On 15 September 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was arranging flowers outside his family business in Arizona. He had just returned from Costco, where he purchased some American flags and donated money to a fund for victims of 9/11. Moments later, he was shot dead. Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh, goes down in history as the first person killed in retribution for the Al Qaeda terror attacks. On his arrest, his murderer Frank Roque told police, ‘I’m a patriot and American.’ Fifteen years on, Sikhs, both in the US and Britain, are acutely aware that hate does not discriminate. And Sikhs, like Muslims, continue to face the backlash to the Islamist war on the West.
That’s why ‘Action Against Hate’ – the Government’s four-year plan of how to tackle hate crime – is something of a damp squib. ‘Hate crime of any kind, directed against any community, race or religion has absolutely no place in our society’, declares Amber Rudd in the introduction to the report. When you scratch beneath the surface, though, it seems the Government takes the myopic view that only Abrahamic faiths suffer bigotry. All examples of religious hate crime cited in the report focus on Muslim, Jewish and Christian victims. These, of course, include some terrible incidents – like a woman who racially abused a pregnant Muslim lady on a bus, and an assault on Jewish schoolgirls. Remarkably, however, the report fails to highlight last year’s attempted beheading of a Sikh dentist by a neo-Nazi in Wales. Like Sodhi’s case, this was a revenge attack – this time in an apparent response to the Islamist murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. And it’s a trend Sikhs are all too familiar with.
Last month saw the conviction of a man for calling his Sikh neighbours, ‘ISIS slags’ and ‘ISIS bitches’. Many similar victims suffer in silence. Yet the problem is nothing new. The issue was detailed in evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Committee on Terrorism and Community Relations back in 2004. And it’s been raised repeatedly in both the Commons and the Lords. But despite this, case studies highlighting a phenomenon affecting one of Britain’s most visible minorities won’t be found in ‘Action Against Hate’.
To complicate matters, many incidents against Sikhs and others (including Hindus and Christians) have been incorrectly recorded as ‘Islamophobic hate crimes’. In fact, Met Police figures for the first half of this year reveal a quarter of incidents put under this category involved victims who were either non-Muslim or of no recorded faith. These aren’t numbers to be scoffed at. Yet remarkably the authors of ‘Action Against Hate’ don’t consider them worthy of a mention.
But some are, thankfully, beginning to spot the problem. Sadiq Khan showed he had his finger on the pulse when he made a clear pledge to London’s 125,000-strong Sikh community prior to his election to ‘make sure [hate] crimes against Sikhs are properly recorded.’ Let’s hope he keeps his word.
And important figures in Britain’s Hindu community are also speaking out. Satish Sharma from the National Council of Hindu Temples expressed his dissatisfaction with the status quo. He told me that ‘Action Against Hate’ is further evidence of the ‘complete indifference of the Establishment to Hinduphobia’.
If there’s any hope for an equitable approach for all faiths, it comes from Britain’s most recognised Sikh, Lord Singh of Wimbledon. It was his intervention which helped encourage the Government in its move towards mandatory disaggregation of religious hate crime figures from April 2017. If you’re a Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, or Rastafarian, statistics for your community (as for Muslims and Jews) will now at last be made available from next year. And last month, Lord Singh expressed his disappointment at the ‘narrow and biased thinking’ behind ‘Action Against Hate’. He said the report contained, ’45 examples of hate crime against Abrahamic faiths but not a single example of the many, well-documented mistaken-identity hate crimes suffered by Sikhs and others’.
In her response, Baroness Williams talked in vague terms about ‘common issues across the strands of hate crime’. But details of how to tackle this issue were thin on the ground. And as for Lord Singh’s accusation that those compiling the report could do with ‘acquiring some basic religious literacy’, Williams was clear who was at fault:
‘We have talked about this in the past. People such as the media have a role to play in improving their religious literacy.’
But the truth is, journalists aren’t the only ones who need help with their understanding of religion, or the concerns of religious minorities are they? Let’s hope the Government can finally wake up to the fact that Sikhs can be victims of hate crimes too.