By Kevin Ferreria, Wagner College ’13
“Islam teaches [us that] what country you live in, you should support them. . . . See, if I live in America, I have to support America.” Many Muslim Pakistani immigrants struggle with their identify, negotiating their transnational lives, split between Pakistan and the United States of America, their “model” minority status and the constant suspicion they face as Muslims within post 9/11 United States. The first wave of Southeast Asian immigration began with the 1965 passage of the Immigration Act, which drew upper class, highly educated immigrants entering on professional and technical visas. In 1980, the “second” wave of Southeast Asian immigration began, changing from professional and technical visa entry to the majority entering through family reunification visas. As the first wave began to take root, creating families in the US, the second wave extended families over natural and political borders bringing lower socio-economic immigrants. As with any immigrant group, a struggle on how to retain traditional values and customs while attempting to be accepted by mainstream US culture ensued within the Southeast Asian immigrant community, only to be exacerbated by the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001. Muslim Pakistani immigrants to New York City have minimized this struggle a strong commitment to education allowing for upward mobility and the creation of community centers which fostered their cultural identity yet isolating them from total assimilation and popular American culture.
Model Minority, a Place within US’s social hierarchy
Before 9/11 Pakistani immigrants were considered a “model minority,” because they upheld traditional family values. The “model minority” stereotype, or the idea that the middle-class position of Asian Americans is attributed to their cultural values that support success, which Pakistanis can also contribute to their strict value of education. As the majority of the first wave of Pakistani immigrants were people who gained professional/technical visas the Pakistani group easily moved into the American middle class. Yet, as mentioned earlier this was did not hold true for the second wave of Pakistani immigration which opened the door for higher rates of lower socio-economic Pakistanis to immigrate. Many of these same immigrants can be seen as those driving the taxis, or working in grocery or deli shops. Nonetheless this shift in the socio-economics of the immigrants did not change the total perception of Pakistani-Americans, instead a study by Diditi Mitra demonstrates those immigrants with a lower socio-economic status were able to assert their superiority in other ways: They negotiated these subordinate positions by invoking positive qualities associated with their race. The respondents asserted their superior quality as Asians, Punjabis, or Indians vis-à-vis Blacks, Hispanics, and “Americans”/whites. Some of the respondents expressed a wider identity by also including Pakistanis as part of their group. Whereas they believed that Blacks and Hispanics were criminally prone and unethical as a group, they described “Americans”/whites as in capable of performing hard work. Asians/Indians/ Punjabis, in comparison, were culturally inclined to accept hard work, like driving taxis. Mitra’s study allows us to understand how these immigrants negotiate their identity within the social/racial hierarchy within the United States. Their ability to adapt, and consider themselves superior has allowed them to manage the negative effects of marginalization by society.
Change in National Climate after 9/11
Despite being a minority, marginalization occurred greatly after 9/11. This marginalization resulted from the increased media attention to Pakistan in the news in addition to the increased inability by Americans to distinguish between Arabs and Muslims as well as extremists and Muslims as separate groups.. “Cultural citizenship,” argues Susnaina, “is a key notion for South Asian Americans, because legal citizenship is clearly not enough to guarantee protection under the law with the state’s War on Terror.” “Cultural citizenship, according to Lok Siu, refers to the “behaviors, discourses, and practices that give meaning to citizenship as lived experience” in the context of “an uneven and complex field of structural inequalities and webs of power relations,” the “quotidian practices of inclusion and exclusion.” As pointed out earlier the USA PATRIOT Act and other legislation passed by the federal government revealed the lack of cultural citizenship by the US Federal government but also by locals, wary of any Muslim or person perceived as a Muslim. The inability for the public to distinguish between extremists like Osama bin-Laden and other Muslims creates a difficult environment in which Muslims around the United States must defend their practices, beliefs and actions in their daily lives.
Community Mosque and Politics
Transnationalism becomes even more apparent within a mosque, civic association or community organization as these places become necessary for immigrants to negotiate their identity with each other and the outside world. Just as the numbers of Pakistanis on Staten Island began to rise, the first mosque on Staten Island, Al-Noor, was built in 1986. This mosque was not built first for religious purposes but rather for educational purposes; Pakistani parents on the island wanted a place to teach their children about their traditions and background. “The attention to providing spaces where Muslims cannot only pray hut congregate socially illustrates the expanded role of mosques in the United States compared to their strictly religious functions in Muslim countries.” On Staten Island the mosque provided a community space, replacing the old habits of families visiting each other’s houses on Sundays to socialize and educate their children. This mosque was funded, and supported totally by the growing Pakistani community on Staten Island. The social aspect of the mosque has allowed Pakistani-Americans to collectively negotiate their identity within the US. Communities in mosques have raised money for projects or in response to emergencies, such as flooding, back in Pakistan. Furthermore, as a community they have been able to become a political power, integrating themselves into the civic life of America and giving them a voice within the democratic system. Dr. Zafar, explained in his interview how the Pakistani Civic Association of Staten Island was able to register 11,000 Pakistanis to vote in the 1980s, using the mosques and schools as a central point. Due to their numbers their Congressman at that time period met with them, showing the political clout they had created, while giving their community a voice in local politics. This duality of concerns for Pakistan and local politics exemplifies the transnational lives of Pakistani-Americans. The following statistics provided in Muslim American Mobilization show the increase in political participation after 9/11 particularly: “In 2001, 79% of Muslims polled were registered to vote—40% as Democrats, 28% as Republicans, and the remainder as Independents. The majority of Arabs and Pakistanis (54% and 56%, respectively), and almost half (49%) of all South Asians voted for Bush. Four years later, 82% of the respondents were registered to vote; 88% said they were very likely to vote; 50% considered themselves Democrats, and only 12% were Republicans; 7% said they were likely to vote for Bush/Cheney, in contrast to 76% for Kerry/Edwards.” These statistics show that through political involvement Muslims (and Pakistanis) were able negotiate their opinions within American politics which larger transnational opinions. Pakistani-American involvement within the American political system allows them to negotiate their position within the racial and social hierarchies in the US.
The forces of international politics, immigrant rights, citizenship policy, social/racial hierarchies, popular perception all affect Pakistani-Americans and how they are able to live their lives emotionally and physically in the United States. Pakistani-Americans have been able to adapt and “create their own understanding of cultural citizenship” through their stress on education as a way to become upwardly mobile and their community organization to collectively act to effect change in both Pakistan and the US. Despite persecution after 9/11 Pakistani-Americans were able to remain above blacks and Hispanics in the social/racial hierarchy and keep confidence in their superiority, allowing them to continue to succeed. Nonetheless religion and national identity has remained important to the majority of Pakistani-Americans, where despite conflicting cultures youth have embraced a Pakistani heritage and used Islam to better negotiate their place in an increasingly globalized society.
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