Yesterday, I received this message on a list of family friends and relatives who would self-identify as Indian. The email, which was in 24 point font, replete with a (different) picture of Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, who supposedly said these things, and an emblem of the United States flag, waving, at the bottom of the missive.
I have received many of these emails before, but for the sake of keeping peace, I have ignored them. But in the last 11 days, there have been eight (8) attacks on religious centers: 1 on the gurdwara in Oak Creek and 7 on mosques around the United States. I am unable to ignore this email.
I am reminded of the admonition made by Rinku Sen in the aftermath of the Oak Creek gurdwara shootings. Sen urged her white friends to “make a fuss, cause a family crisis, become unpopular, speak up” in the face of such statements about foreigners. And even though Sen addressed this to her white friends, I think the same message applies to folks like myself. And like Samita Mukhopadhyay, whose poignant column about her mother’s response to the Oak Creek shootings, I hope we can find the right response.
I grew up in this country surrounded mostly by whites, and very few South Asians. Maybe it explains something, maybe nothing. But it means that I often see the world through the eyes of someone who was bullied and teased mercilessly—for what? At the time, I thought it was because I was so ugly, with my long coconut-oiled hair, thick-framed glasses, unfashionable Sears polo shirts and ill-fitting purple pants—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother didn’t know better than to wear a sari and dot on her forehead, and a nose ring in public—because that’s what they made fun of. I thought it was because my mother refused to let me go to classmates’ houses after school until first coming home so that she could see that I was safe. I thought it was because I deserved it.
It wasn’t until a decade later, when recounting these stories to a grad-school roommate who tilted her head and looked at me quizzically and asked, “You do realize that you were the target of racism, right?” that I realized those stories for what they were.
The above speech can not be attributed to Julia Gillard. It is a chain letter that has been circulating for two years. Whether she harbors similar sentiments, even under the Labor Party, I’ll write about in a future post. But let’s pretend, for a short moment, that there really was someone, akin to the Australian Prime Minister—we’ll call her the Ghost Minister–who said this:
This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom.
Which culture might the Ghost Minister be referring to? Would it be the culture of prisoners and convicts who were sent to Australia to live out their penance far away from the “civilized shores of England?” Would it be the culture that assumed that Australia was “terra nullius,” an empty land, even though it was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, who were conquered and quarantined by the whites who were shunned by their own English countrymen?
Muslims who want to live under Islamic Sharia law were told on Wednesday to get out of Australia
Does the Ghost Minister know what Sharia Law is? It is not the fundamentalist law publicized by the fear-mongering media and Christian fundamentalists (who would like their own fundamentalist laws imposed upon all of us, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs). As Yale professor of Religious Studies Eliyahu Stern tells us in the New York Times that the efforts to outlaw Sharia Law in the United Stateswould curtail Muslims from settling disputes over dietary laws and marriage through religious arbitration, while others would go even further in stigmatizing Islamic life.
South Asian Hindus have long understood what it means to have a foreign state authority curtail their practices, since they remember when British colonial authorities imposed restrictions on whether women could wear saris without blouses in public, or which religious practices are acceptable.
Similarly, Sharia law reflects precepts that have to do with daily life. How would vegetarian Hindus understand a mandate that they MUST eat meat to supplement the protein in their diets–except as a disciplining and show of state power (and as I write this, I’m reminded of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s restrictions on sodas larger than 16 ounces)?
In France, several months ago, Marine Le Pen, the right-wing candidate for President, started a huge public furor by charging that French public schools, which served lunch daily, were serving Halal meat! Egads! Halal meat is meat that has been produced under Islamic dietary strictures that symbolize hygiene and purity.
Then President Sarko, in a fight to keep his seat, initially refused to be baited, but ultimately rose to Le Pen’s challenge by vowing to look into the matter and ridding the schools of Halal meat. Let us suppose the charge was true (it was never proven to be so). Why, then, did the French state—or at least scions of authority such as LePen and Sarko care? Were they concerned that ingesting halal meat would suddenly produce hordes of young white French Muslims spouting the Qu’ran? Hardly. Perhaps as animal rights activists have suggested, it is a crueler method of slaughtering animals for meat, since it bans the stunning of animals before slaughter, and it bothered Sarko and Le Pen. Sarkozy and Le Pen: Animal-rights activists? I think not.
Rather, it was because Muslim-baiting has become a popular pastime in France, along with virulent xenophobia and anti-immigration jousting. And Sarko lost anyway (only to be succeeded by Francois Hollande, the Socialist Party candidate and a supposedly kinder, lefter guy who’s turning out to be pretty authoritarian himself). Let that be a lesson to…the American voter.
Why would it be acceptable to impose dietary or marriage restrictions on Muslims’ religious laws? These are private matters every bit as much as Hindu religious law is. Unlike the misperception in the bill passed in the Tennessee General Assembly, Sharia law is not something that Muslims want to impose on the larger public. Nor is Sharia Law “a set of rules that promote ‘the destruction of the national existence of the United States,’” as Stern states. He continues:This is exactly wrong. The crusade against Shariah undermines American democracy, ignores our country’s successful history of religious tolerance and assimilation, and creates a dangerous divide between America and its fastest-growing religious minority. The suggestion that Shariah threatens American security is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusation, in 19th-century Europe, that Jewish religious law was seditious. In 1807, Napoleon convened an assembly of rabbinic authorities to address the question of whether Jewish law prevented Jews from being loyal citizens of the republic. (They said that it did not.)
To be fair, the misperception of Sharia Law is widespread. At dinner some months ago with otherwise erudite white American friends, I found myself having to rebuff their kneejerk scorn of Sharia by sharing a story that I heard at a philosophy conference some years ago. It was told by a young white Canadian lawyer who represented a Muslim woman in her divorce proceedings. As the lawyer pointed out Canadian courts, like American courts, only recognize written contracts. This fact made it difficult for her client to obtain compensation as promised by her ex-husband’s family, because it was an oral promise cemented by an imam, and therefore unenforceable in a Canadian court. By convincing the Canadian court to recognize Sharia, her client was able to obtain what was due her.
According to Dwight Garner, who has a review of Kadri’s book in this past Sunday’s New York Times:In [Kadri’s] reading of the Shariah, he finds rationality and flexibility. His argument is with recent hard-liners who, he writes, “have turned Islamic penal history on its head.” He is furious that fundamentalists “have associated the Shariah in many people’s minds with some of the deadliest legal systems on the planet.” He calls them traditionalists who ignore tradition. He is disgusted that warped opinions “are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.
It is the misperceptions of Muslims, Sharia, and the outrageous framing of all Muslims as reflecting zealotry and fundamentalism that lead to events like seven mosque attacks in the United States in last 10 days– in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
To my fellow Indians: Does any of this remind you about the stories of British colonialism in India? Do you remember your mothers’ and grandmothers’ stories of how the British whipped, mutilated, and maimed Indians for not obeying their orders? Does anyone remember the Lahore Lynchings of 1915, a mass spectacle designed by the British colonial authority to warn Indians against further thought of self-rule? Although 24 Indians were scheduled to hang that day, the sentences of 17 were commuted— 7 men were still killed as a warning to others who wanted self-rule.
You must remember the mass hatred incited by India’s political elites, pitting Muslims against Hindus and Hindus against Muslims—I’m sure—because through my mother’s stories and the histories I’ve read—I do, and I wasn’t even there.
I remember my mother’s stories of being turned away from job interviews in the United States because she wore a sari thinking it was the most formal outfit she could wear for such a serious occasion. I remember her pink polyester suit, bought for subsequent interviews, because she felt it would be disrespectful to show her legs at work.
I remember my mother’s humiliation at having insults hurled at her in the 1980’s by ignorant young and old white men who proudly called themselves “Dotbusters.” These racist men told her to “go back to her country,” even though she had lived faithfully by the laws of the United States for twenty-five years.
Don’t you remember similar stories of hate directed against your mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts? The British, the Australians, the Americans, The French—and many others engaged in similar acts of savagery condoned by their own governments. Did our mothers and fathers and families deserve this? Certainly mine did not.
Many whites may not see Muslims as deserving of respect and civility. But you can bet that they don’t see me or my family (or yours) as deserving respect and civility either. They don’t care whether you are Muslim or not. They see you, a Hindu, and “them” (Muslims) as one and the same: a brown person who doesn’t speak English (even if you do), or who speaks English with an accent (if you don’t).
I know the stories of Sikhs men who immigrated to California in the early 1900’s. They were harassed, beaten, arrested, and deported, because they were subject to hatred by whites and fear that they were taking away jobs and lowering wages. I have been told of the harassment that Indians were subject to by the British for wanting Self-rule. And I know that the hate-filled curses that were directed against Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims had little to do with whether they “deserved” it, and everything to do with the American and British fear and loathing of Indians.
The Ghost Minister wants everyone to speak English, and not “Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language.” This message has been delivered before, and there is plenty of literature out there to refute it, so I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say that not speaking the language of the land inconveniences no one—except perhaps, the migrant. But it engenders hostility aplenty for reasons that have little to do with the difficulties of language: because it reminds the speaker that he too is merely a traveler on this land, which was taken away from the indigenous, from others, so that he too could grow up on this soil and profess his anger at those who want to live alongside him without succumbing to his norms, his religion, his practices—without succumbing to his demands.
Joining whites in a campaign of racism against Muslims will not garner us, as South Asians, as Indians, as Hindus, respect by those same whites. What I know is that that hatred against Muslims is not warranted. Every single religious group, whether Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, or Jews, has a wing of believers who are militant or radical. But the few don’t speak for the rest of their group, the many who are peace-loving and moderate. By joining in the hatred against another minority group, we betray the innocent, and increase the general hostility towards all minority groups, including our own.
It’s time to stand up to the ignorant bullies, whether American, British, or Australian, or French, or German. It turns out that the above remarks cannot be attributed to Julia Gillard. Still, I don’t doubt that they have been uttered aloud in many places in the world by whites, whose ancestors have been in that country for fewer than 200 years. And I don’t doubt that they will be used again—if not against Muslims, then against you and against me. Isn’t it time to stop standing with racists to harass others who, but for their turbans, beards, hijabs–but for their background—are just like us?