The Ahmadiyya Diaspora: An Interview with author Michael Nijhawan

On October 18th, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the Caliph of Ahmadiyya Muslims, the worldwide head of millions of Ahmadis. Over 30,000 of these Ahmadis, call Canada their home, majority of these Ahmadis migrated from Pakistani Punjab due to religious persecution, similar to the Sikh migration from Indian Punjab.

This pattern of immigration intrigued Michael Nijhawan, a professor at York University in Canada. Professor Nijhawan ended up writing a book titled “The Precarious Diasporas of Sikh and Ahmadiyya Generations“. The book focuses on long-term effects of social, legal and political violence on Sikh and Ahmadi diaspora communities in Toronto and Frankfurt.

In an interview with Rabwah Times, Professor Nijhawan opened up about his work and what motivated him to write about Sikh and Ahmadi communities.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your field of research ?

I have been researching communities with roots in the Punjabi cultural landscape since almost two decades now. My first project looked at the consequences of Partition violence and migrations and I did extensive fieldwork in Punjab for that, mainly with a small minority of storytellers. Most of my work has been related to Sikh cultural and religious identities, but recently my shift in focus on diasporic groups and constellations helped me to expand my interest to include the Ahmadiyya movement. Overall, my thematic interest is the question of violence, culture and memory, I would say, looked at in its social/everyday dimensions more than official representations.

Q. When were you first introduced to the Ahmadiyya Movement and how?

I think the first encounter has been in Frankfurt, as the community is very active and visible there and of course, as you will have culled from my study, also involved in disputes around mosque constructions and more recently the instruction of Islam in public schools. I have met community representatives, attended events and spoke to many ordinary Ahmadis in the Frankfurt region too. More recently that expanded to engagements with a younger generation of Ahmadis in and around Toronto.

Q. How do you perceive the Ahmadiyya Movement?

I mean that is a very broad question and one that can be answered in various ways as it is quite context specific. I think it’s one of the major movements influencing (and being influenced by) the great political turmoils of 20th century South Asian history, both pre- and postcolonial. Interestingly too, I would say, it is a movement that has a strong missionary impulse and strengths in transnational organization and institutional integration. Overall I would say it is a socially conservative movement, but one that clearly articulates itself as piety-oriented and peace-oriented, adapting to various societal contexts in the West.

Q. What made you write about the precarious diasporas of Ahmadis and Sikhs?

Well, the main lens of comparison are the different histories and experiences that both communities have felt after 1984, which is of course a date that means different things for Sikhs and Ahmadis. And yet, as I am interested in the relationship between state, violence, religion and migration, there are a lot of interesting overlaps and cross-currents. This is specifically so, when we consider the question of state violence but also when it comes to the kind of challenges faced in contexts of immigration such as asylum/refugee regulations or more broadly speaking public perception  by so-called ‘host societies’ which of course, overtime, become home to Ahmadi and Sikh families.

Q. What made Ahmadis stand out from other Muslim groups which are subject to diaspora?

One is certainly subject to displacement, but for me the adjective ‘diasporic’ has more of an active dimensions. It implies that people are capable to carve out new lives and identities, that change is not something only negative, but certainly that it is challenging. I often thought about the label here, because not everything we normally (as scholars) see as diasporic applies to Ahmadis. For example, questions of cultural hybridity are less obvious with a community that is institutionally very integrated and ideologically (in a neutral sense) coherent. On the other hand, issues such as bilingualism, multiculturalism, or various questions of integration are certainly comparable to what other diasporic communities have encountered. It looks like overall, Ahmadis try to conduct themselves as ‘model minority’ with all the pros and cons that entails. Being partners with liberal governments has certainly helped them over time, whereas I sometimes thing they are leaning too strongly one producing a coherent self-image, sometimes at the cost of discouraging controversial debates and more variety/flexibility.

Q. Even after being displaced from their homeland Ahmadis and Sikhs still face discrimination and hatred, why do you think it is spreading over here?

Now, I not entirely sure if it is spreading, but certainly it has been a problem. Clearly, like other visible and racialized Muslim minorities, Ahmadis got their fair share of the Islamophic backlash after 9/11. In Germany it was most visible in the context of the anti-mosque movements, which even began before 9/11. In North America, especially Canada, I do see a more positive reception. In Germany too, it is meanwhile more positive. But you are right, there are continuing issues between different groups and also different Muslim groups, as the perception of Ahmadis in diaspora contexts is still largely informed by a negative bias.

Q. In recent times we have seen increasing violence towards Ahmadis here in the West. Do you think that along with the victims of violence the violence itself has migrated from it’s origin in the East to here in the West?

I think this lines up with what I just said. One has to be very careful here to use a blanket statement, because violence is always also contextual and experienced differently. In Europe for example, especially Germany, the initial reaction was guided by xenophobic fears whereas more recently the debate shifted towards “what Islam do we want in this country”. Specifically targeted violence has otherwise often been triggered by generalized anti-Muslim sentiments by Islamophobes or other extremist groups that target Ahmadis and other religious minorities as scapegoats because of a presumed ‘heretic’ aspect to their religiosity. So I would really look into the details of each case and societal context, knowing of course that discourses of violence don’t stop at nations’ borders.

Q. What is your general view about the social and political violence on the Sikh and the Ahmadi Communities (and other minorities?)

It is important to understand violence not simply as a one-directed, instrumental kind of action. For my research it has been important to demonstrate that violence is embedded in very different terrains – certainly we must talk about political  violence, but also we need to talk about the legal realm and social violence and the long-term effects of how forms of structural marginalization is experienced as consequential. Here it does matter a lot what gender you are, what class position you hold or what generation you belong too.

Q. For how long do you expect the present diaspora of Ahmadis and Sikhs to continue?

The way I understand diaspora is not as something only temporary or as a pure condition of displacement. I think if we understand diaspora as broad enough to recognize the ongoing movement of people to and between places, it is one of the key cultural motors of our globalizing world today. It is of course speculative to say how the political situations will evolve, say in Pakistan, and how that would over time change the dynamic and flow of peoples’ movement and settlement. But no matter what, because transnational lives are now a matter of fact, I would not expect to see this change in the short term.

Q. What do the Sikh and Ahmadi diaspora have in common?

They certainly have in common that they are largely perceived to identity with religious symbols and practices, which of course also points to a major differences as I sense that the direction of institutional organization is very tight on the side of Ahmadis due to the role of the spiritual leader whereas it seems more fragmented on the side of Sikhs. It has to do with a different understanding of religious text & authority, but it is also due to different experiences with migration and immigration. Again a lot depends on context here.

Q.Why were Toronto and Frankfurt your target areas for conducting your studies?

One consideration was pragmatic, as I know both urban areas very intimately and have good research contacts. But of course, both have been key metropolitan sites and centres for Punjabi communities to grow and flourish. A lot has been written on the UK and the US for example, not really much on Germany and Canada.

Q. What is the main factor fueling the ongoing migration of Ahmadis to Western countries?

I guess the ongoing legal uncertainty in Pakistan, ongoing discrimination in other countries (Bangladesh, Indonesia for example) and certainly the overall political instability and economic situation.

Q. In your book and as the cover shows you termed Ahmadi and Sikh diaspora as precarious. Why is that?

I focused in my work on aspects of community formation and people who have been marginalized by political processes, sociolegal processes and social processes. Precarious diasporas I introduced as a new concept to the literature to not only speak about socioeconomic precarity (poverty, low income, status insecurity) as this is strong sociological theme, I have expanded this use to speak about precarity when it comes to how we perceive our religious selves and subjectivity in times such as ours. I have carefully avoided speaking about the totality of diasporas – obviously there are many successful members of these communities. However, my focus has been the long-term consequences of political and structural violence, so the focus of the book was geared towards those areas we often ignore when highlighting the immigrant success stories.

Q. How would you like your study to affect the present conditions of the Ahmadi and Sikh community?

I hope it helps to shed more light on post-1984 processes, the diversity of experiences and situations migrants face, and more open-ness on the part of host societies to acknowledge Sikhs and Ahmadis. I also hope that I can contribute to internal debates and change, especially as aspired by a younger generation. If the publisher would hopefully make a cheaper soft cover of the book available, I hope people can actually get access to copies.

Q. How does your study better enable as to understand the prevailing conditions of the communities under discussion?

Similar to what I iterated before, I think it really sheds a light on dimensions of social and cultural experience that are not easily recognized. It also brings us beyond a “community comparison” approach, as I don’t think that is particular useful. Instead it might help us contextualize social and political conditions and how they affect people differently.

Q. Right-wing organizations and political parties are gaining momentum in the west, why are they finding so much support?

That is a huge question and probably not possible to really answer with a few sentences. In Europe I think there is a great uncertainty right now about it’s future direction and right-wing parties have always been trying to seize upon such moments to mobilize against immigrants – today of course religious otherness serves as the catch-all phrase to establish boundaries. Then, there is still a continuing need for these societies to come to terms with postcolonial realities or, in other words, with the long-term impact of their colonial projects that were part and parcel of modernity. In the US I think it has also to do with the perceived loss of white privilege.

Q. How do you think new generations of Ahmadis and Sikhs will manage to
link their social (west oriented) and cultural (Asian-oriented) practices from being divided?

I think with social media and the kind of savvy use of communication technology, we should be optimistic. I see them being willing to engage and also to form new solidarities beyond one’s own community boundaries. Overall, I think language remains key. More focus on bi- or multi-lingual education might be something to invest in more broadly speaking.

Q. How do you think new generations from Ahmadi and Sikh diasporas play a role in raising awareness of previous injustices caused towards them?

I think a major role. For a first, the younger generation is much more in tune with the new media genres, they have often gained from post-secondary education and as global citizens they are increasingly aware of the kinds of threats we face on a planetary scale.

Q. Do you think the young Ahmadis and Sikhs diasporas have a sense of identity and belonging? (living in a new place with rising right-wing organizations)

They do and as I show in two chapters in the book, they have found unique ways to respond to these challenges and become engaged activists, artists and citizens.