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Dr. Sophia Pandya Discusses Islam, Muslim Contributions in America, Refugee Challenges, and the Hizmet Movement

Dr. Sophia Pandya is a renowned academic with her studies especially on issues related to women and Islam, and more broadly, contemporary movements within Islam. She is prominent with her involvement in interfaith and intercultural dialogue activities and functions of the Islamic faith groups in the US. We also know her from social media through her learned criticisms of the despotic regimes in the Middle Eastern countries where people are deprived of their basic rights and left with only one option whether to leave or keep silent.

In this conversation, Dr. Pandya highlighted examples of Muslims contributing greatly to the American fabric in several ways, around millions of people displaced worldwide as refugees, and repercussions of refugee influx to the United States and elsewhere especially the way the hard emotional and procedural experiences of asylum-seeker parents oft bequeathed to the next generations. Dr. Pandya also maintained that vivid examples from recent past show people ridding themselves from dictators have not always led to positive change especially in the Middle East and pointed at several Muslim groups in the US which actively promote empathy and tolerance.

Thank you, Dr. Sophia Pandya, for granting us this interview for the Politurco News Portal. We would like to have your precious remarks about Islam, Muslims in America, Contemporary Islamic Movements, and current political and social issues related to the Middle East.

I would like to start the interview with this question:

We know you and your work from social media, and they are mostly related to Islam and its cultural, social, and political aspects. Could you please tell us briefly about yourself and your expert areas of studies?

I earned my PhD from UC Santa Barbara, and currently I am the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, at California State University, Long Beach. My work has to with issues related to women and Islam, and more broadly, contemporary movements within Islam. I have carried out fieldwork in Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, and Ethiopia on several occasion to conduct my research, and especially looked at religious change amongst women in these countries.  I wrote two books; Muslim Women and Islamic Resurgence: Religion, Education, and Identity Politics in Bahrain (2012), on Bahraini women and the ways in which globalization and modern education impacted their religious activities, and The Gülen (Hizmet) Movement and its Transnational Activities: Case Studies on Charitable Activism (2012), which looks at Hizmet’s activites outside of Turkey.

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We have been recently observing the growth of Muslims in number, their communal works, and contributions to the society in the United States. What is your viewpoint about the Muslims living in the United States and their contributions to the society in general?

There are around 4 million Muslims in the United States, and they have taken positions at every level of society. There are a lot of Muslim doctors, engineers, and even congresspeople. Muslims contribute greatly to the American fabric in innumerable ways, even though they are terribly discriminated against by certain elements in American society, especially during the Trump years. Trump encouraged a lot of discrimination against the Muslim communities. Even my kids were teased in school after Trump came to power. One of my son’s was called a terrorist and all kinds of things. They just shouted “Allahu Akbar” at him and he’s not even a Muslim, but he is half Indian and thus maybe they thought he was Arab. Muslims are often considered to be “the Other” and because of all the media focus on the acts of a few despicable terrorists, some Americans conflate Islam with all those acts. They always must deal with discriminative stereotypes that just exist in the public eye against them. Even if people are not aware that they are holding that stereotype, it influences them subconsciously because they’ve been exposed to it through the media.

If we were going to discuss the Hizmet Movement in particular, the Movement actively cultivates its message of peace, derived from a Sufi-inspired form of Islam, in a unique way through its activities here in the United States. The Movement is focused on a few different projects with the stated aim of creating a more harmonious society, such as interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Participants are also engaged in providing service to all humanity, no matter who the person is or where they come from. This community also supports a lot of educational and charitable activities. All of these are positive contributions to society by Muslims living in the United States. Of course, they carry out these activities at the global level as well.  That’s impressive indeed.

At this moment, I would also like to ask you about the Muslim refugees. The United States receives a large refugee influx especially from the Central American countries; yet, several Muslims from different parts of the world also come and settle here in the US with a dream of a brighter future. You also know the Muslim world and countries well yourself. I know you also interact with the Muslim asylum seekers here in the United States. What is your opinion about the prospects of these asylees in integrating to the country? What hardships you think these Muslims may face in the US?

As you mentioned in your question, refugees come from all around the world. One in hundred people on earth right now is displaced, around 108 million people in all, with about 35 million refugees (about twice the population of New York). We’ve never had so many displaced people. There are different types of refugees. Some are politically displaced seeking safety; others are economic migrants who leave their home country to try to make money abroad.  However, the ones that are leaving the Middle East are, by and large, politically displaced.

It’s much harder to get into the United States than many other countries. It’s now slightly easier under the Biden administration but it was very difficult during the Trump administration. Usually even after a refugee flees to a host country and is physically safe, there are a lot of ongoing issues they face, even if they are tremendously privileged. When you have political trauma and you must flee your country, you are vulnerable to several conditions, which can include depression, anxiety, sleep problems, domestic violence, suicide, and drug use. Children’s educations are disrupted. College education is disrupted. People also suffer a loss of income, loss of employment, and a loss of career in some cases. The consequence that alarms me the most is the inability to parent well. Often, the next generation suffers because their parents are depressed, distracted, sleep deprived, and are not fully present in their life. They could not provide for them and could not ease the trauma that their children are facing. I urge refugees to seek therapy for themselves, to help them raise the next generation.

Refugees also tell me they have to start again from zero, because transferring your license of your professional career to another country requires learning the language as a first barrier. Sometimes they also must retake exams to qualify for the profession they want to continue in the host country. All of that can take quite some time, depending on how well they know the language and a few other factors.

All of this means that even after arriving in the host country, the journey as a refugee or displaced person is not over. Sometimes people carry that feeling of displacement their whole lives. In fact, this feeling is often inherited by the next generation.

What are the root causes, you think, in Muslim countries that urge huge number of Muslims to seek asylum in the West?

The root causes of the displacement in the Middle East, internal and external, have to do with poverty, corruption, environmental degradation, a struggle for resources and influence, all leading to intense political turmoil. There are civil wars raging right now in Syria and Yemen, and conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. During the Arab spring, protests and demonstrations broke out in many Middle Eastern countries where people demanded real democracy, only to find out that toppling their dictators did not always lead to positive change.

In the case of Turkey, after 2013 President Erdoğan began to move away from his commitment to democracy and become much more authoritarian. To consolidate his power, he began to shut down or take over media outlets and throw journalists in jail. Turkey jails more journalists than North Korea, Russia, or China. People do not know that, but it is true. By 2015, Erdoğan wanted to neutralize the Hizmet Movement by means of force and with the baseless claims of calling it a parallel state, and a terrorist organization. Following that, he shut down Zaman newspaper, which had the largest distribution in Turkey, and several other media outlets that are critic of his regime and began to jail affiliated journalists of these media organizations. After the July 15, 2016, failed coup attempt, thousands of public officials including teachers, academicians, military officials, judges, and prosecutors were dismissed from their offices, and accused of being a member of a terrorist organization. Thousands of schools, dormitories, university prep academies, dozens of universities, hospitals, institutions were seized by force, and taken over or shut down. Many students completely lost access to any record of their education.

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What is more scandalous is that Erdogan’s officials were able to operate with impunity, and thus could, and did, torture people in jail without any consequence. I met torture victims in Greece and here in the United States. It was difficult for me to hear their story. Yet, these narratives, which I am collecting, illustrate the root causes for which people leave their countries and seek asylum in a third country.

You have also conducted research on the Gülen Movement, a faith-inspired transnational civic movement, originating from Turkey. What do you think about the Movement with all said above in general?

It’s hard to answer that question briefly, I think, the Hizmet (Gülen) movement is a faith-inspired transnational civil movement, but a Sufi inspired movement as well. In Turkey, much of the forms of Islam that have been practiced historically have been connected to a range of Sufi orders. You might call the Hizmet Movement a neo-Sufi movement.

The Hizmet Movement grew exponentially in terms of means and human resources in Turkey. Because of that, it began to be seen as a threat to Erdogan’s grip on power. The Movement outside of Turkey does not have the same problem, for the most part. Today, it is more successful in operating and spreading its message outside of the hostile environment in Turkey.

In fact, a lot of communities from different religious backgrounds in the United States love them. The Mormons, the Jews, and many interfaith types love the Hizmet Movement. Lots of groups find the Hizmet Movement to be kind and engaging. When Jews are asked about them, they say “They come to our Shabbat dinners! We go to their iftar dinners!” Many people in the US and outside of Turkey see them as carrying out interfaith dialogue, giving charitable donations, and providing disaster relief to non-Muslims, non-Turkish organizations. They have also opened schools in various countries around the world. They are providing a tremendous service to the global community in that they offer a model of gentler Islam that emphasizes peaceful connection with other communities. The Hizmet Movement is also one of the groups that actively promotes empathy and tolerance. We need to support all those groups that do that.

Hizmet’s emphasis on education and peaceful connection via interfaith and intercultural activities with other communities appears effective at spreading love, peace, and tolerance. In Hizmet, you are supposed to love not just humans, but also animals, the earth, and the environment. You’re supposed to want to be a positive force and to help create positive energy for the universe.

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As you mentioned, Erdoğan regime shut down schools, universities, media outlets, student dorms, and several other institutions of the Movement, besides seizing the assets of the businesspeople sympathetic with the Movement and its activities at home and abroad for years. What might be the local and global impact of this relentless witch-hunt perpetuated by the Erdoğan regime on Turkey and Turkish society in near future?

There are a few answers for that. One is the fact that the Movement right now is going through a difficult time with serious issues faced at home and abroad. There are also some criticisms from inside the Movement. Some members have engaged in calling for reform, change, and transparency, in the Movement. There is some turmoil right now in the Movement.

However, I think that’s natural and normal from point of academic perspective. Those are quite normal transitions that every religious community faces. I don’t think anybody in the Movement should panic too much, because I think that the Movement has the potential to carry on no matter what they face now. Of course, that depends on the direction in which the youth take the Movement and how much they get involved, and if they can make it relevant to the next generation.

I do see a lot of youth becoming involved in various activities, going on trips, and going to Greece to visit refugees. I have noticed that the youth are being given more responsibility. I think this is a very good thing, because it will help the Movement transition from this period of turbulence to become stronger and more relevant.

Besides all hardships, as mentioned, the Gülen Movement faces today, the participants keep running their activities worldwide with caution and moderation. You also organized a conference on the Gülen Movement at your institution. What do you think about the positive activism of the participants of the Movement in keeping with their educational and social activities and projects globally?

At that conference, we spoke about the Movement as rising from the ashes like a phoenix. I think that the Movement never fully burnt down. In Australia and New Zealand, you don’t even really notice any terrible impact from the so-called coup attempt and subsequent purge, because they’re isolated down under, and they continue to run strong organizations in that region of the world. Of course, a lot of Hizmet’s resources were funneled towards the refugees and towards helping people displaced inside of Turkey, those who are hiding in Turkey, and so forth. Participants outside of Turkey do worry about Erdogan’s power to harass them abroad. In some cases, Erdoğan’s long arm has been used to harass and even kidnap participants of the Movement. Other than that, the Turkish government has also pressured many countries, like Morocco, to close down Hizmet schools.

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Lastly, a substantial volume of your research is also on gender studies in Islam. What do you think about the gender issues in American Muslim communities? How would you compare it with other faith groups in the US?

There’s still a lot of patriarchy in the American Muslim communities. I think Muslim women struggle with this a lot because Muslim women in America tend to be fairly educated. There are a lot of verses in the Qur’an that can be read as empowering towards women, and they are quite knowledgeable about this.

Muslim women often have to deal with mosques giving more physical space to men. Often, men are closer to the to the person giving the khutbah (sermon). Sometimes there are mosques where women are stuck upstairs in a little tiny room, and they cannot even hear when prayer is beginning. So, it’s just confusing, reinforces patriarchy, and creates a model in which women are secondary. If you have to walk around the back of the mosque to an area that’s not even as beautiful as the main area, and you’re put in a little room and you cannot see or hear the service or the sermon, and that’s not equitable or even kind.

In any given mosque in the US, there are often going to be some very conservative people and then some very liberal people. That leads to a struggle over the interpretation regarding Islam in regards women.

On the other hand, many Muslim women in America are educated- not just secularly educated, but also religiously. They’re pushing back and demanding more centrality and space in their mosques. They are demanding leadership roles and taking them.

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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