Category Archives: Diaspora

Films on South Asian Muslims and Islamophobia in the Diaspora

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Written by Randeep Singh

In much of post-9/11 cinema, a “Muslim” is someone whose identity is defined fundamentally in terms of religion rather than nationality, culture, class or ethnicity. Indeed, South Asian Muslims in post-9/11 American cinema are usually portrayed either as religious radicals or terror suspects in films like The War Within (2005) or as exhibiting a bipolar Muslim disorder in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).

Thankfully, there have been attempts to understand the more nuanced shades of South Asian Muslim diaspora identity. In The Muslims I Know (2008)Mara Ahmed speaks with Pakistani Muslims in upstate New York on questions of cultural identity and being American while also interviewing others on what they think of Muslims.

Films from the U.K. have also tried to portray the experiences of South Asian Muslims humanistically. One such film is Yasmin (2004). The story of a spunky, young British girl from a Pakistani family in West Yorkshire, Yasmin (played by Archie Punjabi) is forced to choose her identity after the Twin Towers come crashing down.

Another film is Bradford Riots (2005), a film about Karim (Sacha Dhawan), a young university student also from northern England. When Bradford burns in riots during the summer of 2001, Karim finds himself on the wrong side of the mob and the law.

The third film, Brick Lane, is the story of Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a young woman who moves from Bangladesh to East London. The film looks mostly at her life against the backdrop of her family and the British Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets, before and after 9-11.

With respect to identity, Yasmin and Karim are the British-born children of working class immigrants. They are, at most, “Muslim” in an ethnic sense. Like many from working class backgrounds, they are tough, proud and street smart. Yasmin wears a hijab when she has to but otherwise lets her hair down. Karim has his white mates at college and dosses around with his boys back in the pool halls of Bradford.

In contrast, Nazneen is a first-generation immigrant who came to England to get married. Her memories are those of the paddy fields back home with her sister as she adjusts to her life in England and to raising a family. She prays to God, but writes to her sister more often.

There’s a difference in how these characters experience racism and Islamophobia. Yasmin and Karim are labelled Muslim by a society and system. Karim is sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the Bradford riots, raising the question of whether he received a fair trial at a time of such heightened racial tension and the public call for retribution.

Yasmin meanwhile is detained on suspicion of harbouring a terrorist in her husband. Not having gone to the mosque in five years, she is given a copy of the Quran in prison and told which direction Mecca is in. Having suffered taunts at work, she is subjected to the gaze of a police constable who threatens to charge her for withholding information which she doesn’t have.

In Brick Lane, Nazneen’s lover, Karim bears the brunt of racism and Islamophobia. After facing harassment from racist gangs, Karim and starts holding meetings on how the local Bangladeshi community can defend itself after 9/11.

For Yasmin, Karim and Nazneen, being Muslim is only part of their larger identities which are based on culture and nationality. The Bradford riots and 9/11, however, make Karim and Yasmin themselves and whether they’re different after all. Whereas Nazneen takes her religion for granted, for Karim and Yasmin, the Muslim part of their identity is something that won’t let them be.

 

Previews:

The Muslims I Know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PPBbIzq_0E

Yasmin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mjzg1PC0QjM

Bradford Riots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJYBX64PdV8

Brick Lane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hbd7m00oW6c

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Filed under Cinema, Diaspora, Islam, Randeep Singh, Religion, Uncategorized

The Beef with British Bank Notes

beef-note

 

Written by Randeep Singh

Hindus in the United Kingdom recently grew outraged over the Bank of England’s decision to issue a new £5 bank note. The note apparently contains traces of beef fat.

The Hindu Forum of Britain called the note “totally and utterly unacceptable.” Locally incensed Hindus have since been joined by Sikhs, vegetarians and vegans in petitioning to have the chemical content of the notes changed.

The Hindu Forum opposes the note on the grounds of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion protects one from interference from or coercion by the state in religious belief or practice. It does not require a government, however, to change its otherwise secular policies to accommodate religion.[1]

What would happen to Hindus if they came into contact with the bill? Would they be violating their religion? Haven’t they come into contact with beef-fat chemicals before in plastic shopping bags or in the leather soles in their shoes? Haven’t they sat next to someone eating beef in a school canteen or at a pub?

I don’t believe that the Hindu abstention from beef is a religious practice. It is a caste-based practice. Millions of Hindus in India eat beef. [2]  The Rig Veda and the later Vedic literature provide evidence that ancient Hindus did so too. [3]  When Hindus later abstained from eating beef centuries later, it was largely because it was deemed a “polluting” food eaten only by outcastes.[4]

In law, British Hindus are citizens who enjoy the same rights to freedom of religion as any other citizen. To ban the note does not promote equality or religious freedom: it promotes a sense of exceptionalism to the rules, encourages others to follow suit, and sanctions all sorts of practices in the name of “religion.”

 

Notes

[1] This happens where religious beliefs or practices compromise other freedoms like freedom of expression (e.g. the blasphemy row over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). It also happens where accommodating a particular religious belief or practice amounts to preferential treatment of that community.

[2] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/%E2%80%98More-Indians-eating-beef-buffalo-meat%E2%80%99/article16085248.ece.

It is often said the cow is sacred to Hindus because it provides milk, manure etc. Shouldn’t the cow then be sacred in all societies where it provides those goods?

[3] http://www.countercurrents.org/ambedkar050315.htm

[4] Hinduism borrowed the practice of vegetarianism from Jainism and Buddhism which were the dominant religions in India at the time.,

 

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Filed under Diaspora, Randeep Singh, Religion, Secularism, Uncategorized

Don’t Cry For Punjabi

tragedy

 

Written by Randeep Singh

We hear about the “loss” of Punjabi, the “tragedy” of how Punjabi is not taught in schools in West Punjab, of how Punjabi youth speak only Urdu, Hindi or English in Lahore or Chandigarh. “Imagine the sound of Punjabi and the rich cultural heritage it boasts,” writes Affan Chaudhary, “lost forever.”[1]

If there’s a tragedy, it’s the idea that the demise of Punjabi has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more one believes it, the less likely one will do anything to reverse it and the less likely that anything will change in any positive respect, least of all the feelings of doom and gloom.

I am not denying Punjabi faces challenges, but the circumstances suggest a more balanced view on the question.

First, Punjabi is neither an “endangered” nor a “vulnerable” language.[2] While it may not enjoy national or official status like Hindi, Urdu or French, neither is Punjabi an endangered or vulnerable language like Basque, Corsican or Gaelic all with less than one million speakers.

Punjabi is in fact one of the world’s most spoken languages with its number of speakers ranging from 80 to 110 million.[3] The total number of Punjabi speakers moreover has been increasing, not decreasing, since 1951.[4]

Second, rather than compare Punjabi to Urdu and Hindi, it would make more sense to compare Punjabi to languages like Gujarati, Pashto and Telugu with which its shares a similar legal and official status. What does the experience of these languages have in common with Punjabi? What initiatives have such languages taken in promoting awareness and education in one’s mother tongue in ways which can help Punjabi?

Third, few languages have proved so culturally vibrant in India, Pakistan and in the diaspora as Punjabi. Punjabi has historically dominated the film and music industry in Pakistan thanks to icons like Noor Jehan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan raised the profile of Punjabi poetry through his musical performances. And Punjabi MC’s bhangra/dance track “Mundiyan To Bachke Rahin” topped charts in the UK, Italy and Germany and crossed over into hip-hop collaborations with Jay-Z and Timbaland.

We could add the growing popularity of Punjabi through Sufi Rock, Coke Studio and Bollywood. The point is that any discussion on Punjabi needs to count its achievements and opportunities along with its setbacks.

So don’t cry for Punjabi just yet.

[1] Affan Chaudhary, “I Speak Punjabi but My Kids Might Not,” in Express Tribune (March 16, 2012): International Tribune: :://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/10622/i-speak-punjabi-but-my-kids-might-not/

[2] UNESCO defines an endangered language as one which children no longer the language as a mother tongue in the home; and a vulnerable language as one which is spoken by most children but whose use is restricted to certain domains like the home.

[3] Ethnologue lists Western Punjabi (Lahnda) and its various dialects as the 11th most spoken language with 82.6 million speakers with an additional 28 million speakers of Eastern Punjabi. The Swedish language million speakers, the Swedish language encyclopedia, Nationalencyklopedin (2007) lists Punjabi as the 10th most spoken language in the world with 102 million speakers.

[4] http://www.statpak.gov.pk/depts/pco/index.html

 

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Filed under Culture, Diaspora, India, Language, Pakistan, Punjabi