On Sunday August 12, the Olympics said farewell to London amidst a song and dance celebration of multiculturalism. The closing ceremony showcased the host nation’s cultural diversity, featuring performers of South Asian and Caribbean descent alongside the legends of British rock and pop. Two weeks earlier, on Sunday July 29, the Olympics opening ceremony commemorated a nation burgeoning on the backs of its citizens. Over in America, on August 5, on another Sunday, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page killed six Sikhs and shot several others at a gurudwara at Oak Creek, Wisconsin. While these events took place an ocean apart, I experienced them through the same screen and found them to be paradoxically connected.
The opening and closing ceremonies narrated British history dating back to the pre-industrial period, culminating in the pop culture that defined the late 20th century. The racial diversity amongst the performers — a love story about a black couple, British Bengali dancer Akram Khan performing with Emeli Sande, rapper Dizzee Rascal taking the main stage, and a Punjabi bhangra group playing dhols — was a way to affirm Britain’s commitment to diversity and racial equality. When a replica of the ship HM Windrush was shown bringing the first West Indian immigrants to the shores of England, the British Isles turned into a welcoming and inclusive place.
But this was a staging of history. As the monuments of modern London rose from the earth to signify Britain’s progress, absent was the counterpoint in the slave ships that travelled from Africa to the Americas, fields full of indentured labourers forced to work for the growth of the Empire, and the British Army subduing dissent and independence movements with brute force. After all, the making of a modern, multicultural, politically correct Britain, involved trampling on people and societies throughout the world.
Between the opening and closing ceremonies, I followed the coverage on Oak Creek on the same screen I used to watch the Olympics. Between The Kinks, Kate Bush and The Who, a Punjabi bhangra group, took the stage at London. The choice of performers, entwined with the images of British history, staged a false reality where the UK has always stood for equality and inclusion. The performance hid the reality of anti-immigrant violence taking place in the boroughs of London, at Oak Creek, and beyond. The ceremonies not only glossed over the history of colonialism, they also concealed modern forms of racism, violence and inequality, insisting that Britain is committed to diversity. The idea that racism is undone by allowing communities to parade acceptable aspects of their culture only serves as a disguise for racism itself.
On one side, there is the display of inclusivity and the championing of a world where people of all backgrounds can celebrate and display their cultural practices. On the other, is the violence of Oak Creek. A Sikh gurudwara was attacked during prayer; people were killed because they looked different, dressed different, prayed and believed something different. And nowhere in the mainstream media, or in the words of America’s politicians, was the question of racism asked, except to call the killer a racist — turning him into an exception and implying that America does not stand for hate.
Isolating Wade Michael Page as a white supremacist, who subscribed to a fringe ideology, is simply another form of denying structural racism. It hides the growth of Islamaphobia in the US, denies that communities of colour face sustained violence and never brings into question the implications of American aggression overseas.
As I write this, another Ahmadi in Pakistan stands accused of blasphemy, this time for simply hanging a Quranic verse in his shop. And a minor Christian girl has met a similar fate, with a mob calling for her to be burned outside the local police station. Such events have long been blamed on religious obscurantism and intolerance. But this is a false narrative. Like the Olympics ceremonies, it invents truth; like calling Page the racist, it denies that there is a larger social problem that needs to be addressed. But a long, hard look at Oak Creek unveils the reality hidden by the Olympic ceremonies: hate, intolerance and violence are collectively shared, authorised and ignored.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2012.
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