Here, There, and Elsewhere
The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World
Tahseen Shams

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SOCIETIES INTERCONNECTED

THE PERIOD FROM 2015 THROUGH 2017 was a turning point for the world. ISIS was on the rise, having conducted terror attacks both on U.S. soil and in places as wide-ranging as France, Belgium, Turkey, Lebanon, and Bangladesh. Great Britain shocked the world with its vote to “Brexit” from the European Union—a decision analysts have explained was a reaction against immigration and globalization. And the world could no longer turn a blind eye to the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis as photographs of the dead body of a three-year-old boy named Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a beach in Turkey circulated across newspapers and social media.

The tremors of these global events were felt in the United States, where the 2016 presidential election was in full swing, with several candidates campaigning on the same kinds of nativist and anti-Muslim platforms that were driving the resurgence of right-wing populism around the world—from France, Germany, and the Netherlands in Europe to India and the Philippines in Asia. Donald Trump famously called for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Not to be outdone, Ted Cruz, ostensibly in reaction to ISIS terror attacks in Paris, proposed a religious test for Syrian refugees, showing willingness to grant asylum to those who were Christian but not to those who were Muslim. But perhaps what most prominently reestablished Muslim immigrants at the center of national politics after 9/11 was Trump calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”1

Although not everyone in America condoned these narratives, the nativist and Islamophobic platforms were met with widespread public support from many segments of U.S. society. Islamophobia rose throughout the election cycle,2 with the number of anti-Muslim assaults reaching the 9/11-era level in just 2015 alone.3 And national discourse about Muslims centered on debates over which of them—if any—could be considered “good Muslims” and whether any Muslim could ever be deemed “American.” This discourse arguably determined the election cycle for both political parties. While the Republican Party largely played into the Islamophobic fears of many Americans, Democrats emphasized the “American-ness” of Muslims in the United States, inviting Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star Pakistani immigrant parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq, to speak at the Democratic National Convention.

While these events showcase the centrality of immigration-related debates in the current global consciousness, there is another, bigger story at play, which is going unnoticed. Immigrants are vectors of globalization, who both produce and experience the interconnectedness of societies. When immigrants leave one country to settle in another, they do not forget the people and places they have left behind. Instead, they bring with them the beliefs, practices, conflicts, and histories from back “there” in the homeland to “here” in the host society. The contexts of their sending societies thus continue to influence these immigrants’ worldviews, shaping who they identify as “we” as opposed to “them,” even as they interact with various other immigrant and native groups and build new communities in the hostland. However, how the immigrants view themselves and where they draw the boundaries between “us” and “them” do not always converge with the receiving society’s views. In fact, immigrants’ views of themselves are quite unique, because in contrast to the lives of most people in the places of origin and destination, immigrants’ lives straddle two or more national societies. Moreover, both processes of identification—that by the immigrants themselves and that by others—are located in a larger geopolitical tapestry that subverts territorial borders. As such, immigrants often face the immediate spillover effects of global events that occur even in places they are not from and to which they have never been, with contexts in seemingly faraway foreign lands coming to shape both how others view immigrants and how immigrants view themselves. I refer to these places as “elsewheres.” “Elsewheres” are places that are neither the immigrants’ homeland nor hostland but that are nonetheless important to immigrants’ identity formation.4

Along those lines, this book introduces a broader, more comprehensive analytical design to study immigrant identities—the “multicentered relational framework”—which encompasses global geopolitics in the immigrants’ sending and receiving countries, and in places beyond. In so doing, I show how contexts in the immigrants’ homeland, hostland, and “elsewhere” together shape immigrants’ lives.

This convergence of factors that construct an immigrant’s identity can sometimes have tragic effects. For example, in the month after 9/11, Vasudev Patel, a Hindu Indian; Waqar Hasan, a Muslim from Pakistan; and Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi Muslim, were shot in Texas by Mark Stroman who called himself the “Arab slayer.” Vasudev and Waqar died, whereas Rais survived but partially lost his vision. Stroman proudly admitted to the killing spree, claiming to be an American patriot avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Arab Muslim extremists. None of his victims, however, were Arab—one of them was not even Muslim. Similarly, in February 2017, two Hindu immigrants from India, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in Kansas by Adam Purinton, who later bragged about killing “two Iranians.” This incident took place just three weeks after President Trump had rolled out his first executive order to ban people coming from seven predominantly Muslim countries—including Iran—to keep out “radical Islamic terrorists.” Neither Srinivas nor Alok, of course, were Iranian—nor did they identify as Muslim. Yet, how Vasudev, Waqar, Rais, Srinivas, and Alok had self-identified—whether based on religion, nationality, ethnicity, or politics—bore little effect. Instead, contexts stemming from the Middle East—a place beyond their homeland and hostland—determined how they were identified by others in America.

Conversely, immigrants can also self-identify with places beyond the sending and receiving countries, sometimes even prioritizing these connections over those oriented toward their homeland. For example, in late 2015, around the same time the Syrian refugee crisis caught the world’s attention, another refugee crisis was unfolding in South Asia—that of Rohingya Muslims. Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic minority in the Western Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Myanmar government views the Rohingyas as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, although these people have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Fleeing violent persecution by the Myanmar government, Rohingyas have sought asylum in neighboring countries, mainly Bangladesh. Most now live in dire conditions in refugee camps. Although, unlike the Syrian refugee crisis, the Rohingya refugee crisis directly involves Bangladesh, many Bangladeshi Americans were still relatively unaware of who the Rohingyas are. Their unawareness was particularly remarkable given how avidly they had paid attention to the Syrian refugee crisis based on a sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims in the Middle East. Whereas the Syrian crisis had garnered the attention of Bangladeshi Americans as a whole—who responded by actively following news trends, engaging in social media posts and discussions, and raising and donating funds for Syrian refugees—the Rohingya crisis, although also involving Muslims in their homeland, went virtually unnoticed.

In the following pages, I tell the story of immigrants, as both agents and receptors of globalization, by exploring the lives and identities of South Asian Muslim Americans in California, as they struggle to merge into the religious, political, and racial contexts of both the United States and societies abroad. South Asians comprise the largest immigrant Muslim group in America,5 with Pakistan and Bangladesh being the top two sending states of Muslim immigrants to the United States.6 Most of the South Asian Muslim immigrants in this book come from these two countries, while a few others come from India, where, in contrast to Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslims are the religious minority, despite being significantly large in number.7 In fact, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have the second, third, and fourth largest Muslim populations in the world.8 And immigration from these countries to the United States has steadily increased in recent years.9

The data for this book come from two main sources: First, they come from in-depth interviews of sixty South Asian Muslims across California, collected from 2015 to 2017. Second, they come from three years of ethnographic observations, made from 2012 to 2013 and then from 2015 to 2017, at various sites in Los Angeles—home to one of the highest concentrations of South Asians in America. These two primary sources of data are complemented by content analysis of South Asian and Muslim Americans’ Facebook activities and of selected organizational documents of the largest Muslim American organization in North America.

Although I began this research in 2012, before the rise of what is now popularly referred to as the “Trump phenomenon,” my findings have since become extremely relevant in light of political developments in the United States and around the world. Many of these developments directly involve the sending countries of South Asia and their emigrants to the United States. Just some examples are the 2015 ISIS-inspired San Bernardino attacks by a married couple of Pakistani descent, the 2016 ISIS terror attacks in Bangladesh’s capital, the 2017 low-tech bomb explosion in the New York City subway station by an ISIS-inspired Bangladeshi immigrant, and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, involving Bangladesh and other neighboring countries in South Asia.

In telling this story about South Asian Muslim immigrants, this book fills a gap in what we know about immigrant identity-making. Although scholars have long theorized about how immigrants form new identities and build communities in their hostlands, the foundational frameworks they use—assimilation, panethnicity, transnationalism, and diaspora—focus exclusively on the contexts of the sending and receiving countries. Constrained within this dyadic homeland-hostland framework, what remains largely overlooked, then, is how sociopolitical dynamics in places beyond, but in relation to, the homeland and hostland also shape immigrants’ identities. It is this question that this book seeks to answer, and it does so by using religion as an example of immigrants’ global connections to trace how immigrants’ sense of selves stretches over territorial borders. As immigrants arrive in their hostlands, they both produce and experience globalization through their interactions with other diverse immigrant and native groups, while also connecting societies that may have previously been distinct.10 Through these interactions, they generate contacts not just across cultures but also across religions. As communities of believers, religions tie together people differently than migrations from “there” to “here” do. Rather, religions tend to transcend state boundaries and societal borders11—thus connecting “here,” “there,” and beyond.

Some world religions, like Islam, have structures and institutions built within them that connect believers from across the world in a bond of brotherhood. For Islam in particular, one such core notion is the Ummah—the imagined worldwide community of Muslims that transcends borders and connects all Muslims via shared beliefs, rituals, duties, and a sense of membership. A religious framework of this sort can invoke a sense of community and collective identity that people can then use to make sense of their world and relationships, to create group boundaries between an “us” and a “them” that transcend state borders.12 Today these interconnections and group boundaries across state territories are facilitated by advanced telecommunications technologies, such as cable news and social media, and are shaped by global political dynamics. Consequently, the effects of religious conflicts reverberate across state borders, making themselves felt at opposite ends of the world. For instance, Muslims in the United States faced upticks of anti-Muslim sentiments following Islamist13 attacks not just in America but also in Paris and Brussels, as indicated by spikes in Google searches for the terms “Kill Muslims” and “Islamophobia.”14 At the same time, as this book shows, telecommunications allows immigrants both to follow global events and to collectively interpret their meaning, which means Muslim Americans can anticipate and take precautions against the antagonism that these global conflicts may provoke.

Locating South Asian Muslim Americans in the multicentered relational model, this book shows how different dimensions of the immigrants’ “Muslim” identity tie them to different “elsewhere” contexts in distinct yet overlapping ways. As Muslims, these immigrants are members of the Ummah. However, the heartland of that imagined global community is not found in South Asia but in the Middle East, in that part of the Muslim world that shares a contentious geopolitical relationship with the West, and particularly with the United States. As the birthplace of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, and as the location of Islam’s holiest sites, the Middle East is arguably the spiritual and political center of the Muslim world. And as self-identifying Muslims, these immigrants subscribe to the various histories, places, peoples, and conflicts in the Middle East that sustain their Muslim identity. In effect, many South Asian Muslim Americans engage in politics aimed at “elsewhere” places in the Middle East, such as in Palestine and Turkey. Yet, how these immigrants self-identify does not determine how they are identified by their hostland society at large. Despite the salience of the Middle East in these immigrants’ self-identification, it is the Muslim-related contexts in “elsewhere” Europe that tend to shape how these Muslims are viewed in America and to trigger anti-Muslim backlash.

Thus, the multicentered relational framework captures three specific points of focus, or “centers,” thereby expanding the homeland-hostland dyad: (1) “here,” which refers to the hostland—in this case, the United States; (2) “there,” which refers to the immigrants’ homeland—in this case, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan; and (3) “elsewhere,” which refers to places beyond, such as the Middle East and Europe. Because each pole in this triad tugs at immigrants’ sense of self, political conflicts in and between these places shape the immigrants’ identity-making processes. Thus, this book tells the larger story of how the interconnectedness of societies at the global level shapes the everyday lives of immigrants and Muslims on the ground.

Notes

1. Healy and Barbaro 2015.

2. The Bridge Initiative 2016.

3. Kishi 2016.

4. Identity formation is the collective struggle among social actors over recognition as members of an identity category. Recognition is required from both those who claim to be members and non-members of that category. As such, identity formation has two halves—self-identification and identification by others—with social actors being located at the intersection of these two processes (Lamont and Molnár 2002; Brubaker 2004).

5. Pew Research Center 2017.

6. Pew Research Center 2011.

7. The percentages of Muslims in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India are 90.4 percent, 96.4 percent, and 14.6 percent respectively (Pew Research Forum 2011).

8. Pew Research Center 2015.

9. Zong and Batalova 2016.

10. Shams 2017.

11. Cesari 2005; Levitt 2007; Wuthnow and Offutt 2008.

12. Lichterman 2008.

13. “Islamist”—as opposed to “Islamic,” which means something relating to Islam—refers to something or someone in support of Islamic militancy or fundamentalism.

14. Google Trends 2019b.