The way forward is to not hit ‘Forward’

By:  Arun Venugopal

They’re emails I’ve received on numerous occasions. You probably know the type: They paint a dark and ominous picture of Muslims, perhaps swarming into the streets of some glamorous Western city in order to pray. Alternately, the messages speculate that a Bollywood star like Shah Rukh Khan is in fact a closet jihadi.


Gabriella Ayoub brings a flower to protesters across the street from her temporary mosque in Temecula, California. July 30, 2010

One that I’ve received on at least three occasions suggests a direct link between the number of Muslims in a population and the level of chaos and repression in that country. Moral of the story: Keep the Muslims out, or be prepared for the consequences.

By and large, these are rumors, hoaxes and casual acts of defamation that I’ve received from Hindu acquaintances and family members, people who are educated enough to know better but can’t resist clicking the ‘Forward’ button.

Indirectly, these same people are helping foment an anti-Islamic climate in the West, the same climate that may have resulted in the killing of Sunando Sen last month. Sen, a middle-aged New Yorker and a Hindu, was allegedly pushed onto the subway tracks by Erica Menendez, who reportedly told investigators she hates Muslims and Hindus and blames them for the World Trade Center attacks.

This comes just weeks after another, less-publicized attack, on a 70-year-old man in Queens who was first asked if he was Hindu or Muslim. And then of course there was the shooting at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left half a dozen Sikh Americans dead.

Because of notorious incidents such as the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi right after the September 11 attacks, the Sikh community has been well aware of how racial bigotry works: The way it lumps people together and targets individuals without any regard for their individual actions or beliefs. How for some people, something as innocuous as an article of clothing, a particular skin tone or a last name can justify a physical attack.

I worry, however, that many members of the Indian-American community are not as conscious of how these things work, or are even willfully ignorant. Fortunately, some community leaders are speaking up.

“I do think that South Asians generally are collective victims of anti-Muslim bigotry,” said Aseem Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation. “Our ethnicity, our names and appearance do not always distinguish one from the other. My name, Aseem, has Arabic equivalents; that gives me regular insight into the travails of a Muslim man. The prevalent religious illiteracy in this country accentuates the problem, as anyone who is not Christian, or perhaps Jewish — and happens to have a higher skin melanin content — is lazily conflated with Muslim, or the ‘other’.”

In the instance of Sen’s killing, a lot remains unclear. For instance, do Menendez’s reported remarks represent a clearly-thought-out bigotry against Hindus and Muslims, or is she delusional? How much could the political climate have influenced her actions?

I turned to several mental health experts to gain insight. While some cautioned that it’s too early to say what prompted the attack, most suggested that even people with mental illness can serve as mirrors of the prevailing social environment, in which mosque burnings and vandalism take place.

“A person with a mental illness can become engulfed by his or her delusional world,” said Razia Kosi, a social worker in Maryland who heads CHAI, Counselors Helping (South) Asians/Indians. “If this delusional world is reinforced and encouraged by the nondelusion or ‘sane’ world for their hatred, stereotyping and violent thoughts, then they can become fixated on the delusion and carry out actions that are in their mind, because of the mental illness.”

Vagdevi Meunier, a clinical psychologist in Austin, said that in the past, she would encounter patients in hospitals who had delusions related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency, or to Russians — it depended heavily on what was in the news at that time.

“So it is not outside the realm of possibility,” Meunier said, “that someone suffering from schizophrenia which includes a delusional thought disorder might latch on to the current feared group of people in our society which are terrorists. And most often terrorists are associated with India and Pakistan because of a mistaken belief that people with turbans or beards are from that part of the country.”

As Neha Navsaria, a psychiatrist at Washington University, told me, “the anti-Islamic climate can support a healthy individual’s rational and biased beliefs or validate a delusion experienced by an unstable person, all adding up to greater risk of victimization for South Asians.”

South Asians are thus in this collectively, and efforts to minimize attacks — against Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus like Sen — need to be shared.

Shukla said, “Hindus must fight against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Sikh violence, Hindu hate and all such violence with accurate education beginning in schools,” and a push for proper tracking and prosecution of hate crimes by the Department of Justice.

Another step, said Kosi, is to support groups like South Asian Americans Leading Together and the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations — groups that actively work to include ‘all South Asians in the US.’

This is unlike the efforts of some Hindu organizations, who pointedly invite Jain, Sikh and Buddhist groups to some gatherings I’ve attended, while keeping Christians and Muslims at arm’s length.

The final step, I’d argue, is the simplest: Take those ridiculous, misleading e-mails that come your way and instead of clicking ‘Forward,’ press ‘Delete.’ Better yet, hit ‘Reply’ and tell the sender that he or she isn’t doing anyone — Hindu, Muslim or otherwise — any favors.

Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. A former India Abroad staffer, has been with the radio station since 2005

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