Puerto Rican Muslims and the “Flaw in the Algorithm of Cosmopolitanism”
28 Oct. 2019
By Ken Chitwood, Ph.D.
In November 2017 I came across the work of Naeem Mohaiemen at a New York Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 gallery while doing research with the city’s Puerto Rican Muslim population.
In "Volume Eleven (A Flaw in the Algorithm of Cosmopolitanism),” Mohaiemen explores his uncle Syed Mujtaba Ali’s “flawed cosmopolitanism.” On the one hand, his uncle was a Bengali author who fought against colonial interference in the affairs of India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Ali wrote words of adoration for Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler.
The artist wrestles with the (im)possibility of both being true, but comes to the uncomfortable “conclusion” that in Volume 11, a collection of his renowned uncle’s essays, there is a “flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism” — evidence of the swirling contradictions and inconsistencies of what it means to live as a minority in the late-modern world.
Through my ethnographic research alongside Puerto Rican Muslims — in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Puerto Rico, and online — I also came to find “flaws in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism” and realize how common they are, despite our assumptions about what cosmopolitanism is.
Cosmopolitanism is often presumed, or proposed, as a moral ideal or political ideology. As a moral philosophy, cosmopolitanism is the like-minded engagement of various “citizens of the world” from different places in relationships of mutual concern and respect despite their differences in creed, color, or convictions. Perhaps most famously, Kwame Appiah proposed that cosmopolitanism is built upon a sense of moral responsibility beyond the boundaries of one’s nation and a "universal concern and respect for legitimate difference.” As a political ideology, cosmopolitanism is postulated as a project of common political engagement on pressing issues of our day (e.g. climate change, migration, poverty, etc.) that should be prioritized over other forms of politics or society (e.g. the “nation-state”).
However, I argue that cosmopolitanism should not be imagined only as a moral posture of world openness and engagement (as opposed to neo-nationalism or entrenched tribalisms), but a complex and chaotic physical, emotional, and discursive encounter between peoples, places, and things that will continue to collide in the late-modern world.
The late-modern world, defined as it is by “time and space compression” is defined by the constant and simultaneous “speeding up” and “spreading out” of persons, ideas, religions, finance, media, and technologies across the globe.
Given the rapid rise of global cities and the networks of communication and travel that link them, media, money, materials, identities and ideas flow across the world at almost instantaneous speeds and increasingly intersect with, and influence, one another.
In particular, cultures and communities consistently crash into one another. “Layers upon layers" of peoples, cultures, histories, philosophies, religions, and bodies bump up against one another, come into conflict with each other, or fuse together into new coalitions or combinations. Our ideas of identity — or what a “place” or “people” should or could be — are constantly in flux.
What that means is that — even if you wanted to — you cannot escape “the other.” The “other” — the person, place, idea, or thing that you imagine as different than you, and therefore somewhat undesirable or deplorable — is constantly there…or, rather, here.
They are on our television screens, our social media feeds, in our e-mail inboxes. They are sitting next to us on the airplane, detained at the border, working in our fields, serving us our meals, moving in next door, becoming our bosses, or entering and using our worship spaces.
This is what Ulrich Beck called, "banal cosmopolitanism”: the experience of “globality” embedded in the mundane experiences of everyday life.
We used to think of difference and the “other” in terms of nation-states and divide them by the borders between them. If there were people from another place in our place, then they were considered and made into a minority and were marginalized — or “minoritized” — from majority (read: dominant) discourses and rituals. Now, we are increasingly aware — if not totally open to the idea — that humanity is not-so-easily divided into a limited number of nations, internally organized and externally bounded by secure borders. While the affect of “the nation” may be ascendant in current world politics, it is only because it is shot-through with the transnational. The two are all bundled up together in the late-modern world.
Moreover, now instead of a minority coming to terms with the cultural majority of a given nation-state or place that they have moved into, everyone feels that they are a minority — marginalized and oppressed, misunderstood and persecuted.
Cosmopolitanism in this sense — as a banal and common experience shared among persons across the globe in the late-modern world — is a dynamic multiplicity of thoughts, bodies, words, and deeds rather than a certain political outlook, moral process, material product, or philosophical posture.
This kind of cosmopolitanism is evident in the lives of Puerto Rican Muslims who are a transnationally dispersed, mobile, and interconnected “quadruple minority” — Puerto Rican in the Muslim community, Muslim in the Puerto Rican community, and both Puerto Rican and Muslim in the context of the United States and Latin America. Thus, they are “minorities” in every community they claim membership in and count themselves as a constituent part of.
Puerto Rican Muslims like Andreas (his name has been changed to preserve the subject’s identity) feel ostracized within their own mosque, spurned by their own families, and politically and socially marginalized by society at large. After he converted to Islam, Andreas’s evangelical mother and agnostic wife did not know how to process their loved one’s change in religion. While both have come around to his new identity, his mother felt that he had “betrayed Christ.” His wife filed for divorce. His mother offered up space on her couch for a time, but he was later out on the streets. Looking for respite in his local mosque, he said he was treated “like a second-class Muslim citizen.” Lacking religious resources in Spanish, he is left to his own devices or relying on what he can find by asking “Sheikh Google Ibn Yahoo” and scouring the various Latinx Muslim platforms on the web. Politically active and outspoken in his progressive views toward Puerto Rican independence, Palestinian liberation, and a host of other issues, he still prays alone at protests in San Juan where the majority around him do not understand, nor care to be curious about, his religion.
Andreas is a “citizen of the world” with an openness to, and engagement with, a diverse range of persons. And yet, his experience is filled with inconsistencies, conflict, and disenfranchisement. It has not meant that his world has necessarily gotten “bigger,” but in some senses it has contracted as relationships ended, formerly fruitful connections became sterile, and communities less convivial.
Banal cosmopolitanism, like that of Andreas and many others, is contingent and full of drama, full of “flaws” and what I call “generative frictions” — disagreements, discord, and debates that help produce new, and hybrid, identities and communities out of the encounters and abrasions of the late-modern world.
Doing ethnography among Muslims on the margins helped draw out these dramas and illustrate their importance for not only understanding global Islam, but the “banal cosmopolitanism” we all share. As “quadruple minorities,” Puerto Rican Muslims help us better understand the making, and unmaking, of banal cosmopolitanism in historically specific, culturally situated, and materially informed contexts.
In their conflicts with Palestinian Muslims in Puerto Rico, their arguments with fellow Latinx Muslims on identity and what it means to do dawah (is it religious outreach, social justice, or some combination thereof?), or their opting to emphasize Spanish heritage via al-Andalus over and against the inheritance of their enslaved African forebears, Puerto Rican Muslim lives highlight the inconsistencies, slippages, and “flaws” embedded in the everyday reality of cosmopolitanism.
Certainly, as Kai Kresse argued, cosmopolitanism as a moral ideal and practical politics (Weltgewandtheit) can be described as a development of Weltoffenheit (openness to the world) through Welterfahrung (pool of experience with the world).
At the same time, scholars of Islam and Muslims should be cognizant of the ways in which cosmopolitanism is also an uneven, and wholly commonplace experience for Muslims at the base — and especially at the margins — of contemporary society. Rather than posit cosmopolitanism as some elite moral ideal or political outlook, we should view “Muslim cosmopolitanism” as made up of the diverse, everyday, ways in which Muslim and non-Muslim individuals and institutions chart the forced flow of cultures, ideas, and peoples in the late-modern world.
“Like a river through a rock,” as my friend Ilyass Figueroa, a Puerto Rican Muslim, once described to me, cosmopolitanism flows across various ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic landscapes in the late-modern world. It is our calling as scholars to “cover, map, and understand” this “cosmopolitan condition” among Muslims — minorities, migrants, and the marginalized alike.
*This essay was written, in part, with the support of a grant from the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) at Shenandoah University.
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Appiah, Kwame. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007.
Beck, Ulrich. Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.
Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1990.
Kresse, Kai. "Interrogating ‘Cosmopolitanism’ in an Indian Ocean Setting: Thinking Through Mombasa on the Swahili Coast.” In Cosmopolitanisms in Muslim Contexts: Perspectives from the Past, edited by Derryl N. MacLean and Sikeena Karmali Ahmed. Edinburgh Press, 2013: 31-50
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