Islam, Race and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora is a new book by Craig Considine, a Catholic American of Irish and Italian descent who is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Pakistanis are the seventh-largest and second-fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. “It is also one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Muslim diasporas in the world,” Considine tells Weekend Review. “So they are not only significant in terms of numbers but also in terms of influence.” His book focuses on Pakistanis living in Boston, United States, and in Dublin, Ireland.
Considine traces his interest in Muslims to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Considine was only 15 years old at the time. He had grown up in a small suburban town in Massachusetts, predominantly white and Christian (with a small Jewish community.) “I had never met a Muslim in my life. I didn’t know anything about Islam. When this event happened, I fell into a trap of sorts, an Islamophobia trap. You start looking at a specific population in the country and around the world with suspicion. So that stuck with me for a bit until I got to college.”
He wanted to study Arabic and hoped to become an intelligence agent to spy on “bad” Muslims. “I had a few teachers that had a transformative impact on my mind in terms of bringing me to the knowledge of Islam.”
At American University in Washington, one of his professors was Akbar Ahmed, the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK and a distinguished anthropologist and writer.
Considine had the opportunity to travel with Professor Ahmad for one year around America. They visited 100 mosques in 75 cities trying to understand or answer the question on what it meant to be an American through the lens of Muslims.
“I have so many stories from these visits to the mosques. I mean, you get the diversity of the Ummah in one study in America. Because there are so many different sects of Islam in this country,” he says. He had a chance to sit down with the famous intellectual Noam Chomsky and filmed an interview between him and Professor Ahmad.
“I became familiar with the Pakistani community, Pakistani history, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and a lot of what was happening today with the rise of these kind of fringe radical groups. So when it was time to do my PhD, I wanted to look at issues pertaining to Muslims in Europe and the United States. And as you know, PhDs are quite specific. So I decided to choose a specific community that was overwhelmingly Muslim. I chose Pakistanis.”
Considine lived in Ireland from 2010 to 2014 and did his PhD in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College in Dublin. The fieldwork was also feasible for him because he was based in Dublin and was able to go back to Boston.
One of the reasons he chose the US and Ireland was because of national identity issues. “When we think about what it means to be an American, sometimes we think of it as a civic nation, this idea that the constitution allows them to be an American. Whereas, in the Irish context, when you think of Irish national identity, it is in a different context. It is white, it is Catholic, it is basically not English, or not British. That is how the Irish identity was created. So I thought that there would be an interesting parallel between these two countries in terms of race and how they are perceived.”
There had been some stories written about Pakistanis in Boston and Dublin community that really didn’t paint them in a positive way. “I wanted to actually find these positive stories which I knew were out there. And I wanted to counter balance some of the anti-Pakistani rhetoric in news stories.”
When it comes to the Pakistani diaspora, there tends to be an overemphasis on the British context, says Considine. “There have been so many studies carried out about Pakistanis. I thought a comparative angle would be quite interesting; rather than focus on one national context, you get two national contexts. And you get to explore the national identities of the United States and Ireland.”
He notes that the origins of the Boston Pakistani community and the Dublin Pakistani community are quite different. “In the United States, the migrants came over in the 1960s and were largely already educated in Pakistan. They were coming to the United States to enter jobs in higher-end professions.”
In the Irish or British context, many of the early Pakistani migrants came over without the educational advantage that the US community had. “A lot of early migrants from Pakistan to Ireland were from rural communities where the baradari, the family social network, was quite strong. They tended to be more conservative. Whereas in the Boston context, I found that many of the parents of the second generation I interviewed lived in cities such as Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. So there seemed to be a different origin.”
One of the most enriching aspects of the study for Considine was making connections with Muslims amidst all the suspicion between communities. A lot of work he did was during Ramadan. “I would hang out in masjids in Dublin and Boston, going out of my way to meet and connect with them. Because I think the impact is more lasting when you are showing these communities that you have invested in their experience.”
He met between 40 and 45 people, conducting around 30 semi-structured interviews. He also did a couple of focus groups. I ask Considine about the stories that stood out. “In the American context, I met an Ahmedi Muslim, who was actually physically removed from a train [as a] possible terrorist. He was brought to a train station, interrogated, but nothing eventually happened. He was studying at Harvard Medical School, a bright human being, and a very good person.
“In the Irish context, I met a person who I kind of described as a Salafi. He grew up in Dublin, wasn’t very religious when he was growing up. He got into drinking and dating women and about three or four years before our interview, he made this U-turn towards a certain understanding of Islam, and it really became very prominent in his identity.”
I ask Considine about Donald Trump’s impact on the Pakistani community. “Unfortunately, Pakistanis, not only through their identity as Pakistanis, but also by their skin colour, are stereotyped as not only Muslim, but whenever you think of Muslim, at least in the Irish, American context, it is impossible to distance yourself from Daesh. Because the media is constantly telling you, this is the threat. We have this kind of lumping wherein Pakistanis automatically get branded as Muslim. And the minute they do that, that identity is created, you get into the good Muslim, bad Muslim.
“[Trump] is making it more difficult for an American identity to rise that is not based on religion or ethnicity.”
In contrast, the young men he interviewed spoke highly of former US president Barack Obama for defending the rights of Muslims and for backing the idea that anyone can be an American. At the same time, there was criticism by many of Obama’s drone warfare attacks in Pakistan. “There is no question Obama was liked more by the people I interviewed.”
In his book, Considine introduces “Pakphobia”, a term referring to an aversion to Pakistanis or Pakistan. In the Irish and American context, Pakistanis are seen largely as Muslims, notes Considine. “What we are seeing with Pakphobia in the Irish and American context is a fear of Pakistanis because of this perceived threat of Muslims and radical Islam.”
Considine has explored Pakistani identity in depth. “What does it mean to be Pakistani? Are we looking at a secular Pakistan rooted in Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s [outlook]? Or are we looking at the 1970s with the rise of Zia-ul-Haq and everything that happened. So I play around and participants reflect that too.”
At Rice University, he teaches a course called Muslims in American Society. Considine describes Texas as a “hotbed of Islamphobia.” Is Islamophobia particularly bad there? “Not necessarily in the cities. The cities tend to be relatively liberal. But you get outside of the cities and you have Islamophobia for lack of a better term.”
His second book, Muslims in America: Examining the Facts, is set for publication next year. “It is basically intended for high school and undergraduate students. The purpose is to give a clear and unbiased understanding of current issues and clear half truths and misconceptions. So for example when Donald Trump said thousands of Muslims in America celebrated 9/11, there is no proof of that.”
Considine considers part of his effort is to build safer and more constructive communities. “When I was in Ireland, I tried to do that. Now that I am back in America, I am trying to do that. I am a US citizen. It means something to me. I can’t ignore that it’s a fact. All I am trying to do is work to create more cohesion within society.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London