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Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11

reviewed by Ibrahim G. Aoudé - April 05, 2010

coverTitle: Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11
Author(s): Sunaina Marr Maira
Publisher: Duke University Press, Durham
ISBN: 0822344092, Pages: 352, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

As its subtitle suggests, the book focuses on the relationship between South Asian immigrant working-class youth and U.S. empire after September 11, 2001. Basing her analysis on ethnographic research, the author captures the sense of disappointment and bewilderment of her informants caught in a double bind while trying to construct an identity that would make them feel secure in the turmoil of this post-911 world. Maira interprets individual representations in light of policy and macro analysis of empire. She shows how nation-state policies influence individual lives in a way that contributes much to the confusion about status and rights experienced by South Asian immigrant Muslim youth.

Citizenship emerges as central to notions of identity. It defines the relationship of individuals to one another, their community and, above all, to the nation-state. The multiple meanings (or at least types) of citizenship point out not only the fluidity of the concept in a transnational, globalizing world, but more importantly, the uncertainty of the relationship of the youth to the nation-state. The nation-states rhetoric about democracy and freedom does not correspond to its actual practices, targeting Muslim Americans and Arab Americans. The contradictions are clear: assimilation (“we are all Americans”), which sometimes is substituted by a suspect (liberal) multi-culturalism (all cultures are valued and equally respected), lead us to believe that everyone is equal. However, citizenship is laced with racial, ethnic, gender, and religious markers. As an organizing principle, citizenship attempts to conceal the commitments of nation-state policy to those markers as it deals with the Other. Citizenship allows the nation-state to unify minorities to the maximum extent possible in the fight against the enemy, which in this case is almost anyone of Arab or Muslim immigrant background. It is important to note that not too far into the text, it becomes clear that the nation-state as a concept, often utilized in the literature, is misleading. To characterize the U.S. as a nation-state flies in the face of the multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-racial nature of the state. Citizenship, which is a political category, having multiple cultural nuances, demonstrates this fact. The vast U.S. territories, captured not in “moments” of empire, but in deliberate geostrategic imperatives of empire, are further proof of the erroneous depiction of the U.S. as a nation-state. Those imperatives have led to imperial practices that belie the U.S. rhetoric of freedom and democracy. The author would surely agree with this analysis as it is implied and sometimes stated clearly throughout this well researched and rigorous book.

A critical contribution of this work is the lucid way in which the author connects “different bodies of literature and theoretical debates” (p. 6) necessary to interrogate the main concepts in the book. Those debates allow us to arrive at a deeper meaning of the extant political and social conjuncture facing us all as a consequence of global shifts perpetrated primarily by practices of U.S. imperialism. What emerges here is a perspicacious analysis of a central point in the book: Imperialist practices are at once foreign and domestic. Foreign policy, including war, allows the imperial state to reinforce its domestic repression of minorities (and other social and political forces) and, in turn, domestic policy reinforces the strategic goals of foreign policy.

The relationship of the foreign and domestic spaces leads to a deconstruction of the notion of rights, including human rights. The author is very critical about how the state (government) imbues citizenship with rights, while at the same time it discriminates against South Asians, Muslim and Arab Americans. The crux of the matter is that citizenship is manifested in daily experiences, not as a list of rights presumably available to every citizen regardless of national origin, ethnicity, race, class, gender or religion.

The reality of daily practices casts a dark shadow on the conventional analysis of citizenship, which is almost totally oblivious to the dynamics of empire. Not only does this reality of daily practices recognize citizenship as an organizing principle (differences between citizen and non-citizen), but it goes beyond it to show the way in which it is embedded with racial and ethnic categories that in fact recognize differences in rights between citizens based on imperatives of empire.

Related to the notion of citizenship is whether the state is autonomous and above society, as conventional wisdom might have it or whether, as more recent scholarship has it, the state is a social and political institution that is an integral part of society and, consequently, culture. While it is true that the state is legitimized through cultural practices, the fact is that this legitimacy is a result of hegemonic practices that individuals in a particular polity are socialized into. However, a more nuanced understanding of the state machinery would show that as a social institution, the state has its own dynamics. The political fractions of the ruling class would determine whether the imperative of the state requires it to be “above society,” “autonomous,” or “semi-autonomous.”

Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that the author is critical of mainstream research that remains in the domestic sphere in its analysis of citizenship. In a transnational globalizing world, it is essential to problematize the distinction/boundaries between national and global while at the same time recognizing that citizen-aliens (as opposed to “true” citizens, given that citizenship is value-laden with categories of race, ethnicity, etc.) come under the scrutiny of the U.S. state machinery.

Problematizing the boundaries between local and global allows the author to look into the meanings, practices, and contradictions among the multiple types of citizenship as alluded to earlier. In fact, as discussed in the book, cultural citizenship (and its sub-category flexible citizenship) , transnational citizenship, economic citizenship (and its sub-category neoliberal citizenship), and dissenting citizenship, enrich our understanding of the concept. So does the category of Polycultural citizenship that recognizes the shortcomings of multiculturalism in that the concept presupposes pure cultures, contrary to what the historic record demonstrates regarding the dynamic nature of cultures and the fact that cultures borrow from one another.

Furthermore, though distinct, those types of citizenship are not separate. Cultural citizenship allows for flexibility, thus showing the dialectic operating within the practices of citizenship. In view of transnational immigrant youth experiences, the youth construct flexible citizenship, each based on individual experiences, as a mechanism to help shield them from the worst consequences of being considered the Other by the state (and society).  Flexible citizenship, constructed from individual transnational ties and experiences, becomes an identity shelter where youth would try to find who they are in the midst of the fear that they experience daily.

“Immigrant time,” a useful concept that the author introduces, denoting the experiences of immigrants as they go through the hoops of securing citizenship status, haunts or at least shadows the individual even in the best of times, making immigrant experiences different from those of non-immigrants. Immigrant time after 911 drags the citizen-alien to self censorship and to (in) direct complicity simply to survive.

All of these types of citizenship are related in that they all are formed and informed by culture. Even economic citizenship in the neoliberal age has a fundamental understanding of rights, based on individualism, that are located in the marketplace where consumption is the supreme right. However, that type of citizenship embedded in the ideology of hard work and the American dream, completely erases immigrant experiences with race and class. In the midst of negotiating life within imperial reality, for South Asian immigrant youth, equality and justice remain missing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15941, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 5:31:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Ibrahim Aoudé
    University of Hawai’i—Manoa
    E-mail Author
    IBRAHIM G. AOUDÉ is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawai’i—Manoa. He is the Editor of Arab Studies Quarterly. His research interests include: (1) the Middle East; (2) the Arab American diaspora; and (3) Hawai’i political economy and social movements. Professor Aoudé teaches courses on the Middle East, the Pacific Island nations, and Hawai‘i.
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