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Aerotropolitans

Other than the national accounts, the most outwardly visible signs of this flourishing industry are the workers as they move from the world of home to the world of the global production network. If you travel internationally, and in particular if you fly the Middle East-South Asia routes, you will have encountered these aerotropolitans. Bangladeshis are also making a living in North America, across western and southern Europe, legally and otherwise in South and Southeast Asia, and even in Africa, notably through the recruitment of Bangladeshi garment factory workers to work in Mauritius. They travel not for pleasure, to make business deals, or to sell commodities, but because their numerous bodies make them a kind of commodity in themselves (Phillips 2016).[1]

These workers are aerotropolitans because their work fundamentally depends on their rapid and cheap transport through international hubs at the core of global trade and commerce. Airports, where the effects of globalization are at their most intense, are often spaces of luxury and pleasure for middle-class travellers. But those travelling to sell their labour are denizens of the global economy and have few rights or privileges, in transit or at the receiving end. Should they be deemed to have misbehaved by protesting some abuse or other, their right to work can easily be withdrawn by a change in receiving-country policy. It may even be domestic politics and policies of which labour-receiving countries disapprove; the hanging of Jamaat-i-Islami politicians convicted of war crimes in 1971 was a factor in the declining share of Bangladeshi workers in Saudi in recent years (The Economist 2013), and new Bangladeshi migration only restarted in 2015 (International Business Times 2015). Abuses of Bangladeshi workers abroad continue to make headlines. A recent report documenting working conditions on a United Arab Emirates facility set to house developments by the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University reported a range of serious and regular abuses of workers' rights: unpaid wages, police action including summary deportation if they protested, employers holding passports and cancelling visas of protestors. Some workers were jammed into small, insanitary living spaces (McGeehan 2015).

Unlike workers who stay on Bangladeshi soil, the aerotropolitans stay or move between home and work for several years. They accumulate profoundly life-changing experience and knowledge, not just remittances. Some of those experiences have influenced religious practice and identity (Kibria 2008). Kibria found experiences of migration to the Middle East to be 'marked by sharp consciousness of its Muslim context' (Kibria 2008, 525). An outwardfacing, worldly model of religion should in theory attract these global persons:

A more orthodox approach to Islam, one that is not apparently tied to the vagaries of specific local culture, may be especially compelling to the migrant who is facing the culturally inflected diversity of Muslim practice. There is a desire under these conditions to adhere only to the core tenets of Islam and to strip Islam of extraneous cultural influences, including ideologies of nationalism. With these strategies, migrants also affirm the ummah—the idea that the bonds of Muslims, based on their adherence to the core tenets of Islam, are far more important than differences of culture and nationality. In general, the notion of the ummah may resonate in especially meaningful ways for those who have crossed national borders and are so faced with the complex realities and meanings of national membership. (Kibria 2008, 520)

But if an orthodox globalized Islam offers the promise of egalitarianism and solidarity beyond national borders, in reality Bengalis who go to the Middle East as migrant labourers are stigmatized and looked down upon. Most learn painful truths about their position in class and global hierarchies, developing a 'globalized national consciousness, defined by a critical awareness of the relative poverty and low status of Bangladesh as a nation in the global order' (Kibria 2008, 532). Some become critical of the democratic regimes at home, the hypocrisy and irreligiosity in the societies they serve, and are disappointed by the lack of solidarity and community among Muslims (Kibria 2008, 527-9).

The mass migration experience may not encourage extremism, but it 'poses a challenge to secular values':

Islam in Bangladesh—which has traditionally been spiritual, tolerant and syncre- tistic in nature as idealized in the folk songs of the philosopher-poet, Lalan Shah— is now faced with challenges from the radical strains of Islam often grown in the context of globalization that produces shifting identities and a condition of generalized hopelessness and alienation. (Khondker 2010, 200)

It is among these rising waves of global radical Islam that young men return to Bangladesh, bringing their embittering but enlightening experiences of the heartlands of religious culture, oppression by fellow Muslims, and precarious toil at the bottom of the global value chain (Phillips 2016, 7).

  • [1] Drawing on the idea that the aerotropolis, or airport-city, will increasingly be the centre ofeconomic activity in successful, integrated economies (Kasarda and Lindsay 2011). AlthoughKasarda and Lindsay do not say much about the population that services the aerotropolis, theidea that global transport hubs are increasingly characteristic of fast-growing world cities fits wellwith the observable facts of economic growth in labour-rich countries like Bangladesh. Getting outhas become more possible, and it has become more important for getting on. But people are movedmuch like commodities within the aerotropolis, and the aerotropolitan—the international migrantworker—is a denizen, a body without rights.
 
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