‘Sikhs have been forgotten in the hate-crime debate’
Hardeep Singh on how Sikhs have been caught in the crossfire of post-9/11 hate.
Since 9/11, Sikhs in the West have been attacked, and in some cases killed, by violent racists. They have effectively been caught in the crossfire of anti-Muslim sentiment. Hardeep Singh, deputy director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, says this is one of the great overlooked parts of the hate-crime discussion. He sat down with spiked to talk about Racialisation, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience, a new book he has co-authored with Jagbir Jhutti-Johal.
spiked: What was your motivation for writing this book?
Hardeep Singh: I guess it’s a few things. I know a lot of people who have faced the reverberations of the post-9/11 environment. I had that firsthand experience of suffering a backlash, such as people mocking you, calling you ‘bin Laden’. I remember after the Boston bombings I was just walking in town wearing my rucksack, and three guys turned round and said ‘Don’t press the button!’.
But a lot of people in the British Sikh community had suffered serious consequences. And in America – as we explore in the book – it was far worse: there were revenge attacks where people were murdered. So the motivation for writing the book came from my personal experience, but also the broader experience of people in the Sikh community both here and in America.
spiked: What changed with 9/11?
Singh: Those images that were being transmitted across Fox News, of Osama bin Laden and his deputy with their turbans and flowing beards, were seared into the American consciousness. These were the guys that were responsible for the events. And therefore, when people saw someone with a turban and a beard, they associated those religious symbols and that image with the enemy. And the reality is, both in America and the UK, the majority of people who wear turbans and have long beards are Sikhs.
The term that we’ve used in the book is ‘mistaken identity’. This had real and serious consequences for Sikhs worldwide. But it has not really been recognised so far in government policy in the UK. So going back to your previous question, that was another reason why we felt it was important to highlight what has happened, and highlight where we think things need to change. We think that parity for people of all faiths and none should be where the policy should be.
spiked: Isn’t hate crime an unwieldy concept to begin with?
Singh: Yes, this concept of hate crime is, in some ways, problematic, because when someone burgles or robs someone it is not exactly a ‘love crime’. That’s the first thing. There are other people who face prejudice, like people with ginger hair and people who are elderly. People with glasses at school will get bullied. Difference motivates prejudice, and that could be seen to be the case across the board.
But our point is that the Sikh community, in terms of government policy and the broader discussion of hate crime, has been marginalised. For the book we did an audit of press reports about hate crime. In the first period we looked at — 2014 to 2015 — Sikhs weren’t mentioned at all. I think there was a vague reference to an incident in 2015, when there was an attempted beheading of a Sikh dentist in Wales by a guy who was influenced by National Action and Jihadi John. (It was a kind of revenge attack for Lee Rigby.) The media just referred to him as a young Asian dentist. So that just shows that even when Sikhs have suffered, they remain invisible.
spiked: Has it not been to the benefit of Sikhs that they are not often considered a ‘victim group’?
Singh: That’s an interesting point. There are a few things to this. When it comes to policy, lobbying, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. When the government’s plan for tackling hate crime, Action Against Hate, was published in 2016, Sikhs were barely even mentioned.
But I think the other aspect to this is about Sikh teaching. Even when we had a price on our heads under various tyrants in history, when a Sikh would meet another Sikh they’d say they are in high spirits to one another. Rather than bemoaning their predicament and the situation they were in, they would always be upbeat and optimistic. So I think it stems from a doctrinal attitude that we can trace back to our forefathers.
Sikhs have also integrated very well in Britain, and the Sikh community is often talked about in that context. In terms of the honours system, increasingly a lot of people within the community are being recognised for their contribution. And I think it boils down to values. Sikh values promote equality for women, equality for all. There’s a belief that we’re all part of one big family. The 10th Guru’s edict is quite unequivocal: recognise the human race as one. And these teachings, they are hand-in-glove with Western liberal democracy.
But regardless, what we need is a fairer approach to this particular area, and that applies to everyone. At the moment, as we’ve demonstrated in the book, the focus is very narrow, mainly on the Jewish and the Muslim communities. And understandably so. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of anyone else.
Hardeep Singh was talking to Fraser Myers.
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