Category Archives: Religion

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

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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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Film Review: Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai

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Directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney

There was a time when Muslims and Hindus lived together in Muzaffarnagar. Their children played cricket. They celebrated Eid, Holi and Diwali. They worked the fields and sat on farmers’ collectives like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. The town was referred to as “Mohabbatnagar,” the city of love.

In September 2013, however, the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh suffered one of the worst pogroms in modern India’s history. Over 100 people (mostly Muslim) were massacred while more than 80,000 were displaced. Homes were wrecked, mosques were vandalized and dreams turned to dust.

In Muzzafarnagar Baaqi Hai, Sahwney probes the underlying causes of the pogrom. He shows how the BJP (and its agents) instigated the pogrom to win the general election of 2014 which brought Narendra Modi to power. The BJP was assisted in Muzaffarnagar by local Hindu Jats who used the pogrom to seize Muslim property, women and wealth.

Sawhney also unravels the BJP’s strategy in stirring up violence for votes. First, they turn Islamist terrorism into the new bête noire deeming Muslim youths as members of ISIS. Second, they revive the idea that Hindus have been “cheated” with election banners and posters speaking about “struggling” for Hindus. Third, they play on old anxieties of Hindu men about Muslim men stealing Hindu girls through the new “Love Jihad” conspiracy.

Those who survived the pogrom were put into camps. As Sawhney shows, however, the refugees failed to receive adequate provision for food or medical care. When it was discovered that over one hundred children died in the camps due to disease, the government has the camps bulldozed to avoid any unwanted scrutiny.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a difficult film to watch. Sawhney could have reined in the many threads in the documentary (such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union) for a tighter narrative and unity of theme. Still, in giving voice to the unheard and letting us enter their world, Muzaffarnagar triumphs.

 

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Ambedkar, Buddhism and Caste

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Written by Randeep Singh

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was one of modern India’s most remarkable statesman. He drafted the Constitution of India, served as the country’s first Minister of Law and led the Untouchables in his fight against the caste system.

Ambedkar singlehandedly revived Buddhism in India. On October 14, 1956, he converted to the religion, prompting the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of his followers. He created a new identity for India’s Untouchables, but he polemicized his interpretation of Buddhism in the process.

Ambedkar claimed that the Buddha did everything to uproot the caste system, but ignored the fact that the caste system remained entrenched in India throughout the Buddhist period (c. 268 BCE – 551 CE). He did not mention that the practice of Untouchability first emerged during this period. He gushed about how Buddhism gave India democratic parliaments with whip, quorum, resolutions, ballot voting and vote counting.

He inspires me nonetheless and I believe that Buddhism, as secularized political philosophy, can help undermine the caste system. It was the first religion to challenge the caste system by turning upside down the concepts upholding it. Its insights in this respect are interesting from a modern, secular perspective.

Buddhism is concerned with the end of suffering as a human problem.  Its primary concern is to promote human welfare and happiness. It holds that only humans can end their own suffering through moral action, self-discipline, and understanding. No God, divine being, black magic, superstition or astrological charts are necessary.

Humans are equal in Buddhism in the sense of being equally capable of achieving enlightenment. They are equally subject to one universal moral law (‘Dharma’) with moral obligations to one another such as to respect one another’s life, liberty and dignity. This contrasts to the caste system which differentiates laws on the basis of caste.

The Buddha recognized the existence of caste in his society. He exhorted his followers, however, to emphasize the cultivation of moral character as an indication of self-worth. Caste or rather class in Buddhism arise due to human expediency, not divine sanction: it is a matter of vocation, not birth.

Caste is not static either. Like all existence, individual or collective, it is subject to change, interrelated and composite and conditioned by many interdependent factors. The seasons come and go, empires rise and fall and ancient communities perish. There is no “caste” other than the conditions giving rise to it.

Lastly, Buddhism left an important secular legacy for India. It inculcated a more humane ethic in politics (e.g. the reign of Ashoka). It formulated a social contract theory of government. It established inclusive social institutions such as universities, monasteries, and hospitals. Its appeal to reason, ethics and its concern for human well-being, can enlighten India yet.

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The Good Muslim

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Dedicated to my dear friend, Haider Nizamani, who introduced me to the term, “house Muslim.”

KHIZR KHAN is the Uncle Tom of America’s Muslims.

The grieving American (Muslim) father at the Democratic National Convention, is now a proud spokesman for the Establishment.

Khizr Khan is a good Muslim. He is one of those Muslims who, in Bill Clinton’s words, loves America and freedom and hates terror. He carries the Constitution of the United States in his blazer pocket. He supports the U.S. army. He is a Gold Star father.

As a father, Khan can only have grieved for his son Humayun Khan, who was killed by a car bomb explosion in Iraq in 2004. His story reminded me of Lila Lipscomb in Fahrenheit 911, a once proud flag-flying American reduced to anguish at the death of her son who died in Karbala in 2003.

Lipscomb questioned the establishment. Khan embraced it. Lipscomb stood up. Khan sold out. He lost his son in a war which Hillary Clinton supported. If the Chilcott Inquiry in the United Kingdom is any indication, the Iraq War should never have happened. Men like Humayun did not just die in vain – they should not have been in Iraq in the first place.

Whether he meant to or not, Khan has become a racial pawn in a political game. He was picked by the DNC to win the Muslim vote, and to provide a model of the good Muslim for America’s Muslims. Just like the slave ancestors of African-Americans were bifurcated into the field negro and the house negro (e.g. like Aunt Jemima), Khan has become the house Muslim, loyal and privileged enough to live in the big house – so long as he knows his place.

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Lessons in Remembering

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The Gurmukhi reads “neither forgettable, nor forgivable”

“Never Forget 1984.” These were the words on a sign outside a Sikh gurdwara in Surrey. The sign was posted to announce the anniversary of Operation Bluestar, the Indian army attack on the holy Sikh precinct between June 3 to June 8, 1984.

Operation Bluestar has not been forgotten. It has been the subject of living-room chats, news coverage, documentaries, history books and gurdwara activities in the years since … so what is it we should never forget?

The gurdwara wants you to remember the cause of Khalistan (‘Pure Land’), a separate Sikh state. Khalistan though has become a “Khaalistan” (’empty land’). Its supporters are now mostly on the fringe. Many Sikhs have left India. Few desire another partition.

… I remember 1984. I just don’t want any part of it.

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Nanak Shah Fakir

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Written by Randeep Singh

In April 2015, Sikhs in India, UK and the United States, forced the withdrawal of the film Nanak Shah Fakir from cinemas. The film, a biopic on the founder of Sikhism, was objected to by Sikhs and Sikh organizations on the grounds that filmic representations of Guru Nanak are prohibited. I became aware that this film was banned just a few days back when I was speaking with an old acquaintance about the current state of cinema in India.

I doubt that the depiction of Nanak was prohibited given that there was no film in Nanak’s day, and given how he is depicted with abandon by Sikhs in paintings and images obviously not sanctioned by him.

Jesus has been depicted in films like The Passion of Christ. Muhammad has been depicted in films like The Messenger. Why prohibit films on Nanak? It is so that Sikh religious institutions, and members of the Sikh community, can maintain a particular, sanitized image of Nanak for themselves. They refuse to admit Nanak was a human being or anything less than divine.

Sikhs and non-Sikhs should welcome films and literature that furthers understanding of historical figures like Nanak. Surely the life of the subcontinents great historical personalities – whether Nanak, Amir Khusrao or the Buddha – deserve to be known better.

The director of Nanak Shah Fakir, Sartaj Singh Pannu, stated in November last year, that he would release the film with amendments. It makes me wonder just what protestors in cinemas like those in Wolverhampton found so objectionable in Nanak Shah Fakir? The refusal to conform to officially standardized representations of Nanak?  The nerve to ask questions? Surely, Nanak, someone who in the traditional accounts, traveled far, encountered new ideas and debated vigorously against religious leaders, still has a lesson to teach to today’s self-appointed guardians of faith and culture.

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