Ali Asani on the denial of identity

Ali Asani

A scholar of Islam in South Asia, Professor Asani’s research focuses on Shi’a and Sufi devotional traditions in the region.

Ali Asani came to the U.S. from Kenya, started as an undergraduate student at Harvard, and then just never left. Today, he’s a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Asani and I’ve always been struck by the nuance in his arguments and, more importantly, his immense humility. We spoke a bit about his own navigation of identity and the global aspect of Islamophobia:

People often say, okay the Jews went through this, and the Catholics went through this, and the Irish went through this and Italians went through this. And it’s true that you know it’s part of the whole process of becoming American, you have to go through this. I do see it as different. Unlike I think some of those other groups, you don’t have the manifestation of this at a global level…It’s not just the U.S. It’s a global phenomenon. You see it in Europe, definitely. You see the links between Islamophobic groups in Europe with those in the U.S., but you also see it in places like India. You see it in Bosnia. You see it in Burma. You can see it in many, many different places. You see it in Russia. You see it in China…And that’s what I think makes it a little bit different from saying, okay, this is a normal part of the American hazing experience. That’s what I think makes it dangerous. Because it’s global.

He told me what struck him about election-time Islamophobia and the revision of history in people’s minds:

The thing that really stood out to me as an Islamophobic thing was made by Rev. Rod Parsley who was spiritual advisor to John McCain and who wrote in his book “Silent No More,” among other claims he makes, that 9/11 was a call to arms because America was founded in part to see the false religion of Islam destroyed, and that’s why America was created. And 9/11 now means that we are in a full-fledged war with Islam. That, for me, was an outrage because it’s just a revisionist form of reading history and documents and texts. When I saw that, I said, wow. And you can see how it was tied with the whole election of Obama. And that behind it was this whole idea that Obama was a secret Muslim and that electing him is going to be the ultimate triumph because now Muslims will be in power, they’ve taken over the White House and then they’re going to take over the country. So this was a strategy pandering to people’s fear for Islam — “Do not vote for Obama because if you vote for Obama, it’s a vote for Islam, it’s a vote for the enemy.” The implications of all of that are just astounding.

On the many ways he was denied his own identity in the U.S.:

When I came to Harvard as an undergraduate, one of the things I was astonished about was how ignorant people were about Kenya — they didn’t know where it was — and their perceptions about who was African. So someone like me would not qualify as African because, “Oh, you must be from India.” Even though my family’s been two generations in Africa. So I would say there was this broad illiteracy. My first encounter was this illiteracy about Africa that impacted me directly because people were not able to label me correctly or they thought I was a misfit or they wanted to impose their own labels on me, so you have to be — you can’t be African. And in Africa, people who are of Indian origin are called Asian. So if I said I was Asian, “No, you can’t be Asian because Asian means you’re Chinese.” So I was denied my African identity, I was denied my Asian identity, and then at a certain point I would find out of course that they were also very ignorant about Islam as well.

Check out my interviews with Jocelyn CesariOmid SafiCarl ErnstEli CliftonHaroon MoghulHussein Rashid and Hind MakkiLearn more about my project.