim has the potential to become an 'extremist' or a terrorist—"moderate" Muslims have chosen to ignore this call to warfare, while 'extremist' Muslims have simply succumbed. A more accurate and responsible explanation of the recently conceived notion of “Islamic violence," however, lies in an analysis of recent historical and political conflicts (see Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). There are dangers in being unaware of our possible biases – in this case, misinterpreting the Long March, and perhaps even Pakistanis themselves.

The ‘solution’ to the militancy problem most probably involves a regional effort to resolve the war in Afghanistan (see Rashid and Rubin’s article in Foreign Affairs) and a concerted effort inside Pakistan to reclaim militant-ridden areas. I won’t even try to pretend to have an answer to this dilemma-- counterinsurgency is extremely difficult.

Second, many have pointed out that the involvement (probably opportunistic) of the JI and other right-of-center elements like the PML-N ‘prove’ that the Long March really wasn’t a liberal movement but one that incorporates ‘militant’ elements. But Pakistani religious parties (JI, JUI) are more similar to some factions of the BJP or Shiv Sena in India than they are to any militant terrorists in FATA and Swat. And just to emphasis, they have never received more than 14% of the vote and lost the 2008 elections.

Also, the PML-N is not a religious party. Yes, it is right-of-center and sometimes panders to religious conservatives, but so does the BJP in India. So does the Republican Party in the US. While Sharif has steadfastly supported the Lawyer’s Movement, personally, I think he needs to prove that he isn’t merely being opportunistic -- but that’s up to the Pakistani people to decide. Since they quickly saw through Zardari, I’ll opt to trust their judgment.

Finally, and most importantly, we can’t forget that this movement is really about the vast majority who took part in the Long March -- lawyers, human rights activists, students, and concerned citizens who risked personal injury and incarceration to stand up for justice. My friend, Ammar, who took part in the now famous GPO chowk protest recalls:

As the police started shelling tear-gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. A man who must have been in his 70s started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight... We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many times...
The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan [prominent leader of the Lawyer’s Movement] defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him. This meant a complete victory for the movement ...
On one side, [what we witnessed] represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, and the passions and dreams of many Pakistanis. We had won not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past 2 years with 15th March 2009 becoming the grand finale in Lahore.
[Ammar Ali Jan's complete account of his experience has been posted here]

Ammar’s words speak for themselves.

2) Now we move-on to the point that the Long March was somehow irresponsible.

If similar terrorist attacks occurred in another country, we would not ask its citizens to halt all activity for fear of ‘instability.’ The Lawyers Movement initiated the second march because Zardari broke the promises he made after the first one. If we agree that Zardari’s actions are undemocratic, then why are protests to demand accountability irresponsible? To be sure, Pakistani politicians rely on 'micro rationality' – a short-term view of political behavior – instead of 'macro rationality.’ This tendency is partly an outgrowth of a structural reality: prolonged military rule (for more, read Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc or Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism). The political system is authoritarian, and the Long March fought to change to this very tendency of the system.

The Lawyers/Civil Society movement has another responsible and important goal -- reasserting and ensuring civilian control. For decades, Pakistan’s army and its powerful ISI intelligence agency defined domestic priorities. They prioritized the defense budget over badly needed infrastructure and education reform. They leveraged militant groups for their rivalries with India. They supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many of these same groups are the ones wreaking havoc in Pakistan today. Mitigating the power of the military is directly related to making sure that Pakistan’s establishment never supports militants again. I was thrilled that during this Long March, the military did not intervene or attempt to take control.

Pakistanis now know that the next time they are dissatisfied with anything, they can use civil disobedience to demand justice. Pakistan’s burgeoning news media revolution -- dozens of independent 24-hour news channels have opened up recently -- has further ensured sustained awareness.

Now that the judges have been restored, many have valid concerns about Zardari, Sharif’s intentions, and the future of Pakistan. I am sure most Pakistanis do as well. While the Movement is no magic bullet, it is an important step towards increasing the likelihood that Pakistan’s government will start to address problems of poverty, education reform, and democracy. I wish the Movement and its supporters best of luck -– they have an important struggle ahead of them. The movement is for democracy not a movement of violence.

I've put in bold some of the points I thought might be particularly key in Wajiha's statement.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Yankee Hindutva": What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I'd like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically issues like: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I'm going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What's at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad's book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called "Of Yankee Hindutva." They also feature in Prashad's essay in Sulekha, "Letter to a Young American Hindu."

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the "Yankee Hindutva" he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they've published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) are concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below, I'll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk. For now, let's start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people's various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya's post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn't be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the "pro Sonal Shah" side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this:

Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni? (link)

These seem like great questions, and unfortunately I don't think there are any solid answers. Things like "Diwali Against Communalism" come off as a little weak. Inter-faith conferences and events are also great, but groups that are targeted by people like Prashad (like HSS-US) regularly particpate in them, so how much work does the "Inter-Faith" movement really do?

2. Looking at Prashad's "Yankee Hindutva"

The only person I know of who has spent any energy investigating the American branches of South Asian religious organizations and youth camps is Vijay Prashad, and I don't find his account to be sufficient. I don't say that he's wrong, per se, but rather that I wish there were other people investigating these groups and filling out the gaps in our knowledge of them.

My first problem is with the narrow way Prashad defines his subject. Prashad explicitly states that he's not going to look at Sikh or Muslim camps or organizations, because in his view the "VHPA is far more powerful (demographically and financially) and is far more able to create divisions within the desi community than to draw us toward an engagement with our location as desis in the United States" (KoBF 134).

In fact, I don't think that's true even on the face of it. Khalistani groups (now mostly defunct) and conservative Muslim groups historically have done as much to encourage self-segregation within second generation desi communities as the VHP-A. It may be true that the VHPA is more "powerful," but without seeing membership numbers or financial statements, I don't see why we should assume that. With his exclusive focus on Hindu organizations, Prashad seems to be employing a double standard.

I'm also disappointed in Prashad's narrow focus on the VHP-A because, as a moderate Sikh, I'm curious to know more about how he sees Sikh youth camps and Sikh American organizations. (I attended Sikh youth camps as a child, and was even a counselor/teacher at a now-defunct Sikh youth camp in central Pennsylvania, in 1998.)

Prashad's chapter has many long paragraphs of political commentary, as well as several pages on a figure from the 1920s, named Taraknath Das. He gets to the topic at hand about 10 pages into the chapter, when he connects the VHPA to the Hindu Students Council:

The VHPA acts multiculturally through its student wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), which champions a syndicated Brahmanical Hinduism (of Hindutva) as the neglected culture of the Hindu Americans. The HSC subtly moves away from the violence and sectarianism of related organizations in India and vanishes into the multicultural space opened up in the liberal academy. The HSCs and Hindutva flourish in the most liberal universities in the United States, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what some consider to be the neglected verities of an ancient civilization.

Notice something familiar here? It's the exact same rhetorical move that's been made with Sonal Shah: though HSC appears to be more tolerant, accepting, and reasonable than the VHPA, that is only a front -- in fact, they are really just the smiley, tolerant-looking face of a Global Hindutva Conspiracy. Actually, I am far from convinced, by either Prashad or the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, that the HSC is a problematic organization at all. They insist that they have been an independent organization since 1993, and I have seen no real evidence to doubt that.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Several people have suggested to me that the links between VHPA and HSC probably were more sustained than this. I have also been told that some HSC groups — Cornell especially, before 2002 — and some of the leadership have said things with a communal bent. Those are important qualifications, but it doesn’t really alter my basic point, that HSC for its members is primarily a social organization for second generation college students, while VHPA has a firmer communalist focus, and remains more oriented to, and driven by, politics in India.]

Another problematic assertion arises a few pages later in Prashad's chapter, when he finally starts to talk about money:

Between 1990 and 1992, the average annual income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993 its income had gone up to $1,057,147. An allied group of the VHPA, the India Development and Relief Fund, raised almost $2 million in the 1990s (some of it via the United Way). This money is discreetly transferred into India. It is common knowledge that during the way of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe toward the erection of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry huge sums of money in cash or kind from the United States to India.

First, it's nice to see some dollar amounts here, though it would be even nicer if a source for those dollar amounts was given. Second, it may well be true that the VHPA has sent money to the Indian VHP, which was used for nefarious purposes. As I hope is clear, I have no interest in defending the VHPA or (and this should go without saying) the VHP/RSS in India. But it is simply not enough to say "it is common knowledge that X is occurring." Some direct evidence is important. Again, if we don't have it, it doesn't mean a progressive ought to write these organizations off as harmless.

But what that lack of direct evidence does require is a different tone -- we don't know how much money is involved, so it's misleading to write as if we do. It could be a lot, or it could be very little. It is a real possibility that the supposed financial might of "Yankee Hindutva" might be, in the end, somewhat overblown. The Indian branches of these organizations are huge structures, with plenty of independent ability to raise money.

Towards the end of the "Yankee Hindutva" chapter in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad makes a point that I think is very valid -- the way in which second generation South Asian youth are taught their religious traditions via religious organizations and youth camps is often rather distorted. He quotes the great C.M. Naim quite appositely along these lines:

[C.M. Naim:] "The religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation . . . is closer to an ideology than a faith or culture. IT has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation; and it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include." [Prashad:] In the United States there are mosques and temples but no dargahs (shrines), "not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would go together to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with god." [C.M Naim, quoted in Prashad, 149]

I completely agree with this, though it seems necessary to also point out that this process of religious consolidation that occurs in the diaspora has also been occurring in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The utopian vision of religious syncretism and blending is largely, now, a vision of the past. It is important to remember it and understand its legacy (Amitav Ghosh has often done that beautifully in his writings), but "strong" religion has largely displaced it in the Indian subcontinent in the present day.

As a Sikh growing up in the U.S., I have first-hand experience of the religious consolidation Naim is talking about. What we were taught about the Sikh tradition at Gurdwara and Sikh youth camps was often very different from what my cousins were learning back in Delhi and Chandigarh. Even the way it's practiced -- the actual ritual of visiting the Gurdwara -- is a little different. (In the diaspora, most people go once a week, and spend several hours. It's "like going to Church." In India, the devout tend to visit the Gurdwara every day, but they only stay a few minutes. Religious practices are more concentrated here in the U.S., and also more isolated from everyday life. Ironically, through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, this process of Westernizing means that the relationship to religion can become more intense, and perhaps more extreme, than it is for most people in the Indian subcontinent.)

Of course, all this is a bit beside the point -- as it's a phenomenon that is interesting sociologically, but it isn't really evidence of a rising tide of "Yankee Hindutva." The first wave of second generation children who were raised with this uniquely diasporic version of South Asian religions are now in the their 30s and 40s, and for the most part they outgrew what they were taught in those religious camps as teenagers.

Some quick conclusions:

1) Not everyone who attends or speaks at an HSS youth camp is a fanatic, as evidenced by the example of the blog comment I quoted above.

2) It would still be nice if there were more options for exposure to moderate forms of South Asian religion in the diaspora.

3) Prashad's decision to focus only on Hindu organizations and youth camps is overly limiting. It's not just because it produces a political slant and a double-standard; it's also analytically limiting, because there might be parallels and patterns among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and Christians? Jains?) that this limited scope doesn't allow.

4) I am not convinced that the HSC should be lumped in with the VHPA. The former seem to very clearly by oriented to ABDs on college campuses -- and serve primarily a social function. The VHPA is, by contrast, clearly tied to a communalist concept of Hinduism.

5) I agree that second generation South Asian Americans often get a somewhat distorted (more monoculturalist) image of South Asian religions because of what is taught by religious organizations and summer camps. But I am not sure this is really our most pressing problem.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Shivaji: Beyond the Legend

The following post was inspired by the news last week that the government of Maharasthra is planning to build a huge statue of Shivaji off the coast of Bombay (that's right, I said Bombay), on the scale of the American statue of liberty. The statue will be built off-shore, on an artificial island constructed especially for the purpose.

I'm not actually opposed to the idea of the statue -- as far as I'm concerned, it's all part of the great, entertaining tamasha of modern Bombay -- though obviously I think there could be some other figures from Indian culture and history who might also be worth considering (how about a 300 foot bust of a glowering Amitabh Bachchan, for instance?). But reading the news did make me curious to know some things about the historical Shivaji that go beyond the hagiographical myths and legends one sees on Wikipedia, so I went to the library and looked at a book I had been meaning to look at for a couple of years, James Laine's Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

+ * +

In 2004, James Laine became a target of the Hindu right after the publication of his book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but as is often the case the people burning down libraries, and destroying priceless works of India's cultural heritage, clearly did not read the book. If one actually reads Laine's work, one finds that Laine is quite careful not to frontally challenge the myth of Chatrapati Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha warrior. Indeed, there is much there that actually supports the pride that many Maharasthrians feel about Shivaji.

The conclusions Laine comes to after surveying the evidence on Shivaji were surprising to me. Though I obviously came to the book looking for objectivity as an antidote to the bloated mythology loudly propagated by the Shiv Sena, I presumed that "objectivity" and "secularism" would be more or less synonymous. The reality may be somewhat more complex in Shivaji’s case. Though he’s clearly not quite what his partisans believe he was, Shivaji’s story remains inspiring and heroic even after some scholarly scrutiny. And though he was more secular than many Hindu chauvinists will admit, Shivaji certainly did pointedly assert his identity as a Hindu and promote symbolic elements of Hindu religion and culture against the increasingly intolerant imposition of Islam during the Mughal empire under Aurangzeb and the final years of the Bijapur Sultanate (see Adil Shah).

Here is how Laine describes his project near the beginning of the book:

The task I have set myself is not that of providing a more accurate account of Shivaji’s life by stripping away the legends attributed to him by worshipful myth makers or misguided ideologues, but rather to be a disturber of the tranquility with which synthetic accounts of Shivaji’s life are accepted, mindful that the recording and retaining of any memory of Shivaji is interested knowledge. . . . In the modern popular imagination, many of [the different strands of the Shivaji story] are woven together and reproduced in both bland textbooks and dramatic popular accounts as though the simple facts can be taken for granted. In other words, the dominance of a certain grand narrative of Shivaji’s life is so powerful that the particular concerns of its many authors have been largely erased. (8)

The scholarly debunker is sometimes a powerful ally in ascertaining the often complex and nuanced truth behind historical legends, but in this book Laine doesn’t see confrontational debunking as his primary task. Rather, he wants to get back to the fundamentals of the Shivaji story (i.e., what can be objectively known based on primary historical sources), before following the path of the revisionist, nationalist, patriotic remaking of that story through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Laine starts by looking directly at the 17th century sources (in Sanskrit and Marathi) written by those who were close to Shivaji himself.

The primary texts he works with were written in Marathi and Sanskrit, both of which are languages in which Laine is proficient. Afzal Khan Vadh (“The Killing of Afzal Khan”) is a series of Marathi heroic ballads, authored by a poet alternately known as Agrindas or Ajnandas in 1659 (while Shivaji was still alive). Two other primary sources cited by Laine are written in Sanskrit, by Brahmin authors who were commissioned directly by Shivaji himself: the Sivabharata (or Shivabharata), an epic poem written by Kavindra Paramananda in 1674 (at the time of Shivaji’s coronation as "Chatrapati" – Lord of the Umbrella/Umbralla-Lord), and the Srisivaprabhuce, a historical chronicle written by Krishnaji Anant Sabhasad, in 1697.

The first surprise is that there’s little reason to doubt the best-known aspects of the Shivaji legend: the three works are surprisingly consistent with one another, especially regarding Shivaji’s childhood and upbringing, his emergence as a warrior with the killing of Afzal Khan, the punishment of Shaista Khan, the escape from Aurangzeb’s court at Agra, and the conquest of Simhagad in 1670. The most significant “humanizing” point Laine makes (and this is also one of the major sources of controversy) is his suggestion, late in his book, that Shivaji’s parents seem to have been estranged from one another –- Shivaji was brought up by his mother in one principality, while his father was a soldier for another, rival kingdom, who left before Shivaji was born. (Later hagiography would smooth over this aspect of the history, suggesting that Shivaji’s father sent him and his mother to Pune as part of a great plan.) The point of raising this is not to "take Shivaji down a notch" or find shame or scandal in the story. Rather, from my point of view at least, humanizing Shivaji in this way gives us a certain (modern) psychological explanation for why Shivaji was so driven as an adult: he had something to prove.

The second surprise for me is Laine’s acknowledgment that all the evidence supports the idea that Shivaji was assertive about Hindu religion and culture. It’s still wrong to use him symbolically as some kind of nationalist Hindu "freedom-fighter," who devoted his life to killing mleccha invaders (for Laine, it’s more correct to say that Shivaji was a kingdom-builder). But it’s also not accurate to say that religion is somehow completely irrelevant to his story. This comes out first with reference to Shivaji’s coronation in 1674:

One important moment for the construction of an official biography was surely the grand event of Shivaji’s coronation. For the last decade of his life, he was relatively free of Mughal pressure, and in 1674, was enthroned chatrapati of an independent Hindu kingdom in an orthodox lustration ceremony (abhisheka). The ceremony, which had fallen out of use in Islamicate India, was seen as a revival of royal Hindu traditions. In other words, there is clear evidence that at the end of his career Shivaji began to think in new ways about his exercise of military and political power, ways that drew upon ancient symbols of Hindu kingship. He called upon a prominent pundit from Benares, Gaga Bhatta, to establish his genealogy and claim of true kshatriya status before investing him with the sacred thread, performing an orthodox wedding, and then a royal lustration ceremony of enthronement. At this time, Shivaji lavished great wealth on all the Brahmins who were gathered to confer legitimacy, and he employed two poets to write laudatory epic poems about him. On was Paramananda, whom we have mentioned as the author of the Sanskrit Sivabharata, a text that is clearly composed for the coronation though never finished . . . The second was Kavi Bhusan, who wrote the Sivarajabhusan in the Braj dialect of Hindi. (30)

And Laine expands upon the implications of his interpretation of the coronation a few pages later:

Shivaji himself, growing up in Pune, at that time a remote and insignifican town far away from the Bijapuri court, was unlike his father and grandfather in being not only less content to be in vassalage to a Muslim sultan but also concerned to extend the scope of Hindu culture. Moreover, he dealt with sultans who adopted a more rigorous religious policy than their predecessors. I would argue that his elaborate Sanskritic coronation, his choice of Sanskrit rather than Persian titles for his ministers, and his patronage of Brahmin pundits . . . are all signs that he wished to extend the boundaries in which his religion reigned, not so much geographically as socially and politically. These may have been gestures of legitimation, but he could very well have chosen better-known Persianate ways of achieving the same end.

In other words, Shivaji was raised at some distance from what Laine is describing as the "Islamicate" culture dominant in north and central India in the 17th century. He also clearly went out of his way to assert Hindu/Sanskritic symbols during his rule, when that was not the norm, even for other Hindu kings of the time.

Laine continues:

This is to say that Shivaji was not only discontended with the idea of being Islamic, he was discontented with even being Islamicate, that is, he read his religion not as a strict constructionist or in purely theological or essentialist ways, but saw religion as broadly diffuse throughout culture. We might say that he saw ‘religion’ as dharma. Thus, although Richard Eaton has emphasized the new Islamic rigorism in the Adil Shahi regime after 1656, a rigorism that parallels the later policies of Aurangzeb (Eaton 1978), I would say that Shivaji was similarly disposed to see Hindu and Muslim subcultures —- not just theologies -- as distinct. There would be constraints on Shivaji’s religious agenda, as there were for Aurangzeb of course, and there were ways in which Shivaji was not wholly consistent in his Hindu policy. For example, he wore Persian royal dress and used words such as faqir and salaam quite unself-consciously, as well s being qt times quite willing to accept vassalage to the Adil Shah or Mughal emperor. But I would have to disagree with Stewart Gordon, who has written: ‘Shivaji was not attempting to construct a universal Hindu rule. Over and over, he espoused tolerance and syncretism. He even called on Aurangzeb to act like Akbar in according respect to Hindu believes and places. Shivaji had no difficulty in allying with Muslim states which surrounded him… even against Hindu powers" (Gordon 1993). I do not think I am disputing the evidence Gordon adduces, but my interpretation depends on how one uses the word ‘Hindu.’ (39)

This is a more complicated set of academic arguments, relating to how one interprets the idea of "religion" in an earlier historic moment, outside of Abrahamic norms. Putting it quite simply: to see Hindu religion as "diffuse throughout culture" doesn’t necessarily weaken it; rather, it was one of the ways Shivaji could find a new way of asserting it against the dominant powers of the time.

Secondly, Laine is arguing that though it’s wrong to read Shivaji as a kind of proto-communalist, it’s also a mistake to see him as someone who primarily espoused "tolerance and syncretism." He was actually somewhere in between.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Subcontinental Scripts: Hindi vs. Urdu

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I recently taught myself how to read the Urdu script, and it was quite challenging. Reading from right to left isn't so hard to get used to, but there are some letters that seem to be interchangeable (i.e., two different ways of writing 'k'/'q'), and other letters that look painfully similar to one another on the page ('d', 'r', 'v', etc). Also, some of the vowel markers one sees in Hindi/Devanagari, though they do exist in Urdu as diacritic marks, are frequently omitted in practice, so you often have to guess which vowel should be used based on context. Oh, and did I mention that there often aren't clear word breaks (depending on how the typography is done in a given book or newspaper)?

But once I got the script down (roughly), I was pleasantly surprised to find that Manto's Urdu vocabulary isn't that far off from standard Hindustani -- but then, he's a prose writer known for his accessible style. By contrast, the vocabulary of much Urdu poetry (i.e., Ghalib) is so full of Persian words as to be unintelligible -- at least to a barbarian ABD like myself.

Via the Sepia Mutiny News Tab (thanks, ViParavane), I came across a great post at the Language Log blog with a historical linguistics explanation for how the script (and language) divide came to be. I don't have much knowledge to offer on top of what Mark Liberman says, so the following are the just the quotes in Liberman's post I found to be most interesting.

First, Liberman has several quotes from an article by linguist Bob King on the "digraphia" (Greek for "two scripts") of Urdu and Hindi. First, we have the background:

Hindi and Urdu are variants of the same language characterized by extreme digraphia: Hindi is written in the Devanagari script from left to right, Urdu in a script derived from a Persian modification of Arabic script written from right to left. High variants of Hindi look to Sanskrit for inspiration and linguistic enrichment, high variants of Urdu to Persian and Arabic. Hindi and Urdu diverge from each other cumulatively, mostly in vocabulary, as one moves from the bazaar to the higher realms, and in their highest -- and therefore most artificial -- forms the two languages are mutually incomprehensible. The battle between Hindi and Urdu, the graphemic conflict in particular, was a major flash point of Hindu/Muslim animosity before the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947. (link)

Then there are the social implications, which are not trivial:

One can easily imagine a condition of pacific digraphia: people who speak more or less the same language choose for perfectly benevolent reasons to write their language differently; but these people otherwise like each other, get on with one another, live together as amiable neighbors. It is a homey picture, and one wishes it were the norm. It is not. Digraphia is regularly an outer and visible sign of ethnic or religious hatred. Script tolerance, alas, is no more common than tolerance itself. In this too Hindi-Urdu is lamentably all too typical. People have died in India for the Devanagari script of Hindi or the Perso-Arabic script of Urdu. It is rare, except for scholars, for Hindi speakers to learn to read Urdu script or for Urdu speakers to learn to read Devanagari. (link)

(And yes, even those of us who pretend to be scholars struggle with "script tolerance.")

Another scholar (Kelkar) gives some concrete examples of differences in vocabulary, with specific attention to the points of divergence:

Common words like chai 'tea', milna 'to meet', and mashin 'machine' are the same in either Hindi or Urdu. Vocabulary diverges sharply as we move from Low to High. The Hindi words for 'south' and 'temperature' (as in weather) are dakshin and tapman, the Urdu words junub and darja-e-hararat. The sentence "Who is the prime minister at the moment?'' is ajkal pradhan mantri kaun hai? in Hindi, ajkal vazir-e azam kaun hai? in Urdu.

An Indian linguist has illustrated how far the styles deviate from each other by asking how the abstract expression "salvation's true path'' might be translated into Hindi and Urdu at different style levels and among different ethnic-social groups. Village people would render this as mukti-ki sacci sarak (Bazaar Hindustani). Pandits or educated Hindus would say mukti-ki satya upay (Highbrow Hindi). Cultured Muslims would translate the phrase as nájat-ki haqq rah (Highbrow Urdu). Indians who speak English as their second language might say salweshan-ki tru path. The only indication that these four "languages'' are in some sense variants of the same language is the genitive marker -ki. Words like satya and upay in the Highbrow Hindi rendering are from Sanskrit. Every single content morpheme in the Highbrow Urdu version is from Persian or Arabic. One sees how dramatically the character of a language is changed when the sources of borrowed words for new concepts are as far apart as they are in Hindi and Urdu: we might as well be dealing with different
languages. (link)

Liberman's post ends with a reference to Gandhi, who struggled -- as early as 1917! -- to conceive of a "secularist" solution to the script problem, but failed to do so.

Obviously, with Partition, the terms of the debate over "standard" scripts changed in the Indian subcontinent. The debate in Pakistan is essentially over, and Urdu wins. But according to the scholars Liberman cites, the split over scripts is very much alive in India (especially northern India, though I have Muslim friends from places like Hyderabad who say their families only speak Urdu at home).

The joint/hybrid spoken language spoken in much of northern India is Hindustani (mostly Hindi grammatical structures with a mix of Sanskritic and Persian vocabulary), which seems to have persisted in northern India despite attempts at Sanskritization. But even with that shared spoken language, it appears the division over scripts remains.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Follow-up on Romney (Muslims & Religion in US Politics)

Last week several commenters at Sepia Mutiny criticized my post on Mitt Romney's "Muslims in the cabinet" comments. Romney's apparent gaffe quickly faded from the headlines, but Romney's recent speech on his idea of the role of religion in politics might be a good opportunity to briefly revisit my earlier post, and take a look at some issues with Romney's attitude to religion in politics that come from directly from Romney's statements "on the record."

First, on the previous post. In hindsight, I regret not taking seriously the people other than Mansoor Ijaz who say they heard Romney say he would rule out people of Muslim faith from his cabinet. At the time I wrote the post, there were two witnesses saying that; by the following day there were three. All three individuals work for one libertarian magazine based in Nevada, which does pose a concern (that is to say, it's possible they're part of a right-wing anti-Romney movement).

That said, four witnesses (including Mansoor Ijaz, who in my view is not very credible) is enough: Romney probably did say (at least once, possibly twice) "Not likely" when asked whether he would have Muslims in his presumptive cabinet. The biggest problem with that statement, of course, is that it's discriminatory. And those of us who aren't Muslims should be equally concerned: if he's not having any Muslims in his cabinet, he's probably not having any Hindus or Sikhs or Jains either.

Another unfortunate aspect of Romney's statement is that it reveals his seeming lack of awareness of people from a Muslim background who might in fact be qualified for certain cabinet posts. One such person is the Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- one of the few high-level Bush political appointments that hasn't been a total flop.

In the end, I do not think the Romney "Muslims" gaffe is a significant political event, partly because it seems no one caught it on video, which means Romney has "plausible deniability" (damn you, deniability!). Pressed on the question by the media, Romney finesses it, and argues that what he meant was that he wouldn't have Muslims in his cabinet just to placate critics of America in the Muslim world. That explanation works just fine with the mainstream media.

Still, Romney's recent speech on religion probably isn't going to win him many Muslim friends:

"I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life's blessings. (link)

Muslims have "Frequent prayers" -- that's the best he could come up with? Oy, vey. (I think Jews might also be a bit troubled that his praise of Judaism is for its ancientness, a quality which has sometimes been invoked by anti-Semites. It's also untrue that the religion is unchanged; ever hear of Reform or Conservative Judaism? But I digress.)

Of course, what's really wrong with Romney's speech, beyond that absurd paragraph, is the way he completely flip flops on secularism.

At the beginning of the speech Romney says:

"Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for President, not a Catholic running for President. Like him, I am an American running for President. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

"Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin. (link)

But by the end he says:

"The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. (link)

He's perilously close to a direct contradiction in these two statements, and is only saved by a slight distinction between the idea of "politics" (where he says religion does not play a direct role) and the idea of the "public square" (where he says it should).

(Romney also conveniently overlooks the fact that "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance -- which, it should be mentioned, was not written by the "founders"! -- fairly recently.)

To continue:

"We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from 'the God who gave us liberty.'

"Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united. (link)

Romney wants to have it both ways: he wants to be respected by the main stream of American voters despite his belonging to a small religious minority. But he also wants to insist on the importance of keeping God in the political picture, and seemingly fudges over the fact that his concept of "God" is surely not the same as a Catholic's, or a Jew's, or a Buddhist's. (And he doesn't give a thought for what all this means to those Americans who do not believe in God at all.) The rhetoric is slippery: at the very moment when it seems he's going overboard with religion, he turns around, and describes American values in secular terms ("equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty").

In short: on religion, Romney is like a wet seal on icy pavement. (He reminds one, more than a little, of John Kerry.)

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Taslima Nasreen: A Roundup

The Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen (about whom I've written before) has become the center of controversy again following anti-Taslima riots in Calcutta over the past few days. Exactly why the riots focused on her is a bit of a mystery, since the incident follows a new violent incident at Nandigram (about which I've also written before). At any rate, some Muslim groups are also demanding that Nasreen's Indian visa be canceled (she's applied for Indian citizenship; her current visa expires in February 2008), and she seems to have yet again become a bit of a political football.

Since the riots, the Communist government of West Bengal apparently bundled her up in a Burqa (!) and got her out of the state, "for her own protection." (She's now in Delhi, after first being sent to Rajasthan, a state governed by the BJP.) The state government has also refused to issue a statement in defense of Taslima, fueling the claims of critics on both the left and right that the Left is pandering (yes, "pandering" again) to demands made by some members of the Muslim minority.

The writer Mahashweta Devi's statement sums up my own views quite well:

This is why at this critical juncture it is crucial to articulate a Left position that is simultaneously against forcible land acquisition in Nandigram and for the right of Taslima Nasreen to live, write and speak freely in India. (link)

Ritu Menon in the Indian Express gives a long list of outrages to freedom of artistic expression in India in recent years:

These days, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only people whose freedom of expression the state is willing to protect are those who resort to violence in the name of religion — Hindu, Muslim or Christian. (Let’s not forget what happened in progressive Kerala when Mary Roy tried to stage ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ at her school. Or when cinema halls screened The Da Vinci Code.) Indeed, not only does it protect their freedom of expression, it looks like it also protects their freedom to criminally assault and violate. Not a single perpetrator of such violence has been apprehended and punished in the last decade or more that has seen an alarming rise in such street or mob censorship. Not in the case of Deepa Mehta’s film; not in the attack on Ajeet Cour’s Academy of Fine Arts in Delhi; not in M.F. Husain’s case; not in the violation of the Bhandarkar Institute; not at MS University in Baroda; not in the assault on Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad this August. I could list many, many more. (link)

I was unaware of some of those, in fact.

In Dawn, Jawed Naqvi quotes a book on Nasrin and feminism, which compares her to the great rebel poet Nazrul Islam:

The foreword to the book, "Taslima Nasrin and the issue of feminism", by the two Chowdhurys was written by Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, the former vice-chancellor of Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "To my mind, more important than Nasrin's stature as a writer is her role as a rebel which makes her appear as a latter day Nazrul Islam," he says.

"The rage and the fury turned against her by her irate critics reminds one of a similar onslaught directed against the rebel poet in the twenties. More than half a century separates the two, but the society, despite some advance of the status of women, has not changed much. The forces opposed to change and progress, far from yielding the ground, have still kept their fort secure against progress; have in fact gained in striking power. While Nazrul never had to flee his country, Nasrin was forced to do so." (link)

Barkha Dutt plays up the irony of Taslima's being asked (forced?) to put on a Burqa as she was escorted out of the state:

As ironies go, it probably doesn't get any better than this. A panic-stricken Marxist government bundling up a feminist Muslim writer in the swathes of a protective black burqa and parceling her off to a state ruled by the BJP -- a party that the Left would otherwise have you believe is full of religious bigots.

The veil on her head must have caused Taslima Nasreen almost as much discomfort as the goons hunting her down. She once famously took on the 'freedom of choice' school of India's Muslim intelligentsia by writing that "covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work". She's always argued that whether or not Islam sanctifies the purdah is not the point. A shroud designed to throttle a woman's sexuality, she says, must be stripped off irrespective. In a signed piece in the Outlook called 'Let's Burn the Burqa', Nasreen took on liberal activists like Shabana Azmi (who has enraged enough mad mullahs herself to know exactly what it feels like) for playing too safe on the veil.(link)

Saugata Roy, in the Times of India, gives an insider perspective on the "Fall & Fall of Buddha" -- which refers to the growing willingness of both the Chief Minister (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) and the Communist Party of West Bengal in general, to compromise on basic principles. Roy mentions that in the 1980s, the CPI(M) did condemn Rajiv Gandhi's overturning of the Supreme Court's decision on Shah Bano. But no more:

The role reversal didn't come in a day. It began the day when the CM banned Nasreen's novel Dwikhandita on grounds that some of its passages (pg 49-50) contained some "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any group by insulting its religion or religious belief." What's worse is Buddha banned its printing at the behest of some city 'intellectuals' close to him. This was the first assault on a writer's freedom in the post-Emergency period. Later, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court lifted the ban.

But the court order was not enough to repair the damage. The government move dug up old issues and left tongues wagging. Soon thereafter, Hindu fundamentalists questioned M F Hussain's paintings on Saraswati. Some moved the court against Sunil Gangyopadhyay's autobiographical novel Ardhek Jiban, where he recounted how his first sexual arousal was after he saw an exquisite Saraswati idol. All this while, the Marxist intellectuals kept mum lest they hurt religious sentiments. And when fundamentalists took the Taslima to the streets, they were at a loss. Or else, why should Left Front chairman Biman Bose lose his senses and say that Taslima should leave the state for the sake of peace? Or, senior CPM leaders like West Bengal Assembly Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim say that Taslima was becoming a threat to peace? Even worse, former police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee - now in the dog house for his alleged role in the Rizwanur death - went to Taslima's Kolkata residence and put pressure on her to leave the state. This was before last week's violence in Kolkata. But still, the timing is important. Mukherjee went to
Taslima's place when the government went on the back foot after the Nandigram carnage.

But the Marxists themselves? Perhaps unknown to himself, Buddha has been steadily losing his admirers. There was a time — just a few months ago, really — when not just the peasantry and workers but the Bengali middle class swore by him. Today leftist intellectuals like Sumit Sarkar, liberal activists like Medha Patkar are deadly opposed to him and his government. The Bengali middle class, for whom Buddha represented a modernizing force, is today deeply disappointed with him. One thing after another has added to the popular disenchantment. First, there was the government's high-handed handling of Nandigram, then came the Rizwanur case in which the state apparatus seems to have been used and abused to thwart two young lovers, and now the government's capitulation in the Taslima affair before Muslim fundamentalists. (no link to TOI; sorry)

And finally, Taslima Nasreen herself speaks, asking that her situation not be made into a political issue:

Taslima Nasreen is happy her plight has been highlighted, but the author-in-hiding says she does not want to become a victim of politics. She has been told that she could become an issue for the BJP against the Congress and the CPM in the Gujarat elections.

“I do not want any more twists to my tale of woes. Please do not give political colour to my plight. I do not want to be a victim of politics. And I do not want anybody to do politics with me,” an anguished Taslima told HT on Monday over the telephone. (link)

It's a fair request -- unfortunately, it's already too late. Politics, one might say, has "been done."

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Charles Taylor, "A Secular Age"

I have Charles Taylor's new book, A Secular Age, on the shelf, and will start to tackle it here soon -- probably not in as much detail as I have been looking at Ramachandra Guha, but definitely in some detail.

One of the things I like about Taylor is his ability to bring non-western perspectives into his thinking about secularization, showing just how complicated (and often intertwining) the world's "secularization" narratives have been. His essay, "Modes of Secularism," in Rajeev Bhargava's anthology, Secularism and its Critics, was really helpful to me in developing my thinking about secularism a few years ago, and I'm looking forward to an even more detailed analysis.

Via 3QD, I see that a group of scholars at the SSRC are already discussing the book, and Charles Taylor himself has contributed a post, here.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Noah Feldman's Complex Definition of "Secular"

Noah Feldman has a piece on Religion in Schools in the New York Times, focusing primarily on the question of the controversial Muslim-themed charter school proposed in New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Feldman's definition of what constitutes a secular space is a complex one:

The source of the confusion is the mistaken notion that the categories “religious” and “secular” are strictly binary, like an on-off switch. It’s true that some things are inherently religious, like a prayer or a church or a Torah scroll. (It would be impossible to make heads or tails of them without reference to their religious nature.) But it’s also true that many things that are not inherently religious are not inevitably secular either: they can be infused with religious meaning through the intention of a believer. A gymnasium or a warehouse has a perfectly secular use but also can be consecrated by worshipers who invoke God’s name there for purposes of worship. Examples of what you might call “dual use,” such things can be at once secular to one person and religious to another.

The most convincing interpretation of our constitutional tradition is that the government may not engage in or pay for conduct that is inherently religious but may accommodate religion when the steps taken to do so are not inherently religious in themselves. The phenomenon of dual use suggests a helpful way of restating this requirement: the state may expend resources to accommodate activities that are religious in the eyes of the believers as long as those activities can still be performed by the general public that interprets them as secular. (link)

This might seem wishy-washy, but actually I think it makes a good deal of sense. In the end, Feldman does come out against public funding for the Khalil Gibran Academy, as well as a Jewish-themed charter school proposed in Los Angeles.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Salman Rushdie, from Outsider to "Knight Bachelor"

Salman Rushdie got knighted over the weekend: he's now Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie.

Predictably, government officials in Pakistan and Iran have come out against honouring the "blaspheming" "apostate" Rushdie. It's a brand of foaming at the mouth that we're all too familiar with at this point; in a sense, the hostile fundamentalist reaction validates the strong secularist stance that Rushdie has taken since his reemergence from Fatwa-induced semi-seclusion in 1998. (If these people are burning your effigy, you must be doing something right.)

But actually, there's another issue I wanted to mention that isn't getting talked about much in the coverage of Rushdie's knighthood, which is the fact that Rushdie wasn't always a "safe" figure for British government officials. In the early 1980s in particular, and throughout the Margaret Thatcher era, Rushdie was known mainly as a critic of the British establishment, not a member. The main issue for Rushdie then was British racism, and he did not mince words in condemning it as well as the people who tolerated it.

This morning I was briefly looking over some of Rushdie's essays from the 1980s. Some of the strongest work excoriated the policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and indicted the pervasiveness of "institutionalized racism" in British society. Two essays in particular stand out, "The New Empire Within Britain," and "Home Front." Both are published in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. (Another great essay from that collection is "Outside the Whale" -- required reading, though on a slightly different topic. And see this NYT review of the collection as a whole from 1991.)

Here is a long quote from "The New Empire Within Britain" (1982):

[L]et me quote from Margaret Thatcher's speech at Cheltneham on the third of July, her famous victory address: 'We have learned something about ourselves, a lesson we desperately need to learn. When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthears . . . The people who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did . . . that we could never again be what we were. Ther were those who would not admit it . . . but--in their heart of hearts--they too had their secret fears that it was true: that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well, they were wrong.'

There are several interesting aspects to this speech. Remember that it was made by a triumphant Prime Minister at the peak of her popuolarity; a Prime Minister who could claim with complete credibility to be speaking for an overwhelming majority of the elctorate, and who, as even her detractors must admit, has a considerable gift for assessing the national mood. Now if such a leader at such a time felt able to invoke the spirit of imperialism, it was because she knew how central that spirit is to the self-image of white Britons of all classes. I say white Britons because it's clear that Mrs Thatcher wasn't addressing the two million or so blacks, who don't feel quite like that about the Empire. So even her use of the word 'we' was an act of racial exclusion, like her other well-known speech about the fear of being 'swamped' by immigrants. With such leaders, it's not surprising that the British are slow to learn the real lessons of their past.

Let me repeat what I said at the beginning: Britain isn't Nazi Germany. The British Empire isn't the Third Reich. But in Germany, after the fall of Hitler, heroic attempts were made by many people to purify German though and the German language of the pollution of Nazism. Such acts of cleansing are occasionally necessary in every society. But British thought, British society, has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism. It's still there, breeding lice and vermin, waiting for unscrupulous people to exploit it for their own ends. (Read the whole thing)

That was Rushdie in 1982: "British society has never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism." And it's by no means the only strong statement he makes about racism and imperialism in "The New Empire Within Britain"; he also goes after the legal system, the police, and the clearly racist quotas the British had enacted in the immigration policy to reduce the number of black and brown immigrants coming to Britain from former colonies.

If we compare Rushdie in 1982 to Rushdie today, it's clear that the man has changed quite a bit -- but it also has to be acknowledged that British society has itself been transformed, perhaps even more radically. Organizations like the National Front are nowhere near as influential as they were in the early 1980s, and a decade of the Labour Party and Tony Blair have changed the political picture for good. But more than anything, what seems different is the way racialized difference (Blacks and Asians vs. the white majority) has been displaced by the religious difference as the most contentious issue of the day. One you move the debate from race to religion, the parameters for who gets seen as an "outsider" and who becomes an "insider" look quite different.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Martha Nussbaum on India's "Clash Within"

Pankaj Mishra recently reviewed Martha Nussbaum's new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future in the New York Review of Books. The review gives some tantalizing hints as to Nussbaum's arguments, but Mishra also spends a considerable amount of time rehashing his own views (rather than Nussbaum's) on the subjects of communalism and India's evolution as a free market economy.

A better introduction to Nussbaum's ideas about India can be found in a good-sized extract from the new book that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last month. (Also check out Ramachandra Guha's review here. And finally, there's an MP3 Podcast of Nussbaum's lecture at the University of Chicago you can download here; listen especially to Nussbaum's prefatory comments on what led her to this project.) For those who are unfamiliar with Nussbaum's interest in India, she has collaborated closely with Amartya Sen in the past, and also published a book called Women and Human Development that dealt with gender issues in India.

* * *

Nussbaum is clear from the start that the main goal of her book is to help American readers see India's communalism problems in a global context. She wants to debunk Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, and suggest Gandhi as an alternative:

The case of Gujarat is a lens through which to conduct a critical examination of the influential thesis of the "clash of civilizations," made famous by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. His picture of the world as riven between democratic Western values and an aggressive Muslim monolith does nothing to help us understand today's India, where, I shall argue, the violent values of the Hindu right are imports from European fascism of the 1930s, and where the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities.

The real "clash of civilizations" is not between "Islam" and "the West," but instead within virtually all modern nations — between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.

This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination. Americans have a great deal to gain by learning more about India and pondering the ideas of some of her most significant political thinkers, such as Sir Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi, whose ruminations about nationalism and the roots of violence are intensely pertinent to today's conflicts. (link)

What's interesting about this is the way Nussbaum -- by training a philosopher -- keeps a philosophical (rather than a political) idea at the center of her argument. She is not talking about competing political systems or the ideologies of individual political parties so much as she is trying to suggest competing ways of understanding the "self" in a world full "others."

That said, Nussbaum does get into some specific details, and outlines a version of the rise of the Hindu right starting with the arguments of Savarkar and Golwalkar, and ending in Gujarat 2002. (Some readers will agree with her version of events, some may disagree. I think she is substantially correct.)

For Nussbaum, the rhetoric of Hindutva is to a great extent a rhetoric of masculinity under threat:

The creation of a liberal public culture: How did fascism take such hold in India? Hindu traditions emphasize tolerance and pluralism, and daily life tends to emphasize the ferment and vigor of difference, as people from so many ethnic, linguistic, and regional backgrounds encounter one another. But as I've noted, the traditions contain a wound, a locus of vulnerability, in the area of humiliated masculinity. For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors, and Hindus have come to identify the sexual playfulness and sensuousness of their traditions, scorned by the masters of the Raj, with their own weakness and subjection. So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to seem the best way out of subjection. One reason why the RSS attracts such a following is the widespread sense of masculine failure.

At the same time, the RSS filled a void, organizing at the grass-roots level with great discipline and selflessness. The RSS is not just about fascist ideology; it also provides needed social services, and it provides fun, luring boys in with the promise of a group life that has both more solidarity and more imagination than the tedious world of government schools.

So what is needed is some counterforce, which would supply a public culture of pluralism with equally efficient grass-roots organization, and a public culture of masculinity that would contend against the appeal of the warlike and rapacious masculinity purveyed by the Hindu right. The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.

Gandhi understood that. He taught his followers that life's real struggle was a struggle within the self, against one's own need to dominate and one's fear of being vulnerable. He deliberately focused attention on sexuality as an arena in which domination plays itself out with pernicious effect, and he deliberately cultivated an androgynous maternal persona. More significantly still, he showed his followers that being a "real man" is not a matter of being aggressive and bashing others; it is a matter of controlling one's own instincts to aggression and standing up to provocation with only one's human dignity to defend oneself. I think that in some respects, he went off the tracks, in his suggestion that sexual relations are inherently scenes of domination and in his recommendation of asceticism as the only route to nondomination. Nonetheless, he saw the problem at its root, and he proposed a public culture that, while he lived, was sufficient to address it. (link)

I think the threatened-masculinity point is interesting, as is Nussbaum's proposed alternative. For her, the way to combat the hyper-virility of communal groups is not anti-masculinity, but an alternative conception of what it might mean to assert oneself as a man. I'm not sure the Gandhian idea of masculinity -- which has always struck me as a little weird, frankly -- is the best way to go, but this is still a provocative point.

* * *

The one point of disagreement I have with Nussbaum -- at least from the extract I linked to -- relates to whether the "clash within" is primarily a matter of Hindus/Muslim tension. As I've been watching Indian politics over the past few years, I've been struck, first, by the degree to which regional and state political considerations have come to dominate over grand ideology and national politics. Secondly, I've been struck by the continuing electoral fragmentation by caste -- the Indian political system is not simply divided on a left/right diagram, but cut into a much more fragmentary array of caste-based political parties that can form (and break) alliances with the national parties at the will their respective leaders. Nussbaum may in fact be right about the principal problem in Indian politics (i.e., her philosophy of "the clash within"), but perhaps she needs to move beyond her current exclusive focus on Hindu/Muslim conflicts.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs of Punjab

A major conflict has broken out in Punjab, between the orthodox Sikh community and a sect (which may or may not be understood as a 'Sikh' sect) called Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS). It's a strange and complex issue, involving caste issues (DSS members are predominantly from what are called 'backward' castes), politics (DSS supporters are overwhelmingly Congress party supporters, while Punjab has for many years been dominated by the BJP-allied Akali Dal), as well fundamental questions of who gets to determine how a religion is defined.

The BBC has the basic details here:

Cities and towns across the northern Indian state of Punjab are shut in response to a general strike called by the Sikh community.

Security forces have been deployed and businesses and schools are closed for the day amid fears of violence.

Sikhs are demanding an apology from the leader of a religious sect who appeared in an advert dressed like one of the Sikh religion's most important figures.

Sikh community leaders say it is an insult to their religion. (link)

The DSS leader's name is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and there was controversy surrounding his leadership of the DSS before the current conflagration began. The DSS has grown quite rapidly in recent years, but its is also being investigated by the CBI on charges of sexual molestation, according to the Times of India:

The era also saw the sect embroiled in a number of contentious issues, especially those involving the dera chief. In 2003, an anonymous letter alleged sexual exploitation of young girls at the dera. Later, murder of a senior member of the dera and a Sirsa-based journalist set the rumour mills working overtime. Family members of the slain scribe moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, demanding a CBI probe into the role of dera in the murder. The case was handed over to the CBI. However, the CBI probe moved at a slow pace despite the HC pulling up the investigating agency. Also, political pressure and protests by dera followers did not help.

More recently, the dera courted trouble just before the Punjab assembly elections this year. Though it enjoyed the patronage of both the Akali and Congress leaders, the president issued an edict asking his followers to support Congress candidates. According to sources, this favour was extended after the party (Punjab Congress) promised relief in the CBI case. Post elections, there have been complaints of Akalis harassing dera men. (link)

That last point in the TOI above suggests how much might be at stake in this conflict; it also shows how intimately religion and politics are intertwined in India. This is at once a religious and a political conflict, and suggestions that the state remain neutral on a matter of religious doctrine, while correct in principle, do not really seem to apply. (It's yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to comprehend India's "secularism")

As a final comment, I should note that while I myself don't have very much first-hand knowledge of the various Dera sects (there are dozens) that are currently active all over Punjab and its neighboring states, a blogger named SidhuSaaheb (via Neha Vishwanathan at Global Voices Online) does have a fair bit to say about the DSS:

As I keep track of the coverage, in newspapers and on television, of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy, there are a few things that strike me as strange.

Firstly, the Dera has been described as a 'Sikh sect' in certain sections of the news media, whereas it has nothing to do with Sikhism (or any other religious faith, as for that matter).

Secondly, something that has been part of conversations in urban drawing-rooms and rural baithhaks in Punjab i.e. the Dera head issued an edict to his followers to vote for Congress (I) in the recent state assembly elections, only because that party offered to help 'dispose off' the criminal cases filed against the Baba and his followers (the charges include murder and sexual abuse), in case it was able to form the government, does not appear to have been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television channel.

Thirdly, most media reports seem to imply that the Sikhs have been outraged merely by the fact that the Baba appeared dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, whereas, the truth is that he not only dressed like the Guru, but also attempted to replicate, to a large extent, what the Guru did on the day of the foundation of the Khalsa (in spite of the counter-claims made in the latest press statement put out by the Dera). He tried to do a 'role play', in which he put himself in the place of the Tenth Master. (link)

He goes on to make some direct allegations about the murder of a family member by DSS members.

The note of outrage in SidhuSaaheb's account of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's actions is one I've also heard from every other Sikh I've talked to in recent weeks, as this has been unfolding. The sense of outrage is also very much present in this Outlook article by Chander Suta Dogra.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

"Children of Men," anyone?

I don't have time to do justice to Children of Men, but both Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve and Mark at K-Punk have written long, excellent posts on the film, and I would recommend you to them.

The film is, visually, extaordinary -- it led to one of those rare nights where I couldn't sleep, not because the baby was waking up every couple of hours (though there was that), but because I was haunted by the film's spectacular cinematography.

My one reservation with Children of Men comes from the slightly-too-heavy Christian flavor of the humanism in the film. The filmmakers definitely distance themselves from fundamentalist Christianity (the ‘repentance’ cult is seen as deluded), but it’s very hard not to read the Birth of a Child as enabling the Redemption of the Human Race in anything other than Christian terms.

Perhaps it’s possible to deemphasize this because the film brings in so many secular progressive/liberal themes-—the totalitarian overtones of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, the persecution of immigrants/minorities, and the potentially devastating consequences of pollution on both the environment and on human health.

But all that couldn’t help me from feeling a little confused during the scene where Kee and Theo were walking down the street and soldiers were making the sign of the cross—as if the film’s ideology was shifting under my feet, and I was being offered a Communion wafer when I had thought I was eating Junior Mints.

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