The shooting of three young, Muslim students near UNC Chapel Hill has sparked a necessary moment of reflection for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It also stresses the need to understand that there are no distinctions among hate crimes: hate is hate — whether it is against gays, Jews, blacks, Muslims, or, for the discussion in this article, Sikhs.
Hate is hate — whether it is against gays, Jews, blacks, Muslims or Sikhs.
The Sikh American community had a float at the annual Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California, for the first time in history. Understandably, this was a great source of pride for the Sikh American community, and appeared to break barriers and create opportunities for recognition and understanding. However, the mainstream media, in its infinite wisdom, interpreted the Sikh American community’s rationale for participating in the parade as follows: Sikhs want people to understand that they are not Muslims. For example, see here, here, here, and here.
As a Muslim, this interpretation is deeply troubling to me, for a host of reasons.
First, it seeks a differentiation which, on its face, is oversimplified. This differentiation is premised on the idea that being Muslim is bad, and that to not be Muslim is good. This oversimplification corresponds with the mainstream media portrayal of Muslims. From Fox News to Bill Maher, it seems that there is a widespread perpetuation by the mainstream media of the idea that all Muslims are terrorists. Seeing as that there are over a billion Muslims in the world, this is painting with an uncomfortably large brush.
The mainstream media seeks to pit one brown person against another.
Regardless, the mainstream media has fully embraced this intensely prejudicial characterization. And they superimpose this characterization to interpret the conduct of Sikh Americans. To the mainstream media, the primary reason it would make sense for Sikh Americans to do this is because they want to differentiate themselves — they do not want to be seen as Muslims, i.e., terrorists. In other words, the mainstream media seeks to pit one brown person against another.
Second, the mainstream media’s sentiment of “Sikhs are not Muslim” creates an “us vs. them” mentality. It seeks to categorize Sikh Americans as “us” (westerners or Americans or peace loving folks), while Muslim Americans are categorized as “them” (foreigners or terrorists or jihadists). Again, this is an attempt to slice and dice the minority brown population. There is great danger in doing this, again, because of the breadth of this categorization.
Our nation has made similar mistakes before (see, for example, the Japanese internment). “Us v. them” is often a necessary concept during wartime (and our nation is at war with terror), but it is a concept that perpetuates fear and stereotypes. It is not nuanced, at all. And it leads to tragedies like the shooting at Chapel Hill.
There is nothing untrue about the statement that Sikhs are not Muslims. The statement is just as true as saying that Catholics are not Mormons, or that North Koreans are not South Koreans. The intention of the statement is not sinister, but the consequences are. It shames Muslim Americans.
Being labeled as Muslim should not be an accusation.
Sadly, for Muslims, this sort of shaming is not a new phenomenon. For as long as I can remember, the mainstream media has “accused” Barack Obama of being Muslim. Obama is not Muslim, obviously. But, what is unsettling is that labeling Obama a Muslim is an “accusation.” An accusation is; by definition, negative — it is a claim that someone has done something wrong or illegal. It automatically connotes wrongdoing. Being labeled as Muslim should not be an accusation because there is nothing wrong or illegal about being Muslim. You should not be shot down in a parking lot because you’re Muslim.
But, this is lost on the mainstream media. And, sadly, it conveys a very powerful message to the millions of Muslims in America — that Muslims should not expect to participate in public life; that Muslims are second class citizens; that being Muslim, all on its own, is a very bad thing.
I empathize with the Sikh American community. They have faced significant prejudice and harm, most horrifically with the Wisconsin temple shooting (which, oddly, was not included by Obama in his State of the Union list of horrific mass shootings). Almost all mainstream media outlets reported that the Wisconsin shooter attacked the Sikh temple because he thought the Sikhs were Muslims. That begs the question — would his actions have been justified if they were?
To the mainstream media, I request a reevaluation of your categorizations and demarcations. I request that you give some thought before you try to rationalize certain conduct by excusing it if was meant to be something else — meant to be towards Muslims. With the 24-hour news cycle, you should have plenty of time to be nuanced. Yes, we should absolutely condemn the attacks and prejudice that Sikh Americans have faced, but the key is that we should condemn those same attacks and prejudice when they are hurled at Muslims, too.
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Yusuf Ziddy is a Canadian born individual of Indian and Yemeni heritage with East African parents currently living in California. In other words, he is a self-sustaining melting pot. He is also a Muslim who cares deeply about issues regarding Islamophobia and the perception of Muslims in the west. As a father of two young children, he is deeply concerned that they will grow up in a country that despises them, for no other reason besides their religion, and he wants to do everything he can to prevent that. He is also an attorney deeply committed to the principles of the American justice system, and strives to make sure those principles of justice work in favor of all.