I was excited when I had the opportunity to attend a medical meeting in Sweden, where I’ve never been. Then, to my dismay, I discovered that a far-right group will play a significant role in the Swedish government after winning recent elections on a racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic platform. No one predicted that racism would increase in Sweden, known for its tolerance and history as a hospitable country. The virus of racism had spread to Sweden. I wondered if I should go.
Not only in Sweden, but also in many European countries, immigrants, blacks and Muslims are targeted. In Germany there is an increase in neo-Nazi groups. France’s idea of secularism, codified in the Laicite principle, is inherently opposed to pluralism. Hungary has elected an unabashedly racist President, Viktor Orban, who has been welcomed by the far right in the US. Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed Orban in Budapest. Racism has also increased in the United States.
I experience the same pangs of fear mixed with sadness when I visit India. I am the President of the American Muslim Physicians of Indian Origin or AMPI, a group that helps run free clinics for the financially disadvantaged, which is why I travel to India often. I was last there before the pandemic. Since then, the atmosphere in India has become increasingly hostile to Muslims. The lynching of Muslim men is hardly news anymore. Muslims who pray in public can be abused as committing an illegal act, and religious schools and activist homes have been bullied for allegedly being built illegally. In contrast, Hindu schools and roadside temples, some of which were clearly built illegally, are untouched. Courts look favorably on petitions to allow Hindu prayers in mosques. Mosques are in danger.
A bulldozer even showed up at a parade in New Jersey celebrating India’s Independence Day. There are organizations in the US that mirror the professedly ultra-nationalist Hindu racist groups in India. The well was poisoned here in the US
Roads are safer in some Indian states in the non-Hindi belt in the south. That’s where I’m going. I make sure the plane gets me from Chicago to London or a Middle East hub like Dubai and then straight to Hyderabad.
The pandemic has subsided, but the virus of racism and hatred has spread and is growing in many countries. China’s treatment of Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims have reached genocidal levels. India is not far behind.
What explains this rise in racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia? The rapid increase in diversity and the Internet are two factors. The migration of people, voluntary and involuntary, has transformed neighborhoods. Societies have people of different skin colour, religion, language and culture. Many people cannot avoid interacting with someone from a different culture and color.
This rapid increase in diversity can create uneasiness and even fear, as well as a nostalgia for the good old days, only the old days weren’t necessarily good. If we could learn to embrace diversity instead of being afraid of it, the inflow of different cultures and ideas would enrich society.
Also, the instant worldwide spread of rumors and polemics has created a world after the truth. We could argue that truth is dead.
The antidote to racism is to change hearts, and we can change hearts by getting to know each other. As a Muslim, I am taught to appreciate and celebrate diversity. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a man and a woman and made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Verily, the most honored among you in the sight of God is the most upright among you,” says Quran 49:13.
This notion of plurality is part of most Muslim societies, past and present. It’s also part of our nation’s ethos: e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one.”
I and many others like me do not experience racism directly because we live in a cocoon. My workplace is an oasis of affection and respect. The Chicago area is a multicultural society where pluralism thrives. But these are exceptions.
There are many parts of our country and increasingly growing parts of the world, including India, my country of birth, that are being deeply infected by the virus of bigotry.
The antidote is there to be applied.
dr Javeed Akhter is President of the American Muslim Physicians of Indian Origin (AMPI). He is also a freelance writer living in Oak Brook.
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