Lone Star Muslims

Transnational Lives and the South Asian Experience in Texas

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Ahmed Afzal
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , December
     2014.
     288 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479844807.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Houston, Texas—one of America’s largest, most ethnically diverse, and yet most segregated cities—is home to one of the biggest Pakistani communities in the United States. Relying on nearly a decade of data collected after 9/11, Ahmed Afzal explores how a seemingly homogenous but internally diverse population of Pakistani Muslims, both navigating and contributing to the city’s race- and class-marked geography, make themselves simultaneously into Pakistanis and into Houstonians. Ranging from upper-class suburban professionals employed in the oil industry to non-English speaking immigrant laborers who rely solely on Urdu in their daily lives, Afzal’s interlocutors not only occupy widely different class, educational, and residential positions, they vary greatly in their religious practices (hailing from Sunni, Shi‘i, and Isma‘ili communities) and sexual orientations (gay, straight, and queer). With such a varying population at the center of his research, one might ask what holds Afzal’s examination together, other than the loose framework of studying—as the title suggests—“transnational lives”? The answer: an inquiry, fairly unique after 9/11, into the lives of Muslims not in their houses of worship or simply “as Muslims,” but as people (sometimes un-mosqued) whose Islamic traditions are but one component in their larger experiences of making community and establishing place in the U.S.

Using a multi-sited ethnographic approach to study individual and community formation as it develops in locations ranging from places of work and Pakistani heritage festivals to gay bars and radio programs, Afzal’s anthropological focus on and understanding of transnationalism is noticeably more sophisticated than his treatment of religion. Nevertheless, Lone Star Muslims contributes in significant ways to the study of Muslim communities in the U.S., too. At first glance, Afzal’s most promising contributions to religious studies seem to be his ethnographic chapters on Isma‘ili Muslims and gay Muslims, respectively—both seriously under-represented populations in studies of Islam in North America. Because the former is rather briefly contextualized, however (for example, Afzal curiously attributes the similarity between Ismai‘ili and capitalist American work ethics to the teachings of a late-nineteenth century Isma‘ili leader, the third Aga Khan, while omitting mention of the current Aga Khan, who attended Harvard and became a businessman), the latter inclusion of gay Muslims turns out to be a more substantial intervention.

Relying in part on personal interviews with gay Pakistani Muslims, and following the lead of American studies and ethnic studies scholars who deal with sexualities (particularly, Nayah Shah and Jasbir Puar), Afzal persuasively rebuts the idea that Muslim or South Asian communities are inherently homophobic. He rightly clarifies that the notion of the homophobic immigrant or homophobic Muslim community is one that serves U.S. national interests, since it depicts the U.S. as a supremely liberal and tolerant society that must guide and direct others, while racializing South Asians in the U.S. as homophobic terrorists. Combining this discussion of what Puar has called “homonationalism” with brief forays into the history of certain South Asian literary traditions, Afzal simultaneously disrupts the idea that some Pakistani immigrants’ embrace of non-heterosexual identities is simply the product of assimilation or Western colonialism. Historically, South Asian traditions have evidenced the existence, and even idealization of, various kinds of non-heterosexual intimate relations—particularly intimate relationships between men that can be read in a romantic register. What has made these non-heterosexual intimacies harder for most Pakistani Muslims to appreciate, Afzal argues, is the influence of what he calls throughout the book “transnational Islam” (something he portrays rather thinly, and generally equates with “revivalist” Islam, but in his chapter on gay Muslims more specifically describes as the direct result of Saudi Arabian “Wahhabi” influence). This reference to Wahhabism exemplifies the lack of depth that often characterizes Afzal’s discussion of religion and is something that, unfortunately, threatens to overlap with the U.S. homonationalism he critiques.

Afzal argues that the fact that many Pakistani Muslims read the Qur’anic account of Lut (Lot, in the Hebrew scriptures) as one that condemns sodomy rather than one that condemns rape, corruption, and inhospitality, is the direct result of Wahhabi “literalist” readings. If Afzal knows that American Christian and Jewish communities have the same disagreements over the Lot narrative (without having been exposed to Wahhabi influence at all), he does not consider this important to his discussion of immigrant sexualities and religion. Afzal’s ethnography of gay Muslim men is not the only portion of the book where he presents religion rather thinly. While Afzal does helpfully, but briefly, describe the ways gay Muslims reconcile their committed faith with belonging to a religious community that largely disapproves of their sexualities, religion elsewhere is often a bit one dimensional. For working-class immigrants, and even for some gay Muslims, religion is treated as a kind of false-consciousness—something that compensates them for the race discrimination and class deprivations they experience in the U.S.

Despite some of these limitations in dealing with religion, there is much to recommend Afzal’s work. His chapter on the Pakistani Independence Day Parade, for example, illuminates not just how Pakistani Americans make themselves into Pakistanis and Americans simultaneously (particularly after 9/11), it raises the importance of “cultural citizenship”: a kind of belonging various groups strive for when it becomes clear that legal citizenship is insufficient to provide the rights and protections promised citizens in the U.S. Constantly turning the focus on groups marginalized within larger collectivities (be it Pakistanis within the U.S. or subsets of Pakistani Muslims within the larger Pakistani American community), Afzal’s work prevents the reader from coming away with a homogenous image of “the Pakistani American population.” Doing so, Afzal hopes, is not just something that is academically rigorous, but something that can contribute to “making visible spaces for building alliances and collaborations” (208) that can help Pakistani Americans of all backgrounds and persuasions—in concert with their surrounding community members—respond to the multifaceted marginalizations they face in the U.S.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary R. Corbett is a Visiting Professor of Religious Studies for the Bard Prison Initiative.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ahmed Afzal is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Purchase College, State University of New York.

Keywords: 

Comments

Joseph Blankholm

Thanks for a fascinating (and illuminating) review.

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