The Violence of White Supremacy

Only 16 days after the horrific shooting in Colorado, an ex-army white supremacist male opened fire in a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and killed six people. Aside from having another “and they call me barbarian” moment, my deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families. I pray that God gives them all the strength needed to heal through this difficult time. Ameen.

I don’t wish to appropriate the pain felt by the Sikh victims and families of Sunday’s shooting, but the attack on their house of worship angers and saddens me. On the same day of the attack, I was volunteering at my Mosque for iftari (Ramadan dinner) and it was quite troubling and upsetting that my father had to explain safety procedures to me in case a racist Islamophobe decided to open fire on us. We knew there was no doubt that the white man who murdered six Sikhs thought he was shooting Muslims — those who doubt this need to be reminded that, along with Muslims, Sikhs and other non-Muslim communities that fit white supremacy’s racialized profile for “Muslims/Islam” (brown skin, beards, turbans, headscarves, etc.) have been targeted in hate crimes motivated by Islamophobia for a long time, especially since 9/11.  As I have written several times on this blog, among the first victims of this violence was a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered just four days after 9/11 by a white man who mistook him for a Muslim. The murderer, Frank Roque, ranted in bars about how he wanted to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11th,” and upon his arrest declared, ““I stand for America all the way!  I’m an American.  Go ahead.  Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild.” According to official reports, Roque also stated the reason why he killed Sodhi: “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”

Wade Michael Page, the white man who unleashed terror on Sikh worshipers, was part of a “White Power” band and sung lyrics that called for a “race war.” As usual, the media fails to emphasize that Page’s violent racism is not an “isolated incident,” but rather rooted in the established order of white supremacy. As Andrea Smith contends, the third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of Orientalism, in which Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, South Asians, and other communities of color are marked as “permanent foreign threats to empire.” As hate crimes, discriminatory acts, vandalism, and other forms of violence against these communities continue to increase annually (in fact, a day after the Gurdwara massacre, a Mosque in Missouri was burnt to the ground), we also see violence from the state: NYPD-CIA spying on Muslims and infiltrating their neighborhoods, mosques, and schools; Obama’s “kill list” and signing of the indefinite detention bill; Orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries and relentless backing of Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestine.

It is violent, despicable, and utterly shameful how western mainstream media, including popular television and film, constantly vilifies and demonizes Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Over and over again, we see stereotypical, narrow, and racist depictions of these communities, and society fails to connect these gross misrepresentations to the harmful impact they have on real human beings. It is no wonder that the Gurdwara atrocity has not attracted as much media and national attention as other shootings – the media has already conditioned society to view “dark” and “turbaned” people as subhuman. Ali Abunimah reminds us about President Obama’s trip to India and how he “refused to visit the main shrine of Sikhism, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, because he did not want to be photographed wearing a Sikh headcovering and be confused for a Muslim.” How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed of themselves when they see the very people that they vilified and distanced themselves from attacked in such violent racist hatred? How do these politicians and media outlets not feel ashamed when hate crimes and discriminatory acts show that a human being is marked as a target when wearing the turban or the hijab?

It was upsetting listening to CNN making it a point to differentiate between Sikhs and Muslims, asserting that the former are peaceful while implying that Muslims are “violent.” The distinctions also suggested that an attack on Muslims would have somehow made more sense or been “understandable.” As many writers have argued, the differences between Muslims and Sikhs “misses the point.”  Deepa Kumar elaborates:

This is how cultural racism operates: anyone who bears the markers of the “enemy” must necessarily be guilty. For members of the Sikh community, this bizarre attitude is baffling. Some have gone out of their way to insist that Sikhs are not Muslim and should therefore not be targeted in these ways.

Yet, the horrific murders in Wisconsin should teach us that racism is about the dehumanization of an entire group of people: It is the worst kind of guilt by association.  If the Sikh community is not to blame for the events of 9/11, neither is the Muslim community.

It’s infuriating how there are still forces that try to divide Muslims and Sikhs, despite the many similarities Punjabi Muslims in particular share with Punjabi Sikhs. When I watched interviews with the witnesses, I couldn’t help but think about my own Punjabi heritage. Although I am not Sikh, it is our South Asian culture that teaches us to address our elders as “Uncle” or “Aunty” out of respect,  regardless of what their faith is. Seeing Sikh elders – men and women I would call Uncle and Aunty – in tears brought me to tears. Hearing them speak in Punjabi made me think of my parents speaking in Punjabi, a language I read in poetry, a language I sing along to, a language that represents a cultural bond between Punjabi Muslim and Sikh communities.  It was a South Asian community, fellow members of our Desi community, that was attacked. Whether we’re Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.; whether we’re Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, etc., we shop with each other at the same Desi stores, we dine at the same Desi restaurants, we cook and eat similar foods, we listen to similar music, we watch the same Bollywood movies, etc. Although there is a history of Muslim oppression against Sikhs, South Asian Muslims and Sikhs share similarities, including names, language, culture, and reverence for the same poets and gurus (Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, etc.). When the media stresses on how Sikhs and Muslims are different, they fail to see these intersections.

Our differences are significant and important, but they do not pit our communities against each other. As Sony Singh writes in his article, “We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond”:

The roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Sikh community run deep in South Asia, from the days of the tyranny of Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb in the 17th century to the bloodshed in 1947 when our homeland of Punjab was sliced into two separate nation-states. Despite these historical realities, Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy.In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus.

[...]

What is it going to take for Sikhs and Muslims to join together in solidarity against the common enemies of racist harassment and violence, racial and religious profiling, and Islamophobic bigotry?… As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.

The Sikh musician, Sikh Knowledge, tweeted this important message after the Gurdwara massacre:

We cannot distance ourselves from each other and behave as if this is not “our problem.” We are all impacted by the systems of violence and oppression in many different ways, but our struggles are interconnected and we cannot afford to abandon anyone.Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus – all South Asians and all peoples – need to stand united against the oppressive workings of white supremacy.

8 thoughts on “The Violence of White Supremacy

  1. This is a lovely post. Thank you for writing it.
    I am for the right of any person to feel what they wish, no matter how bigoted and ugly such a sentiment may be, but to act on such hatred is an abomination especially if rooted in ignorance. I have a difficult time understanding how anyone can feel justified in lashing out in ways that are so destructive – we’re talking lives here! – and I think this speaks to something even deeper in regards to how they view lives in general, that they must not possess much worth or worse that certain lives are more worthy than others. Astagh Firullah.
    We all have our prejudices, myself included, but at no point could I even imagine so easily taking a life (LIVES) on the strength of my prejudices, let alone commit other acts of injustice.
    What a sad world we live in where my hijab could make me a target. And I know if could because it has been my experience that people see my hijab and little else. Not my face, nor my accent or lack thereof or even the words that I am speaking. I, a 41 year old African American woman whose ancestors have likely been here longer than those of most of the white people I know, am the foreigner. I am the other.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Sorry for the late reply!

      I know, it’s awful how people of color are racialized. I can’t imagine what it feels like to feel like a target for wearing a hijab. May Allah protect us all.

  2. Another supremely on point post. I think this is such an interesting phenomenon, as a Latina of both European and African descent, and seeing the struggle between Afro-Latino and Black communities where I used to live, I always stopped to ask myself whether or not people on both sides realized our common ancestry, our common history of slavery. When so many of us look exactly the same and its only our language that differentiates us on a superficial level (obviously there are some cultural differences, but we actually share a lot too) I can’t help but wonder why we’re okay throwing each other under the racism bus thinking it’ll somehow save us from being run over by it. My heart goes out to you, South Asian culture is something very close to my heart because funnily enough speaking of course of what I saw in Nepal, it was like seeing the Dominican Republic in a different language and religion. Respect for elders, the reggaeton and bollywood mashups, the acting in our daytime TV (terrible but addictive), there was so much I was so happy to see was the same. After all, we’re all human beings, full stop. That should be enough for us to love, have compassion for, and take care of one another. ESPECIALLY in communities of color and other marginalized groups. Sorry, this was a really longwinded comment.

    • I’m sorry what a dummy I didn’t write that statement correctly, I meant my heart goes out to this community…Pfft, I should just stop pretending to speak English. Sorry!

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  4. Human culture is a wonderfully varied thing and I would hate, with pacifism and tolerance to detract from that, but it is a real sad state of affairs when people are unable to recognize that, culturally different as we are, we are ethically the same and worthy as humans in the same way. I am a white man, and I have privilege abounding but as a pansexual, slightly genderqueer agnostic I think I can express unassumingly my desperate wish that people would stop seeing the world as such an “us and them” affair. It really does bring me no end to tears that so many good, fine people have to suffer because another person (being in most ways good and fine themselves) views them as “the enemy”. I don’t want to be pessimistic but really, I can’t see any remedy. Anyway, inebriated as I am, your post gave me pause. Thank you, and for all I can apologize for other people’s wrongdoings, I am sorry.

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