Three Muslim Families, Three Cities: A Review of Muslims of Metropolis

Through the stories of a Bangladeshi family in New York, a Palestinian family in London, and a Kurdish family in Germany, Kavitha Rajagopalan's Muslims of Metropolis is a necessary intervention into the popular discourse that informs our ideas about Muslims.

Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West. By Kavitha Rajagopalan. Rutgers University Press, 2008, 283 pages.

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon some concert footage of Bikini Kill—a feminist punk band that was largely informative to my politics growing up. In the clip, Kathleen Hanna, lead vocalist for the band introduces a song with the following, "A lot of times, because of the media, people are forced to be reactionary. I find myself trying to do the opposite of the media perception. And it's really fucked up because it fucks with your creativity... it forces you to answer questions that are based on lies." While perhaps in my old age, my interests have somehow strayed from the politics of punk rock towards some obsession with "Muslim identity"—despite this, Hanna's quote proves relevant to some of the varied struggles and burdens felt by artists, activists, academics, and others seeking to articulate alternative Muslim identities.

Kavitha Rajagopalan's Muslims of Metropolis is a text clearly invested in complicating the popular constructions of Muslims found in the mainstream. Rajagopalan narrates the stories of a Bangladeshi family in New York, a Palestinian family in London, and a Kurdish family in Germany. The narratives highlight the multiple migrations and displacements that occur throughout three generations. Returning to the Hanna quote for a moment, Muslims of Metropolis doesn't necessarily represent a lack of creativity, but unfortunately is a necessary intervention into popular discourse that informs our ideas about Muslims.

The decision to narrate the stories of Muslims from Bangladesh, Palestine, and Kurdistan is, indeed, an effort to highlight the diversity of the Muslim faith. The diversity of Islam is certainly not a point missed by Muslims. For many, it is nothing more than a sign from God. However validating the concept of diversity might be for Muslims, certain hierarchies and prejudices exist. Sites of global Muslim interconnectivity—the hajj, the [Western] mosque, and elsewhere—are not of interest to our author. Instead, the author invites the reader to understand the "Muslim world" as an imaginary and incomplete concept.

However invisible these holy and strategic alliances may be to the author's characters, the interconnectivity between the author and the Muslims she writes about is ever present. Although Rajagopalan is not Muslim, she understands this identification through similar experiences of immigration, wherein national myth and familial narratives construct the immigrant experience. Furthermore, it seems that considering the crude mechanisms of the war on terror, Muslim bodies and similarly raced bodies are easily conflated and confused—forming new solidarities, however anachronistic. Rajagopalan's work represents certain post-9/11 solidarities between Muslims and others who are often assumed to be Muslim.

Muslims of Metropolis is not solely interested in complicating the concept of the "Muslim world." As any complication of the "Muslim world" is surely a complication of the "West." Each narrative not only reveals the social identities of its protagonists but further explicates the varied and often corrupt narratives of immigration, multiculturalism, and de-colonization promoted by host countries of the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. The text not only reveals various crises of Third World nationalism, but also reveals much about the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Rajagopalan's selection of these identities and locations is not haphazard, but rather these identities in these specific cities work towards complicating popular knowledge about what bodies go where and why. Perhaps the most compelling example of this can be found in Rajagopalan's explication of the Kurdish experience in Germany—where Kurdish bodies are often assumed to be Turkish by the German state. Rajagopalan further explores the ways in which traumas of the Kurdish experience are then replicated in diaspora through encounters with Turkish populations in Germany.

Furthermore, it is the Kurdish-German story that really underscores the complexities of the text—the author's deft and skill in explicating complex histories of social movements. We are introduced to the Dogan family living in Eastern Anatolia. The reader follows the family through three generations of slow migration from their village to surrounding villages and cities and eventually to Istanbul and then Berlin. We find Sukriyeh, our protagonist who leads us through her experiences in Berlin as a social worker. Sukriyeh eventually falls in love with a Kurdish man living in Syrian-administered Kurdistan. Through this affair, the reader becomes immersed in the various difficulties that arise when dealing with the Syrian, Turkish, and German bureaucratic forces in an effort to obtain a visa for her spouse. Another detail offered by Sukriyeh's narrative is her initial support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq with the hopes of liberating Iraqi Kurdistan—a moment, which seems to clarify competing interests and needs in the Middle East.

Perhaps what is most radical about Muslims of Metropolis is the sheer lack of "Muslim" content—save for a few details about the hajj and fasting in Ramadan—the text does not offer much lip-service to questions of religiosity. This omission is decidedly purposeful; we see our protagonists as people, their struggles are not those of religion but rather, struggles of those living as exiles, refugees, migrant workers, illegal immigrants, sons, daughters, and so on. While there is certainly some success in presenting Muslims as secular bodies—as community organizers, social workers, non-profiteers—as people in exile vying for some form of national inclusion whether it be in New York, Palestine or Kurdistan, there is also certainly some danger in downplaying the critical role religion plays in the lives and minds of many. While presenting secular Islams is necessary culture work, I feel wary of excluding narratives, which perhaps adhere more to Islam—narratives wherein personal and/or political struggles are not only understood through national discourses but also through Islamic ones.

I am concerned that through Rajagopalan's characters, one might read another version of Mahmood Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Perhaps a little smarter than previous generations—the good Muslims of metropolis are political activists and Third World nationalists. They [generally] stand in firm opposition to state practices of Western governments, which support their persecution at home and elsewhere. While these narratives highlight the ways in which Muslims engage the political in the West—the omission of religious activism in the text registers as somewhat problematic. It represents some separation of the good from the bad.

Considering draconian state security practices regarding the war on terror, the various failures of European de-colonization, and the general hysteria surrounding Muslim bodies in the West, personalizing the varied experiences of Muslims in the West is a much-needed project. Furthermore, Rajagopalan's presentation of these protagonists as activists is indeed a much-needed intervention. It seems that many texts dealing with the Muslim experience either totally miss the mark or simply present Muslims through some pornography of pain and tragedy. Rajagopalan's Muslims of metropolis are empowered. They creatively resist. That said it seems that from my perspective as a politically engaged city-dwelling Muslim, the point that Muslims in the West are political activists is somewhat moot. However, that is not to say the good Muslims of metropolis don't deserve visibility within popular discourses about Islam.

Rajagopalan is invested in the Muslim immigrant as a site for cultural exchange. She writes, "Muslim immigrants are an untapped potential resource for cultural mediation, social integration in the host society and economic development at home." While I certainly don't disagree with this statement and it seems that for this to be successful there is an assumption made about assimilation and access to cultural capital—that many may not be interested in nor have access to.

It seems to me that humanizing the experience of those more closely involved with religious activism and perhaps political Islam would certainly be an illuminating and worthy venture. Islam is indeed a religion that is often defined as backwards, anti-modern, etc. It seems part of our effort should be to highlight how Islam answers these questions of modernity, global movements and exchange, and militarism. How do Muslims define themselves as modern vis-à-vis Islamic mythologies? Why is it for many that everyday is Karbala?

It seems that somehow there have been and there will continue to be decisions made about what kind of Muslims we like and do not like. To begin undoing much of the social violence experienced by the "Muslim world" we need to make all voices legible—however uncomfortable. Years ago, I caught an interview with Arundhati Roy that seemed to really articulate something I had never been able to before, commenting on Iraq and Kashmir and everything else, "I'm doomed to fight on the side of people that have no space for me in their social imagination, and I would probably be the first person that was strung up if they won. But the point is that they are the ones that are resisting on the ground, and they have to be supported, because what is happening is unbelievable."

Despite these omissions, Rajagopalan's text is certainly an inspiring one. To an audience ignorant to the lived experiences of Muslims (or immigrants more generally) in America and Europe, the text proves wildly enlightening. Perhaps what's most exciting about the text is its accessibility. Rajagopalan cleverly presents a host of complicated theories of global movement in a non-academic manner. More academics and policy folks could take certain cues from Muslims of Metropolis.

The Muslim world is indeed a diverse, complex, and totally imaginary concept. There are any number of concepts that inform the Muslim subjectivity, which at times render it illegible, secondary, or informative towards any number of modes of identification and experience. Muslims of Metropolis is keen to highlight this. Again, though, I would push the text to include the narratives of those resisting in other ways.

Comments However airy these angelic and cardinal alliances may be to the author's characters, the interconnectivity amid the columnist and the Muslims she writes about is anytime present.

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