Monday, April 30, 2012

American Hindus in 2012

Earlier this spring, anti-Hindu riots raged in Bangladesh’s Satkhira District after a local newspaper published an article alleging that “indecent remarks” were made about the Prophet Mohammad during a play at the local high school. A few days later, area Muslims exited their Friday prayers whipped into a violent frenzy over the allegations and attacked the Hindu community for two successive days. Dozens of homes were razed or looted; belongings of entire families destroyed; and there was at least one sexual assault reported. Hundreds of university students took to the streets in the nation’s capital to protest the riots, tying up traffic and bringing large sections of Dhaka to a standstill. And although the article that incited the riots was proven to be false (in fact, the paper’s charter to publish was summarily revoked as a result), the school’s headmaster and assistant headmaster were arrested on charges of “blasphemy.”

How many of you read about these events your morning newspaper; events of major import in the world’s third largest Muslim-majority country? Was it in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today; or for that matter, Times of India? What about the cable news giants like the BBC, CNN, or Fox News? Did they report it? The news blackout by the media should surprise no one. Deliberate, government-tolerated attacks on Hindus like these—and worse—have been a regular feature of Bangladeshi life since long before the nation’s official birth. They have brought the once-robust Hindu community from almost a third of the population to less than eight percent. Yet, it was only last year that a lone US Congressman, Robert Dold of Illinois, raised the issue from the floor of the US House; and there still is no mention of Bangladesh’s Hindus in any of the world’s major media, or from those who claim the mantle of human rights, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the UN Human Rights Council.

People have explained this and related phenomena to anti-Hindu bias, pro-Muslim bias, petro-dollars, fear, and more. I would also add the fact that the deliberate elimination of non-Muslims in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran fit politically correct philosophies that insist ad nauseum that the problems of Islamic extremism are limited to, well, Islamic extremists. Identifying that sort of thing in retrograde states like Saudi Arabia does not upset their comfortable theories. But when it occurs in an institutionalized way in a “moderate Muslim nation”like Bangladesh, it does.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy puts a lot of the blame, however, on the “Hindu mindset,” that he says is not oriented towards conflict in the same way as other religio-ethnic groups are. His insight is shared by the vast majority of Hindus with whom I work. Thus, it is no surprise that when I travel both home and abroad to speak about the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus, many Hindus claim to not to know anything about their brethren’s persecution; even though the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has been publishing information about Bangladesh’s persecution of Hindus for years, usually right in the front of its annual human rights survey. Others admit to knowing about anti-Hindu persecution in Bangladesh, but have done little or nothing to stop it. For Hindus in the United States, the hotly contested election year of 2012 offers an opportunity to change that.

Shalabh Kumar, founder of the National Indian American Coalition (NIAC), has noted that the American Hindu community is around half the size of the American Jewish community, but you would never know it given the extent to which Jewish community concerns are considered by the media and public officials compared to those of the Hindu community. Nor would one know that there are only about a million more Muslims in the United States than Hindus by the way media and elected officials react to Muslim organizations like the Congress on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) compared to the HAF. In neither case are Jews or Muslims the problem; they are only doing what every American community and interest group has a right to do: organize and advocate for the interests of their constituents.

We got a small taste of that potential in 2010. A group of us in the Chicago area contacted several Congressional and one Senatorial candidate who had a history of support for the Hindu community. None of us claimed the ability to deliver any particular number of votes, but we did make known to them some of the issues that were on the minds of several community members. While no one would allege that we were the difference between victory and defeat, our efforts did help launch more extensive relationships that enable us to make sure officials are aware of some of these matters.

The atrocities being perpetrated against Hindus in Bangladesh are the perfect issue around which such efforts can be organized. Ours is a country that sent troops into Bosnia when 10,000 people were victims of ethnic cleansing; there are more than 100 times that many Hindus facing ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh. The issue is not political but moral. It is not something that appeals to either Democrats or Republicans, but to both. It is a matter of right and wrong, and if Mandirs take a leading role in organizing to save lives, the pristine nature of our cause will be even clearer. Does it work?

Anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will recall that it was impossible to pass a synagogue without seeing a large banner reading “Free Soviet Jewry.” Our people were being oppressed in the Soviet Union, and the American Jewish community recognized its obligation to do something about it; and our religious institutions were the focus. Religious school children were taught about it and given pen pals—Jewish children in the USSR whom they came to see as brothers and sisters, kids just like them. When children had their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, the synagogue would “twin” them with similar aged kids in the USSR—who did not have the freedom to celebrate their own. Average people whom you might see at the water cooler or in the supermarket, went on trips to Russia and smuggled in religious books and artifacts. The American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups took a lead role in making sure our elected officials did not ignore us; and before it was all over, we got 1.2 million Jews out of that Gulag.

Let the Bangladeshi Hindus be your Soviet Jews!

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