By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
19 Aug 2012
Two Sundays ago, Wade Michael Page walked up to a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and started shooting randomly. He killed six people and injured four more before one of his bullets caught him in the head. Muslims in the country were quick to call it an example of Islamophobia in which the Sikhs were mistaken victims. The mainstream American press largely agreed.
Wajahat Ali, a commentator for Salon.com, linked the attack with right-wing politicians’ anti-Muslim fearmongering. “The exploitation of Shariah, or Islamic religious law, as being a fictional ‘threat to America’ was used by nearly every major mainstream Republican candidate running for president... Instead of using their position of influence to build bridges of understanding, (Michelle) Bachmann and four GOP (Grand Old Party, a euphemism for the Republican Party) colleagues recently decided to stoke the flames of fear-mongering by engaging in a witch hunt against fellow Americans,” he wrote.
CNN.com reported that Sikhs have faced such attacks since 9/11. It went on to explain: “Mistaken for Muslims because of their beards and turbans, they became ripe targets for zealots seeking revenge.”
All such reports and commentaries emphasised that Page wore a 9/11 tattoo. What they, however, seem to have overlooked is that that was not the only tattoo he wore. Page was an open book, and an illustrated one at that. His whole body was apparently “tatted up”, and all these other tattoos had little to do with Islam, even though they were steeped in racial hatred.
For instance, Page also wore the Cog Wheel tattoo of The Hammerskin Nation, one of the world’s leading “white power skinhead” groups, according to The Wall Street Journal. He even wore the group’s t-shirts in many of his photos. He had another Nazi Death Head tattoo, and “WP”―for White Power―written on his hand. On his right shoulder he had a Celtic Cross, another symbol of white pride, and the number “14”, which represents the slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
Not just his skin but even his larynx were racist. He used to sing in so-called hate-rock bands, showering abuses at all “non-whites” for “overrunning” the United States. “What has happened to America, that was once so white and free?” goes one song of Definite Hate, a band of which Page was a member.
These songs don’t just lament this national tragedy and stop―they go ahead and call for war. Sample these lines from Youngland, Page’s first band: Activist or terrorist depends which side you're on / Defend against the invader, this war will greet your son / Hey you gotta go, not your home anymore / If you don't move quietly you'll be forced to war…
Given that Muslims form less than 1 percent of the US population, I find it hard to believe that all of Page’s anger was directed solely at this one community, or that the gurdwara shooting was a case of mistaken identity. Sikhs, in fact, have been targeted more than Muslims since 9/11. Have all these been cases of mistaken identity?
Indeed, contrary to CNN.com, Sikhs have been victims of violence in the United States from well before 9/11―from the time they started arriving on American shores, when there was no Islamophobia worth the name. As have been other non-white communities. And what about the dramatic spurt in the number and activities of hate groups since the election of America’s first Black president?
Page, and others of his ilk, may be Islamophobes, but they are not just that. They are White Racists, and they should be seen as such.
Calling the gurdwara attack an instance of Islamophobia masks this deeper reality. It restricts the larger phenomenon of White Racism to anti-Muslim bigotry, which can be explained away by 9/11 and other acts of Islamist extremism. Islamophobia, while deplorable, can be shown to be the result of political causes, a manifestation of “zealots seeking revenge”. The charge of White Racism strikes deeper into the heart of Western civilisation. It tears down the façade of ‘Enlightenment’ that the West prides itself in, which in fact loops back to feed the racial supremacism that drives people like Page.
Islamophobia exists of course, but as a subset of White Racism. Right-wing politicians and press have channelled racial supremacism into anti-Muslim prejudice over the past decade. This allows them to claim that if “Americans” (and not “whites”) bear an antipathy towards Muslims (but not towards people of other faiths), then there must be something wrong with Muslims themselves and their religion. Liberal/progressive politicians and press―as well as American-Muslims―may not buy this accusation, but they still end up buying the larger narrative and reinforcing it.
Instances such as the gurdwara attack are empirical evidence that this narrative is a lie. Page was not motivated as much by anti-Muslim hatred as by a sense of white superiority, and a desire to rid his country of all non-whites. Shrouding this truth in the cloak of Islamophobia doesn’t help Muslims, doesn’t help Sikhs, and certainly doesn’t help the would-be victims of future attacks.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.