Around four months ago, 12-year-old Armaan Singh Sarai and his parents moved to a suburb in Dallas, Texas and they enrolled him into the local school. They were especially worried about his future, as he had a condition that had already required three open heart surgeries.
Last Friday, another child at school made a joke about Armaan concealing a bomb. The school immediately called the police without even questioning him. They in turn put him in a juvenile facility without informing his parents, who only found out after he was late that evening and called the school. Their child spent three days in the facility.
When Armaan’s parents complained of excessive force, the local police blamed the pupils for making a joke and said they had to take every threat seriously. The episode only came to light after a cousin took to Facebook to express shock at the way the family had been treated and her post went viral.
Such incidents are being shared on social media with alarming regularity. On 3 December, another American Sikh, Valarie Kaur, was almost pulled off a flight after a man complained about suspicious activity while she was using her breast-pump. On the same day a Muslim woman in Boston, Massachusetts was taking the bus when a man shouted: “She has a bomb in there! Women are doing it too now, don’t you see the news?” She wrote on Facebook that she had to show her Harvard ID and computers to other passengers before they backed off.
To say this recent jump in hate-crimes is a predictable backlash to terror attacks is not the full story. What we are seeing since Paris is the unashamed expression of bigotry that has always bubbled underneath. These people didn’t become racist overnight, they just no longer feel the need to hide it. The atmosphere has changed and they feel liberated by it.
This is a resurgence of traditional racism, hiding behind a cloak of a new wave of Islamophobia. Racism is becoming normalised again, to the shock of Muslims and Sikhs in the west. Attacks against Muslims in London have more than tripled since the Paris atrocities of mid November, and the effects are being felt for Sikhs in the UK too. A fortnight ago, Raj Horner was sitting in Sandwell, Birmingham, Hospital A&E with her young daughter Caitlin. A woman walked in with her partner and daughter and exclaimed loudly that she didn’t want to sit by any “pakis”; staff had to intervene. Raj wrote about her experience on Facebook too.
When I say that this isn’t simply a backlash to terror attacks but the return of traditional racism, it sounds painfully obvious – but the point isn’t without controversy.
In recent years, a minority of British Sikhs have pushed the view that they should distance themselves from Muslims so they aren’t subjected to Islamophobia. The implication is that racists should harass Muslims, not them. After all, Sikhs may sport beards and turbans but they are a different religious group and entirely unconnected with radical Islamism.
Some British Sikhs have gone so far as to align themselves with the far right against the Muslim community in Britain. The English Defence League (EDL) had a Sikh spokesman and a Sikh division with 12,000 “likes” on Facebook. Even though the EDL’s long history of racism has been well documented, as recently as April 2015 the Birmingham-based Sikh Channel gave ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson an hour-long interview in which he freely ranted against Muslims. The new far-right group Britain First has followed a similar path, asking its followers to differentiate between Sikhs and Muslims.
Letting a racist minority pit Sikhs against Muslims is “divide and conquer” all over again. Thankfully only a small minority of Sikhs have fallen for the old British Raj trick. If minority groups are still suffering from hate crime after years of distancing themselves from extremist Muslims, then it’s obvious this is about racism not just Islamophobia.
When 26-year-old Zack Davies attempted to kill British-Sikh doctor Sarandev Bhambra in June this year, apparently in revenge for Lee Rigby, police found an abundance of neo-Nazi material at his house. That is the standard profile for those who commit Islamophobic attacks: they are not likely to care about the victim’s religion, but how they look. Hoping that racists can be deflected into attacking Muslims instead of Sikhs is neither brave nor effective.
Muslims, of course, are the ones bearing the brunt of this new tide of racism. In the last month alone, American Muslims have seen mosques vandalised, hijabis attacked, the Ku Klux Klan vow to take them on, and an increase in everyday threats against them. To a lesser extent – but in a similar vein – Sikhs face similar problems.
“We are absolutely seeing a spike in hate and discrimination against [American] Sikhs,” Simran Jeet Singh, assistant professor of religion at Trinity University, Texas”, told me recently. “The atmosphere is not horrible, and there are lots of good people out there. However, it’s a bit tenuous because our political leaders have emboldened people to act and speak on their racist ideas, and that is leading to increased violence.”
It’s not widely known, but perhaps should be more widely shared, that the first victim of a racist attack after the twin-tower attacks was a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi. Claiming recent attacks on Muslims and Sikhs are a predictable consequence of terrorism does nothing more than excuse racism in the West.