Racialization and Racism

Sharia, Sikhs and the Racialization of Islam

Jagmeet Singh at a speaking event in Canada

Jagmeet (Jimmy) Singh Dhaliwal (pictured) is a Canadian politician who represents the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Matlon in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. From 2015-2017 Jagmeet served as deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party. He is also the first turban-wearing Sikh to sit as a provincial legislator in Ontaria.

Jagmeet made headlines in a Huff Post Canada article which covered his recent “Jagmeet and Greet” events. During the meeting a woman interrupted him to yell about his “sharia.” Specifically, she stated, “When is your sharia [Islamic law] going to end?” and “We know you’re in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

As noted above, Jagmeet is a Sikh. The Sikh religion is not the same as the Islamic religion. Sikhs are not Muslims, but the woman was not religiously literate enough to know the difference.

Jagmeet defused the situation by telling the audience, “We don’t want to be intimidated by hate. We don’t want hatred to ruin a positive event… Let’s show people who we would treat someone with love.” He made no mention of the fact that sharia and Sikhism are not related.

The woman who confronted Jagmeet conflated religion and race such that Jagmeet’s physical appearance became the inherently defining criterion of his perceived “Muslim identity.” The visible Islamic archetype of the “brown, bearded man with head covering” became attached to Jagmeet, despite his Sikh faith. In essence, his racial and ethnic identity transformed into religious differences. He “looked Muslim” and had to speak on behalf of sharia.

As I highlighted in a recent peer-reviewed article, “The Racialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, Hate Crimes and ‘Flying while Brown,'” it is hypocritical to say that Islamophobia is a simple consequence of “rational disagreement” with the tenets of Islam, rather than xenophobic distrust of people who look different from “normal” people.

Jagmeet Singh’s experience makes sense when we recognize how Islamophobia falls on Sikhs. For example, in September 2001, Balibar Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside of his Mesa, Arizona, gas station by Frank Roque, a U.S. citizen who told law enforcement that he wanted to “kill a Muslim” in retaliation for the attacks on 9/11. Sodhi’s case is one of many recent hate crime incidents against Sikhs.

The conflation of Sikhs and Muslims shows how shallow Islamophobia can be. Jagmeet is not even a Muslim, but he did not even have to be a Muslim in any theological sense to be singled out for an Islamophobic confrontation. What matters in Jagmeet’s case is how he looks and whether his race is conflated in a negative way with Islam and thus sharia.

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