We are Khan (?)

evil.jpgEvil needs a face. In the 1980s that face was Ruhollah Khomeini. In the 1990s it was Sadam Hussein. In the 2000s it was Osama bin Laden. Setting aside whether these individuals were in fact evil, the reality is that for the American people they were the face of evil. They were personifications of a complex bundle of geopolitical concerns which came to the fore for a given span of time. Like it or not this was relevant to American brown folk. Apparently Sanjay Kumar, a Sri Lankan American who was later became the C.E.O. of Computer Associates, had to wear an “I am not Iranian” t-shirt in high school around 1980 during the hostage crisis. During the first Gulf War I encountered a weird comment that I looked like Saddam Hussein from an idiot in one of my classes (my own reaction was “what kind of crack are you smoking?!?!”, and my friends pretty quickly started mocking the kid who had thought to get one in at my expense). More recently in the 2000s the issue of “false positives” has been widely covered on this weblog, not without controversy.The controversy has to do with the fact that most resident South Asians are Hindu or Sikh Indian Americans who have nothing concrete to do with the Muslim Middle East. In fact to be frank many have their own issues with Islam and Muslims, making the analogy all the more offensive. Prejudice rooted in mistaken group identification would be farcical if it was not without tragic consequences.

But first let’s look closely at another case of “false positives,” Arab Christians moving from Muslim communities:

Arab Christians here are trying to separate themselves from a boisterous Muslim community that has served as a punching bag for “terrorism” stereotypes since Sept. 11.

Many have moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs — Sterling Heights, Madison Heights, Farmington Hills and the Bloomfield areas — to get away from the high concentration of Muslims in Dearborn, said Pastor Haytham Abi Haydar of Arabic Fellowship Alliance Church. Other Christians, he said, have turned their backs on their Arab heritage and integrated with American culture.

But just like Middle Easterners often assume America is a Christian nation, many Americans assume all Arabs are Muslims. That’s made life in a post-9/11 world difficult for a group of people who is proving religion has no borders.

“On many, many, many occasions, if you’re an Arab, you might as well be a Muslim to many people here,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “Unfortunately, the majority don’t see the dynamic that Christianity came from the Middle East, that Jesus was from the Middle East.”

There are a few separate issues which I want to address to do justice to what’s going on. First, the Arab identity of many non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East is contested. They may speak Arabic as their first language, but their identification as Arabs may be only an artifact of Arab nationalism (which Eastern Orthodox Syrian Christians were instrumental in formulating). Many Arab Christians from the Fertile Crescent persisted in speaking the ancient Syriac dialects which have nearly become extinct. And Maronite Christians from Lebanon quite often will vigorously and vocally deny an Arab identity, in part because of their association with Western Christians and Western Christian powers dating back to the medieval era (their church is in union with Rome, so they are Catholics, but with their own specific rite which dates back to late antiquity), and also because of the fact that many are in fact Francophone.

Setting that aside a second tragic aspect of the prejudice against Arab Christians for being Muslim is that they have been the subject of a nearly century long religious cleansing from the Middle Eastern on the basis of their deviation from the majority identity of their nation-states. Because of the Assyrian genocide almost the whole of the membership of the ancient Church of the East resides outside of the Middle East. The headquarters of the modern church, whose historical lineage goes back to the Sassanian Shahs of pre-Islamic Iran, is in Chicago. Until recently one could unequivocally say that the majority of Arab Americans were not Muslim because of the disproportionate migration out of the Middle East of religious minorities fleeing persecution. There are millions of people of Lebanese descent in Brazil!

609px-Steve_Jobs_WWDC07.jpgBut the final issue which is important for Arab Christians, and Arab non-Muslims in general (Paula Abdul’s father was a Syrian Jew, Casey Kasem is a Druze), is that they can melt into the background because many of them can “pass” for white. How many people would ever guess that Steve Jobs’ biological father was a Syrian Muslim? Or that 1980s teen-queen Tiffany sports the surname Darwish? You can think many things of Ralph Nader, but his Arab identity is not at the forefront of his public image. Few people know or care that the Republican governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, has paternal grandparents who were born in Syria.

The problem for brown Americans is that for most of us we aren’t “brown” just because of our names, dress, or place of familial origin. We are physically brown! There’s no option of melting into the background with simply an Anglicization of name and a switch to a conventional mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic church. You could be a Christian brown American with both names which don’t warrant notice (e.g., “Matthew Thomas”), but you would still have a brown face.

None of this is new. All of these points have been mooted on this weblog before. But the reason I’m prompted to post this is because as we move into the teens of this century there is now on the horizon a possibility of a new bête noire of the United States of America: Pakistan. Despite Khomeini’s paternal lineage’s sojourn in Lucknow as part of that city’s Persian community (ergo, his occasional honorific of “Hind”) he was not really brown. If Saddam Hussein shaved his mustache I don’t think you could plausibly say he was brown either. “At least” Osama bin Laden seems to have been a relatively noticeable brown shade, as benefits someone whose father was an immigrant from Yemen’s baking Hadhramaut.

But it may be that if Pakistan takes center stage, going from “frenemy” to “enemy,” the face of evil will become indubitably brown (yes, I know some Pakistanis deny an affinity with other brown folk on racial grounds, but everyone knows this is a joke). This will bring to the fore I think a set of complex tensions which are common within the diverse and variegated brown American community. As I have noted before because of my surname people regularly ask if I am Pakistani, including Pakistani Americans. I have a few different reactions. A mild visceral irritation does boil up within me because my mother was shot by Pakistani soldiers during 1971 conflict. Of course my family has Pakistani American friends and they do not linger long on those long gone politics, but despite all that my parents have left me with no illusion with how we Bengalis were treated when we were Pakistanis. More strongly though I have an aversion to what Pakistan has become, a state where religious minorities and the heterodox live in fear, the bosom of terrorism and conspiracy. I am not deeply engaged in affairs international, but the more I find out about Pakistan the more angry I become. I am not an Indian American but I now comprehend with much more fullness why Indian Americans have such strong reactions to Pakistan, even those born and raised in this country.

Which brings me to the issue of the majority of the readership of this weblog. It is one thing to be confused with Arabs due to the ignorance of the average human. What if it became common to be attacked or abused for being Pakistani if you were Indian American? If it were not tragic and terrible it would be comic! And yet stranger things have happened. I recall the story of some Sudanese Christian orphans in Atlanta who had fled their nation of birth because of racial and religious persecution…who were assaulted for being “Muslim terrorists” by ignorant gangbangers after 9/11.

I cursorily follow many political weblogs in my RSS reader. It seems that Left to Right there is no sympathy for Pakistan. In my own opinion this is a well founded position. Rather than an ideological chasm it seems there is an establishment vs. non-establishment gap, where it is the establishment which is urging caution. Perhaps caution is warranted, that is not the concern of this post. Rather, I do think that there is a high probability that in the next few years we, as in Americans, will know Pakistan with the same level of detailed superficiality which we got to know Afghanistan and Iraq in the past.

Because of my name the difference in experience will only be quantitative in terms of being queried unbidden by strangers whether I am Pakistani. And yet I wonder if more random brown folk will be asked this question now, and the range of responses which will be offered. As for Pakistani Americans, well, I’m very glad that I’m not in that boat! Hopefully these fears will be rendered irrelevant by a cooling down of tension or changes within the Pakistani body politic, but I wouldn’t take that bet right now….

Note: I am primed to close comments very quickly if the opinions are too inflammatory or boringly predictable. I will delete comments complaining about my stance on this issue when I see them.

Image credits: Hamid Mir, Acaben.

47 thoughts on “We are Khan (?)

  1. Interesting and timely post. But what do you think about the fact that Americans mostly know brown people in America as Indian Americans and are already favourably disposed towards them? Don’t you think this will make it less likely that they will brand all browns as Pakistanis? I mean this situation seems to me to be unlike Arab christians falling under the general group of arab bogeymen since in the American consciousness arabs are mostly muslim whereas american browns are mostly high achieving indian americans?

  2. I mean this situation seems to me to be unlike Arab christians falling under the general group of arab bogeymen since in the American consciousness arabs are mostly muslim whereas american browns are mostly high achieving indian americans?

    1) there is variance in this sort of thing by socioeconomic class. in much of rural america to be brown is to own motels or mini-marts (it used to be to be a doctor, but i think a lot of brown doctors have enough seniority that they’re relocating like other doctors). obviously it is different on the coasts.

    2) the human mind has many rooms. the conflation of hindu and muslim is pretty ridiculous sometimes for example (as some you no doubt know). the ‘stereotype’ of brownz is a composite of model-minority and terrorist as the two poles.

  3. I agree with Rahul. This isn’t going to pose a problem for browns unless they have Islamic names. People know that “Sandip” down the hall is an Indian, for crying out loud. If you look at US/UK news blog comments they’re all like “drop aid to Pakistan, ally with India.”
    If anything, Sandip may just play up his people’s historical difficulties with the Muslims.

  4. Well I would say that in this decade India seems to find it’s own place in the world and our morphological features may not necessarily only be attributed to Pakistan.

    I would admit though, that it is always in the back of my head, especially if I’m at airports and something recently was in the news concerning Pakistan, “will people think I’m from Pakistan”. I’ve had the question asked a few times, recently at a bar in Tribeca and after the guy bought me a drink (maybe as an apology?).

    This issue recently came up in UK where hindus specifically wanted to be labelled hindus rather than Asians (which desis are called in UK).

    I come from a hindu-bengali family that fled to Kolkata during partition. I call my self an atheist, but since 2001 noticed that I add that I’m from a hindu family. I consider my self liberal, but can certainly feel hawkish tendencies when issues of Pakistan come up, I know these are not the right feelings and I know where they come from, so I have no problem hiding them away and I would never say it in public to a non-desi.

    • interesting perspective “the arctic bong”! i was thinking about just having comments closed, but then i thought i’d miss out on some informative stuff. like the above.

  5. i think it is a valid point that the rise of indian economic power may allow a clear differentiation of brownz. which perhaps brings us to issue #2: what do you do when confronting someone attacking pakistanis as pakistanis? for example, i’ve admitted on this weblog that i felt at a loss when my evangelical protestant friends started attacking hinduism under the mistaken assumption i was hindu when i was younger. as an atheist i was fundamentally an outsider to this sort of debate…but i just compromised by reformulating hindu concepts (incarnation) into christian forms, which pissed off my friends enough that we moved to a terrain where i was more comfortable “defending” “my position.” (this same issue crops up with islam, as the type who aggressively ask i’m muslim are taken aback and just as offended when i say i’m an atheist, and then i can get into it on ground which makes some sense in terms of why they’d dislike me).

  6. so a commenter just left a pretty defensible criticism of some of the comments i made (i think they misunderstood, but that’s a different issue). but then they ended with a criticism of my tendency to delete comments. well, that resulted in my deleting of their otherwise interesting comment! :-)

  7. Eh, I think this possibility is greatly exaggerated. It is a nominal possibility that the Taliban/Al-Qaeda as a whole will become much more Pakistani in makeup and attempt to attack American targets (creating a Pakistani “bete noire”) but the chances of an overtly American-hostile president/government being elected is next to nil. There is simply too much Anglophilia on the ground.

  8. There is simply too much Anglophilia on the ground.

    the elites may keep a rational head, and know how far to push it (or not), but this seems a weird assertion.

    pew: America’s overall image remains negative in Pakistan. Along with Turks and Egyptians, Pakistanis give the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey — in all three countries, only 17% have a favorable view of the U.S. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner. And President Barack Obama is unpopular — only 8% of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations.

    from 2010.

  9. I think a lot of that is colored by drone attacks, but by anglophilia I didnt mean love of the state perse, but rather a strong affinity for Western cultural products (especially American), ie music, movies, etc. at all socioeconomic levels.

    • but by anglophilia I didnt mean love of the state perse, but rather a strong affinity for Western cultural products (especially American), ie music, movies, etc. at all socioeconomic levels.

      i agree about that affinity, but i don’t think that is predictive of geopolitical sentiment. pakistanis love bollywood and south koreans consume a lot of japanese cultural production (anime especially i have heard) despite formal and informal bans.

  10. I don’t think the demonization of Pakistan will affect American Brownz anymore than the demonization of Muslims already has. I am brown, therefore I am subject to be conflated with whichever swarthy villians the U.S. establishment invents.

    • good point. perhaps on the contrary the distinction between pakistan/indian will mitigate some of the blowblack on american brownz (those who aren’t pakistani).

      • Razib, your comment about being told you look like Saddam reminds me of something that happened to my brother when he was 14, around the time of the first Gulf War. A kid at school called him a “f****n’ Kuwaiti”. As you put, farcical if the consequences of this type of thing weren’t tragic. (I am South Indian btw)

      • yeah but that’s not gonna happen. No way Americans will learn to be able to (outside the obvious and common) distinguish Muslim and Hindu names.

  11. While I can see where you are coming from, Arabs have been an American bogeyman for a really long time. Given the hawkishness of some neocons and their focus on the Middle East, Arabs have had to deal with being painted as hostile to the U.S. far longer than Pakistanis have. Domestic political considerations play less of a role in South Asia than they do in the Middle East. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. does not invest itself in security concerns to the extent that say, AIPAC does regarding Israel. Since there is no well-organized lobbying that attempts to portray Pakistanis in a negative light, that should hopefully lessen the chances of any hostility towards them. Any negative press Pakistan received is largely the result of its duplicitous military, not a sustained media campaign on the Sunday chat shows.

    Indeed, what has struck me over the past several years is that India & Pakistan have been de-linked in most news accounts. Most of the time when there is a negative news story about Pakistan, it is largely in its relations with the U.S.

    Now, if the Pakistani military were to actually kill some American troops, that would be a game-changer.

  12. I started reading this post with a lot of hope. As has been pointed out plenty of times, a proper response to misidentification should not be “I’m not that” but “I’m not that – and those people shouldn’t be targeted either.” So, I’m pretty disappointed that this post turned from the possibility of making that argument to making a grandiloquent point about how terrible it is to be Pakistani right now, and how non-Pakistani brown people really hope they won’t have to deal with the harassment.

    How about wishing there wen’t harassment? Sure, you do that indirectly, but that’s not really the point of the post. Which also, incidentally, seems to make a Majoritarian move, disregarding the pan-South Asian nature of this blog, because more of its readers associate with India.

  13. I think that anytime some sort of stereotype or assumption is used to harass people it’s going to be bad– One of my friends (of S. Indian descent) was screamed at on the street for being an Arab after 9/11… and I don’t think he even look close.. I think most people who do things like that generally have NO idea who they are actually “supposed” to be yelling at and usually have no idea about the situation going on either– they just found someone to yell at for some reason.

    If Pakistan becomes the new “enemy” it will be bad for any vaguely non-white person in the U.S.– including probably all South Asians and Middle Easterners…

  14. As has been pointed out plenty of times, a proper response to misidentification should not be “I’m not that” but “I’m not that – and those people shouldn’t be targeted either.”

    since it’s been argued many times i thought it would be boring and anodyne to just reiterate that. anyway, the attitudes of many indian americans to pakistan seem particularly vociferous from what i’ve seen, so i wanted to explore that.

    How about wishing there wen’t harassment?

    everyone wishes there wasn’t harassment (seriously, everyone, even the most anti-islamic anti-pakistani indian american would probably not support harassment of pakistani americans), just like everyone wishes there was goodwill on earth. laudable, but boring as a point. the reality is that we live in a complex world where we have to pragmatically compromise.

    . Which also, incidentally, seems to make a Majoritarian move, disregarding the pan-South Asian nature of this blog, because more of its readers associate with India.

    first, i was born in bangladesh. so i’m somewhat orthogonal to the whole pakistan-india aspect. and the majority indian aspect of this weblog has been salient and frankly somewhat of a problem in tems of generating fruitful discourse (some vocal voices tend to overwhelm the threads). but the reality of sentiment needs to be taken into account.

    your comment was nicely civil, so i didn’t delete it. but if the post wasn’t to your taste you should really just move on. there’s plenty of places which are consonant with your orientation, including here. broadly i share your general sentiment as well, i just am not going to be dictated to think and say just one thing on one topic. it is often fruitful to examine all sides and perspectives with epoche now and then, and sometimes to take a opinionated perspective which reflects your own orientation.

  15. If Pakistan becomes the new “enemy” it will be bad for any vaguely non-white person in the U.S.– including probably all South Asians and Middle Easterners…

    that seems false on the face of it. do you think black and east asian ameicans will be targeted? i doubt it. vincent chin was killed because he looked japanese to his attackers. the haters are not without all sense and order, though they do tend to “spray” their chaos a bit more than their real intent.

    • It depends on the person targeting them– I have been told I look Filipino before (and I don’t. At all.) so I really wouldn’t be surprised if some ignoramus incorrectly identifies a wide swath of those they see as “other” as the current enemy.

  16. I can’t speak to South Korea, but I think Pakistanis love Bollywood not in spite of it being largely produced by India but because they view themselves as just as natural inheritors of the film tradition as India, even if it is the mass producer of movies in the Desh. And many polls show that Pakistanis would have a better view of America if immigration quotas were increased, aid was distributed better, etc.

  17. It is one thing to be confused with Arabs due to the ignorance of the average human. What if it became common to be attacked or abused for being Pakistani if you were Indian American? If it were not tragic and terrible it would be comic! And yet stranger things have happened. I recall the story of some Sudanese Christian orphans in Atlanta who had fled their nation of birth because of racial and religious persecution…who were assaulted for being “Muslim terrorists” by ignorant gangbangers after 9/11.

    I remember learning in a history class that during WW2, some Chinese/Korean American families would send their kids to school with little badges with the Chinese/Korean flag in case they would be confused for Japanese.

    And yet I wonder if more random brown folk will be asked this question now, and the range of responses which will be offered. As for Pakistani Americans, well, I’m very glad that I’m not in that boat!

    I remember after 9/11, one of my classmates asked me if I was from Afghanistan, and I told her my grandmother was, but I was born in Maine, and she said something like “that’s ok, don’t feel bad, you can still be friends with us!” (mind you, I was 11 then – I’m sure had I been in high school, I would’ve received more racist comments). I suppose I’m kind of racially ambiguous looking because I get asked the “what are you?” question an awful lot, and I have a variety of responses depending on context: south asian, pakistani, afghani, brown if I’m speaking casually, pashtun if I’m talking to another desi, etc…It’s interesting to note how the responses change depending on context. In college, I attended on a scholarship from an organization called Daughters of the American Revolution, which was composed almost entirely of well-off WASP women in the 50 – 80 age range; I had to attend events annually, where typically I was the only olive-skinned woman in the room with a suspiciously Arab sounding surname…made for some interesting conversations :P

  18. I was reading up on Asian American politicians today and just realized that the first Asian elected to Congress was Indian (born in Punjab, came to Berkeley for grad school, elected in 1956 when Hawaii was still a territory). Despite being a Sikh, he was categorized at the time as a “Hindu” or “Hindoo” and often asked to speak on behalf of Hindus. When you read Americans’ travel journals from 100+ years ago, such as Mark Twain’s, you notice that they don’t lump all brown people together: they demarcate between Hindoos and Mohammadans. The geographic groupings are relatively recent and, as best as I can tell, the product of post-colonial national lines.

    I’ve had very few people ask if I’m Pakistani, though I did once get assigned for CASA volunteering to work with a Pakistani Muslim family basically on the assumption that I’d understand them better culturally. They were really nice to me once we got past the initial awkwardness of “Hi, I’m here to check up on whether you’re still hitting your kid.” The mom was all “Ahh, you’re so far away from your family!” (I was 22 and graduated from college at this point) and the dad tried to talk politics (they were actually from Kashmir originally) and I smiled a lot and didn’t say much about that. Somehow it was the first time I had goat brain curry.

    As far as concerns about Pakistan go, on the one hand I was inclined to play them up during the runup to the invasion of Iraq, basically as a way of noting that hello, Osama bin Laden was not hiding in Iraq and indeed Saddam Hussein was not tolerating Al Qaeda’s forming in Iraq, and that perhaps if we must spend money on the military as a response to 9/11, it could be spent in more effective places. On the other hand, now that conservatives actually do seem to have noticed that Pakistan is not precisely the U.S.’s friend, I’m piping down on it a bit.

    I went to New Delhi recently with a conservative white American friend, and our driver to Agra started complaining about the U.S.’s ties to Pakistan. Obviously, these predate the terrorism issue and have a lot to do with India’s Cold War non-alignment and flirtations with socialism/communism. I mentioned that to the driver, and also asked him what was going to happen in Pakistan if even this nominally secular government collapsed. I’m willing to say that Pakistan is complicated enough that even when they’re giving U.S. the finger… what are we gonna do?

  19. also, i will add an addendum as to my attitudes toward pakistan and pakistanis, since several commenters (a few deleted) have accused me to dislike for them. i do dislike the pakistani nation-state. i don’t see it as a friend of the united states, and i don’t see it as moving in a liberal direction (on the contrary!). more distantly the pakistani nation-state was responsible for genocide against many bengalis, though i am american identified so i leave it to those more directly impacted to channel their historical grievances (well founded i might add!). despite my mother being shot by mistake my family escaped persecution because we were muslims of some social status, except for the few who were involved in media production (they were shot as part of an attempt to neuter bengali-nationalist propaganda activities). as for the common people of pakistan, they seem under the grip of a view of islam which is totally antiethical to someone like me existentially (to muslims i’m an irtdad, so under a death penalty according to the main tradition of islamic jurisprudence). liberals in pakistan who would defend christians, hindus, and non-believers against the theocratic impulses of the very militant minority seem to be under siege or silent. the closer i look the more shocked and angered i become. this is a natural reflex of the fact that i identify emotionally with the religious and irreligious minorities in pakistan because if i were there i would be them.

    but that does not speak to my attitude toward pakistani americans and those pakistanis who share my values. i view pakistani ameicans as americans first and only unless they want to object to that characterization. i run a blog elsewhere with three people of pakistani origin, two americans, and one brit. granted, these are atypical pakistanis, two agnostics and on bahai.

    i think most people have a complex set of attitudes and opinions on these sorts of issues. i admit mine frankly. i hope not to be attacked for not simply retreating back to simple platitudes which i can agree with in the generality, but which collapse the real texture of my opinion.

    • “i think most people have a complex set of attitudes and opinions on these sorts of issues. i admit mine frankly. i hope not to be attacked for simply retreating back to simple platitudes which i can agree with in the generality, but which collapse the real texture of opinion.”

      some of us do actually appreciate your approach.

      It’s funny that to consider the ‘complex set of attitudes and opinions’ is often cast as ‘missing the bigger picture’ or not ‘seeing the whole’ of whatever south asian topic being discussed. The dissonance generated by barbarism coexisting with our perception of the sufficiently liberal conduct of relatives and loved ones ‘back home’ is always underestimated.

  20. Razib,

    Thanks for your measured and reasonable response. On the first two points, I agree. It is boring, but unfortunately does need to be reiterated. Its one thing not to wish harassment on anyone, and another to actually take a stand, however mundane, in expressing your disapproval for it. I’m not sure being a Bangladeshi makes a difference when the game you present is either/or. You’re Pakistani, or you’re not.

    I hope my comments don’t indicate that you should not have posted your thoughts on the issue. They were just a suggestion that perhaps framing the issue in a way that allow for Pakistani’s to enter the discussion too might be even more fruitful in terms of a discussion. This particular framing seems to suggest that its okay to exacerbate the situation.

    But, if I choose not to simply move on to a post or blog more consonant with ‘my views’ its because I enjoy reading this blog, and its many perspectives. I enjoy hearing other perspectives, and and I’m reading the comments here avidly. My dissension was not meant to imply otherwise.

    Cheers!

  21. yeah but that’s not gonna happen. No way Americans will learn to be able to (outside the obvious and common) distinguish Muslim and Hindu names.

    Oh, I think you’re underestimating the abilities of even ignorant people – my sister once had someone tell her something like “Yeah I could tell you’re not indian cause you don’t have one of em long-ass indian names, you’re like an arabian, riiiight?” (our name is Mehmoor – a stereotypical moslem name I guess).

    problem is, a (significant) minority of Americans basically lump everything between Turkey and Bangladesh together as some kind of giant terrorist nation. I’ve also noticed that on TV, the terrorist/bad guy is often played by an Indian actor rather than an Arab. Could be that there’s just more Indian actors for the roles, or as I suspect, it’s because to American viewers, the terrorist baddie has to be a brown-skinned, often ironically South Indian-looking guy. Actual Arabs like Nadar are off the hook because they can “pass” as white.

    • , it’s because to American viewers, the terrorist baddie has to be a brown-skinned, often ironically South Indian-looking guy. Actual Arabs like Nadar are off the hook because they can “pass” as white.

      i think this is correct. i’m not too sympathetic to the excesses of ‘critical race theory,’ but on this score i think their critiques of the racialization of these sorts of issues are spot on. the reality is that most arab terrorists look ‘more like us’ (read: white) than is comfortable, so best to get some south asian to depict them to differentiate good and evil appropriately.

  22. I hope my comments don’t indicate that you should not have posted your thoughts on the issue. They were just a suggestion that perhaps framing the issue in a way that allow for Pakistani’s to enter the discussion too might be even more fruitful in terms of a discussion. This particular framing seems to suggest that its okay to exacerbate the situation.

    here’s the issue: for me to actually enter into a discussion with pakistani americans we need to get into a nitty-gritty about the nature of pakistan if they want to defend it. the more and i look at how christians, hindus, ahmadis, even shias, are being treated the more shocked and angered i become. the very being of the state seems totally indefensible as the weak are being smothered as those of more liberal inclination are murdered or marginalized. indian americans have their own grievances due the pakistani state’s de facto sponsorship of groups which are engaging in acts of terror in india. if i didn’t address this cresting anger which i feel i don’t think i would be honest. but, it is rooted in my own personal perspective, and may seem rich coming from a citizen of the the imperial power of our age. and, yes, it might make some pakistani americans uncomfortable and unwelcome. i don’t know what to do about that. pakistan is an nation where the centrist barelvi movement, which itself has been attacked violently by deobandi-tinged extremists for their saint veneration, sanctions the murder of politicians who deny the legitimacy of the blasphemy law (the murderer was a religious barelvi, and barelvi clerics put out a notice that those who oppose the blasphemy law were subject to the same threats).

    it’s heavy and unfortunate stuff, but it’s real. i’m daunted by the prospect of objectivity. the reality is that there is bad stuff in the closets and front lawns of all nations. but are they all equivalent? i say no (bangladesh and malaysia don’t treat their religious minorities fairly either IMO, but they’re on a different scale than pakistan).

  23. I really have to object to this “Arabs can pass as whites” idea. If you look at the Libyan rebels or the protesters in Egypt, they do not look white to me. And if they don’t look white to me, it seems even less likely that they look white to whites.

  24. I really have to object to this “Arabs can pass as whites” idea. If you look at the Libyan rebels or the protesters in Egypt, they do not look white to me. And if they don’t look white to me, it seems even less likely that they look white to whites.

    arabs are multiracial. a substantial number of them have black african admixture (10-15% on average in egypt, 5% among syrians), while sudanese and some egyptians would be black in the USA. but a disproportionate number of arab americans in the diaspora are from the levant, and in particular syria-lebanon. most of these can pass as white, and are viewed as white by themselves and other arabs who are swarthier. there are millions of arab americans in the USA. most of these “pass” without much notice. many of the older christian famililes have anglized their names, which are often common semitic ones which have ‘western’ variants anyhow.

  25. I really have to object to this “Arabs can pass as whites” idea. If you look at the Libyan rebels or the protesters in Egypt, they do not look white to me. And if they don’t look white to me, it seems even less likely that they look white to whites.

    I agree with you about the Libyans, however, I believe most Arab-Americans are from countries like Syria and Lebanon, and often they do pass as whites. For example, we have family friends who are Lebanese Christian Orthodox and you would not guess they were Arabs looking at them; Levantines often get mistaken as “white” in the US, hence why even though many Republicans rail against Ralph Nadar for his political stance, I’ve never heard anyone make a racist comment about him being an Arab. OTOH, I have heard/read people accuse Obama of being a “dirty Moslem” affiliated with Arabs…

  26. Funniest thing with nationality confusion in Hollywood was Domino. They actually had an Afghan character speak in Hindi/Urdu or something like that. I wonder if they just hired the actor and asked him to speak in his local language.

    I think Iron Man had the same problem where Hindi/Urdu was spoken. But then in that case, I think there were Pakistanis involved. So that movie may be off the hook.

    There are a lot of Lebanese that can pass for white. Sununu. The Maloofs. There are just way too many out there. Not to mention there is some Russian, Belarussian mixes in Jordan, Lebanon regions.

    Then you have Palestinians who can pass as Indian, classical Arab looking, or white. There was some controversy when Freida Pinto was cast as a Palestinian in that movie directed by Julien Shnabel(sp?). It turns out that the real character it was based on looked Indian too.

  27. Right, I agree about the Lebanese/Syrians, but I thought levantine christians are only even questionably arab, and only recently thought of as such. If Egypt is the biggest arab country, and egyptians can’t pass as white, it seems weird to claim that arabs can pass as white, without adding a lot of qualifications.

    If Pakistan is the next enemy, doesn’t that suggest that this whole “south asian” identity was a big screw-up, from the perspective of the majority of its members??

  28. here’s the issue: for me to actually enter into a discussion with pakistani americans we need to get into a nitty-gritty about the nature of pakistan if they want to defend it. the more and i look at how christians, hindus, ahmadis, even shias, are being treated the more shocked and angered i become. the very being of the state seems totally indefensible as the weak are being smothered as those of more liberal inclination are murdered or marginalized.

    Here’s the other issue: a lot of Paki-Americans are appallingly ignorant and dismissive of its problems, particularly the 2nd3rd Gen crowd, who often associate Pakistan with all of the positive aspects of our parents/grandparents culture, and are often completely ignorant about the political and economic realities of the region. I think a possible explanation is because a disproportionate number of Pakis are Muhajirs (Indian Muslims who migrated to urban areas like Karachi) rather than Pashtuns or Balochis, who hail from the more troubled regions of the country. I think most Paki-Americans who are actually knowledgeable about the region (and I admit I’m ignorant about a lot myself, but trying to learn more) realize Pakistan is indefensible. I think it’s reasonable as a Pakistani or Afghan American to be proud of your culture and retain all the positive aspects of your heritage, while acknowledging that those 2 regions are beyond fucked up at this point, and dismissing the issues at hand by blaming Amreeka/India isn’t going to cut it anymore. Personally I’m hoping to see the Obama administration cut back on the aid that our taxpayers have been wasting on that region for 40+ years soon, I don’t see why billions should go to one of the most American-hating countries in the world. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the NWFP broke off into its own autonomous state in the next century (and possibly the Balochistan too) while the Sindhi region tries to emulate India by becoming more progressive. This is going way off topic now so I’ll stop, but I hope you continue to post articles like this, because we need more blunt discussion about Pakistan in the Desi American community imo.

  29. Right, I agree about the Lebanese/Syrians, but I thought levantine christians are only even questionably arab, and only recently thought of as such. If Egypt is the biggest arab country, and egyptians can’t pass as white, it seems weird to claim that arabs can pass as white, without adding a lot of qualifications.

    Well we’re specifically talking about Arab-Americans, not Arabs in general, and how they’re perceived in post-9/11 America by non-Arabs. I agree with you that the average Arab (Egyptian, Saudi, etc) sure as hell doesn’t look white, but American Arabs are disproportionately Syrian/Lebanese, and Levantine Christians are overrepresented here too, because so many immigrated here. So that may explain why we have Indians playing terrorist baddies on 24, whereas an Arab like Nadar can repeatedly run for office without any racist jabs.

  30. Look at the al-Qaeda leaders, look at the 19 young arabs who perpetrated the spectacular 9-11 attack, look at the Muslims who demonstrate in favor of this terrorist organization: hardly any of them could pass for white. I suspect that many of these browns could be reacting to white racism. Osama and his siblings looked like they once tried to be western, based on pictures from when they were teens.

  31. ” I hope you continue to post articles like this, because we need more blunt discussion about Pakistan in the Desi American community imo.”

    I second that.

  32. Look at the al-Qaeda leaders, look at the 19 young arabs who perpetrated the spectacular 9-11 attack, look at the Muslims who demonstrate in favor of this terrorist organization: hardly any of them could pass for white. I suspect that many of these browns could be reacting to white racism. Osama and his siblings looked like they once tried to be western, based on pictures from when they were teens.

    just to be clear, most of the bin laden family are like most elite saudis. they live it up in the west. osama was an oddity. he was also the only one of his siblings (legitimate at least) without a saudi mother. since his father was from yemen and his mother from syria he was outside of the saudi tribal system in totality. that gave him some advantage (he was seen as ‘neutral’), but it also made him an outsider.

    also, al qaeda early on was dominated by egyptians because ayman al-zawahiri brought his own people. most of the operates came out of egyptian militancy against the late regime of mubarak et al., and bin laden helped reorient them toward transnational salafism. this is pretty well known as an organizational history.

    If Egypt is the biggest arab country, and egyptians can’t pass as white, it seems weird to claim that arabs can pass as white, without adding a lot of qualifications.

    this is complicated, and i don’t necessarily want to get into it…but the idea of arabnness outside of arabia is kind of problematic before the modern period, because the identity of these arabic speaking people was as muslims first and foremost. the emergence of an arab national consciousness as we see it today is a modern construction explicitly modeled on the european project of the nation-state, and christian arab speakers were instrumental in it because it allowed them to be full participants in the national project as arab nationalism was not explicitly religious. obviously the tribes of arabia were arab. and some groups outside of arabia had identities which were tribally rooted in various arab groups which came out of arabia (there was a mass migration of arab tribes to parts of north africa for instance). but the arabness of many regions of the arab world in a self-conscious manner was very inchoate. for example, the mamlukes of egypt were mostly drawn from circassians. this elite persisted after the ottoman turkish conquest to the 19th century. if egypt had an arab national consciousness, it didn’t show it over the centuries, as arabic speaking groups were ruled by non-arabs. the founder of ‘modern egypt,’ muhammad ali, was an albanian who reputedly couldn’t even speak arabic (he could speak turkish i think, as he was originally an ottoman soldier).

    p.s. a lot of the stuff about arabs also applies to the turks. turkish nationalism is very much a modern project. i think as a contrast in the middle east one has to look at the persians, whose national self-consciousness predates islam and can be encapsulated early on in the shahnameh. though i have made the argument elsewhere that what we understand as iranian national identity really is rooted in the safavid conquest (and the safavids were predominantly turkic, though there were greek and armenian strands ancestrally in the leadership) and the forced conversion of the area that is today persia to the shia religion in totality (only the baloch and kurds escaped this).

  33. Thanks Razib that helps me make more sense of it. I’ve been confused on this “Arab” topic ever since I saw a French-language movie a few years ago (can’t recall the name). Some French people called some (white-looking, not Egyptian-looking) Lebanese “dirty arabs” and then the Lebanese said how ignorant the French were, because they weren’t Arabs. I got really confused and looked into this a little online, but never got to the bottom of it. Your point about Arab-ness outside of Arabia being a recent construction and propelled heavily by Christians helps make the whole thing come together.

  34. One possible antidote to the problem Razib miyan mentioned is to date and wed a gori. And by that, I don’t mean a fair-skinned Indian/Indian-American woman, but a Caucasian/white woman. Your stock will immediately shoot up and your brownness will be less likely to get you lumped with the “bad brown people.”

  35. One possible antidote to the problem Razib miyan mentioned is to date and wed a gori. And by that, I don’t mean a fair-skinned Indian/Indian-American woman, but a Caucasian/white woman. Your stock will immediately shoot up and your brownness will be less likely to get you lumped with the “bad brown people.”

    really? i guess i’m so kala that that doesn’t matter :-) though seriously, that’s kind of a dumb comment it seems. is there a vast swath of empirical data that i’m missing out on?

  36. Your point about Arab-ness outside of Arabia being a recent construction and propelled heavily by Christians helps make the whole thing come together.

    i don’t want you to over-read my point :-) there was a sense of turkish, persian, and arabness before the modern era. and in the first 1.5 centuries of islam the ethnic-racial supremacism of arabs vs. all muslims was pretty extreme (in fact, some of the early texts make it clear that christian arabs were superior in status to converted persians!). some later islamic scholars term the ummayyads the ‘arab kingdom’ in reference to their racial autocratic nature, in contrast to the abbassids who were more explicitly islamic and cosmopolitan. and during the ottoman era arabs were to some extent looked down upon by the turks. e.g., there was a prominent arab general in the ottoman armies who was always under suspicion because there was a sense that arabs lacked the martial spirit of turks, albanians, and slavs. so it isn’t as if arab was made out of nothing. but a sense of arab nationalism analogous to french or german nationalism is relatively new, so some non-muslim peoples dissent from it even if they speak arabic. and some non-arabic speakers adhere to it strangely. i think last i checked somalia is part of the arab league….

  37. One thing that gives some hope is the English language newspapers, especially Dawn. I have been following it since Musharraf’s time and several of its columnists have been frank and critical.

  38. One possible antidote to the problem Razib miyan mentioned is to date and wed a gori. And by that, I don’t mean a fair-skinned Indian/Indian-American woman, but a Caucasian/white woman. Your stock will immediately shoot up and your brownness will be less likely to get you lumped with the “bad brown people.”

    But why a white woman? Why not, say, a black woman/ east asian woman/ etc?

    Some people-of-colour are so eager to intermarry with white folks. It’s pathetic, and I’m embarrassed to be associated with these POC. Shame on you! Have some self-respect for goodness sake.