Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

“On Multiple Identities: Tariq Ramadan and my Bangladeshi Heritage”

“On Multiple Identities: Tariq Ramadan and my Bangladeshi Heritage”

Sajed Bhandari


I have read much of Professor Tariq Ramadan’s work and probably have not understood most of it.  The latter phrase of the initial sentence is not humility on my part; it is simply the truth.  Of all the words I have read and listened to by this man, one paragraph particularly resonates.  The professor says:


One must resist the temptation to reduce one’s identity to a single dimension that takes priority over every other… We should reach a broader view of ourselves and our fellow-citizens: each one of us has multiple identities that she/he must accept, nurture, and develop.  I have long been repeating to Muslims and to my fellow-citizens that I am Swiss by nationality, Egyptian by memory, Muslim by religion, European by culture, universalistic by principle, Moroccan and Mauritanian by adoption (italics added). This is no problem whatsoever: I live with those identities, and one or the other may take the lead depending on the context or occasion.

This particular quote is from What I Believe in the chapter, “Multiple Identities”.  This entry is not an explanation or commentary on the previous quote.  It is a reflection on the emotions that this quote brought forth with respect to my Bangladeshi heritage.  The reflection for the purposes of this entry consists mostly of my transition from contention with my heritage, to acceptance and finally, intimate curiosity.

I, like many other Muslim-Americans, became more conscious of Islam after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  At the time, I was a fourteen-year-old freshman just beginning high school.  High school is normally a time when people begin to seek out their identity and in the process, often become content with a single dimension to that identity.  My initial experience with ultra-conservative and reactionary understandings of Islam caused me to become overly critical of many aspects of my Bangladeshi heritage.  This particular part of the paragraph should be read with the understanding that I was fifteen, an age when many adolescents seek to rebel against the desires and wishes of their parents.  I specify this because, now looking back, I think my views at that age had more to do with this phase of adolescence than with any sincere belief in reactionary ideologies.  However, coming back to the issue of my relationship with my ethnic heritage.   At that time I started to criticize my parents for certain customs in the culture, which I, in my ridiculous self-righteousness, considered innovations to, and deviations from a “pure” Islam (read Arabian Peninsula Islam).  I saw Bangladeshi practice of Islam as “folksy”, rife with innovations and generally a bad way to go about being Muslim.  This led to much animosity towards milads, certain Eid practices and an overall distrust of rituals taught to me by my parents.  More importantly, I saw all Muslims as the same, irrespective of their ethnicity.  Because of this, one particular thing I abhorred was my parents’ distrust of Pakistanis as an idea (not necessarily the Pakistani people we knew).  To me, it just seemed like your run of the mill, South Asian racism or assabiyah; never mind the fact that my parents were refugees during the Bangladeshi struggle for independence  (this is another article).

As I was finishing high school and entering college, I found myself getting closer to various groups within the South Asian community, particularly Pakistanis.  Most of my close friends were, and still are Pakistani.  Before I continue, I feel as though I need to put a disclaimer.  The great majority of the people who have been important to me in terms of friends and relationships have been Pakistani.  What I say subsequently should not be taken as anti-Pakistani or anything like that.  However, it was my interaction with Pakistanis, more than any ideological catalyst that led me to embrace my Bangladeshi heritage.  For the people who do not know, Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state consisting primarily of modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh (at that time known as East Pakistan).  But this is not an article about the civil war that accompanied the founding of Bangladesh (that too is another article).  My interaction with a lot of Pakistanis exposed me to racism for the first time in my life.  Considering I was a Muslim growing up in a primarily white and Jewish neighborhood in an upper-middle class Long Island town, the fact that my first encounters with racism came so late in life and from my fellow Muslims was somewhat disheartening.  Khair, this is not the point of the article either.  What is the point is that the racism, in jest most often, implicit frequently and explicit rarely turned me away from this idea of Muslim brotherhood.  For the right-wingers who will dig up this blog years from now, I said Muslim brotherhood, NOT Muslim Brotherhood.  There is a world of difference between a capital B and a lowercase b, a world of difference between the idea and the political party.  I would defend Pakistanis often in front of my parents and tried to explain to them that yes, they lived through a terrible war with them, but I grew up with them in the same neighborhoods, in the same political and social climate of Islamophobia and both groups spoke English better than they speak Bengali or Urdu.  More importantly, the Islamophobes did not discriminate between Bengali Muslims and Pakistani Muslims.  But as I grew older and my interactions increased, I noticed the incessant need for so many to see Bengalis as inferior to them (this is another article).  I began to see brotherhood as a two way street.  I had to ask myself, how could any two groups of people truly be brothers if one group consistently sees the other as inferior?  This, more than anything else, led me to accept my Bangladeshi heritage as integral to my identity.  Not because I needed to feel superior, but because I needed to find out why my parents were who they were and why they loved a country and a people so much that was so often denigrated by the people closest to me.

So where am I now with my heritage?  I started the article talking about multiple identities and the phrase “intimate curiosity”.  The Professor Ramadan quote brought into fruition this intimate curiosity.  It is almost poetic what he says, “Egyptian by memory”.  I am Bangladeshi by memory.  I have not been to Bangladesh since I was five years old.  I am twenty-three now, a few months from twenty-four and hope to finally go back one day inshAllah.  But I am Bangladeshi by memory because of the memories my parents passed on to me about their time during the civil war, their stories about the streets and buildings of Dhaka and the farms and ponds in Bogra.  I remember as a child my mother would sing songs in Bengali to herself as she cleaned the dishes, or sat in a chair or cooked, unconscious of what she was doing.  I used to hear the names of Tagore and Nazrul, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Zias and Sheikh Hasina.  My parents would argue about politics, about socialism and capitalism and Bangladesh’s experience with both.  These are all experiences my parents had, but what I realize now, that I did not then, is that what they were trying to pass on to me was not necessarily the stories of Bangladesh or Bengali-supremacy, but rather the emotions they felt as children, as youths and as adults in their previous homeland.  America is their homeland now.  I am trying to remember a quote that goes along the lines of, your homeland is not where your grandparents are buried; it is where your grandchildren will be buried.  I say my curiosity is intimate because it stems from trying to understand my parents and subsequently myself.  Who they were in and who they are now because of Bangladesh.  In the process I hope to “nurture and develop” this particular aspect of the multiple-identities that I have, as per the recommendations of that wise professor.


Written by sajedbhandari

October 9, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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