In the early hours of Saturday morning on the 5th of April 2014, the English Defence League (EDL) posted a rather odd Facebook image. The image depicts a Sikh couple holding a placard that reads, ‘We are Sikhs we are…CIVILISED. PEACEFUL (and hated by Muslims too.)’
Immediately, something looked out-of-place, and a quick search revealed the truth. The image originates from a stock photo site under the banner ‘Portrait of a Sikh couple showing a blank placard.’ But the EDL did not create this image as it first appeared on another ‘counter-Jihad’ blog in 2012.
The image relies upon the trope of the “civilised man” and “savage.” This racist idea is a product of colonial European white supremacy and recently regurgitated by Pamela Geller, that doyenne of the so-called ‘Counter-Jihad’ movement that groups like Hope not Hate and TELL MAMA managed to get banned from the United Kingdom.
Like many racist tropes, the anxiety always shifts. The source of anxiety for many white supremacists today is Muslims. Some EDL (English Defence League) supporters remain shocked that Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims. Yet, the identity of Muslims is also race-based and sometimes this plays a role in stops at airports, though it has to be said that the British Airport Authority and national airports have done a lot of work on ensuring that people are not discriminated against just because of assumptions made by officers. In fact, it is this subtle mix of association between race and religious assumption, whether right or wrong, that has led to Sikhs also being targeted on occasions for intolerance and bigotry.
In the United States, Sikh children have faced racist bullying and slurs of ‘terrorist’ and ‘Bin Laden.’ Days after 9/11, a ‘patriot’ murdered Balbir Singh Sodhi, after assuming his beard and turban made him Muslim.
Using History and the Great Wars to Promote Separation
The EDL also celebrate the role of Sikhs during both World Wars whilst ignoring that of Muslims (and many others.) During World War One, India provided over a million volunteer soldiers to swell the depleted British ranks. The colonial theory of “martial races” influenced their selection. It dictated that certain races and castes were more “loyal” and “warlike.” For example, it favoured “loyal” Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, and Gurkas. Whilst discouraging “disloyal” Bengalis and high-caste Hindus.
Of the 1.3 million who served in India’s army during World War One, approximately 400,000 were Muslims. Whether for honour, money or loyalty to the Empire, their contributions proved vital.
For a Eurocentric war, many overlook the colonial patchwork of our forces. Over 15,000 West Indians volunteered for the British West India Regiment and donated money to help the war effort. Soldiers from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand contained First Nations and Aboriginal men. Other colonial powers drew forces from parts of Africa. Britain recruited the Chinese Labour Corps to relieve soldiers from manual labour. But they were also open to great exploitation. Some fought for the British under a religious persuasion in the Jewish Legion. Even the Central Powers had multi-ethnic and religious forces (e.g. Arab, Slav, Kurd, Albanian.) An overlooked part of German history shows that 12,000 Jewish men died in the service of their country during WW1.
By the end of World War Two, India’s army reached 2.5 million, with Muslims making up around a third of the numbers at any one time. Many recruits came from what is now Pakistan. The academic, Jahan Mahmood, looked at 5,500 Indian army deaths in Italy. Mr Mahmood’s work helped many young British Muslims trace their roots to those who served in this period. Of the 122 deaths of soldiers under 18, 90 were Muslim. Among them were three 15-year-olds – Amir Khan, Gulab Khan, and Mian Khan. Asians also helped in other areas – on merchant ships and in factories. Others worked as Air Raid Precaution Wardens, nurses and firemen.
Meanwhile, will the EDL celebrate the bravery of Noor Inayat Khan? Or the many non-white individuals who served Britain despite being colonial subjects? It stands to reason, that many will be content in their ignorance. Nor will it stop the far-right from trying to exploit tensions. But many will see through this latest bigotry.