Is the idea of multiracial, multicultural, multilingual nation a myth?

Published 2 months ago -


By Nyla Ali Khan

EDMOND, Okla. — If we were more vigilant and paid attention to the intricacies of history, perhaps history wouldn’t repeat itself.

During World War II, Jewish immigrants/ refugees were prevented from entering the United States, and now immigrants/ refugees from seven Muslim countries are going through the same trauma. Globalization has hit a new low.

While it is undeniable that national security is of the utmost importance, I would observe that President Trump’s executive order, which prevents citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days and suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days underscores the characterization of those citizens and refugees, across the board, as “other,” “primitive,” and in need of “civilizing.” Such blanket stereotyping and its corollary, a blanket ban, is oblivious to the aspirations of distinct individuals, societies and to the variations in religious practices and laws from one cultural context to the other.

President Trump’s executive order could be interpreted as leading to the politicization of identity in the form of xenophobia. Such politics can exacerbate cultural and religious fanaticism, globally, by emphasizing a conception of identity between the “authentic” and the “demonic.” I observe that the political myopia being manifested during this period in the history of the United States treats the idea of a multicultural/ multiracial/ multilingual nation as if it were a myth. The immigrant, by his or her status as an outsider, is portrayed to reaffirm the system that requires opposition in order to reassert itself. Also, subsequent to the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, a homogenized version of Islam replaced the old foe, communism.

I cannot emphasize enough that it is absolutely necessary to be critical of the folly of homogenizing an entire religion as well as an entire region. Culture inscribes a wide range of experiences which centralizing institutions attempt to render invisible and homogeneous. But people in Muslim countries are positioned in relation to their own class and cultural identities; their own histories; their sensitivity to the diversity of cultural traditions and to the questions and conflicts within them; their own relations to the West; their interpretations of religious law; and their concepts of the role of women and men in contemporary society.

In this current historical and cultural moment, critics and proponents of Islam often speak on behalf of Muslims, while rational Muslim women and men remain silent. It is the need to the day, particularly in the United States, to read and understand Muslim women’s and men’s writings, in their own words, about their religious practices, their political/ feminist practices, and how these practices affect their beliefs, convictions, and perspectives. It also becomes incumbent on these writers, as they attempt to address both the West and speak to their own cultures, to dismantle outdated Orientalist myths. There is, however, a fine balance between challenging the Western representations of Muslim men and women and avoiding painting an overly romantic picture of the East.

1.6 billion people of the global population subscribe to Islam.  No single country or culture defines Muslim life or belief. In the classes that I teach on “Women and Islam,” I remind my students that all Arabs are not Muslims, and all Muslims are not Arabs. An informed citizenry/ readership would compare Muslim women’s and men’s lives in a wide variety of cultures.  In particular, such a citizenry/ readership would focus on issues that concern Muslim women and men and that have brought them to the attention of international organizations, such as rights, citizenship, and refugee status as well as the role and interventionist politics of the developed world, the United States and Western European countries, in Muslim countries.

We inhabit a world that has been sinking further into the morass of political unaccountability and cultural repression after the gut-wrenching events of September 11, 2001.

We have witnessed the fizzling out of the fragile Peace Pact in Palestine in 2003. We have witnessed the reduction of Afghanistan in Southwest Asia to a battlefield on which the former Soviet Union and its Cold War adversary, the United States, fought a proxy war. We have witnessed the legitimization of the Taliban vigilante during that period, and then the brutal regime of the Taliban.

We have witnessed the invasion of Afghanistan, the rationale for which was the “liberation” and “emancipation” of Afghan women. We have witnessed the invasion of Iraq, which enabled the ousting and execution of a dictator, who was once an American ally. We have witnessed the disbanding of the Iraqi army, growing sectarianism, and political dysfunction in Iraq post-Saddam. We have witnessed instances of reckless regime change in Western Asia, Southwest Asia, and the Middle East, which were brought about without careful thought being given to the repercussions and governance of those topographically and politically circuitous terrains. We have witnessed the installation of purportedly de jure regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the unspeakable degradations the populaces of those countries were subjected to.

We have witnessed the declaration of a caliphate across northern and western Iraq as well as eastern Syria by ISIS. We have witnessed the condemnable distortions of Islam by that militant organization and the egregious atrocities inflicted on not just minorities but on their co-religionists as well but by ISIS. We have witnessed the regressive cultural politics of the Taliban in Afghanistan. We have witnessed the Hindutva movement in India, with its privileging the idea of an ethnically pure Hindu nation. These events were caused by political impetuousness and thoughtlessness, which cause such irreparable damage that their seismic tremors continue to destabilize other regions of the world. In such a complex world, multiple histories, cultures, and subjectivities cannot be pigeonholed, stereotyped, or clubbed together.

It should be inconceivable, in the day and age of a global economy, to spurn the concepts of reason, rationality, and political and moral ethics.

The perpetuation of a politics that emphasizes, reinforces, or creates cultural myopia and monocultural identities, in a society as diverse as that of the United States, would be the bane of our existence, domestically as well as internationally.

Democracy, as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, underlined, is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” A government that protects and promotes vested/ oligarchic interests while marginalizing a section of the populace, which includes immigrants, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, leaves a lot to be desired.

Nyla Ali Khan mem­ber of Schol­ars Strat­egy Net­work. She is the au­thor of Fic­tion of Na­tion­al­ity in an Era of Transna­tion­al­ism, Is­lam, Women, and Vi­o­lence in Kash­mir, The Life of a Kash­miri Woman, and the ed­i­tor of The Parch­ment of Kash­mir. She is ed­i­tor of the Ox­ford Is­lamic Stud­ies’ On­line’s spe­cial is­sue on Jammu and Kash­mir. She can be reached at ny­lakhan@aol.com)

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