Connecting while conferencing

I attended the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (Canada) annual conference this past weekend.

The conference was held at Wilfred Laurier University. It was quite a trip to stay first in snow-White Waterloo, and then to hurry through the burst of colour that is Toronto.

At a roundtable keynote, I spoke on Muslim women’s participation in the development of theology, and then relaxed and enjoyed an exchange of ideas with comrades and sisters.

The conference was excellent, and when I wasn’t chatting with friends, every talk I actually listened to opened new windows. I recommend this conference to all Canadians. I also wasn’t the only US resident who trekked across for the conference.
But now, I prepare for another conference – the third this month, and why is November favoured as a conference-month? It’s a nasty time for travel and weather, after all. — As I prepare for a conference, I am torn. Surely many people of colour, many marginals, many minoritized/minority people (God, how many terms can I come up with) must have the same struggle all the time.

It’s hard to attend a “mainstream” “majority” “national” conference after attending a “home space” like AMSS, where every panel features topics near and dear to my heart.

Take a few steps towards the registration desk and dear and/or familiar faces appear. Or you see faces that COULD be familiar, – people who could be friends of friends of friends (and who, amusingly, almost always ARE friends/relatives of friends/relatives in my close-knit diasporic South Asian Muslim community.)

And in these spaces you get a chance to voice and develop ideas that don’t fit into majority frameworks. In majority spaces, you’re tentative about these ideas, and you whisper them nervously. But in “home spaces,” someone echoes them for you, and listens, affirming that you are not completely insane. “Home spaces” reassure as well as nuture, challenge as well as encourage.

And once the conferencing is done, you mentally find yourself rubbing your hands in glee for the post-conference socializing that awaits you. Yes, it’s been a long weary day; you’ve been listening, processing, learning, and networking like a demon. But surely you can sacrifice 2, 3, 4 hours of sleep for the AMGS (Association of Muslim Gup-Shup or chat), my unofficial title for AMSS. This is where we poke fun at every theory, every academic fairytale, our own efforts at academic-social mobility, the nakedly competitive dynamic that runs like blood through academic circles. We laugh at our own mixed theological and political positionings. We poke pins through our own academic egos.

In a cozy circle of friends, we can laugh about our own marginal selves. We can deconstruct our attempts to seamlessly navigate the majority and the community. We can joke about our apparently poised navigation of professional spaces, and about the jarring moments where differentness in Anglo spaces yields endless quantities of humour. We can laugh at the ways we both disguise and serve up our minority identities, depending on the occasion.

In these cozy spaces, I can reveal in all its glory my immigrant cultural discomfort with the nitty-gritty of North American ways (do I have to wear non-drawstring pants to conferences? So I really can’t wear mules  to an interview?) and my friends will laugh – but in total acceptance of my strangeness, recognizing themselves or at least their immigrant parents in my strangeness. My strangeness belongs amongst them: they won’t stare in horror or distant sympathy at it. They won’t gaze upon me with the appetite that attempts to consume my otherness because it’s terribly “interesting.” I can relax, knowing that I am no longer a source of “data.” Tired from a life of strangeness and disguise, now I can rip all the layers off and be me in all my chaotic oddness.

Here too we can rip into our Enemy theory/theorist of the day, and then turn around and rip into our own animosity, with no demands for a singular one-dimensional positioning. We can shift and swim seamlessly into our many forms, knowing that we are completely understood. We can laugh about being eyed with fear and suspicion (as Muslims), with fascination or distaste (as ethnics), and with disbelief (as Westerners), and we know that we don’t have to perform anything to be believable.

Without this behind-the-scenes connection, academic work, conferencing, and academic networking are high-stress environments. And without the reassuring eyes of our comrades looking over at us as we present papers, conferences are empty, disconnected affairs. Wandering namelessly through corridors, looking for the next panel where you don’t know anyone, is hard work.

Trying to connect with people at conferences is not the easiest thing in the world. The corridors, the seminar rooms reek of fear and ambition, and there simply isn’t enough attention to go round, so there’s suspicion, dislike, envy and competition. Everyone is yearning to be seen, and it seems no one wants to LOOK at anyone else.

The struggle for me, when I attend other conferences, is to try to replicate something similar to what I have at AMSS. The struggle, when I encounter other academics, intellectuals, theorists, published authors, assistant/associate/full professors, – the struggle is to find human beings.

Too often, in academe, we operate as “pure” academics – and not human beings. Some of us academics even empty ourselves of empathy, compassion, and the desire to connect. We float in and out of crowds of fellow academics – thinking only of ideas and of our own upward mobility. Some of us function as “Mean Girls,” dragging down people who could potentially be our friends and comrades.

It saddens me immensely to think of how some of us feel obligated to empty ourselves of humanness in order to function and succeed as professionals. In many academic spaces, the junior and the nameless are often lost in anonymity, loneliness, and alienation, while the big names shake hands at the cash bar. And the “different” academics struggle even more, trying to find their own faces and their own concerns in White-majority spaces.

When I think of my friends in academe – Jasmin Zine, Maliha Chisti, Junaid Ahmed, Itrath Syed, Saeed Khan, yes, my husband Svend, and many others – I wonder how I could ever make it through the lonely spaces of academe without them. I think of the small number of close associates and friends – some of them my professors – that I hold close to my heart and not just to my mind.

Stuff the rugged individual, I say. We need our friends. We need to connect. And we need to think, reflect and talk together. When I ask you a question after a panel, I don’t want to tear you down just so I can shine. When I sit across from you at lunch, I want to see you happy and not just intellectually stimulated. When I attend a conference, I don’t want to just listen to ideas and to present papers. I want to connect. For now, my “home spaces” help me survive the others.

Helping Pakistan; first, understand …

This unpublished article was written by Samia Altaf, a Pakistani scholar and physician and a Woodrow Wilson fellow. A friend in Pakistan forwarded it to me, and it can be read at her blog, The South Asian Idea.
Helping Pakistan

by Samia Altaf

Pakistan, labeled the most dangerous country in the world, with loose nukes and angry jihadis, is unraveling. It needs help. To be helped it needs to be understood. Urging a transition to “true democracy,” after the fourth military dictator has suspended the constitution for the second time and sacked a judiciary that dared to question his legitimacy, betrays either naiveté or disinterest. Both will hurt in the long run, if there is a long run.

Understand that there has not been much difference between military and civilian rule in Pakistan. When unreal hopes are betrayed by one, the other is accorded a relieved welcome. Four painful cycles ought to be enough to make that clear. The pundits wringing their hands at the ills of dictatorship today are the same who saw huge silver linings when the fourth dictator, the “enlightened moderate,” came along to clean the democratic mess.

Understand that both dictators and democrats have attacked the judiciary in the same way, both have pandered to the religious fundamentalists in the same way, both have harassed political opponents in the same way, both have enriched themselves in the same way.

Understand why this is so. Understand that the vast majority of the 160 million people have gained nothing since they were “liberated”—not from those who founded the country, not from the democrats, not from the dictators, not from the priests. Half of them are still illiterate, a third are below the poverty line, many still die from the lack of clean water, and many still live in another century. Any surprise they are not active participants in the struggle for “true democracy?”

Understand that the forgotten have no expectations of political equality or fundamental rights from their rulers, be they dictators or democrats. No political party has bothered to make that the central thrust of its campaign and one that did in the past only abused it cynically. All the leading democrats are ever ready to ditch the aspirations of their supporters and cut a deal with the dictator of the day. It is an easier route to the top.

Understand that in a deeply unequal society without individual rights, and with extreme dependence of the many on the few, the functions of political representation and social protection are inseparable. Understand that the natural state of such a society is one of patronage. Understand that the unprotected and powerless are as rational as anyone else—when forced to participate in an electoral game, they vote for the most powerful patron with the strongest links to the ruler. Understand that the preyed upon want their protectors to be on the winning side first and represent their political ideology second. Ideological somersaults and shifting loyalties matter but have to be accepted pragmatically in the real world that exists for them. Count the number of political representatives who have been in every party that has ever ruled the country. Watch how high they hold their heads; watch how much they are sought after.

Understand this is still very much a monarchical society in which the ruler, in whatever garb, believes he rules by divine right Understand the culture in which every ruler, legitimate or illegitimate, begins to see visions of being anointed by the Almighty to “save the nation.” The more incompetent and unprepared the chosen one, the greater the proof of divine purpose. The third dictator (the “meek”) used to say, in so many words, with awe and humility: “Look at me, what is my worth? Would I be here were it not for the will of Allah?”

The leading prose writer of the country called such leaders “men without stature.” Calling them pygmies would have landed him in jail for abusive language. And why does the Almighty continue to find such pygmies? Because He is putting His chosen people to His severest test! Understand this is an environment rife with such fatalistic beliefs.

Understand this is a society at a stage of development where political parties are personal affinity groups with lifetime leaders—the leading democrat is chairperson for life of a party she inherited from her father. Understand this is a banana republic in which the “best” president and the most “appropriate” prime minister are determined not by the people but by meta-patrons abroad. Understand this is a place where a prime minister can be parachuted from above one day and be consigned to the doghouse the next. Understand this is system in which the king’s courtiers can switch loyalties any minute and have to be continuously bribed. Count the size of the cabinet; compare that to the output. And, nary a protest from any side, nary a protest on any count.

So what does a transition to “true democracy” mean in a situation like this? Understand that representative democracy is not going to emerge any time soon by pressure from below. Democracy will be the name given to a sharing of power amongst the elites holding the wealth, the guns, and the controls over rules and rituals. And, barring anything different, this democracy will go the way of previous democracies, each morphing from “true” to “sham,” each leaving the country more wounded and vulnerable than before. Has this not been the story of the last sixty years?

How then can we get something out of the elite democracy that we will inevitably inherit? Not by imagining a battle won, not by wishing for some ideal unfettered democracy, but by working towards a system of some checks and balances that limits the accumulation of power and the abuse of office by ruling groups, a system that advances human rights and access to justice, and one that enlarges the space for hearing the voices from below.

By some quirk, this was a scenario beginning to unfold with the assertion of independence by the judiciary, by its questioning of arbitrary executive authority, by its taking up the causes of ordinary citizens. This was the first institutional development in over sixty years that promised a meaningful step towards good governance in the interest of the ordinary citizens. And even before one could be sure it was for real, the fourth dictator (the “enlightened”) smothered it, quickly and ruthlessly, risking even his carefully varnished image of moderation in the process.

De Tocqueville said it long ago: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Pakistanis know why. Governance in Pakistan is allergic to accountability. Pakistanis know now what has to change.

So, going back to “free and fair” elections, back to “true democracy,” as promised by a dictator, ruling under an emergency, to a bunch of democrats ready to cut a deal, is not going to do much good. It will be very old wine in very old bottles. Well-wishers of Pakistan, at home and abroad, need to grasp the one promising development in an otherwise sorry history. They have to agree on a one-point agenda—the Supreme Court has to be restored; the independence of the judiciary has to be guaranteed. This is the only leverage we have at the moment, the one issue on which a broad coalition can unite. This is where the fight for “true democracy” begins. Whomsoever is next anointed by God would need to be put to this test of sincerity. Otherwise, the moment and the opening would be lost. Those who are fighting would need to go on fighting.

This unpublished appeal, addressed to friends of Pakistan, at home and abroad, is dedicated to the students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

Sociology of Islam: conference

Sociology of Islam and Muslims Societies
Location: Virginia, United States
Call for Papers Date: 2007-12-12
The 2008 Annual Meeting of the Southern Sociological Society

http://www.southernsociologicalsociety.org/

April 9-12, 2008, Richmond, Virginia – USA
Invitation for Panel Papers

Dear all,

At the Southern Sociological Society annual meeting last year there were five panels with 20 presentations on Islam, the Sociology of Islam, and Islamist Movements. This coming year, the annual meeting will take place on April 9-12, 2008 in Richmond, Virginia and we will be organizing panels on Sociology of Islam and Muslim Societies.

Islam and Muslim societies are being increasingly studied by sociologists, particularly by those interested in how different Islamic groups are responding to globalization. In the current political, social and economic conflict between the West and Muslim Societies, Islam has entered the political arena as a manifestation of Muslims against Western-based capitalism and hegemony. In this context, religion has transformed from a belief system to an ideology of political resistance in both the mind and within the actions of Muslims. From Turkey to Indonesia, this conflict may be creating the unified Muslim identity—the Muslim Ummah— Islamist and social thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Abul A’la Mawdudi were promoting nearly a half a century ago. From the Danish and Swedish cartoon crisis to Islamophia, Muslims appear to be crafting a collective identity that transcends the old categories of tribe, community and nation-state. This ‘new’ identity now exists beyond the nation-state, both in the West and in Muslim-populated countries, and is reshaping the understanding of globalization by Muslims.

We are organizing two panels entitled, “Sociology of Islam and Muslims Societies,” and welcome submissions related to but not limited to the following subjects:

· Islam, Modernity and Secularism
· Islamist Movements and Collective identity
· Islam and Muslims in Europe and US
· The Middle Eastern Politics

The deadline for abstract paper submissions is: DECEMBER 12, 2007

Please send abstract to: sociologyofislam@vt.edu

Tugrul Keskin
tugrulk@vt.edu
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

http://tugrulkeskingoren.blogspot.com

Stephen Poulson
poulsosc@jmu.edu
James Madison University
http://www.jmu.edu/sociolo gy/socio_faculty_poulsons.html

Kemal Silay
ksilay@indiana.edu
Indiana University

http://php.indiana.edu/~ksilay/

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Department of Sociology
560 McBryde Hall
Blacksburg, VA 24061 – USA
Cell:202-378-8606

http://www.vt.edu

Email: sociologyofislam@vt.edu