MARGINS, HISTORY, COSMOPOLITANISM an interview with Manan Ahmed

Manan Ahmed is an assistant professor in the department of History at Columbia University. He specializes in the medieval history of Islam in South Asia and the re- lationship between text, space and narrative. His most recent book is entitled Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination.

MEGAN STATER: You grew up in Doha [Qatar] and you moved to Lahore [Pakistan] at a later age. How did it affect the way you perceive the world, or the way that you write about South Asia today?

MANAN AHMED: People have a notion, not precisely of cosmopolitanism, but of globalization: they think people are more networked now or that they’re more global. From The New York Times Travel Section perspective, it is a rather romantic and luxurious proposition, to be able to go from London to New York to Seoul.

I grew up in Doha because the actual face of globalization is the movement of large amounts of labor from places with the capacity to produce labor to those with economies asking for cheap, renewable sources of human capital. In the mid-’60s, the United States was building large air force bases in Saudi Arabia and other principalities–Doha, Kuwait, Bahrain–tied to the presence of multinational oil companies. To manage this, there were statewide initiatives both from the subcontinent and Southeast Asia towards the Gulf States. This was the first massive transfer of passports; it was extremely hard to get a passport before the early ‘70s.

I grew up in Doha as a migrant laborer’s child, a migrant laborer who had little to no civic rights and no political rights. I was a child on the liminal edges of a society that, as a general rule, had no space for the migrant himself or herself or their children. We had no schools, no playgrounds, not even a newspaper.

The relationship between the migrant laborer and the state is one of pure exploitation. I saw my father face racism, horrific abuse. I experienced that too, because if there’s pervasive racism, the belief that one race is superior–biologically, genetically, or intellectually, and hence can enslave or manage another group of people–the children will experience that.

I was born in Lahore, I spent the first few years of my life there before we moved to Doha, and at home we spoke, among other languages, Urdu. You’d think that in returning to Pakistan in the 8th grade, I would now be on the inside, rather than the outside. But because I hadn’t been in school there, because I wasn’t part of the everyday culture, I was still liminal. My Urdu wasn’t as good as my Arabic, I didn’t know how to play cricket. I was not functionally a teenager. It took me a while to integrate myself.

When I left for the United States I was very young, only eighteen years old. Again, the migrant, student or worker, who comes to the United States has a very liminal position. When you look at a campus like Columbia, and see many international students or TAs or professors, what you’re seeing is a false positive. Legally speaking, you are only as good as your visa status: as long as you are current in your visa, as long as you don’t do anything, or don’t have an accident happen to you. Like many, I didn’t have any relatives and I didn’t know anyone. An international student is in a very liminal position to the majority.

These were my formative experiences–being at the edge, trying to figure out what my relationship was to the dominant political or social context. Part of my scholarship sees time, temporality, or ruptures and continuities as historiographic paradigms, rather than historic realities. If you look at these paradigms from a perspective of liminality or structural inequality, then things that may appear as continuities appear as ruptures, and those that appear as ruptures appear as a conjoining of different things. I think that that is one way in which my personal biography and my scholarship are linked.

MS: Do you think that the kind of cosmopolitanism conceived by Kant – where reason is the sole measure of equality – is achievable or coherent in the world that you have experienced?

MA: Kant has a specific idea of what he calls the citizen of the world. In his essay “Perpetual Peace,” he argues that reason provides universal rights and responsibilities that unify people across state or linguistic differences: a universal citizenship. But what I remember from the essay is not Kant’s universalism – what I remember from that essay is that it’s damn racist. His discussion of the Eskimo, his discussion of the Bedouin, and his discussion of India – it’s horribly uninformed. Kant and Hegel rely upon a conception of “the universal” based on a specific degenerative Orientalist notion of the world.

Having said that, can we still say that the notion of a citizen of the world is a viable one? To me, Kantian cosmopolitanism rings rather hollow. It rings as an ideal-type that is the privilege of only the very few. To disavow your state, to say, “I’m a citizen of the world”, is not a privilege that is universal by any means.

The only people who have disavowed a state in our contemporary world are the refugees, the asylum seekers, the migrant laborers, and the enemy combatants. My understanding of the cosmopolitan is starkly different; it is a cosmopolitanism of people who are in Guantanamo, who have been disallowed representation under a state because they have not been given any basic humanity. Someone with an American passport, who doesn’t need a visa to travel and can get on a plane because he or she can purchase a ticket, is not a cosmopolitan. I have family in almost every continent of this world, and I travel to see them – that doesn’t make me cosmopolitan. That mobility comes from extreme privilege.The asylum seekers on Manus Island or the Iraqi or Pakistani citizen who is afraid of their life and limb – we don’t consider them as cosmopolitans. But they fit the definition. They don’t have a state: the state is rejecting them or they are rejecting the state. They are the citizens of the world. Now let me ask you: where can they go? What are we doing to these people, right?

MS: But what about modern conceptions of cosmopolitanism in the vein of Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago, who argues for a moral conception of citizenship that transcends national boundaries?

MA: I think she’s trying to ask us to imagine the rights of those who, like the disabled or the animal, cannot articulate their rights as rights, and hence devise a moral cosmopolitanism to protect those rights. I think that it is absolutely viable, and valuable, for us to imagine the Other as an empathetic being and grant them a set of rights that we then have the need, power and responsibility to protect and provide. There is nothing there prima facie that I would disagree with. I would simply say that the capacity to see the world from a different perspective is the brunt of what she’s asking us to do. I think that’s precisely what, putting aside someone like Martha Nussbaum, or Judith Butler, or a group of very, very, intellectually serious and coherent philosophers, we as a political society cannot do. We cannot conceive of the world from a different perspective. We can’t even conceive of a world with something rather obvious like gay rights, the right to associate with whomever you want. Nussbaum’s call for moral cosmopolitanism makes more sense than Kant, but its politics, not its morality, substantially hinders it.

MS: Especially in light of your discussion of migrant laborers, could one conceive of an economic cosmopolitanism?

MA: That was Marx and Engels’ critique, right? Capital requires global mobility. Capital will always expand, and as it expands, it will create markets and create need for a new vulnerable labor pool to exploit. Cosmopolitanism reflects modern capital. You have a supply and labor chain from China to Bangladesh to Indonesia. Capital will continue to expand – until it comes to a crisis, of course, as hopefully it will.

The migrant laborer may travel from Kerala or Sindh to Doha or Abu Dhabi. But once they have that mobility via passport, that mobility is immediately taken away from them. Their passport is taken away, and they are immediately prisoners to their labor. Look at migrant populations in the United States. Once they cross the border, legally or illegally, they are put into a system of exploitative labor in New York or Chicago or LA. Market cosmopolitanism, from the perspective of the laborer, is not mobile, even if it seems mobile. If you look at the history of indentured labor, for example, the movement from India to the Caribbean or Africa to the United States, historians focus on the network – on the ships and the passage. But I think part of the story is of the immobility that comes as soon as they get to the destination.

MS: How can one take an idea or methodology out of its context and apply it to medieval South Asia? Is that a legitimate exercise? Does that change the idea when you take it out of its context and place it into another one?

MA: Of course, if you were taking the idea then you would have to take the contextuality of the idea with it. But when I work on a medieval text, I’m trying to understand why it was written. That’s a very basic question, there’s nothing inherently more grandiose than that. Unfortunately for my time period, my place, my site, I don’t have much to go from: I don’t have the biography of the author, I don’t have a lot of other things that were written around that context, I can’t build a picture of the world outside of the text. I just have the text. The text is unstable. So how do I understand it? I take a methodology because it allows me to have a conversation with a thing. That’s why I take methodologies wherever I may defensibly make a case for them. Obviously, someone else can say to me that I have not applied it correctly, or it is not applicable.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently apolitical. Everything we do is political and has a relationship to power. To take Foucault or to not take Foucault are both political acts. To take an idea to South Asia or to not take it to South Asia is political. The question is where you are, how reactionary your politics are, how ethical they are. It’s about the ethics of reading. It’s about the ethics of doing historical research.

For example, Derrida works within the Jewish hermeneutical tradition. That Jewish hermeneutical tradition has an extremely generative, symbiotic relationship with Muslim philosophy and hermeneutics. On the one hand Derrida, the Algerian Frenchman, looks Western and on the other hand, he looks like a part of Islamic hermeneutical practices. So it depends on your politics, right?

MS: Do the categories of “Hindu” and “Muslim” you examine in South Asia necessitate a binary relationship, where the two are always situated in opposition to one another?

MA: Categories or classification systems are historically situated. They come into being. They’re not, contra Kant, ideal constructs that we have always had and always will, existing outside of human understanding. The Sanskritic word mleecha has existed since the 8th century to, more or less, now. People say that it is the word for “filthy foreigner” or “impure Muslim”. We assume that the 8th century and 19th century understandings of mleecha – not the word, but the understanding, what comes into your mind when you hear the word – are the same. We imagine that we, as interpreters, can imagine the interpretative world in which the 8th century person said that word.

The thing is, you would never say that if it wasn’t concerned with a concept. If I were to ask you to compare how you dry your hair or what you prepare for a meal with somebody from the 8th century, you would say that you could not imagine it. But you wouldn’t say that about a word or category over time, even though the category is just as generative and has as much historicity embedded in it.

As historians, or people who consume the past, we can never forget that historiography, historicity, and fact live simultaneously. The politics of fear and domination that depend on the categories of “Hindu” or “Muslim” require stable definitions. That’s why we have to destabilize those categories. I’m trying to insert fissures and breaks in meaning, because then the monolithic identity doesn’t seem so monolithic anymore.

Just the very simple commitment to rejecting categorical normativity leads us to a whole different way of conceptualizing data. We can read an 8th century plaque saying that a group of villagers dedicated a temple to a raja that kicked the ass of some mleechas and we can interpret that in a very different way if we are cognizant of the meaning-making in that community.

I think that leads to more productive ways of thinking about continuity. A word like mleecha can show us how a village community tried to understand its relationship to the Other in different ways, adversarial or otherwise, over time. This means that the village, like the Other, is not a static thing. We then have a critique of the Orientalist version of India as a static place, where everyone is a farmer and nothing changes. Of course everything changes, because everything is in constant conversation with something else.

MS: Do you see continuities spanning the medieval period, colonialism, and Partition operating in South Asia today?

MA: I think there’s a lot of validity to the idea of ruptures in particular contexts. The Industrial Revolution or the rise of capital or colonialism in India – they created the idea that one can no longer access that which was before. The American expansion wiped out a significant number of human beings. To be a Native American on a reservation today is to have experienced a profound rupture, a profound break in history. Violence has the capacity to eliminate histories.

I would stress that there are some things that I can trace across the colonial and postcolonial period. I see continuities that explain how difference was understood and contested, including by the colonial state. The colonial state, too, becomes part of a longue durée history in this way. The effort to create this longue durée history is to ask whether we can trace something over a long span of time, within which there were specific ruptures and violences – this is not an uncontestable position to hold. People can, and should, and do challenge me. As a good scholar, I then have to defend my position. That’s what scholarship is.

MS: Do you think that U.S. foreign policy has consolidated Pakistani identity in any way – national, regional, or ethnic? Is it constructed in opposition to or in reaction to U.S. foreign policy?

MA: I think we must first realize that it is not U.S. foreign policy. Here, we should be cosmopolitan. We should say that the two states, the United States and Pakistan, have a policy. This is a joint policy. They may differ on certain details, but this is a policy that on both sides have certain basic conceptual overlaps. They both have a specific geography that is considered to be a space of exception. Within that space of exception, certain rights no longer hold. The implementation of violence can be exceptional: if you kill someone there, it is not analogous to killing someone here.

A report came out today [2.28.2014], that Obama and his advisors are thinking about assassinating another United States citizen. This guy is presumably a bad guy. It doesn’t really matter for our purposes. But if that same guy was sitting in Manhattan, or Idaho, then that conversation would not take place, because those spaces are not in a space of exception. Whatever else we may do to capture him, or kill him, he won’t have this type of exception. There’s a relationship between space and the politics. And space is created: there’s no geologically determined reason for these policies. In this particular construction, then, it is not just the United States alone; it is the United States and the Pakistani state. The Pakistani state is droning and/or using military strikes on the same population.

The question is, if that’s a policy and that’s a space that contains individuals, does that create an identity for them? I don’t know about that. What I’m interested in is what the world looks like if you are [as good as] dead. How do you see geography if you are an individual in a space of exception? What kinds of identifiable characteristics do you take on to understand your world and speak from that perspective? That’s what I’m interested in.

Your question is a valid question – perhaps these policies create identities, perhaps they don’t. But I haven’t really paid much attention to that part of the question. Right now, I’m writing something with Madiha Tahir, a journalist who has worked with drone survivors. We’re trying to think through this question of how testimony can create a worldview through narrative. Because as I described to you, this space of exception is brought into being as a political and legal entity through a narrative. Through a legal narrative, through a moral narrative in the case of Obama, perhaps a narrative of vengeance or righteousness in the case of American politics in general. We are interested in what the testimony and its narrative looks like from that space of exception.

MS: What continuity do you see between colonial behavior and American behavior in South Asia? Do you consider the U.S. to be a neo-imperial power?

MA: I mean, I don’t know what a “new” imperial would be.

MS: Would you consider the U.S. to be an imperial power?

MA: Of course. I don’t think that’s a non-mainstream question. I think that people on the Right conceive of a capacity to govern and manage the world. They don’t call it imperialism; they call it manifest destiny. There’s never been a time in United States history, as an expansionist power, that I can say would necessitate the “neo” in its imperialism.

But I also don’t conceive of the United States as an imperial hegemon simply outside of its borders. We must always be local. Look at what’s happening on reservations, what’s happening with immigration rights, or what’s happening with anyone who identifies as outside of sexually or politically normative behavior. Look at the way in which the African-American population is classified, routinized, incarcerated, and made to fit a bio-politics of exceptionalism. That is also imperial domination. It’s domination of a people who cannot resist or voice their claim of equality.

What the United States does abroad and what it does within are intimately linked. A politician can sign off on universal surveillance abroad on foreign nationals because they have that same philosophy when it comes to their own so-called citizens’ rights and their understanding of policing internally. Five minutes before Snowden, we found out that the New York Police Department was surveilling migrant Pakistanis and Arab Muslims. These are presumptively all citizens, who are legally here and have the rights of free association, free speech, the right to pray and do whatever the hell they want to do. But they weren’t conceived of as “us.” Only when Snowden comes and says the NSA has been massively sucking up data did it become an outrage.

You conceive of imperial practices as propping up a dictator in Afghanistan or supporting a coup in Central America or assassinating a prime minister in Iran. At the exact same time in ’53 that the CIA was doing something abroad, what was happening in New York? Then you start to see the picture. The capacity to target Huey [Long] or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King is the same capacity to target outside. The capacity to engineer a regime elsewhere is the same capacity used to bust unions in this country. They’re not separate capacities; we don’t have to figure out the murky politics of the Orient to have a grasp on how things are happening in our name with our taxpayer money and with our political will. We just have to pay attention to what’s going on here.