By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
3 October 2020
• The Great American Backslide
By Dr Ayesha Razzaque
• Divisions Created By A Paranoid Worldview Never Sustain Tenable Identities
By Farrukh Khan Pitafi
• Geostrategic Consequences of the Syrian Crisis Cannot Be Underrated
By Arhama Siddiqa
The Great American Backslide
By Dr Ayesha Razzaque
October 3, 2020
The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.
The US is home to most of the world’s best and most prestigious universities, and college application season for 2021 is upon us. Last year, there were numerous reports of the Trump administration making it more difficult for, or refusing international students in graduate school programs, even at its most prestigious universities, permission to work (and eventually settle) in the US after graduating. These are precisely the kind of highly skilled immigrants the Trump administration claims it wants, yet its actions show otherwise.
Then, earlier in this summer, as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was cresting in many countries, American colleges were deciding how they could conduct their fall and spring semesters this academic year – on campus, online or some way in between. In the midst of this debate, the Trump administration announced that international students at colleges and universities that would opt for online classes will have to leave the country for the duration they do not have on campus classes.
A few days ago, on September 25, the Trump administration announced its intention to change student visa rules again. Previously, students could legally stay in the US as long as their university certifies them as enrolled students, even if the date on their visa had expired. PhD students in particular, whose programs can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years, often have to make use of this provision. This provision also allows students to maintain their legal residency status if they are unable to find a job immediately after graduation. The new changes would restrict students to remain in the US for only four years, with the possibility of applying for an extension, whose outcome would be highly uncertain.
Students from countries designated state sponsors of terrorism by the US (Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea) and countries whose students have an overstay rate of greater than 10 percent (a list that includes around 60 countries) will see the validity of their visas further reduced to only two years. That is just enough to graduate from an associate bachelor’s or master’s programs.
The message to international students is clear: Come to the US, graduate within four years, but leave immediately thereafter, maybe with a degree or maybe without. Predictably, the effect of these changes has been chilling.
The cost of tuition fee of a four-year bachelor’s program at most top-100 national universities for international students is around $50,000-70,000 a year. Add in the cost of living and you are looking at a total price tag of $250,000-400,000 for the entire program, depending on location. Understandably, when international students invest this much in their education, many do so looking beyond college and plan to work in the US, for a variety of reasons like getting US work experience, recouping the cost of their education, or to eventually settle in the US.
For host countries, in this case the US, the economic case for retaining skilled and educated international students is quite straightforward: Let other countries spend their tax revenues and resources on schooling and bringing up children, let them come for higher education while paying higher tuition fees at its universities, and when they graduate and are about to become productive, pluck them off by enticing them into staying. The host country gets a worker without investment, while the home country gets to bemoan its brain drain.
Some of the best years of my life were the ones I spent in graduate school in the US. It was a time of learning, intellectual growth, new experiences and exposure to new values, ideas and a diversity of people that changed me for the better. That change flows both ways. In 2018, around 6,300 students (12.6 percent) of Michigan State University’s 50,000 students came from 140 countries. While many colleges are located in major urban areas, a great many are situated in small towns that popped up around those colleges. When such large groups of international students live as part of smaller communities, they change their character for the better, creating small, liberal bubbles where locals would otherwise not have the opportunity to experience such diversity.
Colleges and their students, including international students, are valued as major drivers of their local economies. In 2018, international students contributed $45 billion to the US economy in the form of spending on retail, dining and transportation alone (excluding tuition fees). In the America outside the DC Beltway, and smaller communities in particular, they are ambassadors and representatives of their home countries.
I am grateful for my American experiences and remain a well-wisher of the American people. That is why it is so painful to see the regression, this backslide of the valuation of diversity, talent and expertise, and the growth of boorish ignorance and hostile nationalist pride. Soon after Trump won the 2016 elections, a good American friend of mine messaged me to say it is a good thing I had returned to Pakistan when I did, because things were turning ugly. At the time, I thought this may be an exaggeration by someone not used to seeing social and cultural upheaval, as we are in Pakistan. Almost four years of an administration that has consistently shown that, when given a set of options, it is sure to choose the one most hostile to minorities, communities of color, immigrants and visitors, I stand corrected.
Meanwhile, state universities have seen significant cutbacks in state support since the financial crisis in 2008. They see international students, who they charge multiple times the tuition fee of in-state students, as a means to cover the shortfall. Their PR departments are in damage control mode, trying to contain the fallout from the administration’s statements and actions.
This unwelcoming attitude is reflected in the number of international students coming to the US since the current administration took office. According to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), in 2016-17 (the last academic year before the Trump administration) the US had about 1,080,000 international students. In the chilled climate of the following year, in 2017-18, that number grew by only 1.5 percent. The year after that, in 2018-19, it grew by an almost imperceptible 0.05 percent!
Pakistan’s share in this number in 2018-19 is only around 8,000 students (0.7 percent), ranking it at #22, but at a rate of 5.6 percent year-over-year its share is one of the fastest growing. Pakistanis’ long-standing conviction that a good education will lead to a better life is, to me, our culture’s most redeeming value that leaves me with hope for a better future.
You may ask: if the stagnation in the number of international students in the US is not a secular trend, what countries are picking up the slack? Over the same time period, 2016 to 2018, Canada saw a growth of more than 36 percent in its international student population. Even the UK, while in the throes of Brexit and where international student numbers have plateaued in the previous decade, saw a more than nine percent increase in this period. Talent is globally mobile, seeks out economic opportunities, quality of life and places it feels valued and welcomed and votes with its feet.
According to CNN’s poll of polls, 43 percent of Americans are prepared to vote for the incumbent Trump. This stacks up with the solid 35 percent floor of support Trump has been enjoying at even the lowest moments of his presidency. If Trump wins in November, we can expect a deepening and entrenchment of these policies. In 2024, that could leave the vast stretches of America outside its liberal urban bubbles a fearful and suspicious version of its former open self, receding from the world and unrecognizable from the country I once knew. If he loses, prospective students may hope to see at least a partial unwinding of his administration's policies.
However, whether Trump wins or loses this November, the last few years the US has shown the world that almost half of its people, more than a small fringe, are not too bothered by Trump’s isolationist worldview and the policies that spring from it. Both the world and the US are poorer for it.
Divisions Created By a Paranoid Worldview Never Sustain Tenable Identities
By Farrukh Khan Pitafi
October 02, 2020
On September 30, a special court in Lucknow robbed India of its democratic credentials. Democracies usually have fully functioning institutions where some semblance of impartiality is always maintained. The verdict of the Babri Masjid demolition case, which came after 28 years of the incident, was unique. All 32 accused in one of history’s most well documented fanatic campaigns, which left 2,000 (mainly Muslims) dead and incurred a loss of around $3.6 billion, were acquitted citing absence of evidence. In 1992, LK Advani, flanked by the ruling BJP’s leading lights including one Narendra Modi, had led a chariot march which culminated into the mob frenzy that brought the Babri structure down and a bloodbath all in plain sight. If a couple of them were spared it would have been expediency, if only a few of them were punished it would have been tokenism, but when all of them walked free this had to be a message. The stranglehold of the RSS and its inspired political parties on Indian state and society was complete. I have already pointed out in a separate piece that in 1988, Girilal Jain, the then editor of The Times of India and a far-right ideologue, had used the term “clash of civilisations” to describe the Babri Masjid dispute.
On September 29, at the debate stage, President Trump shocked a global audience when he visibly and unambiguously failed to condemn white supremacy. While it may further lend credence to the “Trump is a racist” narrative, the reality is far more complicated. When invited to condemn it, he asked the moderator to give him a name so that he could denounce it. When he was offered the name of Proud Boys, the best he could do was to ask the group to “stand back and stand by”. Since then the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist, male only group with white supremacist roots has gone to town in celebration and printed T-shirts with Trump’s words. Originally a part of the alt-right, Proud Boys soon split ways with the big tent movement citing its reservations about the focus on race. They claim to defend the Western civilisation and Western values rather than the white race. The group is connected to Trump campaign’s high-profile surrogates like Roger Stone and is often the first to confront any far-left protest rally challenging President Trump. You can see why he would be reluctant.
On September 25, a 25-year-old man of Pakistani origin was arrested in Paris for carrying out a knife attack ostensibly to protest Charlie Hebdo’s decision to reprint the contentious caricatures. Charlie Hebdo’s decision was apparently meant to mark the trial of those involved in the 2015 terror attack. Usually when an attack of this sort takes place the media usually mentions the country of origin not the city of origin. But reports about the apprehended man, who initially lied about his name and age but remarkably not the country or city of origin, carried the name of the city of his origin — Mandi Bahauddin. And while the Pakistani media was still wrapping its head around the development, the Indian media was already running the interview of the said man’s father claiming how proud he was of his son. Granted India is very close to France these days, because of the Rafale deal of course, and it habitually obsesses about anything that brings the Pakistani state and society into disrepute but this whole affair appeared too picture perfect. It does not hurt that such events further enhance the current Indian ruling elite’s claim that a clash exists between Islam and the West.
On July 24, Turkey’s President Erdogan led the first prayer in Hagia Sophia to mark its conversion into a mosque. When asked to comment on the subject, I told the questioner that I did not see the reason behind the move because right next to Hagia Sophia stands the historic Blue Mosque which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers at a time, where prayers are organised five times daily and has never been seen running to capacity. Erdogan’s decision reverses the order of modern Turkey’s founder and a personal favourite Kemal Ataturk who decided to give it the status of a national museum and ties neatly into the incumbent President’s project of connecting directly to the Ottoman past. Naturally, it also convinces Huntington’s followers that they are on the right path.
You may notice three major trends here. First, the rise of far-right stronger around the world. Two, a push to homogenise their respective societies. Three, an attempt to other anything that does not reinforce this homogeneity, demonise heterogeneity and weaponise cultural boundaries. And while studying these patterns you are shocked by another interesting aspect. The Indian media’s obsession with such stories. Take for instance the above-mentioned stories and google them. You will be surprised to find a disproportionate coverage of all four. This despite the fact that stories like over one year of continued Kashmiri suffering, cow vigilantism in rural UP, the unfolding human tragedy in Indian Assam, economic meltdown and similar major issues are often dropped to accommodate such coverage. What is going on? Has India’s hatred towards China and Muslims in general created a blind spot which does not let it see the plight of its own citizens? Or is it a manifestation of Ajit Doval’s Defensive Offence doctrine? I know it can be dismissed as paranoia but sadly many in the Indian diaspora have not been able to extricate themselves from the negative influence of Modi and his cohorts especially now that they control the powerful Indian state. And while the South Asian diaspora remains deeply divided it has gained a lot of power and influence in the West. It would be great if it could for once decide that it will not support extremism of any kind.
I bring this matter up again and again because my long-held belief is now proven beyond any shadow of doubt. Divisions created by a paranoid worldview never sustain tenable identities. They give birth to the ever-growing sickness of prejudice which tears societies apart. In India, this may lead to casteism, provincialism and linguistic divides, in the Muslim world to sectarianism and in the West to racism.
Like microbes crawling on a tiny pebble ashore an infinite ocean, we sit on planet earth and bemoan shrinking resources and plot against each other when we know it all will hurt us in the end. Instead of investing in hate, prejudice and paranoia true national security concerns ought to invest in the scientific, humanitarian and pluralistic enterprise. The world society is far too intermingled to sustain a push for homogeneity. That way lies only ruin.
Geostrategic Consequences of The Syrian Crisis Cannot Be Underrated
By Arhama Siddiqa
October 02, 2020
On September 7, at the Masnaa Border Crossing (between Lebanon and Syria), 17-year-old, Zainab Mohammed Al Ibrahim collapsed and died. Though the cause of death has not been identified, it was determined she was part of a large group of Syrians on their way to their homeland. They had been barred entry since they could not pay the $100 (SYP 51,317) entrance fee that the Assad regime mandated in July 2020. Zainab Al Ibrahim’s death comes a month after the Syrian government declared that irrespective of nationality, all those wishing to leave Syria have to pay a $100 departure fee. The official line is that this is remuneration for Covid-19 tests conducted for those people departing the country. However, the tests are a cover-up for the regime’s desperation for acquiring hard currency to counter the economic ramifications of the United States’ sanctions imposed through the Caesar Act earlier this year.
Another impediment the Syrian regime has set for its citizens is lack of certification. The now nine-and-a-half-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to flee, has left a majority of the Syrians lacking various types of civil documentation necessary for accessing healthcare, education and aid. The scatter caused by the war has resulted in complete disconnect of many Syrians from the Syrian bureaucracy — the only authority that can officially issue paperwork and legal documents.
Safe to say that the Syrian government’s regeneration plans offer no outlooks for safe and dignified refugee return.
Moreover, to further stoke up the already bad situation, since 2011 the Assad regime has initiated more than 50 laws on housing, land and property matters. These have provided legal cover to the state to decimate areas formerly under opposition control and complicate and prevent the return of civilians to certain areas. The most alluded to act is Law No. 10 (passed in 2018) according to which Syrian inhabitants have a year to showcase proof of ownership of property, in an area marked for reconstruction purposes. Failure to do so will result in transfer of proprietorship to the regime. On the rare occasion that correct documentation is presented, citizens have the options of getting land shares or creating companies to invest in and develop the reconstruction area. This process of selective reconstruction is deepening existing socio-political fissures. The Assad regime’s strategies are designed to benefit only their coterie at the expense of public interest by strengthening existing and new regime backers. This in itself is proof that for the Syrian administration, consolidating power is the top priority — one they will go to any lengths for. Even if it entails crushing their own populace in the process.
The Syrian economic situation keeps deteriorating. Hyperinflation has reduced people to boiling weeds for sustenance. Long queues, spanning miles, at petrol stations are the norm. Syria’s oil production is now a sixth of what it was before 2011, 60% of businesses have shut down and those that remain are barely surviving. To protect its banking system, the regime has limited withdrawals and forbidden dollar transactions. Despite all this, fighting continues unabated in many parts of the country. Regional and global powers are bent on pursuing their vested interests. ISIS also rears its head time and again. The promised US troop withdrawal never materialised. Instead US soldiers are now helping Kurds secure authority over the oil rich fields in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate.
The geostrategic consequences of the Syrian crisis cannot be underrated. Even after nearly a decade of war, the regime is unfit to address the increasing number of challenges it faces on all fronts. If Syria’s economic collapse continues, a new wave of restlessness, this time from regime loyalists, will inevitably rise, thus amplifying projections for intractable conflict, destruction and disintegration.
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