I am a transmigrant who has moved back and forth between the West and the Rest. I was born and raised in a Muslim family in a predominantly Muslim country, Bangladesh, but I spent several years of my childhood in Pakistan. After my marriage, I lived in the United States for a year and a half, the Middle East for 5 years, Australia for three years, back to the Middle East for another 5 years, then, finally, in Australia for the last 12 years. I speak Bengali (my mother tongue), Urdu (which I learnt in Pakistan), a bit of Arabic (learnt in the Middle East); but English has always been my medium of instruction. So where is home? Is it my place of origin, the Muslim umma, or my land of settlement? Or is it my ‘root’ or my ‘route’ (Blunt and Dowling)?
Blunt and Dowling (199) observe that the lives of transmigrants are often interpreted in terms of their ‘roots’ and ‘routes’, which are two frameworks for thinking about home, homeland and diaspora. Whereas ‘roots’ might imply an original homeland from which people have scattered, and to which they might seek to return, ‘routes’ focuses on mobile, multiple and transcultural geographies of home. However, both ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ are attached to emotion and identity, and both invoke a sense of place, belonging or alienation that is intrinsically tied to a sense of self (Blunt and Dowling 196-219). In this paper, I equate home with my root (place of birth) and route (transnational homing) within the context of the ‘diaspora and belonging’. First I define the diaspora and possible criteria of belonging. Next I describe my transnational homing within the framework of diaspora and belonging. Finally, I consider how Australia can be a ‘home’ for me and other Muslim Australians.
The Diaspora and Belonging
Blunt and Dowling (199) define diaspora as “scattering of people over space and transnational connections between people and the places”. Cohen emphasised the ethno-cultural aspects of the diaspora setting; that is, how migrants identify and position themselves in other nations in terms of their (different) ethnic and cultural orientation. Hall argues that the diasporic subjects form a cultural identity through transformation and difference. Speaking of the Hindu diaspora in the UK and Caribbean, Vertovec (21-23) contends that the migrants’ contact with their original ‘home’ or diaspora depends on four factors: migration processes and factors of settlement, cultural composition, structural and political power, and community development.
With regard to the first factor, migration processes and factors of settlement, Vertovec explains that if the migrants are political or economic refugees, or on a temporary visa, they are likely to live in a ‘myth of return’. In the cultural composition context, Vertovec argues that religion, language, region of origin, caste, and degree of cultural homogenisation are factors in which migrants are bound to their homeland. Concerning the social structure and political power issue, Vertovec suggests that the extent and nature of racial and ethnic pluralism or social stigma, class composition, degree of institutionalised racism, involvement in party politics (or active citizenship) determine migrants’ connection to their new or old home. Finally, community development, including membership in organisations (political, union, religious, cultural, leisure), leadership qualities, and ethnic convergence or conflict (trends towards intra-communal or inter-ethnic/inter-religious co-operation) would also affect the migrants’ sense of belonging. Using these scholarly ideas as triggers, I will examine my home and belonging over the last few decades.
In an initial stage of my transmigrant history, my home was my root (place of birth, Dhaka, Bangladesh). Subsequently, my routes (settlement in different countries) reshaped my homes. In all respects, the ethno-cultural factors have played a big part in my definition of ‘home’. But on some occasions my ethnic identification has been overridden by my religious identification and vice versa. By ethnic identity, I mean my language (mother tongue) and my connection to my people (Bangladeshi). By my religious identity, I mean my Muslim religion, and my spiritual connection to the umma, a Muslim nation transcending all boundaries. Umma refers to the Muslim identity and unity within a larger Muslim group across national boundaries. The only thing the members of the umma have in common is their Islamic belief (Spencer and Wollman 169-170).
In my childhood my father, a banker, was relocated to Karachi, Pakistan (then West Pakistan). Although I lived in Pakistan for much of my childhood, I have never considered it to be my home, even though it is predominantly a Muslim country. In this case, my home was my root (Bangladesh) where my grandparents and extended family lived. Every year I used to visit my grandparents who resided in a small town in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Thus my connection with my home was sustained through my extended family, ethnic traditions, language (Bengali/Bangla), and the occasional visits to the landscape of Bangladesh.
Smith (9-11) notes that people build their connection or identity to their homeland through their historic land, common historical memories, myths, symbols and traditions. Though Pakistan and Bangladesh had common histories, their traditions of language, dress and ethnic culture were very different. For example, the celebration of the Bengali New Year (Pohela Baishakh), folk dance, folk music and folk tales, drama, poetry, lyrics of poets Rabindranath Tagore (Rabindra Sangeet) and Nazrul Islam (Nazrul Geeti) are distinct in the cultural heritage of Bangladesh. Special musical instruments such as the banshi (a bamboo flute), dhol (drums), ektara (a single-stringed instrument) and dotara (a four-stringed instrument) are unique to Bangladeshi culture. The Bangladeshi cuisine (rice and freshwater fish) is also different from Pakistan where people mainly eat flat round bread (roti) and meat (gosh).
However, my bonding factor to Bangladesh was my relatives, particularly my grandparents as they made me feel one of ‘us’. Their affection for me was irreplaceable. The train journey from Dhaka (capital city) to their town, Noakhali, was captivating. The hustle and bustle at the train station and the lush green paddy fields along the train journey reminded me that this was my ‘home’. Though I spoke the official language (Urdu) in Pakistan and had a few Pakistani friends in Karachi, they could never replace my feelings for my friends, extended relatives and cousins who lived in Bangladesh. I could not relate to the landscape or dry weather of Pakistan. More importantly, some Pakistani women (our neighbours) were critical of my mother’s traditional dress (saree), and described it as revealing because it showed a bit of her back. They took pride in their traditional dress (shalwar, kameez, dopatta), which they considered to be more covered and ‘Islamic’. So, because of our traditional dress (saree) and perhaps other differences, we were regarded as the ‘Other’. In 1970 my father was relocated back to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I was glad to go home. It should be noted that both Pakistan and Bangladesh were separated from India in 1947 – first as one nation; then, in 1971, Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. The conflict between Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and Pakistan (then West Pakistan) originated for economic and political reasons. At this time I was a high school student and witnessed acts of genocide committed by the Pakistani regime against the Bangladeshis (March-December 1971). My memories of these acts are vivid and still very painful.
After my marriage, I moved from Bangladesh to the United States. In this instance, my new route (Austin, Texas, USA), as it happened, did not become my home. Here the ethno-cultural and Islamic cultural factors took precedence. I spoke the English language, made some American friends, and studied history at the University of Texas. I appreciated the warm friendship extended to me in the US, but experienced a degree of culture shock. I did not appreciate the pub life, alcohol consumption, and what I perceived to be the lack of family bonds (children moving out at the age of 18, families only meeting occasionally on birthdays and Christmas). Furthermore, I could not relate to de facto relationships and acceptance of sex before marriage. However, to me ‘home’ meant a family orientation and living in close contact with family. Besides the cultural divide, my husband and I were living in the US on student visas and, as Vertovec (21-23) noted, temporary visa status can deter people from their sense of belonging to the host country. In retrospect I can see that we lived in the ‘myth of return’. However, our next move for a better life was not to our root (Bangladesh), but another route to the Muslim world of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.
My husband moved to Dhahran not because it was a Muslim world but because it gave him better economic opportunities. However, I thought this new destination would become my home – the home that was coined by Anderson as the imagined nation, or my Muslim umma. Anderson argues that the imagined communities are “to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6; Wood 61). Hall (122) asserts:
identity is actually formed through unconscious processes over time, rather than being innate in consciousness at birth. There is always something ‘imaginary’ or fantasized about its unity. It always remains incomplete, is always ‘in process’, always ‘being formed’.
As discussed above, when I had returned home to Bangladesh from Pakistan – both Muslim countries – my primary connection to my home country was my ethnic identity, language and traditions. My ethnic identity overshadowed the religious identity. But when I moved to Saudi Arabia, where my ethnic identity differed from that of the mainstream Arabs and Bedouin/nomadic Arabs, my connection to this new land was through my Islamic cultural and religious identity. Admittedly, this connection to the umma was more psychological than physical, but I was now in close proximity to Mecca, and to my home of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mecca is an important city in Saudi Arabia for Muslims because it is the holy city of Islam, the home to the Ka’aba (the religious centre of Islam), and the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad [Peace Be Upon Him]. It is also the destination of the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islamic faith. Therefore, Mecca is home to significant events in Islamic history, as well as being an important present day centre for the Islamic faith.
We lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia for 5 years. Though it was a 2.5 hours flight away, I treasured Mecca’s proximity and regarded Dhahran as my second and spiritual home. Saudi Arabia had a restricted lifestyle for women, but I liked it because it was a Muslim country that gave me the opportunity to perform umrah Hajj (pilgrimage). However, Saudi Arabia did not allow citizenship to expatriates. Saudi Arabia’s government was keen to protect the status quo and did not want to compromise its cultural values or standard of living by allowing foreigners to become a permanent part of society. In exceptional circumstances only, the King granted citizenship to a foreigner for outstanding service to the state over a number of years. Children of foreigners born in Saudi Arabia did not have rights of local citizenship; they automatically assumed the nationality of their parents. If it was available, Saudi citizenship would assure expatriates a secure and permanent living in Saudi Arabia; as it was, there was a fear among the non-Saudis that they would have to leave the country once their job contract expired. Under the circumstances, though my spiritual connection to Mecca was strong, my husband was convinced that Saudi Arabia did not provide any job security. So, in 1987 when Australia offered migration to highly skilled people, my husband decided to migrate to Australia for a better and more secure economic life. I agreed to his decision, but quite reluctantly because we were again moving to a non-Muslim part of the world, which would be culturally different and far away from my original homeland (Bangladesh).
In Australia, we lived first in Brisbane, then Adelaide, and after three years we took our Australian citizenship. At that stage I loved the Barossa Valley and Victor Harbour in South Australia, and the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast in Queensland, but did not feel at home in Australia. We bought a house in Adelaide and I was a full time home-maker but was always apprehensive that my children (two boys) would lose their culture in this non-Muslim world.
In 1990 we once again moved back to the Muslim world, this time to Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. My connection to this route was again spiritual. I valued the fact that we would live in a Muslim country and our children would be brought up in a Muslim environment. But my husband’s move was purely financial as he got a lucrative job offer in Muscat. We had another son in Oman. We enjoyed the luxurious lifestyle provided by my husband’s workplace and the service provided by the housemaid. I loved the beaches and freedom to drive my car, and I appreciated the friendly Omani people. I also enjoyed our frequent trips (4 hours flight) to my root, Dhaka, Bangladesh. So our children were raised within our ethnic and Islamic culture, remained close to my root (family in Dhaka), though they attended a British school in Muscat. But by the time I started considering Oman to be my second home, we had to leave once again for a place that could provide us with a more secure future. Oman was like Saudi Arabia; it employed expatriates only on a contract basis, and did not give them citizenship (not even fellow Muslims). So after 5 years it was time to move back to Australia.
It was with great reluctance that I moved with my husband to Brisbane in 1995 because once again we were to face a different cultural context. As mentioned earlier, we lived in Brisbane in the late 1980s; I liked the weather, the landscape, but did not consider it home for cultural reasons. Our boys started attending expensive private schools and we bought a house in a prestigious Western suburb in Brisbane. Soon after arriving I started my tertiary education at the University of Queensland, and finished an MA in Historical Studies in Indian History in 1998. Still Australia was not my home. I kept thinking that we would return to my previous routes or the ‘imagined’ homeland somewhere in the Middle East, in close proximity to my root (Bangladesh), where we could remain economically secure in a Muslim country.
But gradually I began to feel that Australia was becoming my ‘home’. I had gradually become involved in professional and community activities (with university colleagues, the Bangladeshi community and Muslim women’s organisations), and in retrospect I could see that this was an early stage of my ‘self-actualisation’ (Maslow). Through my involvement with diverse people, I felt emotionally connected with the concerns, hopes and dreams of my Muslim-Australian friends. Subsequently, I also felt connected with my mainstream Australian friends whose emotions and fears (9/11 incident, Bali bombing and 7/7 tragedy) were similar to mine.
In late 1998 I started my PhD studies on the immigration history of Australia, with a particular focus on the historical settlement of Muslims in Australia. This entailed retrieving archival files and interviewing people, mostly Muslims and some mainstream Australians, and enquiring into relevant migration issues. I also became more active in community issues, and was not constrained by my circumstances. By circumstances, I mean that even though I belonged to a patriarchally structured Muslim family, where my husband was the main breadwinner, main decision-maker, my independence and research activities (entailing frequent interstate trips for data collection, and public speaking) were not frowned upon or forbidden (Khan 14-15); fortunately, my husband appreciated my passion for research and gave me his trust and support. This, along with the Muslim community’s support (interviews), and the wider community’s recognition (for example, the publication of my letters in Australian newspapers, interviews on radio and television) enabled me to develop my self-esteem and built up my bicultural identity as a Muslim in a predominantly Christian country and as a Bangladeshi-Australian.
In 2005, for the sake of a better job opportunity, my husband moved to the UK, but this time I asserted that I would not move again. I felt that here in Australia (now in Perth) I had a job, an identity and a home. This time my husband was able to secure a good job back in Australia and was only away for a year.
I no longer dream of finding a home in the Middle East. Through my bicultural identity here in Australia I feel connected to the wider community and to the Muslim umma. However, my attachment to the umma has become ambivalent. I feel proud of my Australian-Muslim identity but I am concerned about the jihadi ideology of militant Muslims.
By jihadi ideology, I mean the extremist ideology of the al-Qaeda terrorist group (Farrar 2007). The Muslim umma now incorporates both moderate and radical Muslims. The radical Muslims (though only a tiny minority of 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide) pose a threat to their moderate counterparts as well as to non-Muslims. In the UK, some second- and third-generation Muslims identify themselves with the umma rather than their parents’ homelands or their country of birth (Husain). It should not be a matter of concern if these young Muslims adopt a ‘pure’ Muslim identity, providing at the same time they are loyal to their country of residence. But when they resort to terrorism with their ‘pure’ Muslim identity (e.g., the 7/7 London bombers) they defame my religion Islam, and undermine my spiritual connection to the umma.
As a 1st generation immigrant, the defining criteria of my ‘homeliness’ in Australia are my ethno-cultural and religious identity (which includes my family), my active citizenship, and my community development/contribution through my research work – all of which allow me a sense of efficacy in my life. My ethnic and religious identities generally co-exist equally, but when I see some Muslims kill my fellow Australians (such as the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005) my Australian identity takes precedence. I feel for the victims and condemn the perpetrators. On the other hand, when I see politics play a role over the human rights issues (e.g., the Tampa incident), my religious identity begs me to comment on it (see Kabir, Muslims in Australia 295-305).
Problematising ‘Home’ for Muslim Australians
In the European context, Grillo (863) and Werbner (904), and in the Australian context, Kabir (Muslims in Australia) and Poynting and Mason, have identified the diversity within Islam (national, ethnic, religious etc). Werbner (904) notes that in spite of the “wishful talk of the emergence of a ‘British Islam’, even today there are Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Arab mosques, as well as Turkish and Shia’a mosques”; thus British Muslims retain their separate identities. Similarly, in Australia, the existence of separate mosques for the Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Arab and Shia’a peoples indicates that Australian Muslims have also kept their ethnic identities discrete (Saeed 64-77). However, in times of crisis, such as the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, and the 1990-1991 Gulf crises, both British and Australian Muslims were quick to unite and express their Islamic identity by way of resistance (Kabir, Muslims in Australia 160-162; Poynting and Mason 68-70). In both British and Australian contexts, I argue that a peaceful rally or resistance is indicative of active citizenship of Muslims as it reveals their sense of belonging (also Werbner 905). So when a transmigrant Muslim wants to make a peaceful demonstration, the Western world should be encouraged, not threatened – as long as the transmigrant’s allegiances lie also with the host country. In the European context, Grillo (868) writes:
when I asked Mehmet if he was planning to stay in Germany he answered without hesitation: ‘Yes, of course’. And then, after a little break, he added ‘as long as we can live here as Muslims’.
In this context, I support Mehmet’s desire to live as a Muslim in a non-Muslim world as long as this is peaceful. Paradoxically, living a Muslim life through ijtihad can be either socially progressive or destructive. The Canadian Muslim feminist Irshad Manji relies on ijtihad, but so does Osama bin Laden! Manji emphasises that ijtihad can be, on the one hand, the adaptation of Islam using independent reasoning, hybridity and the contesting of ‘traditional’ family values (c.f. Doogue and Kirkwood 275-276, 314); and, on the other, ijtihad can take the form of conservative, patriarchal and militant Islamic values. The al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden espouses the jihadi ideology of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian who early in his career might have been described as a Muslim modernist who believed that Islam and Western secular ideals could be reconciled. But he discarded that idea after going to the US in 1948-50; there he was treated as ‘different’ and that treatment turned him against the West. He came back to Egypt and embraced a much more rigid and militaristic form of Islam (Esposito 136). Other scholars, such as Cesari, have identified a third orientation – a ‘secularised Islam’, which stresses general beliefs in the values of Islam and an Islamic identity, without too much concern for practices. Grillo (871) observed Islam in the West emphasised diversity. He stressed that, “some [Muslims were] more quietest, some more secular, some more clamorous, some more negotiatory”, while some were exclusively characterised by Islamic identity, such as wearing the burqa (elaborate veils), hijabs (headscarves), beards by men and total abstinence from drinking alcohol. So Mehmet, cited above, could be living a Muslim life within the spectrum of these possibilities, ranging from an integrating mode to a strict, militant Muslim manner. In the UK context, Zubaida (96) contends that marginalised, culturally-impoverished youth are the people for whom radical, militant Islamism may have an appeal, though it must be noted that the 7/7 bombers belonged to affluent families (O’Sullivan 14; Husain).
In Australia, Muslim Australians are facing three challenges. First, the Muslim unemployment rate: it was three times higher than the national total in 1996 and 2001 (Kabir, Muslims in Australia 266-278; Kabir, “What Does It Mean” 63). Second, some spiritual leaders have used extreme rhetoric to appeal to marginalised youth; in January 2007, the Australian-born imam of Lebanese background, Sheikh Feiz Mohammad, was alleged to have employed a DVD format to urge children to kill the enemies of Islam and to have praised martyrs with a violent interpretation of jihad (Chulov 2). Third, the proposed citizenship test has the potential to make new migrants’ – particularly Muslims’ – settlement in Australia stressful (Kabir, “What Does It Mean” 62-79); in May 2007, fuelled by perceptions that some migrants – especially Muslims – were not integrating quickly enough, the Howard government introduced a citizenship test bill that proposes to test applicants on their English language skills and knowledge of Australian history and ‘values’.
I contend that being able to demonstrate knowledge of history and having English language skills is no guarantee that a migrant will be a good citizen. Through my transmigrant history, I have learnt that developing a bond with a new place takes time, acceptance and a gradual change of identity, which are less likely to happen when facing assimilationist constraints. I spoke English and studied history in the United States, but I did not consider it my home. I did not speak the Arabic language, and did not study Middle Eastern history while I was in the Middle East, but I felt connected to it for cultural and religious reasons. Through my knowledge of history and English language proficiency I did not make Australia my home when I first migrated to Australia. Australia became my home when I started interacting with other Australians, which was made possible by having the time at my disposal and by fortunate circumstances, which included a fairly high level of efficacy and affluence. If I had been rejected because of my lack of knowledge of ‘Australian values’, or had encountered discrimination in the job market, I would have been much less willing to embrace my host country and call it home. I believe a stringent citizenship test is more likely to alienate would-be citizens than to induce their adoption of values and loyalty to their new home.
Blunt (5) observes that current studies of home often investigate mobile geographies of dwelling and how it shapes one’s identity and belonging. Such geographies of home negotiate from the domestic to the global context, thus mobilising the home beyond a fixed, bounded and confining location. Similarly, in this paper I have discussed how my mobile geography, from the domestic (root) to global (route), has shaped my identity. Though I received a degree of culture shock in the United States, loved the Middle East, and was at first quite resistant to the idea of making Australia my second home, the confidence I acquired in residing in these ‘several homes’ were cumulative and eventually enabled me to regard Australia as my ‘home’. I loved the Middle East, but I did not pursue an active involvement with the Arab community because I was a busy mother. Also I lacked the communication skill (fluency in Arabic) with the local residents who lived outside the expatriates’ campus.
I am no longer a cultural freak. I am no longer the same Bangladeshi woman who saw her ethnic and Islamic culture as superior to all other cultures. I have learnt to appreciate Australian values, such as tolerance, ‘a fair go’ and multiculturalism (see Kabir, “What Does It Mean” 62-79). My bicultural identity is my strength. With my ethnic and religious identity, I can relate to the concerns of the Muslim community and other Australian ethnic and religious minorities. And with my Australian identity I have developed ‘a voice’ to pursue active citizenship. Thus my biculturalism has enabled me to retain and merge my former home with my present and permanent home of Australia.