Written evidence submitted by Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal (OHC0020)

 

Terms of reference

Written evidence is invited on, but need not be restricted to, the following issues:

 

Sikhs: mistaken identity and race hate crimes.

Before addressing, the consequences of, and responses to race hate crime it is important to provide the Committee with some general instances of racist and religious discrimination that Sikhs, irrespective of age, have been encountering in the UK and in US after 9/11 due to their visible Sikh identity (e.g. wearing a turban), and also recently in mainland Europe.  

National and global events have the potential to trigger short-terms rises in racially motivated hate crime, and Sikhs have been a target of such attacks following 9/11, 7/7, the Manchester Arena bombing (May 2017) and the EU referendum in 2016. Instances of race hate crime gradually declined after a period following these events.

 

A few US examples

September 11 2001 (9/11) irreversibly transformed the landscape for Sikhs in the West particularly in the US. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 discrimination against the Sikh community rose sharply and has continued unabated ever since.

 

A few UK examples

The backlash against Islamic extremism after 9/11, 7/7 and attacks in Paris (January 2015, November 2015, and April 2017) meant that Sikhs in the UK have also became victims of an Islamophobia backlash in the UK. There have been numerous verbal and physical assaults on Sikhs in Britain, but also attacks on Sikh places of worship.

Individuals

 

Buildings

At the Shri Guru Nanak Gurdwara and Sikh Community Centre in Thornaby, Middlesborough, vandals sprayed ‘White power,’ ‘Death to Allah,’ and ‘Die Muslims Die’ on the outside wall. This graffiti demonstrates a devastating combination of hate and ignorance.

 

The Turban Identity

The predominant reason for the rise in such attacks against the Sikh community is the male Sikh identity, especially of turban-wearing males.

Amritdhari (initiated) Sikhs and even Sikhs who are not initiated have a very visible identity through their hair and turban, which make them targets for discrimination. Initiated Sikhs have to wear the five Sikh articles of faith (5Ks): Kesh (long hair covered by a turban - dastaar), Kara (steel bangle), Khanga (wooden comb kept in hair), Kachera (white shorts) and the Kirpan. The 5 Ks represent a commitment to universal justice, equality, and helping others (seva). Amritdhari Sikhs (initiated), or Sikhs who maintain some of the external religious identity have been particularly vulnerable, because the Sikh dastaar (turban) and kesh (unshorn hair) which has been confused with Osama Bin Laden’s kaffiyeh (headdress) and beard. The Sikh turban has been transformed from a sacred piece of religious attire to a target for discriminatory conduct and an object of marginalization after 9/11, which has meant the increased ‘anti-Muslim’ sentiment in the West lead to Sikhs becoming the ‘silent and invisible victims’ of bigotry (Abel, 2005; Blee, 2005, Hanes and Machin, 2014).

In the last decade, most recently since the EU referendum of June 2016, we have also seen initiated Sikh women wearing the turban be racially attacked. Sikh women who do not wear the turban have also been victims of abuse, such as Suman Kaur in February 2018. However, the narrative on the gendered dimension to Sikh Race Hate crime is not as strong as that within the Muslim community and attacks perpetrated on women wearing the Hijab/Burkha.

 

Impact of Race Hate Crime

The majority of offenses range from verbal abuse to harassment, to physical assaults and criminal damage, and many of these offenses go unreported. There is little empirical research, however, on how Sikh victims of hate crimes address this and are impacted by it.  This is something that my co-authored book, titled Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience, to be published by Routledge, addresses.

From research, but also from reports in the media, it is evident that Incidents normally take place when the victim is alone or is accompanied by just a few others. Whilst some victims are resilient, and will not let such incidences have an impact on them, there are others who may suffer mental health issues arising from hate crime victimisation. The psychological impact, can be both personal and can be extended to relatives. There is psychological and emotional hurt, which gives rise to feelings of fear, vulnerability, anger, and depression. Some of our respondents also highlighted how attacks can lead to behavioural changes both as coping responses to the most recent attack and as attempts to avoid potential future victimisation. The impact may result in them changing their appearance; they may be fearful of going out on their own, or for their family members to go out; and finally there may be an element of withdrawal from life, particularly socialising.

For example, one turban-wearing man told me that when going out shopping or to town he will not wear his turban, but will cover his hair with a baseball cap. One young woman who was verbally abused when wearing a turban told me that after the incident she decided not to wear it anymore.

Some respondents commented on how they had stopped going out, or when they did go out, they did so in a group because of the feeling of vulnerability and helplessness. It was stressed that even if there are people around them they may not help, and a lot of respondents highlighted how when they were attacked, whether, physically or verbally, people just watched and did not offer help or assist. The hurt felt by the lack of support was highlighted by a young female Sikh who said she felt ‘invisible, alone and isolated when actually there were many people around me’

Physical abuse does happen, but it seems that it is not reported to the police unless the attack is very serious and results in serious or life changing injuries. Details of physical abuse are shared just with the closest circle within one’s family/community. Some respondents to my research highlighted how they did not report a crime due to a loss of faith in the police and legal justice system. They felt, that unless you were Muslim, Jewish or LGBT, police did not take race hate crimes seriously, or that there was an unwillingness by people in authority to recognise racist motivation. The reclassifying of racist attacks as something other than a race crime, and an overly strict interpretation of the legal provisions on racist motivation means many perpetrators will not be prosecuted. This perception, as a result, has had a negative impact on reporting of such incidences.

 

Government and Police

The focus of UK government action has largely been on ‘Islamophobia’ and anti-Semitism. The government has historically funded an anti-Muslim hate crime monitor, Tell Mama, and supports British Jews against rising anti-Semitism. Whilst there is support for the Abrahamic faiths, the Dharmic faiths have felt ignored because crimes against them were incorrectly logged as Islamophobic crimes. A victim is recorded as having been targeted for anti-Muslim sentiment based on the ‘perception of the victim’ or ‘any other person’ – as shown through FOI by Hardeep Singh, many non-Muslim are therefore recorded as victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’, by forces like the MET police. In January 2016, it was revealed that 28% of victims of ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ recorded in 2015 were in fact not crimes against Muslims but comprised of Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and victims of no recorded faith.   Hence, they remain invisible in official statistics and media reports.

This invisibility of the Sikh community is also reflected in the governments focus on the Abrahamic faiths in their Action Against Hate Report (2016), the UK government’s four-year hate crime action plan, which focused on Muslims and Jews, and no reference to Sikhs or Hindus who had encountered race hate crime. This has in effect marginalised the Sikh community, who have struggled to have their voices heard.

The Sikh community itself has long recognised the growing problem, and have campaigned for separate recording of anti-Sikh hate crime, and in February 2017 the Home Office announced Sikhs and Hindus would receive some support in reporting hate crime via the Police sponsored site True Vision. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) also confirm that all police forces in England and Wales will be reporting on religious hate crime according to religion, and this will include the Sikh faith - will have to disaggregate their hate crime figures by religious hate crime from April 2017. In April 2017, Sikh groups launched Sikh Aware UK – a portal feeding into True Vision.

On numerous occasions I have been asked whether it really matters if something is or is not labelled a hate crime, and my response is yes, it does matter because the pain, anguish and trauma felt by someone who has suffered an attack needs recording correctly, so that measures can be put in place to curb the problem.  

 

Media

Media coverage of race hate crime against particular communities appears to be increasing in the UK, especially after the 2017 terrorists’ attacks and EU Referendum in 2016 with its ‘antiforeigner/immigrant’ rhetoric. The current focus is on the Muslim and Jewish community. What is less well discussed in media is anti-Sikh hate crime in the UK, when it is clear that Sikhs are targets of racial violence because of their distinct religious clothing, the turban, but also the racialization of identity. This invisibility in the media of attacks against Sikhs can lead to an unintended consequence of Sikhs not reporting race hate crimes because they feel that people are not taking them seriously.

The most recent physical attack was on the EcoSikh Director Ravneet Singh outside of Parliament on 21 February 2018. Although it has certainly raised the profile of the wider implications of anti-Muslim hate against non-Muslims, the government’s hate crime policy, as outlined in Action Against Hate (2016), remains inadequate.

Hate speech continues to be a serious problem in tabloid newspapers and on social media, which has provided anonymity and allowed the rise in the expression of hate. Receiving written threats creates an overall sense of insecurity and dread.

It is imperative that social media providers, such as Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube police and monitor their own content. Social media companies talk about using algorithmic solutions to reduce harmful content, but as noted at Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress (10-11 April 2018) technological solutions are not the only answer. Instead, more investment in employing people to monitor their sites for inappropriate material is needed, including the ability to immediately remove these sites when detected or reported.

When material that is clearly anti-Semitic or Islamophobic the public needs to see the social media providers, but also police and Crown Prosecution Service, taking action. Last year the CPS announced that online hate crimes will be treated just as seriously as offences committed in person, and it will be interesting to see if this does happen. Hate crime incidents, whether in person or online have to be dealt with robustly and victims supported. 

 

Religious Literacy

Education

We live in a super-diverse UK, which is made up of people from different religions, beliefs and cultures. Although, we welcome the diversity what is clear is the lack of knowledge and religious literacy about all these communities. Schools need to teach about different worldviews that make up modern Britain, and professionals who write and speak about the country should have a basic understanding of that diversity. A lack of religious literacy means ignorance that might lead to misunderstanding or even bigotry in the future.

Religious Education needs to be more robust, and the recent changes to the GCSE curriculum with only two faiths needing to be studied, is only going to add to the growing religious illiteracy about some of the smaller faiths, because it is evident that most schools will focus on the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity/Islam; Islam/Judaism or Christianity/Judaism).

Community Activism to raise religious literacy

Educating non-Sikhs about the Sikh faith and getting them to experience it at first hand has become a theme for many Sikh organisations. In response to Ravneet Singh’s case, the Sikh Channel organised a ‘turban tying’ day in parliament on the 28 March 2018. This follows on from similar initiatives by American Sikhs to help raise awareness about the Sikh faith and identity amongst Americans through producing documentaries on TV channels. This is something that the BBC should consider given its commitment to religious programming.  Having documentaries and programmes about people of other faiths can help correct misconceptions and allow viewers to experience the perspective of the ‘other’.

Children Faith Schools

Many Sikh children, whether initiated or not, have been subjected to racial abuse because they look different. Boys, who may be initiated or not, are bullied because of their turban and long hair, and girls for their bodily hair. The boys long hair is tied up in a bun at the top of the head, and is called a joora, it is then covered with a patka (cloth) if they are below the age of 10 and a turban if over. This means that young Sikh boys look different, and are called names such as ‘egg head’ or ‘top knot’. Young Sikh girls have also started wearing turbans now.

Stories of bullying in schools do not become public knowledge because they are dealt with in-house (school).  However, many Sikh families have members or know of young Sikhs who have gone through it.  One of the rarely reported stories in the media particularly stands out as an example of the tragic consequences of bullying.  In 1996. Vijay Singh was a 13-year-old boy from Manchester who attended a predominantly white school took his own life due to racism and bullying. Racist bullying of young Sikhs still continues today, primarily due to their distinct identity, however most cases are either dealt with improperly, or remain unreported.

While some young Sikhs can withstand such bullying and discrimination, and indeed claim to be strengthened by their experience, the majority will and do go through an identity crisis and feel the need to eliminate cultural and religious markers that invite prejudice and discrimination. For example, whilst it is common to see young boys at primary school wearing a turban or patka (head-covering covering their long hair), it is not that common in secondary schools. By then the bullying and challenges have made them question their identity and religion and many, to fit in with society’s norm and to stop being misidentified as Muslims in particular, cut their hair.   This was discussed in the recent BBC documentary My Turban and ME.  Sanjeev Kohli’s mother discussed how she gave her sons the options to cut their hair because she saw boys remove the turban off Sikh boys and play football.

This discrimination in state schools is also a contributing factor to why members of the Sikh community have opened Sikh Faith Schools. They argue that having a Sikh faith school provides a safe place for young Sikhs to practice, learn and become strong in their religious identity. However, it could be argued that faith schools in general, compound the problem of religious and racial divisions even further. Segregating children can deepen ignorance about the ‘other’ and may well be pushing the experience of discrimination to later years.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is vitally important to recognise that race hate crime occurs outside the much-publicised and recently very topical Islamophobic and anti-Semitic spheres. Indeed, it is also crucial to understand how cases of mistaken identity (for example, mistaking a Sikh for a Muslim) can occur, an issue covered in detail in my forthcoming book, Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience. Sikh men, because of their brown skin, uncut beards, and turbans, have become victims of their distinct physical identity. The turban and beard motivates the perpetrator who has little knowledge or literacy about the Sikh articles of faith; the symbolic clothing and identity, in their eyes, is synonymous with Islam and the biases associated with that community and religion (i.e. terrorists). Until recently the Sikh community was invisible in the accounting of race hate crime, but it is hoped that now that the community is taking action to raise awareness about reporting within the community, but also reporting it to police, so we will get accurate recording and investment in resources to tackle the problem. Since this awareness campaign, there has been an increase in the reporting of hate crime, which, while it is to be welcomed as hate crimes were traditionally underreported across the UK, it is also worrying.

 

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies

Department of Theology and Religion

University of Birmingham

 

May 2018


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