Historically, my community has prided itself on diversity. Growing up, I have spent many hours ambling up and down Soho Road, immersing myself in the various sights, sounds and smells. Communal solidity has been largely positive, especially within inter-faith dialogue as generations of migrants have settled in Handsworth and have made an active effort to integrate socially, culturally and religiously.
As a city more widely, Birmingham has a similar reputation boasting a racially diverse demographic; in the 2011 census the population was recorded as 57% white, 26% Asian British, 9% British black and 4% mixed race. One only needs to point to the recent response to the EDL march in the city centre to demonstrate Birmingham’s commitment to social cohesion and inclusivity.
As mentioned, inter-faith dialogue has developed religious understanding between various groups and even while much of the British media stokes Islamophobic sentiment, Birmingham largely exhibits unity. I was disheartened, therefore, to see a name constantly appear on my twitter feed in close proximity to a Sikh religious organisation: Tommy Robinson. I believe this points to a larger problem pertaining to the organisation and its anti-grooming campaigns.
— Sikh Youth UK (@SikhYouthUK_) April 12, 2017
Sikh Youth UK do some important work with regards to tackling addiction and abuse within Sikh communities in Birmingham and nationwide. Recently however, the organisation has developed an anti-grooming narrative aimed at reducing the number of Sikh girls and women who experience varying types of victimisation and abuse. I have no problem with the aims of this campaign, but the content of its narrative is what has shocked and surprised me, and it should be a cause of concern for those who value communal stability.
This campaign is projected through a variety of media – lectures, leaflets and a recently released film entitled Misused Trust. This has slowly developed into a more overtly Islamophobic, anti-Muslim discourse as Sikh Youth UK openly demonstrate their professional relationship with Tommy Robinson, an activist who has worked with the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL) and has recently established Pegida UK, an anti-Islamic organisation.
“Muslim/Islamic grooming gangs” is a phrase readily used in some British media which works to further distance the non-Muslim population from Muslim communities. This highly damaging, incredibly insensitive and down-right Islamophobic assertion encourages British Muslims to be viewed as extremists, criminals and as an anti-Western “Other”.
Sikh Youth UK reproduce such narratives in their anti-grooming campaigns to such an extent that Tommy Robinson has uploaded pictures with members of the organisation and has tweeted, describing their film as an education “about Muslim grooming”. This exposed what I had thought for a long time: most public anti-grooming narratives contain anti-Muslim sentiments. It also exposed another problem within some British Sikh communities: rampant Islamophobia.
I was very happy to see certain groups, such as Sikhs Against the EDL, call upon Sikh Youth UK to explain their interactions with Tommy Robinson. However, I fear that the illogical anxieties that such people harbour about Islam can be difficult to dislodge once they have taken root.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is somewhat easier to stoke in British Sikh communities which is good news for Islamophobes. A religion with a distinct martial history, many individuals have become martyrs for the Sikh religion through interactions with the Mughal Empire. Growing up, I was taught about the Sikh religion and its relationship with the Mughals, I was told stories of Mughal emperors forcing conversions and threatening Sikhs with death. I do not detract from this history, but to compare the Mughals of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century India to modern-day British Muslims is ludicrous. However, when considered alongside Islamophobia within British media more generally, this historic relationship becomes increasingly important as a justification for distinctly anti-Muslim views.
As a Sikh, I understand the ways in which Sikh Youth UK protesters were criminalised and portrayed as barbaric, religious criminals late last year. However, through their framing of “Muslim grooming gangs” they are reproducing the same marginalising structures which were previously used against them. I do not want to see such malicious characterisations worsening community bonds and destroying lives.
As a Sikh, I want the organisations which claim to represent me to lay the building blocks for a future where my children do not think less of others based on fabricated lies. I want these organisations to tackle rampant anti-blackness, Islamophobia, misogyny and casteism in South Asian communities.
As a Sikh, I want an end to the grooming of all men and women without resorting to spiteful, insensitive and socially destructive narratives which will inevitably do more harm than good, pitting religious communities against one another: neighbour against neighbour, colleague against colleague and friend against friend.