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Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Obligation of Sikhs and Hindus to Muslims After 7/7 and 9/11

On Monday, The Guardian (UK) featured an exceedingly fascinating article, written pseudonymously by Shivani Nagarajah, on British Sikhs and Hindus. Nagarajah's article, entitled "Mistaken Identity," addressed the difficulties facing British Sikhs and Hindus, and the attempt by some to separate themselves from British Muslims in order to avoid harassment and discrimination.

Nagarajah notes with respect to the backlash after the July 7, 2005, attacks that, "There's been a huge focus on the impact on Britain's Muslim community, but the plight of Britain's 560,000 Hindus and 340,000 Sikhs has been largely ignored." This despite the fact that the first reported hate crime was against a Sikh and there have been numerous other discriminatory incidents involving Sikhs and Hindus. Indeed, Dal Singh Dhesy, argues, "The turban-wearing Sikh community is under siege." Nagarajah notes that Dhesy "experiences name-calling and stares from white people on a daily basis, and describes other Sikhs facing physical attack and intimidation."

The explanation as to why Sikhs and Hindus are targeted, according to Nagarajah, is quite simple: "your average hate-crime perpetrator isn't going to stop and ask what religion you are before attacking you - or even care, for that matter, about such distinctions." Thus, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims have all been subject to hate crimes and other discriminatory acts in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, seemingly because of their physical appearance and superficial resemblance to Muslims.

As a result of this apparent aesthetic similarity, Sikhs and Hindus have attempted to distinguish themselves from Muslims. For example, as Nagarajah describes, Sikhs are wearing stickers and t-shirts that read "Don't freak, I'm a Sikh." In addition, after being verbally abused, Ishvar Guruswamy, a Hindu, was told by his sister "to shave off his beard and wear a large crucifix so no one would mistake him for a Muslim." Also, Mahendra Dabhi stated of certain Hindu students: "They felt that if they didn't differentiate themselves, they would be at risk of social stigma."

The question becomes whether the intentional differentiation is morally justified. Tariq Modood, professor of sociology at Bristol University, believes that Sikhs and Hindus distancing themselves from Muslims is "selfish." According to Nagarajah, Sikhs themselves are divided as to the moral efficacy of drawing a line between the faiths: one reportedly said, "We need to think of ourselves first - let the Muslims take care of themselves," while another reportedly disagreed.

This debate is identical to the one that took place in the United States after September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, some Sikhs in the United States, myself included, began to discuss how we should respond to the backlash and protect the Sikh community, as they were suffering the brunt of the backlash. Combating ignorance through education was, of course, of utmost importance. While we wished to inform others as to who Sikhs were and that the turban was a symbol of the Sikh faith, we ultimately did not want to send the message that, 'now that you know we are Sikhs, leave us alone,' and by implication 'going after Muslims is acceptable.' Thus, we settled on a two-pronged approach: the first was more of an isolationist one, namely to educate and inform others about Sikhs and Sikhism; the second was to submit a broad appeal for tolerance, encompassing not only Sikhs, but Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and anyone else who may be perceived as a "terrorist." This is not to say that this two-pronged position is morally superior to the one that only attempts to draw a thick line between Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims.

[This entry is cross-posted on "IntentBlog".]

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