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Posts Tagged ‘Wade Michael Page’

Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.

(concluded)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

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“It’s not your country” spray-painted on the grounds of a Sikh Gurdwara in Fresno, CA (2004).

The history of Sikhs in America, it may appear to some, is bookended by violence directed at them.  News of the shooting on August 5th at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white gunman with pronounced neo-Nazi views shot dead six Sikhs as morning services were about to commence, reverberated throughout the United States and beyond.  It is reported that the gunman, Wade Michael Page, was an army veteran, had a tattoo commemorating 9/11, and played with the white supremacist heavy metal bands End Apathy and Definite Hate.  His motives remain unclear:  some argue that ‘hate crimes’ need no motive as such, as they feed upon a visceral fear of the Other, though many have speculated that Page mistook Sikhs for Muslims.  Mainstream American media organizations, such as CNN and Fox News, wasted little time in characterizing Page as an anomaly to ‘peaceful, mainstream America’, and deplored the shooting as a ‘tragic mistake’ perpetrated ‘against the peaceful Sikh community’.

‘What we call the beginning, T S Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘is often the end / And to make and end is to make a beginning.’  The end, not unexpectedly, ‘is where we start from’, but the end so often seems prefigured in the beginning.  Indians first started appearing in some numbers on the west coast of the United States and Canada around 1900:  though the majority of them were Sikhs, all Indians were commonly described as ‘Hindoos’.  I suppose we should call this a ‘tragic mistake’ as well.  Indeed, the US Immigration Commission of 1911 stated that, for purposes of immigration, Indians were to be labeled as ‘Hindus’.  If, in the old American adage about American Indians, the only good Indian is a dead one, the few hundred (Asian) Indians who had made their way to the US by around 1905 were seen as a menace to American society.  ‘Hindu Invasion’ was the phrase used by one Fred Lockley in the Pacific Monthly in May 1907 to describe the presence of turbaned Indians; a year later, the Overland Monthly would similarly speak about ‘The West and the Hindu Invasion’.  Eerily, the 9/11 –– in 1907, not 2001 –– edition of the Bellingham Herald carried a headline more than an inch thick, ‘British Columbia Threatens to Secede; Horde of Hindus Landing at Vancouver.’

This photo appeared on the first page of Fred Lockley's article "The Hindu Invasion" with the following caption: "A Group of Sikhs Who Have Just Arrived From the Far East."

This photo appeared on the first page of Fred Lockley’s article “The Hindu Invasion” with the following caption: “A Group of Sikhs Who Have Just Arrived From the Far East.”

Though the Sikhs who marked their presence in America dressed mainly in Western clothes, they were distinguished by their flowing beards and turbans:  the local press took to calling them ‘rag-heads’.  In the town of Bellingham in Washington, many were employed as lumbermen, much to the chagrin of white labor leaders who alleged that Indians had stolen their jobs and driven down wages.  On September 4, 1907, a large crowd of white men instigated large-scale violence against the Indians.  The Indians were driven out of the city; many were herded into the city jail, ostensibly for their own protection.  Three days later, the Bellingham Herald, in an article entitled ‘Bellingham Sees Last of the Hindus’, announced with evident pride:  ‘Entire Colony is Wiped Off City Map’.  The Asiatic Exclusion League would continue to agitate vigorously for keeping America empty of ‘undesirable Asiatics’, achieving this outcome with the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred nearly all Asians from the US.

It is of course Muslims, not Sikhs, who are today viewed as the undesirable hordes who have invaded America.  There is something grotesque in the argument that the shooting of the Sikhs at the Oak Creek Gurdwara was a ‘tragic mistake’:  if it was a ‘mistake’, a deviation from the right path, how could it have been any better to have killed Muslims?  Would Page have stood exonerated if his victims had been adherents of Islam?  The Oak Creek shooting raises so many profound questions, beyond those that have been raised about America’s endless fascination with guns, the nearly unfathomable influence that the National Rifle Association exercises in American society and politics, and the country’s subcultures of white supremacy.  Since Page turned the gun on himself in bringing the killing rampage to an end, should we not characterize him as akin to a suicide bomber?  Might that not be one way to ensure that we do not think of countries where suicide bombings have been taking place as strangely barbaric?  Had Page been a Muslim, is it not certain that he would have been immediately branded as a ‘terrorist’ and the country would have been deluged with calls to eradicate Muslim fanatics?

Less than two weeks after the Oak Creek massacre, SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) reported the murder of shopkeeper Dalbir Singh, a member of the Oak Creek Sangat who was not present at the Gurdwara on August 5th.  However well Sikhs have done for themselves, they occupy a liminal position in American society, indeed the world over.   At the turn of the century in America, around 1900, they were mistaken for Hindus, and in India itself Sikh secessionism has had much to do, from the 1920s until the movement for Khalistan that peaked in the late 1980s, with disputes over the precise nature of Sikh identity.  In the American imagination, one hundred years later, Sikhs have been conflated with Muslims.  Many Sikhs are bound to feel anxious, troubled, and perhaps even resentful, and will insist upon their distinct identity; some, doubtless, will hold on to the hope that an appreciation of their true identity will alleviate their distress.

The Sikhs have, throughout their history, been wonderfully energetic and marvelously receptive to new cultures.  They are, as well, an eminently diasporic people.  But what is most distinctive about them is precisely their liminality, even if they should wish to insist upon their distinctiveness.  The question, ‘Just who is a Sikh?’, is always lurking on the horizon; even their scriptures have an intricate relationship to both Islam and Hinduism.  Even as this liminality makes them vulnerable, it is the source of their greatest strength and wisdom.  As the world shows increasingly little ability to live with ambiguity and difference, the Sikhs must remain a beacon of hope to those who wish to resist the painful infliction of certitudes upon an ever greater number of people.

(First published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 25 August 2012).

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