America is exercised about the Gurdwara shooting. Having lived with hate crimes and gun culture for so long, it is unable – or unwilling – to consider naming one of the root causes of the violence: religious bigotry.
Many Americans like to think of their country as a Christian nation (many Republicans, born-agains, neocons, evangelical groups). In the name of religious freedom they have inadvertently encouraged hate groups and provided a cover to intolerance. However, there is a strange reluctance even in the liberal media to name this climate of religious supremacy as being critical to the breeding of intolerance.
In India, we routinely blame Hindu militancy on organisations like the Sangh parivar; we blame madrasas and hardcore Islamic groups like Lashkar and Simi for engendering jehadi violence. But Americans are unable to come to terms with the fact that ultra-right Christian groups could be fanning intolerance in fringe groups and individuals like the one who killed Sikhs in a Gurdwara in Wisconsin.
Consider the issues and causes as thrown up in media discussions so far.
It is speculated that the killer, Wade Michael Page, could have been part of a white-supremacist group. But a white supremacist need not have chosen only Sikhs to target – there are Afro-Americans, Indians, Chinese and scores of other non-white people settled in America who could have been chosen to vent you spleen on – apart from emptying your bullets into their defenceless bodies. Is the term “white-supremacist” code for white, Christian jehadi?
President Obama had this to say: “If it turns out, as some early reports indicate, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple, I think the American people should immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes.”
Question: what if it turns out that Page’s violence did not have anything to do with the ethnicity of the Sikhs in the US, but their religion or Page’s? Should the American people not then “immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes?” Attitudes stemming from racist and religious bigotry?
The Washington Post reckons that Page’s act has sent a buzz around many internet groups that support or empathise with his cause. “The attack jolted Internet message boards trafficked by white supremacists, some of whom urged more, similar actions. SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors radical groups on the Web, reported Monday a flurry of activity on racist message boards, including one thread exhorting the community to “stop talking and start doing.”
Again, the reference is to “white-supremacists” – WASPs without the sting of the P. The white supremacist is presumed to act only on racist biases, not religious.
The Gurdwara shootings have also generated a side debate on gun culture – the easy availability of guns in the US. Since the second amendment to the American constitution says that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”, the gun lobby continues to rule. It is also a Democratic versus Republican party issue – since broadly more Democrats favour controls on gun ownership than Republicans. In an election year, Page is a good issue for Obama to beat the Republicans’ support for gun culture with.
However, once again this issue is a red herring. Page was not successful in killing six innocents because of favourable gun control laws. No law can stop bigots and people who think they are being swamped by “others”. In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in July 2011 by bombing government buildings and going on a random shooting spree. Norway has a far more peaceful political climate compared to America, and also has better gun control laws than the US – but it still created a Breivik.
Gun control can prevent casual murders driven purely by temporary emotional instability, but it cannot prevent hatred driven by burning intolerance and insecurity.
Breivik’s cause, incidentally, was to fight “the Islamic colonisation of Europe” and “multi-culturalism”. He is, in many ways, a white, Christian jehadi. His idea was to create a Knight Templar force along with like-minded people to “liberate” Europe from Muslims. The Knights Templar were Christianity’s original jehadis backed by the church formally in the 12th century to fight the advent of Islam. Luckily for us, Breivik left a huge anti-Islam literature that does not allow us to label him as mere white-supremacist. He even envisioned Hindutva militants as possible allies in his cause.
Now let’s connect the dots in the Gurdwara shooting and see where it leads us.
In the US, Sikhs are often confused for Muslims and the Taliban due to the turbans they wear. If Page was similarly confused, or decided that the distinction didn’t matter to his kind of violence, how can we rule out the possibility that white supremacy is often driven by religious bigotry as well? Or is it the other way round?
Let’s also see what Page was all about. He belonged to music bands that purveyed hate music and violence. A New York Times report quoted Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (which tracks some hate groups) as suggesting that Page’s music was all about religious and racist intolerance. “The music that comes from these bands is incredibly violent, and it talks about murdering Jews, black people, gay people and a whole host of other enemies.” Clearly, religious bigotry and racism go together for some fringe elements.
In the Gurdwara killings, if we add the possibility of Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims, the Christian dimension in Page’s thinking cannot be ruled out. Let’s see if this dimension is borne out by available evidence.
According to a New Yorker blog, Page’s body had many tattoos, including one with 9/11 emblazoned on it. 9/11, for many born-again Christians and Right-wing elements in the US, has been a call to war against Islam. George Bush talked of a “crusade” against the terrorists soon after 19 Islamic fundamentalists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. He corrected himself later when he realised the symbolism of the word crusade – religious war.
The New Yorker blog by Amy Davidson also notes that the Southern Poverty Law Center had “published a picture of Page wearing what seem to be suspenders with a confederate-flag pattern and standing in front of Nazi iconography, and identified him as the lead singer in a band called End Apathy, associated with the white-supremacist scene.”
The blog records this: “One can also see a tattoo in the picture: a Celtic Cross, with a “14”—a number that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, is also a white-supremacist symbol that refers to a 14-word slogan: ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.’”
More interesting is what the New York Times had to report on how the FBI got criticised by conservative groups when it tried to track Right-wing fundamentalism of the white, possibly Christian, kind. NYT says: “In 2009, conservatives in Congress strongly objected to a department report titled Rightwing Extremism, which speculated that the recession and the election of a black president could increase the threat from white supremacists.” (Shades of our own concerns about Saffron terror or Islamic terror?)
Adds NYT: “Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, withdrew the report and apologised for what she called its flaws. Daryl Johnson, the homeland security analyst who was the primary author of the report, said last year that after the flap, the number of analysts assigned to track non-Islamic militancy had been reduced sharply.” Homeland security has obviously denied the report – but how can one discount Johnson’s point that the US does not like to acknowledge that it may have homegrown white jehadis who are not Muslims? Non-Muslim in the US does not mean Hindus or Sikhs, but Christians.
After a decade-and-more of Islam-bashing, Christian America and Europe are still to recognise that they have a home-grown terrorist fringe that draws from white-Christian insecurities about Islam and other religions.
The white-supremacist, Christian jehadi is the elephant in the tent that the western establishment has been unable to bring itself to recognise as a reality. Whether it is Breivik or Page, the fundamental source of their bigotry is probably rooted as much in their religion as in race – though no one is willing to call this spade a spade.
In fact, it took a Bishop in the US to intuitively understand that religious bigotry could also be at work here. A PTI report quoted the chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Denis Madden, as offering condolences thus: “In this time of grief, we Catholics mourn with our Sikh brothers and sisters…The US bishops stand with the Sikh community and reject all violence, particularly violence inflicted out of religious intolerance.” (Italics ours)
A Bishop is able to intuitively suspect that religious bigotry may be at work here, but the media and the establishment is unable to see the connect between white-supremacist/racist and Christian fundamentalism.
Just as some Hindus are unwilling to accept that there are extreme fringe groups that may have embraced terror (as in the Malegaon blasts), the US may be unwilling to acknowledge Christian religious insecurity and bigotry as the cause of violence in fringe groups.
Hence the need to dismiss this massacre as “white-supremacist” or racial or ethnic violence.
We do the same here, when we dismiss the Assam violence as ethnic instead of acknowledging that there may also be a religious angle to it – the Muslim settlers from Bangladesh.
Political correctness will prevent societies from grappling with the real issue of religious bigotry that lies at the root of many such massacres. We cannot anymore give religion a free pass.