Sunday, November 29, 2015

"António by Way of Alexandria" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (29 November 2015)

St. Catherine of Alexandria’s feast day links the Portuguese conquest of Goa and António Costa’s rise to power. But what are the pitfalls of believing in such coincidences?

Much will be made of the fact that António Costa became Prime Minister of Portugal on 25 November, 2015, his ascension to power occurring on the anniversary of the conquest of Goa, just over 500 years ago. On that day in 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah, then ruler of Goa, and dedicated his victory to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day it was. Five centuries later, and on such a significant date, that a person of Goan descent should now be at the helm of the nation that had previously colonised the homeland of his ancestors is an interesting fact, but it would be erroneous to think of this political event as being a reversal of the colonial past. In other words, Costa’s Goanness may be undeniable, but his rise to power should not be seen as a Goan takeover of Portugal. 

Indeed, the major difference between de Albuquerque’s defeat of Adil Shah and Costa’s ascent in Lisbon is that the latter was born in the country he now runs and came to power via democratic process. On the other hand, de Albuquerque seized power in Goa, having come to the region in the aftermath of Portugal’s search for the sea route to the Indies. Rather than continue to allow traders who happened to be Muslim to control their access to, and the price of, spices and other desirable commodities from the East, the Portuguese attempted to navigate to Asia themselves. Having once been ruled by the Moors who were African by origin and Muslim by faith, cutting out the Muslim middlemen in the early modern sea-trade game may have allowed the Portuguese to feel like they were avenging that past, even though there was little more than a shared faith that connected Iberia’s former rulers and the Eastern tradesmen. In addition to its Moorish past, Portugal shared Europe’s fears of an “Islamic threat”, the Crusades having played their part in widening religious differences amidst power struggles prior to the Age of Discoveries. Thereupon, that the Portuguese would have encountered a ruler in Goa who was Muslim and that victory against him came to them on the feast day of a saint whose defence of her Christian faith led her to be martyred in Alexandria – a Middle Eastern site of mercantile importance – would have borne much portent for the Iberians who were now poised to start an empire in Asia.

Yet, there is a deep irony to be found in the choice of Catherine as the patron saint meant to herald the imperial pursuits of the Portuguese in the East because of the steadfastness of her faith. The Roman Emperor Maxentius, who was pagan, had decreed that Catherine should be put to death as she refused to recant her Christian faith. The daughter of a Roman governor in Alexandria, she is believed to have lived around the third or fourth centuries, AD. However, the similarities between Catherine’s life story and that of the pagan figure Hypatia of Alexandria, caused the Christian martyr’s legend to come under scrutiny. This resulted in a removal of her name from the Catholic calendar in 1969, a decision that was reversed following popular protest.

The Church’s flip-flopping on Catherine occurred within a few years of the change in Goa’s colonial status in 1961. Following the short war waged between Portugal and formerly British-colonised India in December that year, Goa went from being an overseas territory of Portugal to then being a colony of a postcolony. It was also the year of the birth of António Costa, the son of writers Maria Antónia Palla, who is ethnically Portuguese, and Orlando da Costa, the renowned Goan author of mixed race origins. Like the once celebrated Catherine, da Costa, too, had links to Africa, having been born in Portuguese Mozambique. And it is precisely the Portuguese citizenship of both his parents, in addition to his own Portuguese birth, that makes the current Portuguese Prime Minister distinctly Portuguese. Despite being of mixed race origins, Costa is no less Goan, but his ethnicity is still the product of a past when being Goan was tantamount to being Portuguese, albeit in geographically distant locations. Simultaneously, Costa’s contemporary Portuguese identity harkens to Goa’s past, one written about by his father. Just as America’s Obama cannot be seen as a Kenyan simply due to his ethnicity, it is still arguably his African heritage that makes the world view him as being better informed about more than just his nation. So too one might hope for António Costa, a leader whose heritage crosses continents while he leads a country whose multicultural legacy he epitomises.  

From The Goan.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Paris, a Familiar Fire" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (15 November 2015)

Until the civil war of 1975, Beirut was often described as the Paris of the East. In the last couple of days, both Beirut and Paris suffered attacks, but only one of those cities will make the news as a victim of violence.

The grim news of the 13 November attacks in Paris give me a strong sense of déjà vu, even as I struggle to comprehend the violence and the toll on that world city and its people. This feeling of uncomfortable recall is not only because of the Charlie Hebdo shootings that had taken place in Paris at the start of this year, a link that, no doubt, will be made very strongly by politicians and the media in the days to come. Rather, I am also thinking about the Burj el-Barajneh bombings that claimed many lives in southern Beirut a day before Paris and of a smaller but still violent attack on the University of California campus at Merced on 4 November.

In an open letter published in the Merced Sun-Star a day following the incident on their campus, Anneeth Kaur Hundle and Sean Malloy, members of the Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Faculty, shared these thoughts: “We are deeply saddened by the violence that … [has left one] dead, four [injured], and many … emotionally traumatized ... We are also deeply troubled by the immediate surge of anti-Islamic, anti-Arab sentiment that followed the identification of the perpetrator as UC Merced student Faisal Mohammad. So far, we have only Mohammad’s name and that he was Muslim. But such information has no necessary correlation to the circumstances that led to his violent actions.” “Don’t turn our Tragedy into Hate”, the title of Hundle and Malloy’s letter reads, as it acknowledges the tragic event at their college, but also calls for reason.

I am concerned for the people of Paris. I dread what is to follow. The anxiety I sense building up inside of me is akin to how I felt on 9/11 here in the United States, a premonition that was sadly fulfilled when innocents became the victims of hate crimes based solely on their appearance. But to say the blameless brown-skinned, bearded, or turbaned were targeted in retribution is too simplistic, for their vilification also indicates the deeper current of xenophobia that exists in the United States. Of France and the January attacks, Jacobin’s Richard Seymour had this to say: “No, the offices of Charlie Hebdo should not be raided by gun-wielding murderers. No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But no, we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized ‘secularism,’ or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.”   
Only a few days ago, suicide bombers claimed the lives of 41 Beirutis. Already that news is in the process of being eclipsed by the violence in Paris. It is as if Beirut, once described as the Paris of the East, is only to be understood as a zone all too familiar with violence and, what is more, even deserving of it precisely because of its Muslim populace. The damage done to the city with its many European influences is what it is remembered for since the civil war of 1975. Thereupon, other episodes of unrest have occurred over the years, with the Syrian crisis most recently taxing Lebanon. Such events have rendered the cultural and religious diversity of its people invisible to most of the rest of the world as Beirut has become more synonymous with strife. But as Al-Jazeera reports, residents of the predominantly Shia region “expressed shock that such deadly explosions were taking place in the southern suburbs again”, given the relative peace since the previous suicide bombings of 2014, for which al-Qaeda claimed responsibility in the “Hezbollah stronghold”.

It is noteworthy that such nuance escapes the usual reportage when it comes to the Middle East, but is all the more heightened in regard to the West. In other words, violence in the West is generally configured as an external threat of an Islamic nature that is aimed at rupturing civility, while similar forms of violence are seen as being inherent to the East and less worthy of coverage, therefore. It is at times like these that the European world is thought of as being solely the domain of white people, and not the product of past colonial encounters as well as its result – contemporary multiculturality.

As Seymour chronicles in the aforementioned Jacobin article, it did not take long for the Hebdo incident to be labeled an act of terrorism by French President Francois Hollande, for the use of the word is meant to act as a register of any and all difference. “‘Terrorism’ is not a scientific term; it is inherently normative”, Seymour reminds us, going on to explain that the word “functions as a narrative device, setting up a less-than-handful of people as a civilizational threat … It justifies repressive and securitarian responses that tend to target Muslims as such…”  

I am concerned for the people of Paris. I dread what is to follow. I hope the days to come will disprove this anguish, but already a fire seems to be lit.

From The Goan.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"A Small Matter of Life" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (1 November 2015)

On 20 October, two children in Faridabad, outside Delhi, lost their lives in a fire. Two days earlier, a man whose car broke down in Palm Beach County, Florida, was fired at by a policeman, and was killed. The children were Dalit and the man from Florida was black. In mentioning these two incidents, from either side of the planet, it is to draw attention to the on-going violence against minority communities in India and the United States. 

The Black Lives Matter movement in America has highlighted the recent spate of police-related deaths in the country, the victims of which have been African American. In such incidents, the impunity with which police violence has been dealt with by the judicial system, reveals institutionalized bias against minorities, and those who are black, in particular. This was demonstrated most emblematically in the outcomes of the separate cases involving the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The New York policeman who placed Garner in a chokehold in July 2014, causing his death, was acquitted in December that same year. A month earlier, the policeman who in August 2014 shot and killed Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, had similarly been found not liable

In the recent event cited above, where Floridian Corey Jones was awaiting a tow-truck because his car had broken down, the police claimed that he had been confrontational. While it was true that Jones did have a gun, it later became apparent that he had not fired it. Nevertheless, Jones was shot and killed. Consider, too, that several white Americans with guns have perpetrated mass killings in recent years, and that such occurrences are generally not analysed by the media as acts of racism or terrorism. Even when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine congregants at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina in June this year, the white shooter was treated humanely during his arrest. 

In comparing the police treatment of black people in the States to that of Dalits and other minorities in India, it is rather striking that Jitender Kumar, the father of Vaibhav and Divya, the two children who lost their lives in the Faridabad fire, claimed police negligence following an incident involving members of the Rajput community. As The Hindu (29 October, 2015) reports, “The attack on the Dalit family is being linked to the murder of three members of the Rajput community on October 5 last year. Twelve members of Jitender’s family were named in that case and they are currently in jail”. The article continues to say that “Jitender’s family was threatened with dire consequences if it did not leave the village” and that though “given police security”, the father of the slain children “accused the local police of not taking any action on his complaint”. 

With alarmingly frequency now, one hears of incidents that take place in India where Muslims are targeted based on mere suspicion of flouting the law or custom. Take the September lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh, who had been fatally set upon by a mob for supposedly eating beef despite a state ban against its consumption. Or the more recent incident involving a Muslim barber in Karnataka who refused to shut his practice on a Tuesday, thereby hurting the sentiments of the local Hindu community who do not cut their hair on that day of the week, as reported by the Hindustan Times (28 October, 2015). The barber’s refusal to close shop led to a riot. 
To say that such reactions as a lynching and a riot are extreme detracts attention from the larger issue at hand. In a purportedly secular democracy, how is it that the sentiments, customs, and traditions of the upper caste have come to represent an unquestioned moral hegemony, where said powerful group acts like an affronted minority? To the extent that such moral policing is both enshrined in law and backed by state-surveillance, if not a lynch-mob that can run amok with no legal consequences, speaks to the precarity of rights available to religious and other minorities in the contemporary Indian nation-state. The same can be said of the United States, where even making a clock can lead to the detention of a Muslim youth. This was the case last month when teenager Ahmed Mohamed was suspected of being a bomb-maker because he put together a timepiece at home and brought it to his school in Texas.

In the United States and India, then, both democracies, one is led to wonder about such highly held concepts as equality and the value placed on life where those very concepts seem so fickle.

From The Goan.