A few days ago a friend was asking me about Aziz Ansari, the brown American comedian who grew up in South Carolina, and is of Tamil Muslim heritage. Since I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, I knew about him mostly through the Sepia Mutiny weblog. Some of the comments there indicated that Ansari was a practicing Muslim. That did not surprise me, South Asians are very religious. In particular, group religious identity matters a great deal to people whose origins are in Indian and Islamic civilization (and their intersection).
This is in contrast to East Asians, for whom group religious identity matters far less. It is notable that the most Sinic Southeast Asian nation, Vietnam, is closest to the East Asian model, with no single organized supernatural tradition being identified with the national consciousness. In contrast the more Indic mainland Southeast Asians, and those of maritime Southeast Asia, do fuse religion and national identity. To be Thai is to a great extent to be a Theravada Buddhist, and to be a Malay is to be a Muslim.*
The USA, unlike Canada, Singapore, or the UK, does not have breakdowns of religious affiliation by ethnic group down to the level of sub-Asian ethnicities, so I don’t know how religious or irreligious South Asians are. I assume that they’re less religious than Canadian or British South Asians, in large part because they’re a more advanced community in terms of education and economics vis-a-vis the mainstream in the USA (though to be fair it seems that the Punjabis of British Columbia and the Pakistanis of Britain are responsible for most of the social dysfunction of South Asians in those countries). But it still seems that a substantial number of American South Asians retain nominal religious identity even if their personal beliefs and practices are relatively secular. Fareed Zakaria was for example drafted as a “moderate Muslim” in the wake of 9/11 despite the fact that he used to be Slate‘s wine columnist. Here’s Zakaria on the role of religion in his life:
Growing up in a country like India, riven by sectarian violence, Zakaria says, “you’re absolutely aware of the power religion has, in a positive and negative sense—in its ability to inspire people and its ability to inspire people to kill.” On the other hand, his own upbringing was open-minded and secular; he sang Christian hymns at school and celebrated Hindu as well as his own Muslim holidays. “I do know a lot about the world of Islam in an instinctive way that you can’t get through book learning,” he says thoughtfully, but admits he finds the role of token Muslim explainer in the American media slightly uncomfortable. “I occasionally find myself reluctant to be pulled into a world that’s not mine, in the sense that I’m not a religious guy.”
He was born and raised in India, so no matter how assimilated he is Zakaria retains the stamp of the nation of his birth. The Zakarias are a powerful Indian Muslim family, and in India his identity was that of a Muslim, albeit one who was comfortable with South Asian supernatural pluralism.** Zakaria also believes that he has an implicit cultural understanding of Islam because that was the milieu in which he was raised. But he admits candidly what is pretty obvious, he’s not particularly religious in any conventional understanding for a Muslim. Nevertheless he does not disavow Islam, or assert he’s an atheist or agnostic.
I’m obviously not in Fareed Zakaria’s camp. I’m not a Muslim, I’m an atheist. Just like my paternal grandmother was not a Hindu even though she was born into a Hindu family. This sort of plain and naked assertion of atheism is not something that many Americans are comfortable with, since theism is normative. But in a South Asian context the bigger issue is the rupture with historical communal memory. I have met Americans who were born into a Hindu family who were atheists and ate beef who nevertheless winced when I admitted that there were Hindus in my family tree only a few generations back who obviously converted for reasons of rational self-interest. The power of “team Hindu” and “team Islam” still remains within Diasporic South Asian communities. Of course this sort of phenomenon is cross-cultural, an atheist friend who was from a Calvinist part of the Netherlands felt confident in mocking the special superstition of Roman Catholicism in a manner which would have made the Reformers of yore smile.
For myself, close readers will be aware that my explicitly asserted denial of the existence of God and rejection of identification with Islamic civilization is something of an affront to the memory of my recent ancestors. My mother’s paternal grandfather was a wandering Muslim mystic. In his lifetime he came to be revered for his piety, and the site of his grave has become a object of pilgrimage in the local region. The superstitious local folk naturally believe that we who descend from this man carry his holiness in our blood, and my mother remembers as a small child people approaching her as if she was a special talisman. On my father’s side I come from a line of Ulama.
But if religiosity is heritable it is highly amusing to me that I probably come very close to lacking the “God gene.” My understanding that I was an atheist as a small child was less of a rejection of the existence of God than an acknowledgment of the lack of belief which had always implicitly been part of of my model of how the world worked. I simply was never “Wired for Creationism.” But by lack of belief in and of itself does not entail that I reject “team Islam.” I was always struck by the fact that Edward Said, a Christian Arab by birth, an atheist as an adult, defined himself as a product of Islamic civilization. The connection between an individual and a religious ethos runs deeper than belief alone. It even runs deeper than explicit identification. I have argued repeatedly that most American Jews and Roman Catholics adhere to a view of what religion is, and what their religion is, that is clearly in keeping with the confessional sectarian Protestantism which has shaped the history of the United States of America. For me my personal disaffection with Indian and Islamic civilization was completed by my reading of Chinese philosophers, in particular Xun Zi, as well as the pre-Socratics of the Greeks. The fact that my ancestors wasted their lives on metaphysics, mysticism, and the Madhhab is a shame. Their Eudaimonia would have been deeply alien to me, in a way that Marcus Aurelius never was.
So what about the point of the article? Here’s an addendum to an article from last spring in The New York Times:
In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.
Whoever claimed Ansari was a practicing Muslim was lying, deluded, or mistaken. Because of my general knowledge that South Asians do not usually disavow any religious identity I simply accepted this as a given and repeated the falsehood. And that is why I am putting up this post, and hoping that Google picks up this for the appropriate search queries.
* I am aware that there are small communities of Thai-speaking Christians, as well as larger communities Thai-speaking Muslims.
** I once talked to a man who was of Indian Christian background whose personal beliefs were closer to Hinduism, but in India everyone defined him as a Christian because of his birth, despite his rejection of Christian beliefs and acceptance of Hindu ones.
Image Credit: Mb3741, Wikimedia Commons