The Hindu American Foundation -- comprising mainly second generation Indian American Hindu professionals, including several physicians and lawyers- -- has condemned the increasing vandalism and protests against mosques across the United States and even violence against Muslim Americans in the wake of the controversy over a proposal to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, saying, "These displays of bigotry are despicable."
Dr Mihir Mehgani, the co-founder and president of HAF, said, "The United States is meant to be a place where members of any faith can congregate without fear of persecution. These displays of bigotry are despicable. The perpetrators must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to set a precedent for hate crimes against any faith community."
He said, "These hate crimes also indicate the level of ignorance and bigotry that still exists in many corners throughout our nation," and urged that 'communities across the country must embrace their cultural and religious diversity as a strength. Only then will we fully accept the differences amongst us and uphold the Hindu and American values of tolerance and pluralism.'
Most recently, a mosque in Madera, California was vandalized and two signs posted, including one that read, 'Wake up America, the enemy is here.' This marked the third incident of vandalism at the mosque that the Madera County Sheriff's Department has started investigating as hate crimes.
Earlier, a brick was thrown at the center and another sign with, 'No temple for the god of terrorism,' was placed on the property.
Vandalism against a proposed mosque site in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and protests against mosques in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, are also being investigated and before the stabbing of a New York Muslim cabbie, an intoxicated man was arrested for entering a New York mosque in Queens during prayer service, shouting anti-Muslim slurs and urinating on a prayer rug.
And, as the toxic rhetoric continued to exacerbate, on the anniversary of 9/11, a church in Gainesville, Florida was planning to hold a Koran burning.
Meghani told India rediff.com that in the wake of this increasing bigotry, The Hindu American Foundation had redoubled its key message of pluralism because 'pluralism denotes the acceptance and promotion of diversity as a value, much more than mere tolerance which denotes allowing another to exist but not necessarily without resentment or a grudge.'
He asserted, "the Hindu American and Indian American communities need to be stronger advocates for themselves, and learn to better build and leverage relationships with other ethnic, religious and advocacy groups. In America, each individual, each community, each ethnic group, each religious group and each point of view has the opportunity to stand up, be counted and be heard. Hindus in particular are quite shy about doing this."
Meghani said, "Perhaps because of India's strong secularism, where Hindu identity if often suppressed in the mainstream, Hindu immigrants from India are shy to want to identify themselves as Hindus in America as well. While these immigrants may by suppressing their Hinduness or Indianness to gain easier acceptance into American society, they actually harm the ethos of America by not sharing their unique cultural and religious identity with their neighbors.
He said, "Americans who have trouble accepting others, including Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, homosexuals and atheists need to be constantly reminded that America is a country of immigrants, of people who have come for freedom and who may have even have fled persecution. And while it is natural to be cautious in any new encounter with an individual or community, that cautiousness must be met with openness to the newcomer - not outright rejection as many are displaying."
Meghani warned that 'if Americans adamantly reject any particular community, what makes them different than Saudi Arabians who don't allow any other place of worship or the import of any other religious item other than what their Wahabi leaders allow? What makes those Americans different than the Malaysian Muslims who didn't want a temple in their neighborhood so protested by flaunting the chopped head of a cow? Do these Americans want America to join many other countries in the world that are known for intolerance and thereby reject what has historically made America great?'
"As a Hindu American, I know too well the history of persecution of Hindus because they did not fit the Abrahamic mold. I know too well the current persecution of Hindus in various parts of the world and the bigotry characterising Hindus as devil worshippers and as people who sacrifice their children to gods," he said.
"Through our interfaith work at the Hindu American Foundation, we also know that every religious, spiritual and ethnic group has at some time, both perpetrated wrongs on others and faced wrongs -- no community is immune to being the problem or the victim," he added.
Suhag Shukla and co-founder of HAF and its legal counsel and managing director, said the current anti-Muslim bigotry was nothing new, recalling that 'fear-mongering and demagoguery have been an unfortunate part of our nation's history.'
She said, "From the very first days of colonisation and despite America being a safe-haven for Europeans escaping religious persecution on the Continent, it didn't take long for those same immigrants to turn around and persecute others on the basis of religion. Whether through aggressive and predatory proselytization, mass conversions, witch hunts, punitive taxes, imprisonment for not attending church or denial of property and other rights, the original Americans, that is Native Americans, and later, Wiccans, Catholics, Jews and even Sikhs have all suffered at some point in early American history."
Shukla said, "Muslims and Hindus, who began arriving in larger numbers over the past 30 to 40 years, are in some sense, simply the new kids on the block facing the same hazing of sorts as generations of religious minorities before."
But she argued, "Regardless of whether others have faced hate and discrimination, it is still hurtful. Especially now when civil society's understanding of religious liberty, tolerance and pluralism has evolved significantly and the religious diversity of America is at an unprecedented level, xenophobia and hate speech strike at the very heart of what America stands for today.
Shukla said, "At HAF, we hear of vandalism on temples and ashrams and attacks on Hindus on the basis of their religion or ethnicity as well as subtler forms of discrimination, such as the use of zoning laws to prohibit temple construction or expansion. These incidents we assume are few and far between though there is the very real possibility of under-reporting due to a passivity and hesitation to 'make waves' or complain for fear of retaliation that is prevalent in our community."
She said, "What our community needs to understand is that the perpetrators of such hate crimes are representative of only a fringe -- the worst of American ignorance and bigotry -- and standing against this kind of hate is fundamental to our role as citizens."
"While it is politically incorrect to blame the victim, we must also be cognizant of where we as a community can do better. Increasing our civic and political engagement, giving back to our local, non-Hindu communities, proactively educating others about our traditions and most importantly, not being fearful of standing up for our rights -- all of these can work towards alleviating misunderstandings and establishing our place at the proverbial American table."
Image: A US citizen protests against a mosque in California
Photograph: Mike Blake / Reuters