Watching spectators young and old, men and women who came to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s trial in New York I recognized the rapidly increasing significance of religion as a marker of identity among Muslims in the US.
Judge Richard Berman, by ordering additional security measures for this trial, underscored the ideological profiling of a religious minority that has suffered immense public devaluation and disparagement since the 9/11 attacks.
I must admit that I do not completely understand the complex and diverse reasons for the foregrounding of religion in identities of Muslims in America. But I feel that the post 9/11 policies of the US government, fear mongering by conservative media, have led to increased in-group solidarity and identification on the basis of religion.
I have always argued that identify is fluid and contextual. I am a Pakistani when someone in New York asks me ‘where are your from?’ When the same question is posed in Lahore, I am from Karachi. I am a ‘man’ when around women- I am a ‘straight man’ around gays and an ‘old man’ around young kids.
But here is the sticky point – whether I practice religion or not, I am a Muslim because of my name, place of origin, and possibly because of clothes that I wear.
Faced with ideological profiling, discrimination, devaluation,and disparagement, religious identity has become the key marker for young Muslim men and women. I met several young Pakistani women who were born and raised in New York who not only cover their faces in hijab completely but also do not show picture IDs to male security guards.
I asked a young woman behind veil where she was from – she said “Brooklyn.” No, she didn’t say Pakistan. She was born in Coney Island Hospital to parents from Pakistan. Her father who used to be a lecturer in Pakistan has driven a cab for the past twenty years on the streets of New York. She has lived on the intersection of Coney Island Avenue and Newkirk Avenue all her life. From Kindergarten to college – she attended the public education system.
Let me not exaggerate- even among Muslims in America she is an anomaly. The majority of Muslim women dress modestly, some wear scarves, and plenty dress in ways that are consistent with their American peers.
But my sweet little Pakistani-Americans with faces covered in hijab are growing in numbers. I completely respect their right to cover themselves – and also understand the anxieties of those who fear what maybe behind the veil.
I can see how religious discourse can play a vital role in negotiating and resisting parental and community restrictions. A family friend recently told me that she knows several young Pakistani girls who cover themselves so they don’t have to worry about what clothes they must wear to school – or whether they have a boy friend or not. “It simply relieves them of all sorts of peer pressure,” our friend said. And, yes it is plausible.
But I feel it is more than not having brand name jeans with matching socks and bra-straps that force these bright and immensely intelligent women to wear hijab. For many it is a sign of dissent- a sign of courage- a sign of protest and yes of course for many it is their religious duty. These young women use the discourse of religion and identity for personal empowerment.
And, of course there were some young Muslim men at the trial with beards flying all over their faces and prayer beads in hand. There was one who had a ‘miswak’ (a piece of dried stem used 1400 years ago to brush teeth). The Marshal who had searched his bag was puzzled to see this ‘miswak’ and asked what do you do with it?
And, yes this young man was born in Queens. He has lived in New York – studied in several American schools and colleges. Like thousands of other young Muslim American, he also feels his religious identity provides a positive role model, compared to his parents’ under-employment and as an alternative to the street and drug cultures in his neighborhoods.
Parents of these young men and women are ecstatic that their off-spring are following religious and cultural values and are “keeping away from danger”. But the search for identity makes these impressionable young men and women vulnerable to radicalization as well.
The search for identity is part of the process of defining one’s relationship with the world that usually takes place without necessarily leading to ‘radicalization’. One would argue that ‘radicalization’ requires an interpersonal interaction with other actors who stimulate and influence the process. And, this is where the rub lies. Devaluation, disparagement and ideological profiling, lack of equal opportunities for career advancement and integration with mainstream society are those factors that can stimulate and influence the process of radicalization.
By ordering additional security for Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s trial Judge Richard Berman inadvertently became that external actor.
Let’s face it – Muslims today are facing a crisis that has few parallels in history. They are caught between the forces of extremism from within and the crushing onslaught of the West. Many Muslims find previous explanations of injustices (rich and poor) class based economic systems inadequate to explain their current experience. For Muslims living in the US this experience is compounded by religious discrimination, ideological profiling, and a lack of confidence in the government.
These young men and women I met during the trial simply seek to construct a sense of what it means to be Muslim in the US today. However, they are in danger of radicalization because traditional Islamic institutions are failing to connect with them to address their challenges. Many young men and women who grew up on the streets of New York and have found Islam empowering are not in a position
to objectively evaluate whether extremist interpretations represent an accurate understanding of Islam.
I found a young Pakistani-American who was born in Harlem Hospital and grew up in Bronx recently argue that Islam abolished slavery and that is why there are more blacks embracing Islam than whites. And, there was a young Pakistani girl who argued Islam emancipated women because before the advent of Islam girls were buried as soon as they were born. She got agitated when I suggested that it was1400 years ago and asked what progress has been made to further emancipate women. “Quran is final,” she said and no progress, changes can be expected in the lives of pious Muslim men and women.
I can’t blame Judge Richard Berman for a less than rational worldview of these young men and women. But more ideological profiling will create more disenfranchised, alienated, marginalized and angry individuals.
But, those of us who cherish the secular tradition of the US have a responsibility. We need to define what Islam means to our children born and raised in this society. We must define what it means to practice religion in a secular country. We must open doors for young men and women to integrate religion with local traditions. We must encourage them to allow American influences into their lives and ideology. We must encourage them to fully participate in the society and political system. We must encourage public service.
Simply put- it is our responsibility and only we can defeat Islamic extremism; not soldiers with M4 rifles, not pilotless drones and robots. And, we can do that by accepting and acknowledging the ground realities- we should be able to explain that context will not erode the core of Islam. That Islam will potentially benefit from some localization.