Facing the Other: Challenging Islamophobia within the South
In the nearly 10 years since September 11, progressive writers of color have written a great deal about Islamophobia and the U.S. wars against majority Muslim countries. A lot of this commentary has centered on white mainstream politics and the U.S. government’s flawed response to 9/11 encompassing the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq and increasingly Pakistan. But an often-overlooked topic is the persistence of anti-Muslim sentiment within our own communities, in particular among South Asians.
Many observers may be familiar with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from 1998 to 2004. The massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat was carried out with the implicit sanctioning of the party in 2002. In 2003 the BJP proposed an alliance among the U.S., Israel and India to counter threats of terrorism faced by each nation; this was code for the three governments’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy, and the equating of terrorism with Islam.
Beyond these larger geo-politics, the day-to-day structural injustices faced by India’s Muslim minority are less well-known. Indian-born MIT professor Omar Khalidi wrote in a major English weekly, “India is seen as a shining example of a secular state but in reality the Indian state actually privileges Hinduism over other religions and religious communities.” Khalidi went on to name constitutional discrimination, legislative discrimination and cultural discrimination as cases in point.
Khalidi’s arguments resonate with those of us working to eliminate structural racism in the U.S. Even then, anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. is sometimes conveniently classified as apart from general racism, even among people of color. The rationale is the need to address the real threat of terrorism. Yet it is simply the specific government- and media-sponsored definition of terrorism that implicates Muslims; violence carried out by anyone of Muslim descent is considered terrorism when other violence is not. A recent notable example is the utterly different treatment of Joe Stack compared to the Fort Hood shooting or would-be Christmas day bomber.
This otherizing of Muslims impacts our broader justice work. Former Representative Cynthia McKinney lost her seat in 2002 to the joint lobbying work of pro-Israeli government group AIPAC and conservative Hindus who faulted McKinney for supporting Arabs and Muslims. More recently, 11 students from a progressive Muslim campus organization were arrested to prevent them from exercising their right to free speech and protesting Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The Muslim-as-the-terrorist-other storyline fits neatly into silencing many progressive voices of dissent.
Beneath the surface of religious tensions lies a shrewd layer of economic reasoning. Religion has long been used by powers-that-be as a distraction to divide and conquer communities who might otherwise unite to defend common interests. In the U.S. similar divisions have been exacerbated vis-à-vis race, enabling the right wing to cleverly pick off impoverished white communities, leading them to vote against their own economic interests. A startling recent study provides the quantitative evidence for the economics of hate in India; authors from New York University find that periods of relative Muslim prosperity in India have resulted in increased violence against Muslims by Hindus.
I made this connection between economic justice and the politics of hate in my own life in recent years. Having focused primarily on economic justice work, the importance of tackling this issue did not rise above the fold for me until a recent trip to trace my roots. In July 2008 I traveled to Bangladesh and re-connected with relatives my predominantly Delhi-based family had not been in contact with for more than 50 years, due to the legacy of Partition.
The trip opened my eyes to many structural realities I had not yet grappled with: that Hindus are treated under a similar unjust economic and political structure within Bangladeshi society as Muslims face in India; that my own Hindu relatives can recount many stories bearing out this reality; and that we of South Asian descent have a long way to go to really grapple with all the issues we face between and across borders in South Asia and the diaspora.
Given the history of South Asia, there are thousands upon thousands of personal stories like this that illustrate the larger structural forces at work. True, the U.S., Britain and global North’s relationship with and exploitation of the differences in our communities is very real and requires addressing. Many have written extensively on the topic. But there is something to be said for engaging in anti-oppression work within our own South Asian communities, to hold each other more accountable.
Debayani Kar is Communications Manager at Applied Research Center/ColorLines magazine and a member of Bay area-based Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, or ASATA.