Reaz N. Khan
Part of the "What does being Muslim Indo-Caribbean mean to you?" Series
Sorting Our Prepackaged Identity
“Prepackaged identities” are widely accepted. They often conflate culture, ethnicity and religion. In immigration: across time, space and physical borders, a deconstruction of our colonized past and seeing those three components as distinct and subject to fluidity is needed. Indo-Caribbean Muslims are a minority in and out of diasporic communities beyond the West Indies. In many ways, identity in the US and Canada is reactionary. Their Muslim counterparts from the East conflate those three previously mentioned identities because of the rigid hyper religious nationalism created by the Westaphalian system. In their state-run education systems, religion is implemented in civic life. Muslims in the Caribbean have largely decided what religion looks like for them in the past 100+ years, and more importantly how and if they will follow it. That freedom is defining. It leads to see our community is on a spectrum in terms of religious practice.
Our history and ability to work with our ethnic brethren stems from the syncretic Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb our ancestors lived, free from Wahabi-influenced imams and prior to sensationalist Hindutva thinkers and preachers that do not account for religious pluralism in their narratives. Those before us left a pre-partitioned subcontinent prior to the birth of a modern India, but came from the south in Tamil speaking areas, north Uttar Pradesh in Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili regions, and around the Chota Nagpur Plateau. The mixing of these groups over a hundred years ago in islands of the Caribbean that meet the coasts and jungles of South America from an area curling around the Bay of Bengal was on colonial racial lines. In ridding caste, racial classifications remained. The us vs. them developed by colonization flourished as Indo and Afro-Caribbeans developed separately; the first continuing to farm while the latter gained civil service positions. Learning English and political conditions equated to mobility and those “better” jobs. Waves of migration and identity transported abroad.
Those who seek to abide by their faith are contemporarily met by two polarized approaches. Our community; like most Muslims in the Americas, grapples with both traditionalists and modernists. The first refers to those who embrace their “Indian” identity and reconcile their Islam with what their grandparents knew; think qaseedas and tazeem (salato-salam.) The second are those who seek an Islam closer to what they believe the Prophet (SAW) practiced – with leanings to all things Arab. There are folks who fall somewhere in between those too. Religious leadership rarely explains this phenomenon in the power grab to fuel their ego-based institutions.
Faith requires logic, reason and intellect; not blind acceptance. You are capable of deciphering how and if you want to live your faith and what it means to your identity. Being a minority within a minority teaches us we have no right to judge where an individual fall on this spectrum.
The first words in the Qur’an are iqra – referring to the need to read, ponder and think. Through sorting how we identify, we need to actively do more of just that.
Reaz Khan is an avid grant writer/consultant for a number of NGOs in international development and has taught political science and history at the university level in New York and Massachusetts. He is a native New Yorker that credits his upbringing in Queens for his eagerness in always learning about diversity. He has traveled, conducted presentations, workshops and led monitoring and evaluation projects in 70+ countries within six years. He holds an MBA in Managerial Analytics from Mercy College; an Ed.M. in Comparative & International Education from Columbia University, M.A. in International Relations from American Military University and B.A. in International Studies from Adelphi University, New York.
The views in this article reflect the lived experiences and positionality of this author based on the intersections of what being both Muslim and Indo-Caribbean means to them.