The British Conservative Party co-chairman, Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, recently made headlines by claiming that prejudice against Muslims has become normal and “socially acceptable” in British society.
She is absolutely correct when she complains that the media engages in “superficial” coverage of Islam by simple-mindedly labeling Muslims as either “extremist” or “moderate.” She is further correct to assume that anti-Muslim sentiments have been rising on both sides of the Atlantic, especially since September 2001.
However, there are some aspects to this issue that neither the Baroness nor many other public figures have yet addressed – and that is the fact that many (perhaps most) Westerners simply make no distinction between Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; or even much of a distinction between Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs or Iranians.
We are all seemingly lumped in as one nebulous “foreign” group that is kind of an impenetrable monolith.
As a person of Indian Hindu origin myself, I have been mistaken for a vast array of nationalities and ethnicities – some of which were downright laughable.
It’s not entirely due to malevolence either. Some of it is just due to an innocent kind of ignorance or a lack of education.
On the other hand, some of it is indeed fuelled by fear and/or bigotry of anything “foreign” (especially during terrorist incidents).
If, say, a white Briton is bigoted, he probably hates Pakistani Muslims, Indian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, and Arabs equally (even though Muslims receive the overwhelming majority of negative coverage in British media these days). He doesn’t stop to ask someone who “looks Muslim” if they are indeed followers of Islam before he expresses any abuse or disdain towards them.
Interestingly, in recent years, The British National Party (BNP), an extreme right-wing political group in the UK which seeks to deport all non-white immigrants from Britain, has tried to make some amends by reaching out to Hindus and Sikhs since they all allegedly share an antipathy towards Muslims.
This was an extremely fascinating and cynical ploy by the BNP to further cause a rift within Britain’s polyglot immigrant community – but for what ultimate purpose was unclear.
It didn’t really succeed, but the attempt indicated that someone in the BNP actually made a distinction to which I alluded to above (but most likely for less-than-noble purposes).
With respect to the UK, the vast majority of Muslims there are from Pakistan, Kashmir or Bangladesh. In stark contrast to Sikhs and Hindus in the country, Muslims are disproportionately under-educated, poorly-housed and under-employed. Many Sikhs and Hindus (who are among the wealthiest and best-educated people in Britain) are indeed themselves bigoted against Muslims and would be aghast to be mistaken for one.
While, say, Hindus and Muslims have waged endless hostilities against each other for centuries in India, those enmities mean nothing in the U.S. or Britain.
Moreover, no matter how wealthy or “Westernized” an immigrant from South Asia is, there is always some bigoted, ignorant person in the U.S., Britain or Europe who will automatically assume he or she is a “Muslim” (the current media bogeyman) and attach the worst attributes to them. In airports, this is particularly true.
During the dark days after 9/11, this misidentification had some tragic consequences. Some people in the U.S. and U.K., most notably Sikhs (who ironically are historic enemies of Muslims) were physically attacked and even murdered simply because they wear turbans like Osama Bin Laden (a Saudi Arab) does.
But one doesn’t even need to wear a turban to attract this kind of negative attention.
Perhaps the Baroness should use her high position to address the broader subject of what it really means to live in a so-called multicultural society at this point in history -- that prejudice against Muslims is actually a mask for prejudice against many many other people as well.