Simran Jeet Singh greets people outside St Paul’s Chapel in New York on Friday after ringing the “Bell of Hope”. The bell was a gift from London to New York and is sounded for victims of terrible attacks and terrorism. (AFP)
New York, Aug. 11: During the 2008 presidential campaign, rumours proliferated that Barack Obama was a Muslim who had been indoctrinated into militant Islam during childhood studies in a madarsa.
The fact that the Democratic candidate had been a prominent and visible member of a Protestant church in Chicago for years somehow mattered not at all. The Obama campaign even created a website wholly devoted to answering conspiracy theories and smears.
Ultimately, though, it took a Republican in the form of Colin L. Powell to speak truth to fantasy. “He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” the retired general and former cabinet secretary said on Meet the Press. “But the really right answer is, What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that’s not America.”
Powell’s words echo now in the aftermath of last weekend’s massacre of six worshipers at a gurdwara near Milwaukee. The narrative that has emerged in both media coverage and public discourse since then has been one of religious mistaken identity. It presumes that the killer, identified as a white supremacist named Wade M. Page, may have shot the Sikhs because he ignorantly believed they were Muslim.
Such a story line is accurate as far as it goes. Hundreds of times since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Sikhs have been the victims of bias crimes. The perpetrators have invariably assumed that because Sikh men wear turbans and have beards they are Muslims, even specifically Taliban.
How terrible it is that it has taken the slayings in Wisconsin to serve as a national teachable moment about the theology and practices of the Sikh religion.
Yet the mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have —even should have — reacted differently had Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque.
It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalised, less worthy of moral outrage.
“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”
As a Sikh, Vishavjit Singh has found himself wrestling with the subject these past few days. “If this had happened at a mosque, would our reaction be different?” asked Singh, a software engineer in suburban New York who also publishes political cartoons online at Sikhtoons.com.
“I hope not, but the answer might be yes. You’d have the same amount of coverage, but you might have more voices saying, ‘Well, you know, it’s understandable, we’re at war, we’ve been at war.’ That’s an unfortunate commentary on our society today.”
The paradox is that bias crimes against Muslims are growing a decade after the September 11 attacks. The number of such instances, as tallied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had been falling steadily from nearly 500 in 2001 to 107 in 2009. Then, in 2010, the most recent year for which the FBI has data, the number leapt by 50 per cent, to 160.
That spike does not look like either a mathematical or historical accident. During 2010, controversy erupted about the proposed “ground zero mosque,” which was actually a community centre several blocks away.
Prompted by several actual or attempted acts of terrorism by American Muslims, Representative Peter T. King began preparing for hearings in the spring of 2011 on supposedly widespread subversion among millions of American Muslims — an exercise in suspicion, if not guilt, by association.
Representative Michele Bachmann, a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, recently accused a Muslim aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such talk adds up to what John Shuford, the director of the Institute for Hate Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, calls “enmification” — the process of turning a particular group into an enemy. Now that American Muslims have been enmified, violence against them is understood in a mitigated, mediated way.
“Rationalisation (or the capability of being rationalised) is a good way of putting it,” Professor Shuford wrote in an email message. “Not in the sense of rational behaviour or excusability, but in the sense of being understandable, in the way that sometimes leaps in logic, mistaken or misinformed beliefs, outright ignorance and prejudice, and influential social narratives can be quite intelligible even to those who do not view the world in the same way.”
Just one day after the shootings near Milwaukee, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned down. Several weeks earlier, it had also been set afire. This latest episode was covered mostly by the local news media and The Associated Press, with a few larger organisations picking up the wire-service story.
Certainly, an apparent bias crime against property, heinous as that is, does not compare in journalism’s calculus to the bigoted murder of six people. But it is at least worth pondering whether the Joplin arson also set off a kind of internal well-you-must-understand response.
“If it were a church or a synagogue that had been burned down twice, we’d be shocked by it,” Aslan said. “The narrative about the mosque burning has a sense of expectation to it.” The problem with enmification, though, is that it knows few bounds. What started with the hatred of Muslims has repeatedly swept up Sikhs (and also, in some cases, Latinos) in its vortex.”