Social media isn’t forgiving of politicians who suffer a slip of the tongue, especially when it comes to confusing a Sikh place of worship, a gurdwara, with a mosque. Only this week former John Lewis honcho turned Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has faced the ire of angry Sikhs and wider public criticism for confusing the two.
While campaigning in Birmingham over the weekend, he inadvertently referred to a Sikh temple as ‘Guru Nanak Mosque’ on live television. I’ve not met Street, but see him as a friendly fellow who genuinely jumbled up his words in a lapsed moment – something that can happen to the best of us. Perhaps I’m just a big Sikh softy after all. One less forgiving tweeter wrote, ‘ignorance is bliss Andy Street. I’m sure the Sikh’s [sic] will be pleased to vote for you on this basis’. Another ‘I’m absolutely gutted to see this. After all the work the organisers do to make Vasakhi [sic] inclusive…you get this’. But the reality is Street isn’t the first, nor will he be the last politician to make this kind of embarrassing faux pas. To his credit he promptly set the record straight, tweeting ‘I’m sorry I muddled my words’. He should be commended for doing so – not berated.
Only last year Sir Simon McDonald, a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, was accused of showing a ‘remarkable level of ignorance’ after misidentifying the Golden Temple (Sikhism’s holiest shrine) in India as the 'Golden Mosque'. Like Street, Sir Simon made a correction on Twitter. But by then the gaffe had already percolated through the echo chambers of social media so the damage was irrevocably done.
I’m sure it would be embarrassing for anyone who declares a competency in the mosaic of Britain’s diverse multi-cultural and multi-faith fabric. It’s probably even more galling and cringeworthy for Street given he was surrounded by rather conspicuous men with flowing beards and saffron-coloured turbans at the time.
However, as far as these blunders go, there’s an example which I’d argue is more significant given its context and timing. In 2012, Mitt Romney the then-Republican presidential candidate, while paying tribute to Sikhs killed by a white supremacist in a gurdwara in Wisconsin, wrongly used the word ‘sheikh’, (an honorific title for an Arab), rather than ‘Sikh’, the religion of the six people gunned down.
He said, ‘I noted that it was a tragedy for many, many reasons. Among them are the fact that people, the sheikh people are among the most peaceable and loving individuals you can imagine, as is their faith.’
It is with the backdrop of tragedies like Wisconsin, that I sympathise with fellow Sikhs who have responded angrily to these events. Professor Simran Jeet Singh, a respected American academic describes it as ‘yet another example of confusing Sikhs and Muslims, of religious illiteracy, and of how far we are from being visible and respected.’
In fairness, American Sikhs have had a particularly difficult time due to ignorance. A national 2013 survey titled ‘Turban Myths’ showed approximately half of the public associated the turban with Islam and believed that Sikhism is a sect of Islam.
Sikhs here have fared slightly better, but I believe there’s an underlying frustration simmering beneath the British-Sikh psyche. Despite facing a backlash since 9/11, due to hatred against ‘the Muslim looking other’ – they have essentially been marginalised by short-sighted government strategy, which focuses attention primarily on Britain’s Muslims and Jews.
I’m co-authoring a book titled Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity: The Sikh Experience – out later this year which delves into the issue. I guess these gaffes subliminally hit a nerve – a yearning to be recognised for who you are, and to be understood for the values you represent – along with a desire to no longer be invisible to policy makers.