Indians living the American Dream apparently buy into the partial myth that somehow their society is more inclusive than ours. As a corollary, they believe that if you are inclusive, anyone turning to terrorism must be an exception – a deviant.
Indians living the American Dream apparently buy into the partial myth that somehow their society is more inclusive than ours. As a corollary, they believe that if you are inclusive, anyone turning to terrorism must be an exception a deviant.
After Guantanamo, thousands of drone attacks on the Afghan-Pakistan tribal areas, illegal assassinations of suspected Islamic militants, Gurdwara shootings by alleged “White-supremacists”, the rise of fundamentalist Christian groups, and the most exclusionary and intrusive forms of homeland security checks on non-Americans of colour, we still want to believe that America is liberal and inclusive.
The idea of “Us vs Them” the essence of bigotry and non-inclusiveness was invented as much in America as in India. Remember George Bush’s “you are either with us or against us” remark after 9/11? Islamophobia was born in America.
Most “secular” Indians, however, want to believe otherwise. Indian Express has an article by Ashutosh Varshney, an Indian-American professor at Brown University, which displays a similar inability to separate American inclusiveness rhetoric from the reality of sophisticated forms of exclusion and demonisation of “the other”. The truth is the radical fringe of Christian America is at war with the radical fringe of Islam and willy-nilly, mainstream America has bought into the “us vs them” story. And so have the Islamists.
Writing about the Boston Marathon blasts last week, in which two Chechen Islamists are suspected to be involved (one dead, and the other recuperating in hospital), Varshney asks innocently: “How could terror breed in the heart of a city so inclusive?”
The answer should be obvious: for the same reason why terror breeds in a country as inclusive as India.
Of course, it is standard practice to talk about exclusion as the defining characteristic of India, but is this really so? Can a country that has been home to every ethnicity, every linguistic group, every race, every religion be called exclusivist?
Sure, our caste system has been a closed one, but inclusiveness and exclusivity have two dimensions: one is the protective dimension of the in-group, where you put ties with kith and kin on a higher relationship plane, which tends to exclude people from other castes and communities; but there is a broader inclusiveness in Indian society which grants all distinctive groups the right to their own identities. This has been our reality long before Europeans discovered America.
At the basic level, India is as inclusive as America and Americans are as racist as us when it comes to dealing with “out-groups” in our case Dalits and Muslims, and in America’s case, non-whites and Muslims.
Varshney raises important questions about Islam and America and comes up with naïve answers because he takes American inclusiveness as a given. He has not put America or Islam to the same test he would put an Indian making similar claims.
He asks: “What explains that some of those who grew up in the US, went through American institutions, lived in inclusive multi-ethnic towns, even took the oath of citizenship as the younger (Dzhokhar) Tsarnaev did, would resort to terrorist violence on US soil?”
(Dzhokhar is currently being treated in an American hospital after being injured in the shootout with police where his elder brother Tamerlan was killed).
Varshney could well have asked the same about India: “What explains the fact that some Indians who know no other country but India still bomb fellow-citizens in the name of protecting their religion?”
The answer probably lies in this. The other side of hyphenated identities is that loyalties can sometimes be divided. Varshney extols the virtues of America’s hyphenated identities (Chechen-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc), but forgets to note that it is not the identity that is the problem, but the exaggerated sense of victimhood that is linked to those identities. This is what creates resentment, alienation and violent behaviour in some.
When you drink from the poisoned fountain of victimhood (and politicians feed that sense of victimhood, as in the case of Indian Muslims), some people will get radicalised. They will give one identity priority over the other. Tamerlan and Dzhokar saw their Islamic identities as more important than their American one, despite the fact that the elder brother had married an all-American girl.
This is further confirmed by the fact that Katherine Russell, Tamerlan’s wife, converted to Islam three years ago a dead giveaway. (One of the Islamists responsible for the London train bombings of 2005, Germaine Lindsay, also converted his mother, daughter of an evangelical Christian, to Islam). Clearly, Tamerlan, like Lindsay, saw himself more as a Muslim than an American, and his wife had to conform to this identity including his sense of America as the enemy (for assorted reasons, including support of Israel, invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, killing of Muslims, etc). The need to convert your spouse to your own religion is a form of exclusion and more relevant to Islam than other religions. If you don’t convert, you don’t belong is the message.
In another part of the article, Varshney asks: “Do the Boston bombs, by any chance, show that being a religious Muslim and being an American might not go together?” And then proceeds to answer his own question: “It would be analytically premature to rush to this conclusion. And the fact that, unlike the reaction to 9/11, America is not even debating this issue shows how far the US has come.”
This is specious. How does the fact that America is not in a rush to debate Islamic terrorism right now show that “being a religious Muslim and being an American” may be compatible? That may or may not be true, but the assertion is not proved by the mere fact that Islamism isn’t under discussion.
Varshney’s own conclusion stems from his predisposition towards separating jihadist tendency from Islam. So something else must be blamed if America grows Muslim terrorism. He asks: “The Tsarnaev brothers appear to be part of a dysfunctional family and horribly complicated national homeland politics. According to scholars of Chechnya, every fifth Chechen is in exile; so deep are the national wounds of wars and forced migration…If, as is widely reported, he (Tamerlan) could not make a single American friend even after living a decade in one of the most inclusive towns of the US, it says something about his own psychological difficulties. The plunge into jihadi ideology might be a consequence of such difficulties.”
If family dysfunctionality can lead so many to terror, should we assume that the thousands of jihadis created by al-Qaeda and other such organisations also came from such environments?
Varshney writes further: “…the fundamental cause of the embrace of terror would not be a turn towards jihadi Islam, but a psychological crisis caused by the inability to adjust to a new land and the virtual impossibility of return to the homeland.”
If we accept this logic, we should expect Kashmiri Pandits who have been ethnically cleansed from the Valley to also turn into terrorists. But they seem to have accepted their exile from home with fear and resignation. There is surely something beyond dysfunctional families involved here.
The statement clearly shows how Varshney has virtually bought into the American belief that if you are in America, you can’t be a bigot when this cannot be the case. You can be a bigot in the best of environments, and a decent human being in the worst of circumstances. The Jewish diaspora was not bigoted anywhere before the creation of Israel. Now we know what they have become when faced with hostile neighbours on all sides.
The same holds for America. Over the past decade, more people both White and colour have been killed by White terrorists than Muslim radicals. We have had a Gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin last August where many Sikhs were killed but few Americans questioned the nature of emergent White/Christian jihadism. They assumed that there is no bigotry in White America. They are in denial. The effort is clearly to show these extremists as being the result of personality maladjustment. Varshney has done the same for the Boston bombers.
This is not to rubbish the real inclusiveness and openness of American society, its great institutions, its ability to have a truly independent justice system, and freedom of speech, but one has only to scratch below the surface of sophistication to find the concealed bigotry in some quarters.
The bottomline is this: we should be in no hurry to buy American hypocrisy, even while rubbishing ourselves. We have miles to go, and so do the Americans. Or the rest of the world, for that matter.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group
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