ROME — To reach the Center for American Studies, on the second floor of a Renaissance palazzo on via Caetani in central Rome, you go up a flight of marble stairs, past a courtyard filled with a campy collection of sooty statues of naked men, set in niches along peach colored walls. Rome is famous for the color of its walls. They give the city the “luce arancione,” that orangey-blue light Cesare Paveseglimpsed from his prison cell in the Fascist capital in 1935. You’re never simply where you are in Rome. Someone was there first and suffered more and said it better. Your mind, like the city, is a leaky palimpsest.
On May 21, I entered the CAS through the newly installed metal detector, and was promptly scolded for taking a book from the shelves (the author was an old friend, the book long out of print). I put it back and went on to the romantic, high-ceilinged room where the Second Annual Conference on Literature and Intercultural Dialogue was being held, cosponsored by CAS and the U.S. State Department. This year’s topic: A Meeting of Civilizations: Muslim Writers in Italy and the USA.
The organizer of this afternoon event, young, blandly attractive Farah Pandith, Senior Adviser to the State Department Bureau of European Affairs on Muslim engagement, fills a post created a year ago, she admitted. By Karen Hughes? The thought crossed my mind as Pandith, a “lucky American Muslim” born in Srinagar, India, and raised in Massachusettts, addressed an international audience in the resolutely upbeat tones of a high school valedictorian. Education is the great equalizer. We have something to teach Europeans. We are not perfect. Islam and democracy are compatible. The U.S. is not at war with Islam. When, twenty minutes into her talk, she began to tick off dollar amounts of recent U.S. aid to Muslim victims of earthquakes and tsunamis and regional wars (no, not Iraq, never mentioned, but Lebanon last summer), I began to squirm. Who wrote this poor woman’s material?
Representing American Muslims, Iranian born Reza Aslan, author of the very useful book No God but God, an introduction to Islam for the ignorant of all faiths, a Middle East analyst for CBS, and a researcher at the Public Diplomacy Center at USC Santa Barbara, dropped the afternoon’s code word: Integration. Educated emigres, solidly middle class (60 percent are homeowners) integrate into American society and shun violence because they have too much to lose. He quoted a protestor at a Brooklyn demonstration against the Danish cartoons who abjured violence because he didn’t want to lose his BMW. The level of intolerance that might lead one to participate in such a demonstration in the first place was not analyzed.
European Muslims, Aslan continued, are mostly young, uneducated “guest workers”Â isolated in ethnic enclaves and plagued by identity problems. By the second generation, they suffer from a high level of schizophrenia, according to a study conducted in the Netherlands. Americans, he went on, are comfortable with public displays of religion. Islam, a public religion with its dress codes and public practises fits into our faith-based lifestyle. In Europe on the other hand, where the practise of religion is a private matter, Muslims are often forced to alter their outward appearance in order to conform.
One knew what he meant, and yet, in Rome of all places, a city built by and for the church, with its hundreds of churches, its open air Masses at the Vatican and San Giovanni Laterano, where every bus you board has its complement of nuns and priests in recognizable regalia, this remark seemed a bit simple, as if Aslan had just landed on an overnight flight from L.A. and hadn’t had a chance to look around, much less to reflect on what he saw. His comments were abstract, geopolitical, and largely focussed on security issues. Young European Muslims rejected by the larger society, and confused about their identity are a serious problem; al Qaeda recruits among them and counts on European Islamophobia to make its job easier. He could have been talking on late night TV in the U.S., but you could see why the State Department wanted him on this panel. He stayed reliably on the “We have something to teach Europeans” message.
So did lovely Samina Ali, author of Madras on Rainy Days. Ali, who came to the U.S. at six months of age, grew up between Hyderabad, India and Minneapolis. Novelists talk about real people. She described her father’s terrible loneliness on his arrival in the U.S., and how he scoured the phone book for Muslim names, and built a circle of Urdu and Arabic speaking friends. She recalled the founding of the first mosque in Minneapolis, with mothers and aunties providing religious instruction to their children. She grew up in a middle class community, of ambitious professionals, who pushed their children to succeed. Did life change for her after 9/11? “It was a horrible time to sell a book,” she recalled. 9/11 led the discrete Muslim communities in her area, Black Muslims, Urdu-speaking Muslims, Middle Eastern Muslims, to join forces and take a full page ad in The New York Times, abjuring violence.
Fortunately, we have novelists like Lorraine Adams (Harbor) and Kirin Desai (The Inheritance of Loss), and even V.S. Naipaul in early work, to remind us that the U.S. brutally exploits poor undocumented Muslim immigrants, a group especially hard hit post 9/11. Remember Special Registration in 2003, when Muslim men ages 16-60 in the U.S. on tourist or student visas, were singled out, forced to stand on line for hours in public squares waiting to be interviewed and fingerprinted by the newly created BICE? Thousands of Muslims who had lived in the U.S. for decades as law abiding citizens were summarily deported. Others fled to Canada or left the country voluntary. Many lives were disrupted to no purpose. And what about the two million mostly Muslim refugees from the Iraq war, who have no chance of entering the US because, as George Packer put it, in a recent New Yorker piece, “The US will never admit one million Arab immigrants”? I threw that line into the discussion from the floor May 21, but it went nowhere. Of course, it had already been covered by the other half of the State Department message, “We are not perfect.”
Next time: Muslim immigrant novelists in Italy tell us something new and edifying.
(This item has been corrected since posting — Ed.)