Sikhs and Muslims and Brown People, Oh My!
9 August 2012 § Leave a comment
On June 13, Michele Bachmann and 4 other Republican members of Congress issued an open letter to several government agencies, asking them to investigate the “deep penetration” of the US government by radical Muslims, namely the Muslim Brothers. After being challenged by Rep. Keith Ellison, himself a Muslim, Bachmann wrote him a 16-page letter in July purporting to provide evidence of this penetration. The letter’s evidence was nothing more than a listing of various Muslim and Islamist organizations, Bachmann’s implication being that their very existence is a threat that must be investigated and dealt with. Additionally, she claimed that Huma Abedin, an aid to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a member of the MB by virtue of the fact that some of her family were also supposedly members.
This Islamophobic exercise in self-promotion was shot down by some in her own party, while others defended her. Regardless, neither she nor the other congressmen who joined her retracted their claims or calls for investigations, and none of them faced any substantial negative repercussions for this foolishness. There was simply no reason to retract because conveniently in America Muslims (and people who “look” or “act” Muslim) are a boogeyman, a group of people who are casually accused of barbarity and against whom suspicions are implicitly accepted.
It is in this environment that this past Sunday, a white supremacist entered a Milwaukee, WI, gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) and unloaded his gun into the bodies of worshippers in attendance. He murdered 6 individuals and wounded 3 before he was shot by police officers. This heinous attack was followed by a separate incident the next day, the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, which was the second such attack on that mosque this summer. The building was completely destroyed. While there is no explicit evidence that either attack was prompted by Bachmann et al.’s actions, it cannot be denied that their recent crusade contributed to and enflamed existing suspicions against Muslims and brown people in general.
Indeed, these attacks highlight the racialization of religion in America. The white supremacist who attacked the gurdwara probably thought he was killing some raghead Muzzies from Eye-rack, rather than South Asian Sikhs. Why? Because a Muslim has a particular appearance and uniform through which he can readily be identified. He is brown-skinned, has a beard, wears flowing robes and a turban, all of which easily applies to Sikhs. This racialization is so accepted that many news outlets rushed to explain to their audience that though they may look like (the stereotype of) Muslims, Sikhs are in fact not Muslims. Witness this paragraph from USA Today‘s article on the shooting (emphasis mine):
Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents, which advocates blame on anti-Islamic sentiment. Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say.
A google search of that bolded text reveals it was repeated in many other news outlets. The Chicago RedEye and The Seattle Times took it a step further and published an almost identical “Turban Primer,” helpfully informing their readers that there are different turban styles which can tell you if the wearer is a Muslim or not and what type of Muslim he is. This profoundly racist article was especially insensitive coming on the heels of the two attacks. The blog Sixteen Minutes to Palestine rightly connected it to offensive anti-Japanese propaganda from the World War II.
The repeated highlighting of the distinctions between Sikhs and Muslims is not just limited to ignorant newspaper writers. Some Sikhs have also insisted that people learn the difference between the two religious groups.
Since 9/11, Sikhs, most of whom come from India, have faced some of the same challenges as American Muslims, with whom they sometimes have been confused. Said Saindi: “We’d like to view this tragedy as an opportunity to tell the world what Sikhs are. Sikhs believe in peace and harmony. As a tradition, Sikhs do not cut their beards, and they wear turbans. Just the fact that they wear turbans and do not cut their facial hair does not make them terrorists.”
Sikhs were among the first who were targeted by Islamophobes and other racists in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, notably Balbir Singh Sodhi who was shot 5 times at his gas station. So it is only natural for some Sikhs to want journalists to mention that they are not Muslim.
Reading that paragraph, I could not help but be reminded of what happened to my family shortly after 9/11. We came home one night to find that our house had been egged and our entire front yard covered in garbage. This occurred as more stories of brown people being targeted for “revenge” attacks appeared in the media. All we could think was that this was a threatening warning to us to watch our backs. It was very scary, and I distinctly remember my mother tearily insisting to the responding police officers that we’re not Muslims, as if the perpetrators had hit the wrong house.
I would humbly suggest that insisting that the victims of these racist and Islamophobic attacks are a peaceful people or that they are not Muslims will not end the sentiment, suspicions, and bigotry that lead to such crimes. A few years after the vandalization of our home, I found out that the people responsible for terrorizing my family that night were two of my classmates, high school sophomores like me, who I sat next to everyday. I am not trying to make an equivalence between a vandalized home and cold-blooded murder. Obviously the gurdwara shooting was much more devastating in its effect and legacy, but the truth is a person so filled with hate that he is willing to go this far does not care how peaceful his victims are, nor does he care what country they are from, or what their religion actually is. Sikhs, Muslims, and other brown people have been Otherized enough that it simply does not matter. It is enough that they are different from the “norm” for them to be targeted in this way.
Writer Harsha Walia suggests that there is a better way of addressing the causes of this violence and hatred (emphasis mine):
So perhaps it is time to stop attempting to assimilate into white supremacy, to stop capitulating to colonialism and empire, and to take a stand against oppression. We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism. While racism and its impacts often paralyze us, we must channel our collective grief and outrage as a space for alliance and solidarity with other racialized communities–with Muslim communities bearing the brunt of Islamophia, with Blacks who disproportionately endure police violence and over- incarceration, with Indigenous people who are being dispossessed of their lands and resources, with non-status migrants who have been deemed illegal and are facing deportation. Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be.
Thankfully there are people who recognize this truth and act accordingly. Yesterday, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance put out a statement condemning the gurdwara shooting and the Joplin mosque arson. Their letter was co-signed by a variety of LGBTQ, black, Muslim, civil rights, and American Indian organizations. Additionally, yesterday a crowdfunding page was set up at IndieGoGo for people to contribute to the rebuilding of the Joplin mosque. It has already surpassed its target of $250,000, and there are still 43 days left for people to continue contributing. A quick perusal of the over 2300 donors so far shows that it was not just Muslims who donated money but also people from other communities across the United States.
Rather than despair at politicians and media all too happy to capitalize on populist ignorance, I am choosing to focus on the hope in these acts of solidarity. It is in these acts that people of color will find real salvation and liberation from racial hatred. Let it not take another tragedy for our society as a whole to finally understand this.