Brown…or…not

From The Economist:

…For a new generation of British Muslims, such behaviour represents the stirrings of a new identity whose common denominator is not ethnic origin, but religion….

…Soon after America’s invasion of Afghanistan, a poll of British Muslims found that among those over 35, some 30% saw religion as their main source of identity. For those under 35, the figure was 41%.

This is apropos of a thread at the brown-American weblog Sepia Mutiny which sparked a lot of debate over the term “South Asian.” “Asian American” was a catchall term formulated by activists in the 1960s to bring together groups who were tied together by common bonds in the United States (though not in Asia). Eventually South Asians (as well as Southeast Asians) were included under the umbrella of that identity. Asian-American activists have used the fact that Buddhism is derived from India, and has a clear relationship to Hinduism, to make a cultural argument for the coherency of the term, though the rise of desi or South Asian speaks to the reality that brown people are a people apart under the umbrella.1 The term “South Asian” seems to be analogous to Asian American in that it takes a real geographic and cultural relation and attempts to crystalize it into something with more concreteness. Obviously, removing brown people from the Indian subcontinent results in a shift in cultural context.2 For individuals of Hindu identity there seems to be a diminution of the importance of caste and ethnic barriers that were salient in the old country, so pan-Indian (brown, South Asian, desi) identitification becomes more relevant.3 But for Muslims, the relaxation of the peculiar constraints of the Indian subcontinent has resulted in the rise of religious identity because of the simultaneous emergence of non-brown ties of affinities (multi-ethnic mosques) and the loosening of a common sense of brownness (for example, dietary acculturation) among the parental generation who were strangers in a strange land. So, for South Asians of Muslim origin, I would argue that pan-brown identification becomes less relevant.4

1 – Brown and yellow don’t socialize to a great extent from what I can see, at least to a greater extent than other variables (working in the same lab for example) would make you expect.

2 – Also note that like a bottleneck, the Diaspora is usually characterized by skewed sampling toward particular regions, castes and ethnic groups, so there isn’t anything like a recapitulation of the diversity that is found in the motherlands. One reason there aren’t tensions between high castes and Dalits in the UK or the USA is that there aren’t that many Dalits who emigrate.

3 – I am speaking mostly to the modern West, but Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobogo have had 3-4 generations of people of Indian origin residing in a non-South Asian environment, and the extreme simplification of South Asian caste and ethnic markers is notable. Additionally, geographic distance has a large effect even in these two cases, Mauritius is far more “Indian” than Trinidad because it is still connected was still connected with the Indian ocean trade throughout the 20th century, and some groups, like Ismaili Gujarati Muslim merchants, have still retained a strong connection with South Asia through marriage.

4 – Among South Asian Muslim intellectuals there were always many camps. Some favored a transnational Islamic vision, which denied the importance of their Indianness. Some argued for a Muslim Indian nationalism (this was the original idea behind Pakistan, and to some extent became the grounding for the birth of Bangladesh with the “Indian” being replaced by Bengali). And then there Muslims who were more sensitive about the reconciliation of their Indian and Muslim identities. I would argue that in the West the balance of power between these tendencies has shifted toward the first because for believing Muslims the “push” of society that identifies them physically as Hindu (Indian) is not as strong as the “pull” of common religious feeling. Additionally, with the removal of South Asian environmental context many of the sentimental roots of an Indian Muslim identity, as opposed to just an unmodified Muslim one, disappeared.

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