When one thinks of the Deep South in the US, certain images and thoughts immediately arise in the minds of the many. Virginia is where the first slave ships docked. For hundreds of years, many millions of Africans were brutally taken from their homes, shipped across the Atlantic, and ended up as slave labour to help build America. When Americans began to relinquish slavery, the South rebelled, and the entire nation entered into a war. Though slavery was eventually abolished, the political economy that the South relied upon could not entirely remove deeply embedded existing notions of racial superiority, leading to subjugation, segregation and ongoing racialisation. It was only until the 1950s and 1960s when the civil rights movement began to make advances in changing perceptions and behaviours more widely. Race and racism still persist, however. The South remains a part of the US wholly distinct from the eastern and western coasts, where the economic, cultural and intellectual development has moved forward with greater pace due to investment, immigration and globalisation.
I was asked to come to Mississippi State University and speak to an audience about the topics of Islamophobia and radicalism in Western Europe. I was keen to visit a part of the US that I had not seen before, and so I came with an open mind. Throughout the day, I had meetings with faculty and students, and I got the chance to see the town of Starkville and to take in local culture. Living in lower Manhattan for the last two months, I was beginning to see every non-New Yorker as distinctly odd, even as I got to JFK, such has become my socialisation of the concept of the American.
Mississippi State University did feel as if it was in the middle of nowhere, but this is not uncommon for most large state university campus complexes. With over 20,000 students, the student base is wide and far, including a generous sprinkling of international students. Throughout my four different meetings and a lecture that was open to all faculty and staff, I engaged with many. What surprised me was that they were more progressive in their thinking in relation to questions of race, racism and differences in American society that I could have possibly imagined. While I talked extensively about Islamophobia in Western Europe and ethnic and political issues in Turkey, two research areas I spend most of my time thinking about, we also talked about the US and the politics of the South.
The South is hugely diverse. Not all southerners are the same. Far from it. While race is significant in its legacy, there are huge racial divisions among white and black in the South. There is also a significant degree of understanding and appreciation of the issues among most. However, for black students there was a sense of a normalisation around race, and this was disconcerting. Power very much remains in the hands of dominant white groups, but it was the policies of the Republicans that created most discussion. Policymakers seem to be oblivious to idea of the need to invest in public institutions, especially in the education system (a problem across the US more widely, but in the south it is more noticeable). There is also the related issue of health; data suggest that infant mortality among certain African-Americans in the South is as problematic as some ‘third world countries’.
Ultimately, the issue is space. In New York City, especially in Manhattan, there is a concentration of young, professional, highly-educated and fashion-aware hipsters from generally well-heeled backgrounds. In the South, in order to get to the nearest major town or city there are hours of highway travel to endure. At any point in time, there are oodles of yoga classes going on in Greenwich Village, but in Starkville, a young sociology professor, originally from Boston and equipped with graduate study in Chicago, has been trying to organise open public yoga classes. The aim is to help with people’s mobility, flexibility, all around fitness, as well as to generate some social glue among the local people. I was curious to learn how some of those potentially interested argued that yoga was decidedly un-Christian. All of this suggests that the lack of contact between people is a firm basis for misunderstanding and misrecognition. Combined with a hostile news media, which aims to obfuscate rather than educate or empower, political knowledge of the southern masses is open to manipulation and, in the long run, social control.
Students on campus listening to my talk have no recollection of life without reference to the age of terror and the global culture of violence. However, anyone with a shred of gumption can go beyond the first five Google search topics on ‘political Islam’, or related subjects. They realise that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the social understanding of Islam and Muslims. What many students were able to do was to hear it from the horse’s mouth with regards to a topic they were quite aware of. The questions from the audience reflected respect, understanding and sensitivity.