Monday, August 21, 2006

Keeping the flavor of ethnicity

Today's NYT has a piece about Devon Avenue in North Chicago, a Pakistan enclave:

Pakistanis Find U.S. an Easier Fit Than Britain. By Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times


Although heavily Pakistani, the street is far more exposed to other cultures than are similar communities in Britain.

Indian Hindus have a significant presence along the roughly one-and-a-half-mile strip of boutiques, whose other half is named for Gandhi. What was a heavily Jewish neighborhood some 20 years ago also includes recent immigrants from Colombia, Mexico and Ukraine, among others.

"There is integration even when you have an enclave," said Nizam Arain, 32, a lawyer of Pakistani descent who was born and raised in Chicago. "You don’t have the same siege mentality."

Even so, members of the Pakistani immigrant community here find themselves joining the speculation as to whether sinister plots could be hatched in places like Devon Avenue.

The most common response is no, at least not now, because of differences that have made Pakistanis in the United States far better off economically and more assimilated culturally than their counterparts in Britain. But some Pakistani-Americans do not rule out the possibility, given how little is understood about the exact tipping point that pushes angry young Muslim men to accept an ideology that endorses suicide and mass murder.

The idea of a relatively smaller, more prosperous, more striving immigrant community inoculating against terror cells goes only so far, they say.

"It makes it sound like it couldn’t happen here because we are the good immigrants: hard-working, close-knit, educated," said Junaid Rana, an assistant professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an American-born son of Pakistani immigrants. "But we are talking about a cult mind-set, how a cult does its brainwashing."

Yet one major difference between the United States and Britain, some say, is the United States’ historical ideal of being a melting-pot meritocracy.

"You can keep the flavor of your ethnicity, but you are expected to become an American," said Omer Mozaffar, 34, a Pakistani-American raised here who is working toward a doctorate in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago.


Ifti Nasim, a former luxury car salesman turned poet and gay rights advocate, greets a visitor with a slim volume of his works. The cover photograph shows him wearing a bright orange dress, ropes of pearls and a long blond wig. He has been in the United States since 1971.

Some shoppers crowding the sidewalks on Devon Avenue greet Mr. Nasim warmly, telling him they listen to his radio show or read his columns in a local Urdu-language newspaper. In Pakistan, Mr. Nasim says, his flamboyance would not be tolerated, but here he calls his acceptance "the litmus test of the society."

Like many, however, he has moments of doubt, saying, "Pakistani society in Chicago has made a smooth transition so far, but you never know."


For the past eight years, Abdul Qadeer Sheikh, 46, has managed Islamic Books N Things on Devon Avenue, which sells items like Korans, prayer rugs and Arabic alphabet books. He says that since Sept. 11, he has seen signs of the bias that has existed in Britain for decades developing here. He describes a distinctive fear of being seen as Muslim, even along Devon Avenue. Before, a good 70 percent of the women who came into his shop were veiled, he said. Now the reverse is true, and far fewer men wear traditional clothes.

The attitude of the American government in adopting terms like "Islamic fascists" and deporting large numbers of immigrants, he said, makes Muslims feel marked, as if they do not belong here. "The society in the United States is much fairer to foreigners than anywhere else," he said, "but that mood is changing."

This piece isn't unique or outstanding at all, but it's a good reminder why immigration and integration still works in the U.S. - and does not in Europe.

No comments: