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Transnational Ties

By Janine Kahn

It is difficult to pin down what we mean by “transnational,” said associate professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic Studies, Mark LeVine of UC Irvine, after each panelist made a markedly different presentation on the topic.

Transnational is seen in everyone from the religious Muslim that sings for a heavy metal band and has no problem reconciling his stage identity with his religious lifestyle, to the American Muslim that attempts to send money to help his homeland, noted LeVine.

When speaking of transnational ties, the “central tie is the notion of ‘Oma,’ the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of Muslims,” said Agha Saeed, a lecturer on communications and political science at UC Berkeley.

The issue at hand, he noted, is the tension between the notion of Oma, which forms a bond that transcends nations, and the idea of a contained country or homeland.

“One of the questions I would like the mainstream media to investigate is how do most of the people in the world experience the United States?” said Saeed. “Isn’t it a paradox that people who deal with China experience it outwardly as a humane society and people who deal with the United States which is a democratic open society to some extent, experience it as imperialistic, colonizing, overpowering and going back on its own word?”

People who we have controlled and educated the Third World (as the West has done) have created four kinds of responses, and four kinds of people said Saeed:

  1. Puppets: No matter how you frame them everybody knows they are puppets.
  2. Greco-Latin Negros (or “Greco Latin Muslims"): Those who have read all the Western classical works, can repeat them and present the counter arguments.
  3. Cultural schizophrenics: Those who say Jihad should be taken out of the Koran, and try to bend things to the master’s bidding. These people have uneasy consciences: they know they are doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
  4. Revolutionaries: Not necessarily those who pick up the gun, but instead, the people that saw through the imperialist’s game and walked away from it.

The number of people in the Muslim world who fall into the last category is fast increasing, said Saeed.

When talking about transnational perspectives, he added on a tangent, the four main issues of debate revolve around: gender, generation, ethnicity and race and ideology.

Betsy Hiel, a foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, provided two situations that she felt illustrated the idea of transnational ties.

The first was a Muslim community with deep roots in Toledo, Ohio. When Hiel started reporting there, the community began flourishing, with educated immigrants coming from Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. The community became so large that a Turkish architect was hired to come and build a large mosque in the middle of a cornfield.

“When it was going up, everyone thought it was a farmer’s palace,” said Hiel. “By the time it was finished, someone was sure it was a Mexican restaurant.”

The community became representative of the Muslim Oma, said Hiel, and they provided a colorful face for Islam with everyone’s literally colorful natural costumes, which they wore to the mosque. Ties back home included everything from charitable work to joining UN projects and cultural affairs.

The second situation Hiel described revolved around a group of Saudi Arabian students and immigrants in Pittsburgh, who were more conservative. These were the sort to keep to themselves and their ties with the Muslim world, said Heil, and the group distanced themselves from the American mainstream, coming together to read the work of scholars back in Saudi Arabia.

Laila Al-Marayati, a spokesperson from the Muslim Women’s League, took the conversation in a different direction when describing her U.S.-based experience of dealing with Islamic charities.

“In the year 2001 (during Ramadan), shortly after the events of 9/11 when the US Patriot Act was passed, three of the major Muslim charities were designated as terrorist groups and were closed,” said Al-Marayati. “This left all of us in the donor community at a loss.”

The idea of charity is linked to self-purification in Islam, and this expression of giving and goodwill is intrinsic to the faith, said Al-Marayati. The charities she was involved with helped suffering in Palestine – but post 9/11, they were all shut down and her organization formed a new charity called “Kinder USA.”

The assumption that charitable Muslim organizations engage in terrorism financing is a common notion to the government, noted Al-Marayati. But there is a weak link between terrorism and charity.

“When you look at the amount of money from U.S. Muslims given abroad its quite miniscule compared to for example the money American Jews give to Israel as individuals, not talking about the American government. And American Christians give to humanitarian and missionary programs all over the world. We’re part of that whole family of giving money,” said Al-Marayati.

So far, she said, the government has yet to provide evidence of a money trail, and there has not been a single conviction of terrorist financing. But under the Patriot Act, they don’t need any proof to shut a charity. The government has also made it difficult for the charities to gain new donors, as new laws state that any money given today to a charity that aids a group that commits an act of terrorism five years down the line will brand the donor as a terrorism supporter.

The media’s role in all this is to look at the Patriot Act more critically, said Al-Marayati, and to write pieces that expose these attacks on charity as “witch hunts and smear campaigns.”
“The media has taken the government line more than anything else,” said Al-Marayati, who said that Muslims in America are “guilty until proven innocent.”

American Muslims should be treated well, as they are the face of America, she added. And it is up to them to provide a positive reputation for this country. 

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