By Rachna Sheth, Silk Road Rising Marketing Coordinator
When Sikh American Inderjit Singh Mukker, father of two, left his home in Darien, Illinois,on a Tuesday afternoon in September 2015, he did not expect anything out of the ordinary to take place. He certainly didn’t expect someone to drive up next to him and start yelling slurs of ‘terrorist!’ and ‘Bin Laden!’ He didn’t expect to be approached on his driver’s side window. He didn’t expect to be beaten bloody until he lost consciousness. If this happened to you, how scared would you be? In September of 2015, Mukker told the Chicago Tribune, “This is my country. This is my home. I am an American.” To me, this is obvious. Why is it less obvious to so many Americans?
Fear is a normal emotion, especially in the face of inexplicable violence. Particularly since the terrorist acts of 9/11, Americans as a whole seem more fearful; it’s no surprise that they are looking for scapegoats. Our country has been hurting. The last decade has seen a high percentage of unemployment. So many businesses have shuttered. So many people are struggling, particularly in the working class. This resulting pain, along with the flames of panic fueled by political fear-mongers, feeds racism. Some Americans are so eager to pin their troubles on anyone and so desperately in need of a victory that they’ve made it easy for public figures to divide and conquer. Mix in resentment between the “haves” and “have-nots” and poof! Disuniting a people couldn’t be any easier.
Fear can become irrational and harmful. My parents understand fear. Fear brought my father from India to America over forty years ago. My parents grew up in the state of Gujarat during Hindu-Muslim riots. Penned in their family homes during police mandated curfews, they would come out to the aftermath and see what blood had spilled and who had been arrested. At its height, the violence of Hindu-Muslim riots has been likened to horrors witnessed during the Holocaust; this is nothing to aspire to.
In 1974, my father left everything he knew and everyone he loved to move to America, where he was greeted by a cold, midwestern winter. As a child, my parents cautioned me to be wary of Muslims; they weren’t to be trusted. I, on the other hand, found much in common with my Muslim classmates. We were brown and had unique names. We worked hard to prove ourselves. We had family values. Our communities served as a good support system, which came in handy with the pressures of adolescence in America. My parents eventually saw that my Muslim friends were smart and well-behaved and better role models for me than many other American kids. By the time I was in junior high, my parents started asking me why I couldn’t be more studious like my Muslim friends.
Long before he decided to come to America, Muslims robbed my father. On his way home from work one night, my father rode his bicycle through a predominantly Muslim part of town. Two young Muslim men accosted him. He handed over his watch and cash. They broke his bike, buying them time to distance themselves. When my father recounted the incident at work the next day, his coworker offered to have the men found and beaten in front of my father, if he wished. He did not wish. In the years since, when retelling this story, my father sometimes conflates the Muslim bike theft incident with another incident where a Hindu army officer—unable to read my father’s permit 19 to be in the streets during riot curfew—started to beat him with a baton. Having been raised as a Jain alongside Hindus, my father more strongly identified with their similarities. It was easier for him to demonize Muslims: they were the “other.”
Another thing I have in common with Muslims: we’re both targets of racism and Islamophobia. Violence and racism against South Asian Americans may seem like a recent phenomenon but it can be traced back to the early 20th century—that is how long some of our families have been here. Recently NPR reported that documented racism against Sikhs in America (then mislabeled “Hindoos”) dates back to 1907. Over a century later, we’re living in an America of our nightmares, where information is readily available to those who seek it but many Americans still clump Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs together, eagerly vandalizing mosques and temples alike. Is 109 years not enough time for Americans to learn about Sikhs and their culture?
We cannot afford to ignore the fear that surrounds us. America won’t magically get better. It’s going to take work, trust, and respect. It is crucial that Americans call out other Americans perpetuating hate and fear, particularly within white communities. We must all call out those who splinter our unity. We must stand up for our Muslim American brothers and sisters in Morton Grove and Des Plaines and Naperville and everywhere constitutional rights are being violated: they’re Americans, as much as you and me. We’re scared right now—my father was scared, too—but fear dissolves only by knowing Muslim Americans as people and understanding what Islam is really about. As much as my father wanted to believe that Jains and Hindus were different from Muslims, you cannot disentangle one from the other. They are entwined. The India he knew and grew up in would’ve been a different place without Muslims. Similarly, Muslim Americans contribute to and shape the fabric of America. It is important to be an ally right now, to stand behind them as Americans who are just as deserving and reflective of this country as anyone else.