I met Dr. Craig Considine last Ramadan in Houston, Texas. I was attending an inter-faith iftar put on by my local mosque, and he was the guest speaker. I had only heard about him a few days prior to the dinner, but I had already taken the time to peruse his social media accounts and some of his writings online. I have to admit – I was intrigued.
Dr. Considine is a sociology professor at Rice University. He’s a young, bright, and insightful scholar who has extensively studied Muslim relations, Islamophobia, and the connection between religion and nationalism in various parts of the world, specifically the Middle East and Asia, the United States, and Ireland. Growing up Catholic, his interest in and defense of a religion he, not long ago, was very unfamiliar with, serves as a beacon of hope to the Muslim community that tolerance and acceptance within a Western society is not a pipe dream.
In his book, Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora, Considine discusses the plight of the Pakistani-Muslim, specifically in Boston, Massachusetts and Dublin, Ireland.
As an American-born Muslim, I’ve seen the perception of Islam transform in the eyes of Americans over the years. We went from being comfortably invisible to being seen as a threat to society, public safety, and patriotism – all of this practically overnight. While tensions were high during the ongoing wars in the Middle East, nothing brought Islam onto the Western radar quite like the September 11th attacks.
Suddenly, Muslims who had been living here their whole lives felt compelled to take off their hijabs and shave their beards. A friend of mine was told to “go back to where [she] came from,” which would have actually been Toronto. The sad realization dawned on me that most people didn’t understand that Muslims had been living in the country for decades without issue. Also, the difference between race and religion seemed lost on many.
Of course, the terrorist groups behind the September 11th attacks didn’t care to emphasize that distinction. They carried out their attacks in the name of Islam, and they boasted terrorist strongholds in Muslim-majority nations. In the case of Pakistan, in particular, the nation had already gotten a bad reputation around the globe for being largely homogeneous, intolerant of outsiders, and highly conservative – again, all in the name of Islam.
As Dr. Considine describes, this led to the issue of equating Pakistanis “here” with the ones “there” – meaning Pakistanis in and out of Pakistan. Pakistanis abroad were believed to hold the same ideals and values as those in Pakistan, when the reality of the situation was far from that. Perceived loyalties to the “motherland” were unfair and unfounded, and often resulted in laws and regulations against Pakistanis, specifically.
The identity of Pakistan as an extremist nation is interesting in itself. Some brief history – India was divided into three different countries in the 1940s in an effort to curb discord between the Muslims and the Hindus. When Pakistan was created, it was intended as a safe haven for Muslims, a place where they could live without fear of persecution. My own ancestors left the subcontinent prior to this split, which explains why I’m Indian and Muslim (although, technically, we haven’t been able to trace our history back that far, so who knows what part of the subcontinent we were actually from).
Pakistan was setup originally as a secular nation, but due to intolerant and extremist leaders, people who did not fit in with the conservative Muslim narrative were discouraged from living there. Over time, the country became inhospitable and unwelcoming to non-Muslims, making it the perfect place to breed extremist terrorist groups.
So, Islamic terrorism and extremism became synonymous around the world with Pakistanis. What was the difference when the two had become so muddled together? And what would the association mean for Pakistanis around the world, especially those seeking to leave Pakistan for life in a new nation?
Considine states that now,
“Anti-Pakistani racism…overlaps with Islamophobia.”
This is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking, but it helps for us to understand how this came to be.
Ultimately, that’s the brilliance of Considine’s book. Nothing is gained from ignorance or blind hatred. Nothing can be gained from not knowing enough. And personifying a group of people versus seeing it as a group of individuals is a dangerous mistake to make. Yes, stereotypes exist for a reason and they help us to draw time- and energy-saving conclusions about the world we live in, but stereotypes are often pretty harmless. In such cases where it demonizes a group of people to the point that they are being systematically discriminated against in various levels of government in various nations, it becomes time to rethink the narrative that’s being purported.
Islamophobia has been steadily increasing in Western nations, and the incessant threat of terrorist attacks is enough to drive people to paranoia. Any time an attack occurs, I dread the moment when one of the Islamic terrorist organizations claims responsibility for it. The fact of the matter is that regardless of whether or not the organization was behind the attack, by simply claiming to be, they achieve their actual goal – to spread terror.
Terrorist groups thrive on people’s fears, irrational or otherwise, and they depend on the general ignorance of the public to perpetuate these fears. By aligning themselves with an entire nation of people, they succeed in demonizing those people. The rest of the world comes to fear them based on nothing more than their nationality or race, which leads to feelings of loneliness, disparity, and otherness. Isolationism only reinforces the idea that one group is different from the other, so much so that they cannot even coexist peacefully or amicably.
These sentiments are perfect for breeding terrorists and growing their organizations. Nobody likes to feel like they don’t belong somewhere, and people will go to great – even unspeakable – lengths to find their people.
This may sound like a dire example of a worst-case scenario, but unfortunately, it’s a reality that has played out reliably over the course of several years. As far as I can see, the first step in slowing the momentum of Islamophobia and the insistence that Muslims, Pakistani or otherwise, do not belong as contributing members of Western societies, is gaining a deeper understanding of the religion and those who commit acts against humanity in its name.
Dr. Considine, admittedly, did not have a strong grasp of Islam or its people when he decided to learn more. He was confused by the terrorist attacks he saw on the news. He didn’t know who the people were who committing them or what was motivating them. He was unfamiliar with the Muslim people living amongst him, and understandably, he was apprehensive of them.
But thankfully, he knew what he didn’t know. He recognized that he had a limited view on Islam, Pakistanis, and terrorists, and that he didn’t quite understand the link between them.
Considine’s book is a welcome and enlightening work of literature that is perhaps overdue. As a Muslim, I was grateful to read a non-Muslim’s balanced and unbiased report of the struggles facing the Pakistani-Muslim diaspora, and I was thankful that someone, let alone a sociology professor, took the time to understand a people who had little direct impact on his own life.
While the impact is merely a greater understanding for Considine, the impact for the Pakistani community and Muslims around the world is much further reaching. For such a large group of people, the collective voice has been muffled and stifled by those who find it easier to discriminate against them than to learn from them. Having an educated, respected, and genuinely interested “outsider” such as Dr. Considine speak on behalf of those drowned voices is a step in the right direction. The community should take all the support it can get.
It’s easier to fear than it is to love. And it’s easier to dismiss than it is to understand. But in the end, where does that leave any of us? With peace of mind? With security?
No. Paranoia does not grant us any of these gifts.
But every step taken towards acceptance and tolerance should be celebrated as a victory in this world, and Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora is nothing short of this.