This article focuses on the ways in which young South Asian Muslim immigrants living in the U.S. express ideas of national and transnational belonging during the War on Terror. Based on an ethnographic study in New England, the research explores how a group of working-class Muslim immigrant youth grappled with issues of displacement, belonging, and exclusion that extended well before and after 2001 but were heightened in the post-9/11 moment. The article discusses the everyday experiences of national belonging, or cultural citizenship, for young immigrants in the contexts of the school, workplace, and public sphere and, in particular, their experiences of transnational or flexible citizenship. Drawing on Aihwa Ong’s work, the essay demonstrates that the flexiblization of citizenship for these youth was not accompanied by a flexiblity of rights but by bio-political regimes of insecurity under neoliberal capitalism. These children of economic migrants belong to transnational families whose economic and cultural strategies defy Orientalist notions of “tradition” and “model minority” families while rupturing and recreating familial and social ties.
The paper analyses three domains in which flexible citizenship is practiced or negotiated by youth: transnational popular culture and cultural consumption, labor and education, war and human rights. The tensions in each of these domains are embedded in the larger context of U.S. empire, which I argue is in itself a form of flexible power based on ambiguous, covert, or non-territorial forms of global control. Transnational economic, social, or political ties have been curtailed for Muslim immigrant communities by the national security state and any flexibility in their national allegiances is seen as a threat. The paradox of flexible citizenship in the current moment is that it is considered desirable for some and dangerous for others, underscoring that sovereign rights to “freedom” and “mobility” are unevenly distributed.