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Do Muslims and Sikhs have an image problem?




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In the past few years there seems have great increase in presentation of violence related information about religion and followers of religion via social media and messaging services. Social media has expedited the pace with which a particular event almost immediately take religious undertones. For instance, recent extreme demonstrations in UK, Canada, and the US related to Sikh Khalistan movement and attacks on Hindu temples by Muslim mobs in Bangladaesh, Taliban banning education for women have been directly presented as rooted in religion by media reports. More recently, assassination of Atiq Ahmed, lawless turned politician while in Police custody in India has been immediately linked to religion and religion based ideologies. Therefore, it is important to examine what people think of various religions. A survey was conducted by Indian Institute of Management-Rohtak research team across India 4012 respondents in age group of 18 to 65 years having at least high school level qualification. India is world largest democracy with several large and thriving minorities. The results of the survey are perplexing, writes Prof Dheeraj Sharma, Indian Institute of Management-Rohtak.

The survey inquired from the respondent as to how would they feel if their child brought home someone from a religious denomination to which he/she does not belong. It was reported that more than 62% of Indians felt uncomfortable if their child brought some from a different religion to their home. This number however varied across religions. For Hindu respondents, 52% felt uncomfortable, for Muslim 64% felt uncomfortable, for Sikh 32% felt uncomfortable, for Christian only 28% felt uncomfortable, for Buddhist 11% felt uncomfortable, and for Jain 10% felt uncomfortable.

Next, to discover the underlying reasons for discomfort amongst people, the survey inquired which religions encouraged respect and care for everyone in the society. Also, which religion encourages violence and which religion encourages peace. Results indicated that 58 per cent said they believe Muslim practices and views encourage violence, 48% felt that way about Sikhs. By comparison, just 3 per cent perceived violence in Buddhist practices and views and 10 per cent in Hindu. Finally, 2 per cent said they think of Jain practices and views encourage violence and only 8 per cent think of same about Christian practices and views.

The results of our study concur with findings of 2009 study conducted by Angus Reid Strategies in Canada which found that more than 66% of the Canadians view Islam or Sikhism unfavourably. Also, the same survey found that 45 per cent said they believe Islam encourages violence, and 26 per cent believe that Sikhism as encourages violence. Comparatively, just 13 per cent perceived violence in Hindu teachings, 10 per cent perceived violence in Christian teachings, and 4 per cent in Buddhism.

It is not possible to prevent media from presenting images of crime, war, and terrorism that make more than nearly half of the Indians perceive that Islam and Sikhism encourages violence. Recent events in Afghanistan have not helped the image of Muslims in India, Bastille Day Truck Attack, and attacks on Hindu temples on add to the negative image of Muslims. Furthermore, several gruesome acts of violence such as cutting of hands of a policeman by a Sikh person, 26th January violence in Delhi as a part of farm law protest, and violent protest at the London High Commission of India only augment the negative image of Sikhs. The images of people wielding swords on the streets does not help the already perceived violent image of Sikhs. The entire media coverage related to Amritpal (an alleged Khalistani) in Punjab, the recent bombings in Amritsar city, and media frenzy on Muslim gangsters turned politician in Uttar Pradesh in no way positively aid the image of Muslims and Sikhs.

The formation of perception can be explicated by meaning movement theory (MMT) which explains how events related to Muslims and Sikhs in one part of the world has an impact on overall image of Muslim and Sikhs across the world. MMT contends that socio-cultural meaning of objects, events, people, and organizations are drawn from the culturally constituted world. More specifically, significant events results in formation of associations which result in formation of perceptions. While lesser events may fade away but significant events may continue to define and caricature identities. In other words, 1985 Air India mid-air bombing by Sikh insurgents was turning point for opinions and perception about Sikhs. The event spread significant negativity about Sikhs in Canada and the world.

The Sikhs in Canada were so taken aback by the bombing that over the next few years, Sikhs across Canada made additional efforts to demonstrably disassociate themselves from tacit or explicit support for any violent activity. Similarly, events of 9/11 developed a global image of Muslims as violent and aggressive. Furthermore, any violence in Muslim majority countries is depicted as embedded in religion. Many argue that such events are ignoring social, political, and economic context in which these event occur but those arguments do not offset the dominant narratives on religious image.


Next, it may be important to ascertain whether laws should be relaxed to accommodate religious practices and norms in a democracy. The results of the survey indicate that 83 per cent of the respondents feel that there should not be any relaxation in laws to accommodate religious practices and norms. Finally, we inquired if the respondents had a friend across religion. Specifically, we asked “do you personally have any friends who are followers of religion listed below: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. India is about 80% Hindu, 14% Muslims, 2% Sikhs, 2% Christian, less than one percent Jains and Buddhist. More than 22% of respondents claimed they have a Muslim friend, more than 12% of respondents stated to have Sikh friend, 6% stated to have Christian friend, 3% stated to have a Jain friend, and 1 percent stated to have a Buddhist friend. Akin to Angus Reid Strategies survey, we found that having friends who follow that religion does not necessary result in positive view of that religion and religious activities. A simple correlation between the two is not significant.

Hence, development of friendship and increase in contact may not necessary improve, change, or reverse negative image that prevails in dominant narrative but certainly can aid to improved understanding and increased tolerance. The best possible way to alter negative image is to have major and significant positive events that cast a deeper and long lasting impact. In other words, when India elects a Muslim President or a Sikh Prime Minister it really further improves the positive image of Hindus. Akin to UK, some Muslim countries may consider appointing a non-Muslim as head of state to improve the image of Muslims across the world. They may then be considered as tolerant and open-minded.

Similarly, if Punjab elects a Hindu Chief Minister and J&K elects a Hindu Chief Minister when the statehood is restored will probably aid to positive image of Sikhs and Muslims. Furthermore, significant Sikh and Muslim personalities must openly condemn violent acts and perpetrators of violence. These may augur well for uplifting the image of Sikhs and Muslims. Post 1947, when a separate country for Muslims was created, the remaining (India) by simple logic could have been a Hindu nation. Therefore, a wise man once said that India is secular because Indians are secular. That notion also needs to be nurtured through significant events.

*The views expressed are personal and research assistance is provided by Ms Lubna and Ms Eram both doctoral students at Indian Institute of Management-Rohtak.

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