Racism New and Old
Editorial page, The Statesman September 8 2006, www.thestatesman.net
When Iraqi Sunni terrorists killed 11 Pakistani and three Indian Shia pilgrims on the same bus to Karbala the other day, they did not check passports or wait to hear discourses from their victims about the validity of Jinnah’s Two-Nations Theory or the RSS’s views on Akhand Bharat and Bharat-Mata. All Indians and Pakistanis of whatever religion are pretty much “Hindis” to the average Arab. If Pakistanis (much to their own chagrin) are indistinguishable from Indians in many Arab eyes, Hindus and Sikhs are (much to their own chagrin) indistinguishable from Muslims in many North American and British eyes. Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Religion Writer (and whose own splendid ethnicity may appear obvious to us from his name), reports Paul Silverstein, an American anthropologist, saying “Muslims are the new Jews… They are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with Muslims.” Kuruvila says: “The Muslim caricature has ensnared Hindus, Mexicans and others” across the USA “with violence, suspicion and slurs”, giving new form to America’s “age-old dance around racial identity”.
The subcontinent’s Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others are from pretty much similar racial populations, so when we wish to distinguish ourselves from one another as we tend to do on the subcontinent, we wear turbans, beards, long hair, veils, bindis etc ~ symbols about which the average New Jersey “dot-buster” or British “Paki-basher” cares not a hoot. London last year even saw Jean Charles de Menezes, a young Brazilian electrician on his way to work in the morning, pinned down by an elite squad of Britain’s much-vaunted policemen and receive seven bullets point-blank in the back of his skull ~ merely for having “looked Asian”.
Subcontinental immigrant families in the West experience a defining moment when the wife first bobs her long hair and takes to wearing slacks, skirts or even shorts, just so she can leave home and assimilate better in the workplace or shopping mall. The saris, salwars and real jewellery are kept for the weekends when she meets people who will understand her as herself, namely, her friends and kith and kin in the immigrant community. When salwar or sari-clad women start fake-kissing one another in Western-style greeting at those weekends, the alternation of their identities (and confusion in their self-knowledge) may have become complete. A limiting point of such attempts at assimilation is reached perhaps when an Asian woman becomes a BBC or CNN newsreader, reading what she has been told to yet still narcissistically indulging in the extent of her external transformation.
Muslim-Hindu differences of religious and cultural beliefs and practices between racially similar peoples may be contrasted with the main fault-lines that have existed in Western societies in recent centuries: fault-lines of race and colour between European and African, and of race and religion between Jew and Gentile.
An eminent American legal scholar once said African slavery had been “the living lie” in America’s official heritage of democracy and individual freedom. Black America took one hundred years from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Martin Luther King Jr., to begin to overcome the impossible odds against it. Sports, music, show-biz and the arts were obvious arenas for public demonstration of individual genius. Athletes like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Arthur Ashe, musicians like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt, “in-your-face” satirists like Sammy Davis Jr, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy upto and including modern rapsters and many thousands of others demonstrated that Black America was not going away anywhere, certainly not returning to Liberia, was going to stay in and permanently alter American life and culture, and wondered if anyone thought otherwise. The degree of assimilation into non-black cultures would be a matter of personal choice, not social or economic compulsion. During the Bush invasion of Iraq, Harry Belafonte re-ignited an old controversy when he referred to his fellow West Indian and perfectly assimilated Colin Powell in context of the “plantation slave”/”house slave” dichotomy: plantation slaves were externally oppressed but felt free within while house slaves had more comforts but were docile compradors inside their souls.
Immigrant communities from the subcontinent have had their share of the same. It has been all too easy for young people to reach academic highs in New Delhi or Kolkata only to escape to obscure corners of America and lead docile subservient unfulfilling lives forever afterwards, in exchange for material and ultimately meaningless rewards. It might be called the Madhuri Dixit Phenomenon of being transformed from celebrity-status in India to becoming a complete unknown in America.
The Jewish-Gentile divide in Western civilisation has been more insidious and damaging to mankind, and potentially remains so as the anger it generates has been transferred onto modern Muslims instead. At its unspoken roots is the frank Jewish theological assessment that Jesus of Nazareth was at most a wise and honest rabbi, not Christ Immanent ~ a veracious blow that seems to remove the corner-stone of all European culture and civilisation. The length of mutual recriminations and miscomprehensions as well as self-deceptions and cruelties over the millennia that have resulted on both sides, remains endless. On the Christian side there has been the vile persecution of Jews for centuries. On the Jewish side, there has arisen the vast myth that today’s Israel has something to do with the ancient Hebrews, when contemporary Jews likely descend mostly from the conversion to Judaism of the Khazar Khanate in the second half of the 9th Century (see e.g. Paul Meerts, “Assessing Khazaria”, International Institute for Asian Studies July 2004). In between Jewish and Christian self-deceptions and mutual misunderstandings has arisen Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and also Anti-Zionism (many thoughtful Jews having opposed the creation of Israel). As George Eliot, Hannah Arendt and many others noticed, the assimilation of 19th Century Jews into elite society in Vienna or London was only permitted where some exceptional individual genius was displayed, most prominently perhaps in case of Benjamin Disraeli who became Victoria’s Prime Minister. Even that acceptance of assimilated “exceptional” Jews came to disintegrate into the horrors of the 20th Century, from which we are yet to recover. Modern American foreign policy has been partly driven by the East and West Coasts’ understanding or misunderstanding of that history.