Fieldwork · Religion

Religification of Pakistani-American youth

Note: Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher’s research here is quite similar to my own.  I want to share with you her important findings.

One of Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher’s explications examines a cultural production process called religification, in which religious affiliation, rather than race or ethnicity, has become the core category of identity for working class Pakistani-American youth in the United States (pg. 1).  Specifically, Ghaffar-Kucher describes how Muslim identity is thrust upon and embraced by the youth themselves as well as schools as sites where citizenship is both constructed and contested (pg. 1).

In following Maira’s (2009) reference to the abundance of research on Muslim youth and identity as ‘post-9/11 studies, Ghaffar-Kucher’s study also falls under this rubric.  But rather than exploring ‘how it feels to be a problem’ (Bayoumi 2008), Ghaffar-Kucher, a Pakistani Muslim herself, wanted to challenge what had become ‘a common sense categorization of Muslims as a monolithic group by paying attention to one group that fell under this umbrella term: working-class and lower middle-class Pakistani-American youth’ (pg. 2).

The main argument posited by Ghaffar-Kucher is that while racialisation continues to be the dominant form of categorizing individuals and groups in post-9/11 studies, the case of Pakistani-American youth is shows how they ‘define themselves more through a religious identity than through a racial, national, or ethnic one’ (pg. 3).  Muslim identity is, as Ghaffar-Kucher argues, ‘not only bestowed on the youth by those who question their citizenship but also embraced by the youth themselves as a form of resistance’ (pg. 4).

One particular area in which Ghaffar-Kucher focuses is on working- and lower middle-class Pakistani Americans, who are ‘Muslim in a part of the world where Muslims are viewed with suspicion, and they are working class immigrants with little access to social capital and institutional supports because of social and linguistic barriers’ (Maira, 2009; Stanton-Salazar, 1997).  Some of the questions then which Ghaffar-Kucher poses are:

1.  How do working- and lower middle-class Pakistani-American youth in the US cope with rising levels of suspicion in their schools?

2.  How do these youth position themselves in relation to others?

3.  What roles do peers, teachers, family, and community play in this positioning?

Ghaffar-Kucher’s methodology follows Kathleen Hall’s (2004) call for multi-sited ethnography which enables researches to ‘illuminate the more complex cultural process of nation-formation and the contradictory and at times incommensurate forms of cultural politics within which immigrants are made and make themselves as citizens’ (Hall, 2004: p. 108).  And though Ghaffar-Kucher is of Pakistani origin like most of her participants, she is specifically from the metropolis of Lahore and comes from a more affluent background, while most of her participants’ families are from middle or lower-class backgrounds.  While her Pakistani origin gave her a degree of entree into the community, she still considers herself an outside to her community (p. 10).

One of the primary conceptual areas Ghaffar-Kucher focuses on is citizenship and feelings of belonging.  She references Ong’s (1996, p. 737) appeal for greater attention to the quotidian practices and processes by which immigrants in particular are made into subjects of a nation-state and similarly, with Kathleen Hall (2004, p. 113), who calls for an understanding of the ways in which ‘national identities and citizenship statuses are continually redefined, negotiated, and debated as they come to be articulated within different forms of nationalist discourse’.  In addition, Ghaffar-Kucher cites Abu el-Haj (2007, p. 287) who argues that, Palestinian youth (like Pakistani youth) on the one hand,

experience their position as outside the ‘imagined community’ of the United States nation, framing them as ‘enemies within’.  As a result, they struggle to feel a sense of belonging to the nation to which they hold citizenship.  On the other hand these Palestinian-American youth view their United States citizenship positively in terms of legal and political rights and economic success.  Yet, they tie their national identities – their sense of where they belong – to a Palestinian homeland.

Belonging, as Yuval-Davis and her colleagues (2005, p. 526) suggest, is not simply about ‘membership, rights, and duties, but also about the emotions that such memberships evoke’ that manifest in the ways in which ‘subjects feel about their location in the social world’.

Ghaffair-Kucher (p. 14) notes that religification is the simultaneous ascription and co-option of a religious identity over all other common markers of difference (e.g. race, ethnicity, gender).  It is a process of both ‘self-making and being made’ (Ong, 1996, p. 156).  For many Pakistani-American youths in her research, September 11 was a turning point in their academic and social lives because of the ways in which they were verbally (and sometimes physically) attacked and ostracized by peers and, occasionally, even by teachers’ (p. 14).  One result of ‘being different’ was that many youths who once got along with students of all backgrounds reported that friends changed their behavior after September 11 (p. 16).  One of her participants said that when he returned to school in 2002, ‘it felt like people looked at me differently.  Even my old friends would say, ‘you’re, like, one of them, too’ (p. 16).  Another female student said, ‘People look at you like you’re a terrorist.  Like, they just look at you, and they don’t want to sit with you, like, in the train… especially old ladies’ (p. 16).  Almost every Pakistani-American youth she spoke with said that at some point after September 11, ‘he or she had been called a terrorist (p. 18).  Students reported such experiences both within the school walls and in the larger community (p. 16).

After September 11, many of Ghaffar-Kucher’s participants were ‘essentially stripped of their national and ethnic identities – Pakistani, American, South Asian, Desi’ – and their religion became the primary prism through which they were seen by peers, teachers, and members of the school community (p. 17).  On the other hand, the Pakistani-American youth increasingly ‘identified themselves as Muslim because doing so allowed them to transform the negative experience of being ostracized into a positive experience of solidarity and group membership with other Muslims, both in their immediate community and globally’ (p. 17).  Thus religion helped serve for the Pakistani-American youths interviewed as a kind of ‘defense mechanism’ (p. 22).

Interestingly, Ghaffar-Kucher then turns to Kavirah (2010) who ‘argues that the growing religiosity in many parts of the world is quite different from our traditional understanding of religion (in his writing, he refers to rising Hindu identity and nationalism).  He argues that we need to distinguish between ‘thick and thin religion’.  Thick religion encompasses traditional rituals, practices, and beliefs, whereas thin religion intersects religion, politics and nationalism and serves as a tool to bring people together for a cause, such as Hindu nationalism or Muslim victimhood (a ploy of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda).

The issue of ‘authenticity’ was also addressed by Ghaffar-Kucher.  For many Pakistani-American youth interviewed, being an ‘authentic Pakistani’ required simultaneously being an ‘authentic Muslim’ (p. 29).  Several Pakistani-American youth rarely entertained the idea that they could be American without giving up their ‘Pakistani-ness’ or ‘Muslim-ness’ (p. 29).  Perhaps this is due to the thinking that being an authentic Pakistani meant resisting all things American, or what the youth and their families referred to as Americanization (p. 29).  The key features of Americanization as noted by Pakistani-American youth included ‘lack of religiosity, sexual promiscuity, drinking, and taking drugs’ (p. 29).  ‘Being Pakistani or following tradition was seen as superior to being American or modern.  The Pakistani community’s construction of a binary classification, in which Pakistani/Muslim meant culturally superior and Western/American meant culturally inferior, was, as Maira (2002) suggests, ‘an attempt to reverse the racial hierarchy imposed on immigrant communities of color by asserting a cultural nationalism in response, a defensive move to compensate for the degradations of racism’ (p. 133).

In conclusion, Ghaffar-Kucher suggests that Pakistani-American youth frequently positioned by others as outsiders based on their (perceived) religion, their sense of exclusion translates into behaviors and the co-option of identities that serve to reinforce their outsider status.  Religification thus has serious ramifications for Pakistani-American youth and the ways in which they are constructed as ‘non citizens’ (p. 33).

Ghaffar-Kucher, A. (2011).  The religification of Pakistani-American Youth.  American Educational Research Journal.  


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