On February 22, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was out having a beer with his friend at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, when he was shot dead. According to bystanders, the shooter, Adam Purinton, a white American, had hurled racial slurs at Kuchibhotla and his friend, Alok Madasani – who was injured in the incident – and yelled “get out of my country,” before opening fire on them.
Purinton managed to flee from the scene and was apprehended five hours later after a bartender in Montana called the police. Purinton had apparently told him that he had killed two Middle Eastern men.
The shooting, now being probed by the FBI as a hate crime, depicts the anti-Muslim sentiment that has seen a surge in public discourse in the US and made up the fabric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This sentiment has been further buoyed by the president’s temporary travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries.
This individual incident in Kansas is a reflection of the broader racist climate that has found new moral fuel in the US, although it has always been a part of the US story.
The rhetoric of “Make America great again” imagines a purity, marked by whiteness, and seeks to expunge all that threatens to contaminate this imagined sense of purity. In this imaginary, a great America is a White Christian America, cleansed from all that pollutes her and threatens her freedom.
A report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, noted a significant rise in hate crime after Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US in the aftermath of the San Bernardino terror attack in December 2015. Noting that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose to the highest level in 2015 since the 9/11 attacks, the report went on to suggest that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric could have contributed to this.
The irony of the attack, however, lies in the classic misidentification of a Hindu for a Muslim.
Having lived in the post-9/11 US, I am reminded of the racial profiling I often experienced because my brown skin led my interlocutors to the conclusion that I must be Muslim; I am reminded of the many times my first name ‘Mohan’ automatically became ‘Mohammed;’ I am reminded of the many instances of being pulled aside at passport checkpoints and I am reminded of the shootings targeting Sikhs after the 9/11 attacks.
The irony of this particular tragedy, however, is multiplied by the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments among Hindus in India and in the Hindu diaspora communities. The Kansas incident has occurred in the backdrop of the systematic attacks on Muslims in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014.
The killing of Kuchibhotla – an Indian in the US – is a reminder of the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. On September 28, 2015, Akhlaq was dragged out of his home and beaten by an angry mob following rumours of cow slaughter and beef consumption. Here too the moral basis serving the authorial voice of murder was his being a Muslim.
The anti-Muslim sentiment in the US has found strong footing among the Hindus in the US, whose narrative of the Islamic aggressors against a Hindu India gel well with Trump’s narrative of supposed Islamic aggressors against the US democracy.
These Hindus celebrate Trump’s “I love Hindu” rhetoric, feeling a sense of solidarity with Trump’s anti-Islamic exhortations, and the binaries in which he reduces the cultural lifeworld of the US. The same Hindus flock to the Indian prime minister as he promises the imaginary of a Hindu India, cleansed from the aggressions of Islamic invaders. Much like their Christian right-wing counterparts, they exert pressure on educational boards to construct specific cultural narratives that serve their reductionist agendas.
Cultural narratives are being re-written in India and in the Indian diaspora communities to foist the imaginary of a Hindu India. The fact that this imaginary operates on the foundations of “othering” must be the starting point for recognising and countering what Cherian George calls “hate spin”.
George draws our attention to the plurality and multivocality that make up religions and the ways in which these diversities are monolithically constructed into a strategic cultural narrative to mark the “insider” and the “outsider.” For instance, he points to the “Islamophobia industry” in the US that serves both economic and political agendas. The work of challenging hate crimes therefore lies in disrupting these monolithic cultural frames that serve racist hegemonic agendas, and in opening up public discursive spaces to narratives of inclusivity and social justice.
For many among the Indian diaspora that are feeling and sharing a deep sense of despair at the racialised violence in the US and its possible effects on their lives, the Kansas shooting is hopefully a humbling call to look within. For all those who rallied behind Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, imagining a pure Hindu nation, the continuities from Dadri to Olathe offer a reason to pause. In this global climate of “hate spin,” interrupting the spin cycles of “othering” with an explicit call to openness is the only way toward social justice.
Seeing the connections between these events is an entry point to healing, to noting the continuities in forms of hate and the underlying principles of intolerance that feed hate. That hate is strategically catalysed to serve the goals of political actors ought to form the basis of critical vigilance of all such rhetoric. It is only with this recognition of the foundational principles of hate that we can as global communities move toward imagining other possibilities that are guided by spirits of dialogue, understanding and peace.
The fact that Kuchibhotla was wrongly identified as a Muslim is not the point. That Muslims are being singled out and targeted for attacks ought to be the broader basis of rallying against racism. Noting the rise in anti-Islamic sentiments globally ought to be the entry point for working in solidarity toward countering racism.
That the rhetoric of hate does not differentiate between its casualties ought to be a humbling moment to the recognition of the universality of vulnerability and the possibilities of dialogue across difference.
The beginning to countering the politics of hate lies in self-reflection, in digging deep into the everyday discourses we participate in that mark the “other”.
Xenophobia and religious bigotry reproduce themselves on the power of othering. Once the inside of the nation and its true citizens have been marked, boundaries are established for acting on the outsider. Strategies of identification, categorisation and segregation are deeply embedded in racialised imaginaries. Therefore, to counter these radicalised imaginaries, we must begin by recognising the humanity in the “other,” in recognising the “other” in the “us”.
Mohan J. Dutta is a professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS).