Ten Commandments for an International Relations Professional

I received an email from a relative in India, requesting me to speak with his niece, who is considering grad school in the U.S. She wants to specialize in International Relations. This is perhaps the fifth or so request I have received in the last year. So, I thought of writing a blog post for her and also fellow scholars/ learners who may be interested in issues of International Development/ Affairs.

As someone who graduated from the top Public Policy program in the U.S., I feel (slightly) qualified to talk about this topic. I think it had more to do with timing, luck and perhaps a few other factors, including my work experience; rather than sheer talent. Nevertheless, I will attempt to outline a few things for wannabe IR professionals. I believe I have done a few things right and feel confident in sharing what I have learnt, along with way. While these are not literal rules to follow, here are my ‘Ten Commandments,’ for an IR professional.  Here goes:

  1. Start with an end in mind – Why do you want to study what you want to study? This may seem counterintuitive to the whole philosophy of education, but in the case of an applied field such as IR/ Public Policy/ Development Studies, it is almost mandatory that you start with this in mind. If not, you will drift aimlessly. As much as you should ‘learn for the sake of learning,’ a professional degree such as International Relations/ Public Administration should be approached with a clearer focus. Have a vague ambition, at the least. Do you want to work for an International NGO/ the U.N./ Your government? Or pursue a Ph.D? What impact do you want to make in this world, through your work?

For instance, I wanted to work for the United Nations, before I came to Syracuse University. My goals have changed, since. But at least, I knew why I wanted to study at Maxwell School.

  1. International development is messy – You will quickly realize this, if you haven’t already. The whole ‘development’ talk can be very glamorized and ‘done up.’ You must read widely, intern during your course-work and also possibly try to spend some time in the country you see yourself working (if it isn’t you home country), to see the realities ‘on the ground.’
  2. It is not what it is made out to be – Related to the point above, you will also realize that development/ diplomacy/ administration of organizations is very different, once you start doing it. Skills that you think are important can become redundant and you may be called upon to use other skills that you have not developed too well. For instance, during my previous job as the Executive Director of a small NGO in Washington D.C., I realized quickly that managing people, their anxieties, concerns were equally important, as running the NGO itself. As an NGO that had undergone a crisis, both the donors and those who wanted to work with the organization had deep doubts. I had to address many such issues, before I could focus on performing my task. Watch Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, for a good laugh about this issue.
  3. Be careful about wanting to ‘change the world’ – A bit of humility will help. Look around the countries that the U.S. and E.U. have tried to develop – Iraq, Afghanistan can be two examples – to see the complications and challenges involved. Sometimes, the best of intentions can have extremely negative consequences.
  4. Be aware of the politics involved – As much as ‘technical’ skills are involved in the process of ‘development,’ and ‘diplomacy,’ the processes are deeply political. This is the nature of the game and it would be wise to be conscious of it.
  5. There are no free lunches – Nations, like individuals are motivated by incentives. Is it all about ‘Carrots and Sticks?’ On a lighter note, watch this.
  6. Read critical development studies – It is not all good news, throughout. Read critical theorists, they will expand your mind about what can (and often) does go wrong. But don’t let their cynicism stop you from pursuing your work. Encountering Development by Arturo Escobar is a great start.
  7. Be humble, about what is possible – Studying and working in the U.S. can make one feel that the U.S. is literally the center of the world. In some ways, it is. People in Washington D.C. do feel like it is the global capital. But this ‘American exceptionalism,’ is a myth, like many other myths. Learn some humility, along the way.
  8. Learn to network – People underestimate the value of knowing people. Network not to just ‘get a job,’ or schmooze, but to genuinely connect with people, who will help you: to think clearly, to collaborate, to work with and also to guide you. You can and must have a wide range of people, who you will reach out to, and who should be able to reach out to you for advice, help or guidance. Most people will help you, if it doesn’t cost them much. Also, genuinely help people when you can. All it takes to land a job is one good connection. Remember this.
  9. Don’t stop dreaming – Finally, never stop dreaming. Imagine a better world, both for yourself and for those who you ‘serve,’ whether it is an organization, national/ state government or even your community. Be aware that human agency and your own actions can change a lot – for the better or for the worse – and that ultimately, politicians, leaders are human: just like you and me. Even the president of the U.S. is human and makes mistakes. As one of my colleagues in Dubai used to say about celebrities: Their shit smells just as bad as mine.
Posted in Careers, Education, International Relations, Maxwell School of Syracuse University, Public Policy, USA | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

  Do we need to re-think the meaning of Tradition ?

In International Relations, Development theory as well as cultural analysis, often one hears that ‘tradition’ ideas are evil, and must be gotten rid of, on our way to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, if one looks at the development of the West, on is way to Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the tension was between ‘tradition,’ exemplified by the Church and ‘modern’ ideas, that were ‘secular,’ ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ Especially, in liberal, progressive circles, tradition is a taboo word; that connotes backwardness, illiteracy and a lack of ability to ‘move with the times.’

In America too, this tension has played out and continues to animate itself in media discourses, popular debates and everyday scenarios. But the question is,  is ‘tradition,’ really all that it is made out to be? And is ‘modernity’ all that ‘modern.’ And how are the two linked together, in contemporary ethical life? I will try to answer this, in this short post.india-culture-heritage

Two scholars are helpful in understanding the notion of ‘tradition’ and its relation to modernity. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Philosopher and the second being Talal Asad, an Anthropologist, who is most well-known for his writings on Islam. Both are considered authorities in their field of study and have contributed much to our understanding of the world we live in. First off, let us start with the definition that each offers of tradition. Asad says that tradition consists of ‘discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate to a past, and a future, through a present.’ (1986, p.14). His definition of tradition is one of inherited discourses, and he goes on to build the idea of a ‘discursive tradition,’ meaning one which is constantly in dialogue with the others and with itself and hence, is ‘alive.’

On the other hand, MacIntyre argues that a tradition is a shared conversation between a set of people and one that is often born into. I did not choose to be born into an Indian, Muslim family and inherit the traditions that came with it. I may have adopted a few others, along the way, through travel, reflection and life-experience; but the ones that I most closely relate to, are the ones that I am deeply ingrained in. Tradition, then, according to MacIntyre is a ‘shared conversation through time about the rule, ends and overall direction of a given set of practices,’ (Hannan, 2012. P.394).

So, between Asad and MacIntyre’s definitions, we have a lot of similarities in how they understand the role of tradition. Both see it as something that one is born into, one that one inherits. How does one deal with it, then? MacIntyre develops his notion of tradition to talk about one’s ‘narrative self,’ as embodying the stories that one tells and how  these impact our sense of our own self, own sense of our ‘traditions,’ and how we keep them alive. Similarly, Asad talks about a ‘discursive tradition,’ as being a dynamic formulation of tradition, in that, one seeks to relate one’s tradition to current practices, based on how one understand how things were done in the past. This necessarily doesn’t mean that one kowtows to what was done in the past and preserves everything therein. A ‘discursive tradition,’ in Asad’s view is ‘alive’ and ‘active’, in that it seeks to question both the present and the future, and also the past.

Both scholars make a very important point that no matter how ‘modern.’ Our conceptions of our life, they are deeply rooted in some ‘tradition.’ For example, all talk of ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘progress,’ are not just Western constructs that are post-Enlightenment ideals, but have evolved over centuries and under certain specific historic conditions. To deny this is to lie to oneself, both Asad and MacIntyre seem to be saying.

The difference between them seem to be in the amount of focus that each puts on the power relations. While Asad words in a Foucaldian tradition, that seeks to understand power-relations between those who create knowledge and those who are at the receiving end of it, MacIntyre seems less interested in these aspects and he is interested more in the ethical dimensions of the problems at hand.

These two formulations of tradition challenge us to re-think what tradition is. In a classical Burkean sense, tradition is seen as something that had no scope for disagreement or reasoning. Asad shows, through his work that this is not the case and in the particular case of Islamic tradition, there has been and continues to be contestation, debate, arguments – in the realm of tradition. Even in the ‘Western tradition,’ for instance, one can see that our conceptions of justice, equality and law and order have evolved and continue to evolve, making it ‘discursive.’

References:

Hannan (2014) Ed. Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication: With a Foreword by Richard J. Bernstein and an Afterword by John Durham Peters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Asad, T (1986). Towards an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.

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How to travel like Ibn Battuta?

Ibn Battuta is one of my heroes. He is what Americans would call ‘badass’ . He sits well on top of the list of people I have admired and loved – for their generosity of spirit, sense of adventure or sheer bravery. What started as the journey of a 20 yr old man to go to Hajj or the annual pilgrimage, became a 29 year adventure, in which he travelled over 75,000 miles and an equivalent of over 44 countries. One of the significant achievements that Ibn Battuta has to his credit is the fact that he traveled the known world then – or most of it, anyway – almost twice over. And mind you, this was either on foot, by ship or on a horse/ Camel back. An interesting talk by Prof. Paul Cobb on Ibn Battuta’s travels is here.

When she felt like teasing me, my (late) mother called me the future Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler who traversed the world, in 14th century. She based her prediction on the fact that I had a mole on my foot (a family superstition) and also because I loved to learn about new places. Whether or not I will be a world-traveler and a scholar is something I would rather not speculate about, but I have certainly seen more of the world than many of my family members and friends. The spirit of travel that my mother alluded to, the thrill of discovering new places, of hearing different languages, trying different foods, listening to the sounds of music of different lands and experiencing different ways of organizing life has stayed with me and continues to inspire me – on a daily basis.  So, how does one travel like Ibn Battuta?

Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being curious. It means to learn constantly as one travels. It also means that one observes, takes notes and asks questions. It implies an open mindedness – to the customs, traditions, values and norms of the people that one visits – even if they are drastically different from that of ours. Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being flexible, being considerate and being friendly. An authentic Hadith of the prophet says “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, God will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise.” Islam also views human life as a journey, and the Prophet Muhammad it said to have told his followers to view life as such – and not to get too attached to anyone or anything – in the true spirit of being a traveler. One may travel the world, yet remain ignorant. It is possible to be impervious to the world outside, if one is close-minded and generally indifferent to the world outside. What is needed, it seems, is a curiosity, borne out of the need to genuinely learn from the ‘other,’ without any prejudgment and biases.

With modern transport, travel may have lost some of its old-world charm, but it does form character and expands one’s mind.  As Bruce Chatwin, the British travel writer said, ”As you go along, you literally collect places.” My sense is that all great travelers including Ibn Battuta ‘collected places,’ and this informed their rich characters.

While the days of pre-passport travel have long gone past, what remains are the fragments of those days: memories and dreams of traveling unrestricted. Before I get ahead of myself and paint a romantic, idyllic picture of the 14th century, let’s step back and recall that there was no mass-rapid transit back in the day. No trains, Airplanes or Amtrack. One’s best bet was a Ship, Camel or a Horse and yes, let’s remember that there were bandits and Highway men. But despite all this, travel represented something that it doesn’t today: A sense of expansion, deliverance from limitation and a sense of belonging to the world outside of our own.

Travel is not an equal playing field. As someone with a ‘third-world’ passport, I have been made aware, more than once, that my mobility is not guaranteed. I have always, more than anything, wanted to be mobile – to pick my backpack and move. As a light-traveler, I usually like to just pack a small suitcase and carry my backpack. With this, I have traveled quite a bit. My adventures have involved arguing with visa officers in the American, Austrian and Dutch embassies involving health insurance, the amount of money I had in my bank account to why I want to visit their country. In each case, I won my case. But the fact that I, as a young brown male, from a former colony should have to justify why I have to travel, is something I (still) don’t quite understand. While impressionable teens from the U.K. or the U.S., can pack their bags, buy a ticket and just show up to (almost

) any country in Asia or Africa, and write what they want, create a discourse about these places – the gender relations, the food, the way they are treated – and a million things; I sense that something is not right in our world. A 16 year old me could never do such a thing. Power relations between countries, visa treaties become all too real when one travels under those terms. Despite this, I have been lucky and have seen quite a bit of the world we live in.

All of this brings me back to my starting point: Ibn Battuta is dead. So is the mode of transport and the spirit of travel that he embodied. But to revive his sense of curiosity, scholarship and genuine compassion for others, it is necessary to start with an openness, humility and curiosity.

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Philanthropy: Where Marxism and Islam agree

Marxism can be considered the exact mirror opposite of Islamic values, when it comes to ideas of materialism. On surface, this statement seems true. While Karl Marx’s idea of society can be considered purely materialistic, and his notions of political economy deeply rooted in notions of wealth, Islam is a more egalitarian and ‘socialist’ system, as far as wealth is concerned. Also, the relationship between wealth and social relations is expounded differently in Islam and Marxism. Yet, despite these obvious differences between a totally materialist ideology and a spiritual system, there seem to be some points of intersection, as well. In the area of how both Islam and Marxism views philanthropy – and specifically, how they critique philanthropy- they both seem to converge.

philanthropy  One area where both Marxism and Islam agree on critiquing philanthropy – especially that carried out by hi-net worth donors – The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world is in legitimizing their wealth. As this article points out, the Marxist critique of such wealthy donors is simple: they ask questions such as: “How did these billionaires earn their money in the first place? Why is it that they do not know what to do with their wealth while ordinary working men and women find it hard to pay their bills at the end of the month and while more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day and 3 billion on less than 2 dollars a day?” These questions, the article argues, tell us the whole story, and offer us a big picture of what is going on, in the economic system that we live in, that makes us so rich or on the other extreme, so poor, that we don’t have enough to pay our bills. One of the contradictions in their approach is that these seemingly benevolent philanthropists actually behave just like any other capitalists – they cut costs, fire people, squeeze as much out of people, as they can – all fair, according to business practices. This means, they often don’t worry too much about the ‘welfare’ of their employees. This double-speak is what is problematic, the authors seem to suggest.

Are we to commend these rich folk, who ‘take care’ of the poor folk, or are we to question their generosity, as a fig-leaf for de-politicizing their work, as scholars Patricia Nickel and Eikenberry have argued. They argue that when public problems become private crusades, then we fail to appreciate the politics behind these issues and the inequalities of power that exist, in these scenarios. This capacity for ‘global governance,’ also implies that these philanthropists can determine ‘which lives to save and which ones to not,’ they further suggest.

Islamic critique of philanthropy (or generally of wealth) are similar, in that Islam views wealth as a ‘trust from God,’ to be used for the benefit of one’s own self and that of those around oneself.  As this article points out, the hoarding of wealth is discouraged in Islam and there are injunctions to share it, with those who are less fortunate – both in the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions (Hadith). Further, the article suggests that ‘Islam considers wealth the life-blood of a community which must be in constant circulation,’ (Qur’an 9:34-35). In fact, in my own upbringing, my mother (who was by many measures the most generous person I knew) used the analogy of wealth being like a river, it should keep flowing; lest it stagnate. The health of the water in the river is guaranteed, when it keeps flowing, my mom advised. She also lived accordingly and I don’t remember her turning down anyone who came to her for financial assistance – and there were many who came to her – quite regularly. Charity and philanthropy are seen as ways to ‘cleanse’ one’s wealth. While some scholars have argued that this can be seen as a ‘social justice,’ mechanism, others have argued that this is more of a personal injunction, on those who are well-off, rather than as a social measure of justice.

While Islam rejects the Marxist materialism, there are certainly areas of congruence, when it calls upon the wealthy to distribute their wealth. While Marxists actively distrust wealth accumulation, Islamic ideals of wealth are closer to a mercantilist attitude, of doing good, while doing well for oneself. So, to that extent, Capitalism is compatible with Islam, but not in the current speculative, Wall-Street manner.

Posted in Arab Philnathropy, Charity, Democracy, food, God, Governance, India, islam | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Development: For whom and why?

Over the last two weeks, I have had a few interesting discussions on ‘development,’ both in the context of local community development and international development. One can see conflation of security discourses, humanitarian and related concerns in each of these debates.  The dominant narrative about ‘development,’ in the context of Asia and Africa seems to also stem from the need to ‘contain’ problems arising from lack of development. People are violent, anti-government etc. because they are poor, the theory goes. Only if we give them ‘goods,’ or wealth will they behave better, seems to be the governing logic. But is this true? Is poverty and lack of development really causing the ‘chaos’ that we see around us. Or is it ignorance, lack of dialogue or wrong geo-strategic decisions, by the powers that are involved – including the local actors?

While it is easy to brand someone we don’t agree with as ‘anti-national’ or ‘against our interest,’  I suggest that we must pay particular attention to the power dynamics involved on who gets to legitimize what sort of ‘development,’ a country needs and how it will be carried out. In the absence of this awareness, we may be led into arguments that are faulty at best.

Photo courtesy : wateraid.org

Photo courtesy : wateraid.org

A recent example of ‘anti-development’ rhetoric being used as a platform to shut down a civil society organization is the case of Green Peace in India. While the specifics of the case can be found here and here, the point at stake is the vision of what sort of ‘development,’ does the government of India want. While it is the right of every Indian to know and question the policies being formulated, it is a deeply anti-democratic measure to shut down a reputed NGO just because the government disagrees with its position. By this account, most (if not all) media outlets in India should be shut down, as they regularly print articles that are critical of the government. In fact, it is the job of civil society and media to hold elected officials accountable. This very crux of a pluralist democracy – which India is – by all means. Democratic pluralism demands that dissenting views be heard, incorporated in the planning processes. To want the goods of globalization and not want the criticism that comes from it, both from local and global organizations is not exactly an ‘open’ way to do business.

The context of international development also brings up questions of how ‘development’ is defined. Who are we ‘developing’ and why? What is at stake? Who gains and who loses and also, fundamentally; development at what cost?  These are some questions that need to be asked, suggests Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) speaking of the role of social scientists, in uncovering and understanding human action in a social context.

A recent conversation I was part of, involved an expert, who spoke of ‘fixing Africa,’ with his technical expertise. While to a trained social scientist / development expert, this may sound like the worst nightmare come true; in his mind, this idea of ‘fixing Africa’ was as natural as having one’s breakfast – you just do it because you can – there was absolutely no consciousness of the power dynamics involved, with the ‘American’ expert and the ‘poor, African,’ at the receiving end. The politics of what I just have pointed out notwithstanding, there are real power differentials here that need to be acknowledged. This often means that the ‘best solution,’ for the African context may end up not being what they actually need, but perhaps what the American or European (or Chinese) may think they need.  This is one big problem in the discourse of development. The one with the dollars often get to decide how the discourse of development is shaped.

Similar critiques of development have come from other scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) places the discussion of development in his book Encountering Development, this in the context of the ‘Truman doctrine’ of the late 1940s and early 50s.  The ‘discovery’ of poverty and ‘lack’ of material goods in Africa and Asia was made then, which completely ignored the way that the natives understood community, frugality, he further points out. He argues that it is with the massive onslaught of marketization that led to the pauperization of people and eventual creation of massive levels of poverty.

This idea of ‘developing’ the world by infusing capital, industrializing the poorer countries and measuring their progress by the standards became the standard operating procedure, he argues. This ‘Orientalism, Africanism and Developmentalism,’ continues, unabated and relies mainly on the standards, metrics and systems devised as part of the discourse of creating a representation of the ‘underdeveloped’. At stake are issues of representation, autonomy of those who are at the receiving end of this development. (Escobar, 1995; Mitchell, 1988). While the critique of development that Escobar offers is valid in the context of the discourses of development, what it ignores are the local, indigenous formulations of how this development impacts the receivers of ‘aid.’

Flyvbjerg (1998) argues in his book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice that we must pay special attention to power dynamics in the ‘rational’ planning processes. What passes for ‘scientific’ and ‘expert’ knowledge can often be deeply dogmatic and convoluted, that reinforces certain ideological ideas. This aspect of focusing on power dynamics, relations of how the parties being ‘developed’ and those doing the ‘development,’ need to be kept in mind simply because without this awareness; we cannot have a mature and critical look at ‘who gains and who loses.’  Intended development projects may end up causing more harm, than actual benefit.

So, are International NGOs working against India’s interest when they try to stop a mining project, or do all Western ‘experts,’ have Africa’s best interest , when they plan projects in Africa? I don’t think the answer to this is straight-forward. While donor relations normally dictate what gets done in a target country, I suggest, following scholars such as Escobar and others, which we need to radically re-think development. Asking some basic questions such as the ones outlined above may be a good start.

Critical questioning and thinking are the bedrocks of any democratic order, and I would argue that media, civil society organizations and active citizenry should be the ones ensuring that this function takes place, on a regular basis. In the absence of this, we would end up with massive levels of propaganda posing as actual knowledge, with media becoming the mouth-piece of those in power – both politically and other wise- and a plutocracy that serves only those in power.

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Singapore, Dubai and the limits of Freedom?

ON March 23rd, the founder of modern day Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew died – and with him, an era of change and reform in Singapore passed. While the man is remembered for ‘building’ Singapore, he is also known as the man who brought into sharp focus the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘Asian values’. The discourse of Liberal Democracy got its strongest challenge from him, in South East Asia. Even his arch enemies acknowledge that he did well, both for himself and for his country. By imposing order, discipline and a level of authoritarianism; he brought the country prosperity and recognition. But the question really, in my mind is, what does LKY represent. Does he represent the possibilities of a repressive regime, or the

limits of democracy?LKY

Most people who live in democracies take them for granted. I grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and not until I moved to live in Dubai, UAE in 2008 did I begin to appreciate the value of what it is to live in one. For the first few months, all I could see was the dazzle and glitter of Dubai. Remember, it was 2008, Dubai at its best. The real estate market was still booming – though there were signs of slowdown in the U.S.- this had not hit the Middle East market yet. Life was good. People talked about buying apartments, moving to new jobs, taking vacations in Bali. In casual conversations with taxi drivers, they would tell me things like ‘The King cares about the country. What if he rules forever? The corrupt politicians back home (India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) care about their own good and not the country’. This was repeated time and again.

While media and intellectuals in the West talk about the greatness of liberal democracies, they also often do not mention that in most countries, including the U.S. – considered the oldest democracy in the world – it is still an experiment of sorts. In many cases, it works, but there are also egregious cases of violations of the very spirit of democracy. Consider the idea that powerful groups of people or institutions controlling all the decisions being made in a country, as in the case of interest groups lobbying for their interests and the notion of ‘common good’ being relegated to the backburners. What sort of a democracy would that be? We see this exact phenomenon occurring in the U.S. and other advanced democracies. While in the developing and emerging democracies, corruption is an issue; the same problem manifests itself when we speak of interest groups and oligarchies. Concentration of power, nepotism and lack of transparency are endemic issues that every society has to deal with. Just having a form of government that promises it is not sufficient. Anyone who has worked in or with a bureaucracy closely will testify to this phenomenon.

Do Singapore and Dubai offer a high standard of living? Yes, for many of those who choose live there. If you are educated, middle-class and of a certain disposition. But if one is not so educated, is a laborer or a low-income earner, then Dubai and the Gulf can be living hell. The visa sponsorship system, combined with the potential to abuse power is rather high in such societies that place ethnic loyalty over other norms. These societies are in that sense ‘illiberal democracies’ as Fareed Zakaria called them. There are local elections to the Federal National Council in the UAE, but who gets to run and who decides that is extremely restricted. Zakaria argues that countries that have elections, yet have a lot of restrictions, that go against the spirit of democracy are not helpful in maintaining ‘order’, as eventually they give rise to dissent and chaos. They offer us the illusion of freedom, but in a restricted way. Saying the wrong thing, acting in the wrong way and expressing oneself in a certain way or going against the ruling elite can cause one to lose one’s job or even worse. This is the price one pays for the comfort of living in these societies.

This brings us back to the point: Do societies such as Singapore and Dubai (which is modelled after Singapore, as a city-state) offer ‘freedom’?. Is choice defined in terms of economic liberty and freedom; in terms of being able to live lavishly and in comfort. What about those who cannot afford this? Or is a society about the greater common good – if one even believes in such a thing- these are questions that one has to grapple with, when analyzing the role of society and form of government, that one seeks to build.

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Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

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