Today we have a guest article from Priyanka Vashisht. Priyanka is an undergraduate student, 21, majoring in Political Science and English with a minor in Asian-American Studies. International woman of mystery and connoisseur of social network narcissism.
In the past few weeks, I have become more and more wary of what I perceive as an increasing widespread paranoia concerning Americans of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. I will term these people, for the purposes of this piece, as “brown-skinned Americans” — because they have become targets of racial paranoia based on the color of their skin (this is not to dismiss any Latinos who identify as “brown-skinned”, because the racism Latinos face is a different one altogether). At first, I wanted to attribute this realization to perhaps my own paranoia, but the recent events of the past few weeks make apparent that Islamophobia is thriving, and, as a result, Brown America is being senselessly attacked and victimized in even more prominent ways.
After 9/11, Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds have been scapegoated and ostracized in our everyday lives under the presumption that they are “dangerous” and possible “terrorists.” Brown-skinned Americans have endured, at best, hostile glances, and at the worst, brutal violence in the name of “protecting” the nation. After more than a decade, it has been the hope of many brown-skinned Americans and our friends, that the demeaning rhetoric and senseless attacks would eventually cease, assuaged by greater tolerance and understanding of our cultural backgrounds. There are more than 1.5 million Arab and Middle-Eastern Americans and almost 4 million South Asian Americans in this country (not including Caribbean people of Indian descent) – and these people hail from different cultural backgrounds, religions and social values. After more than ten years after 9/11, not much has changed, as hate crimes remain common and show a pattern of racial paranoia. The word “Muslim” is associated in popular culture with a variety of aesthetic identifiers, including beards, turbans, headscarves, and of course, brown skin, despite the fact that there are Muslims of varying ethnicities and skin tones. As a result, peaceful and law-abiding Brown Americans live in the constant phobia of being ostracized, brutalized, and marginalized due to false stereotyping and mistaken identity. The demonization of the word “Muslim” throughout much of America has created a culture of fear among Brown Americans: because that guy who looked at me in that strange way on the train may just react violently towards me, my family or my friends if I, a “Muslim” angers him.
The pervasiveness of this stereotype has been reflected on a national scale in the recent weeks. Mainstream news has covered the recent demand by House Representatives to investigate Huma Abedin and other top-level Obama administration associates for ties with “radical Islam”; the shooting of a Sikh gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and the recent arson of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri. Huma Abedin, despite being a devoted public servant and married to pro-Israel democrat Anthony Weiner, was suspected for propagating the agenda of “The Muslim Brotherhood”. Fifty Muslim families have no place to congregate for prayers during the month of Ramadan after an arsonist burned down their mosque in Joplin – a second, and successful, attempt at razing the facility to the ground. The Sikh gurdwara shooting by a white supremacist has left six innocent civilians dead. All of these events were put into place by white Americans who believe that the threat of “radical Islam” is highly pervasive in American society. Many of these individuals articulate their belief in a conspiracy by the “Muslim Brotherhood” to infiltrate American government and society. For them the solution, of course, is to slander hard-working Brown Americans in prominent positions, destroy their places of worship, and even murder them – so “radical Islam” will not spread, and, in theory, those “Muslims” will have no place to congregate.
In lieu of these recent events, I began to wonder when exactly the word “Muslim” began to be used as a pejorative term, and why.
I am an Indian American, I have had a traditional Hindu Punjabi upbringing, and because my place of origin in India is the region where Sikhism was born in the 1400s, my family’s religious tradition is tied with certain tenants of Sikh tradition. I spent many occasions during my childhood at the gurdwara, and can speak Punjabi fluently. When the shooting occurred, I watched the ethnoreligious confusion unfold on CNN with disgust, horror, anger, and a measure of absurdity. At one point, an anchor declared that Sikhism was not a tradition under Islam, but a sect of Hinduism – and through this (very ignorant) declaration, belittled Sikhism’s entire ethnoreligious history – all while ironically making an effort to diffuse ignorance (Sikhs are as much Hindu as Lutherans are Catholic… even less, actually). Shortly after, I watched a Sikh American declare that the shooting was a case of “mistaken identity” and that “we are not Muslim”. Too often, the answer of many Brown Americans to the Accusation of Islam is, “I’m not Muslim”. This declaration is a knee-jerk and highly defensive reaction – but which innocent human, of any creed, deserves any form of senseless violence? Which practitioner of what faith deserves to be gunned down in the sanctity of their place of worship? The response “I’m not Muslim” does nothing to protect against the onslaught of violence perpetuated by racist ideals. It does nothing to alleviate the evils of misunderstanding and ignorance. It throws our Muslim brothers and sisters under the bus so that the rest of us can run for cover despite being targeted for our brown skin. In short, clarifying our identity in order to escape immediate harm does very little to address racism.
I have seen much of my brown-skinned brethren deal with the culture of fear created by Islamophobia in different ways. The primary solution will always be to help inform and educate others as much as possible in order to eradicate the social evil of racism. However, I implore that all Muslims and Non-Muslims alike realize that we are a part of a larger marginalized community, because racists don’t recognize anything but for brown skin and funny-sounding names. I implore that all of us, of all skin tones, faiths, and non-faiths, stand by our fellow humans in our commitment to eradicate bigotry, and exercise our humanity by realizing that we are a part of a greater global community in need of social justice. As recent events have shown, the most damning weakness lies in fear – the fuel of supremacists, racists, and bigots – while there is strength in solidarity.