From times immemorial, aristocrats in a society have distanced themselves from "others." However, with the complexities of modern society, a simple us-versus-them is not enough -- we now have a hierarchy of otherness. In today's society, however individualistic it may be, self-worth is still measured by presumed proximity to the top and contempt for the bottom. These hierarchies are readily enforced with high-intensity media, replete with experts and commentators who are relentless in helping us rearrange our prejudices. Traveling through Europe as a non-Muslim Indian, secular really, I find myself caught up curiously in this vortex of pre-assigned hierarchy.
Allow me to elucidate using this non-secular experience with some history. Following the end of World War II, fueled by technological progress and a need to rebuild, Europe experienced a period of unprecedented economic growth that led to labor shortage. To fill this hole in low-paying industrial and manual labor sectors, the former colonialists of Europe turned to their previous colonies for cheap laborers. During this time, many Indians, bereft of opportunities at home, turned to the U.K., hoping for a good life for themselves and better lives for their children. However, when they arrived, immigrant Indians faced harsh discrimination, violence and fire bombs. Immigrant Indians became the instant bottom among "others." Regardless of their origin, Indians were called "Pakis" -- a lowly status reserved for the worst. However, during my recent travels to the U.K., my experience was quite different. Indians have managed to elevate themselves above Pakis, who are now a distinct group by themselves and also apart from the Bangladeshis, to the point that even Indian immigrants in the U.K. are now referring to the immigrants of Pakistani origin as Pakis. This made me wonder, what had changed?
You do not have to look very far for the answer. Turn to newspapers, and there is constant talk of homegrown terrorism, pictures of women in abaya as symbols of oppression and constant coaching by both mainstream media and tabloids on how to perceive Muslims -- experts warning about disenfranchised Paki youths and tabloids celebrating Muslim women who have "broken free." This commentary did not agree with my observations. I found Muslim men and women to be family-bound. I also did not find any Muslims among out of control, disenfranchised British youth high on drugs and alcohol who are too ready and willing to engage in violence. While boarding a train at the Manchester train station, one of them even tried to pull me out of the train while uttering expletives -- one of the scariest experiences of my life.
The victimization of Muslims in Europe is all too real. During the Bosnian Genocide and Kosovo War in the 1990s, over 200,000 Muslims were massacred, 50,000 Muslim women were raped and 2.2 million Muslims were forced to flee their homes, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. These brutal actions were taken in part of an "ethnic cleansing campaign." In a 2009 referendum, Swiss voters approved a ban on new minarets on Muslim mosques. Minarets neither pose a threat to the national security of Switzerland nor disrupt the pristine beauty of the Swiss Alps. The ban is narrowly targeted towards Muslim places of worship. The tower-like shikara of Hindu temples or the dome of the Sikh Gurudwaras are exempted from this ban. As a person of Hindu heritage, I do not find any solace in this exemption. This past April, France implemented their ban on the niqab, a full face-covering veil. In a study titled, "Are French Muslims Discriminated Against in Their Own Country?", it was found that in the work force, Muslims have only a 2.5 percent chance of receiving a job interview compared to others.
These prejudices are also harbored by minorities. In a private conversation, an Indian restaurant owner in Southern France related, "In India, like in France, most of the problems are because of these Muslims." This led me to wonder, that what if the majority of the immigrants in Southern France or elsewhere in Europe were Hindu Indians instead of Muslims? Will I receive the same accord? Do Europeans resent Muslims because of their practices or their numbers? The experience of early Indian immigrants clearly shows that British did not have any love for Hindu immigrants; it is just that disdain of Muslims now is greater. Is this rearrangement of prejudices governed solely by the numbers or judged by actions such as terrorist attacks?
As journalist Fareed Zakaria recently noted in CNN, "Of the 294 terror attacks committed in Europe in 2009, only one was conducted by Islamists. That's a third of one percent. There were 249 terror attacks in Europe in 2010. Only three of those attacks were carried out by Islamist terrorists. Again, that's about one percent. Most of the attacks were carried out by the separatist groups or anarchists." Statistics have made it clear that the laws targeting Muslims in Europe are not based on terrorism. What then, other than the liturgical unison of the media, can explain the cabalism that generates the hierarchy of otherness?
However, in the history of immigration, there are remarkable parallels with North America. In the late 19th century, when the Italian immigrants arrived on the shores of America, the previous hostility to the Irish shifted to the new immigrants Are we witnessing the same? Have the Indians moved up a notch in the hierarchy of otherness in the European milieu?