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Probing the Bangladeshi Diaspora

Kibria book finds immigrants face ignorance, misperceptions

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For Bangladeshis in the United States, the unfavorable image of their country as one of poor, starving people is hurtful to their sense of national pride and distressing in its simplification, says Nazli Kibria, a CAS associate professor of sociology. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

As a Bangladeshi born in the United States to a family that divided its time between the eastern world and the West, Nazli Kibria has long been privy to Americans’ perceptions of her native country. Most of these perceptions, though not necessarily malicious, are wildly off the mark, she says.

In her new book, Muslims in Motion, Kibria, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor  of  sociology, examines the Bangladeshi diaspora, telling the stories of challenges faced by Bangladeshis in the United States, Great Britain, the Gulf states of the Middle East, and Malaysia. Her study gives voice to cab drivers and university professors, shopkeepers and restaurant workers, and those who toil almost anonymously as part of the immigrant contract labor force to the world’s wealthiest states.

For Bangladeshis in the United States, the unfavorable image of their country solely as one of “poor, starving people, floods and famines” is hurtful “not only to their sense of national pride, but distressing in its simplification, in its ability to reduce the rich and complex realities of a country they know so well to a one-dimensional stereotype,” says Kibria.

Published by Rutgers University Press, Muslims in Motion is Kibria’s third book. She has previously written about Asian immigrants in Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans, and Becoming Asian American: Second-Generation Chinese and Korean Americans. Any author proceeds from Kibria’s new book, subtitled Islam and National Identity in the Bangladeshi Diaspora, will go to the Shah AMS Kibria Bangladesh-U.S. Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation established in memory of her father, a politician, economist, and opposition activist who was killed in a grenade attack in Dhaka in 2005. Though a group of men were charged in the killing, they were never brought to justice. Kibria believes the charges were false, the result of a government cover-up.

“Bangladesh—where’s that?”

Kibria has been met with this and other equally ignorant remarks. “Bangladesh is kind of invisible in the U.S.,” says Kibria, who, like many of her fellow Bangladeshis, is sometimes mistaken for Hispanic. Or, in the eyes of many Westerners, Bangladeshis inhabit a limbo between East Indians and Pakistanis. Kibria has found that, culturally, Bangladeshis who mix with other South Asians tend to take on Indian tastes such as Bollywood, which is seen as frivolous in Bangladesh, or gravitate in another direction, toward Muslim communities. “They start to identify primarily as Muslims,” says Kibria. “But nationality, not religion, is most important to a Bangladeshi.” The now-embattled secularism of Bangladesh was initially laid out in its 1972 constitution, a year after the nation, formerly East Bengal, gained its independence from Pakistan.

Today, the low-lying, flood-prone nation—the size of New York state—has a population of 150 million, making it the eighth most populous country in the world, as well as the nation with the largest Muslim majority after Indonesia and Pakistan. But Kibria says that the predominantly Sunni culture of her homeland is laced with indigenous rituals, as well as Hindu and Buddhist belief, lending it the feel of a “folk” religion.

Kibria researched her book from 2001 to 2007, during which she interviewed 200 Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and their families. Her subjects spoke about the impact of their migration on their family and community life, religious practice, and political views. Whenever possible Kibria attended community and family gatherings. In her book, which includes interviews with Bangladeshis in the Boston area, Kibria considers Bangladeshis’ place in the post-9/11 world, which has sparked greater interest in, and suspicion of, Islam.

“Even Bangladeshis who haven’t been here see the world as pre-9/11 and post-9/11,” says Kibria, who believes the national mood in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks raised stress levels of new Bangladeshi immigrants and those who were living here at the time.But Bangladeshis still choose to come, for one reason only: the dream of an American education for their children. “A lot of people don’t realize that America’s biggest resource is education,” says Kibria, who also points to an increase in Bangladeshi migration to other English-speaking nations such as Australia and Canada.

Kibria cites U.S. census figures showing that there were 5,800 foreign-born Bangladeshis here in 1980. That number steadily climbed, to 92, 237 in 2000. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nearly 7,000 Bangladeshis became U.S. citizens, with the largest concentration in New York, followed by California, Florida, and Texas. While about 2,000 work in the professions, a large number of Bangladeshi immigrants are overqualified, notes  Kibria. “I know a doctor from Bangladesh who now works as a hotel clerk,” she says. While many immigrants get stuck in low-wage jobs, they remain here in the belief that their children will prosper. The downward class mobility Bangladeshis are likely to face in the United States takes its toll, causing depression and health problems, says Kibria. Americans aren’t likely to grasp the odd, split existence of many Bangladeshis, who live like paupers here and “like kings” when they return for periods to Bangladesh, she says.

While the Bangladesh economy is steadily growing, the country has faced periodic violence and unending political woes since it gained independence in 1971. In the ensuing decades Bangladesh has suffered the assassination of its first prime minister, devastating famine, a succession of military coups, and a gradual transition from secular to Islamic rule.

In her book, Kibria points to a new generation of what Kibria calls “Muslim-first”Bangladeshi immigrants, the children of “Bangladeshi-first” parents. But those who rush to stereotype this younger generation will learn from Kibria’s research that, as she writes, a “great variety of religious approach and experience prevails” among these Bangladeshis, whose devotion to Islam, far from being extremist, is more about adding meaning and purpose to their lives, in a way that works for them as individuals. “I believe in Allah and I try to live by the basic principles of honesty and compassion for people who are less fortunate…but I don’t cover my head,” says Tanya, a Bangladeshi American in her early twenties, who was interviewed in Kibria’s book and who lives among the large Asian immigrant population in New York’s Queens.

In her travels, Kibria found that Islam was the common thread among Bangladeshi migrants as diverse as the upper-middle class bank employee in the United States or the United Kingdom and the impoverished rural Bangladeshi who goes to Saudi Arabia on a labor contract. She hopes that those reading Muslims in Motion will gain a better understanding of Bangladeshis abroad in light of their young nation’s religion and tumultuous history.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Probing the Bangladeshi Diaspora

  • AAR on 11.24.2012 at 1:51 am

    Small mistakes, tiny lapses in research, or just plain ignorance are often very irritating for a reader. Examples of these are, in Seligson’s review, the death of Prof Kibria’s father in “a grenade attack in Dhaka” (the grenade attack took place in Sylhet, not Dhaka), and in Prof Kibria’s book: “On February 21, 1952, the Pakistani army fired on Bengali university students… (p. 15;it was the police, not the Pakistani army, who fired on the protestors). She goes on to refer to the “deaths of several students.” Only one of the five people who are commemorated today as the Shaheeds of February 21 was a student. For a woman of Bangladeshi origin, whose father was a cabinet minister of the country, Prof Kibria takes one of the most important historical events of her former country very, very casually.

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