Barack Obama and the Temple of Doom

Why the famed Golden Temple of Amritsar in India might not make into the Presidential itinerary - and what it tells us about the nature of belief and religious understanding.


Image: Golden Temple AmritsarTHE RUMOUR  that President Obama has decided not to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar during his forthcoming trip to India is being reported as news around the world. Sikhism’s most sacred site is supposed to have been struck off Obama’s itinerary because images of the president visiting it with his head covered, and surrounded as he would be by bearded and turbaned men, would apparently have been a public relations bonanza for those in the US who think they can raise doubts about his American-ness by claiming he is a Muslim. The cancellation of a presidential visit to the Golden Temple on the grounds that its headgear requirements are too Muslim adds insult to injury: Sikhs in France have been lobbying hard to have their turbans exempted from the law preventing religious headgear from being worn in schools, a ruling directed primarily at the veils supposedly forced upon Muslim girls by their families. The global coverage given this story of mistaken identity and false belief tells us something more important, I think, about politics in our times.

Interesting about the media narrative of Obama’s cancelled visit is its presumption of American ignorance. We are told that there exists a history of Sikh men being mistaken for Muslims: from the days of the Iran hostage crisis to 9/11, those whose beards and turbans made them resemble the Ayatollah Khomeini or Osama bin Laden have been attacked and even killed. Indeed in this whole period the only persons murdered in the US for being Muslim have apparently all been Sikh. Such identifications are profoundly ironic. They ignore those elements of Sikh history and practice that might otherwise give pause to those who inveigh against Muslim terrorism. Thus Sikh men are religiously obliged to carry daggers and possess a strong martial culture, which in the 1980s was pressed into the service of terrorism for a Sikh state. This resulted in the incredibly destructive 1984 siege of the Golden Temple, the assassination of an Indian prime minister that same year, the bombing of a passenger jet over Scotland in 1988, and innumerable killings, including the massacre of some four thousand Sikhs by Indira Gandhi’s Hindu and Muslim supporters in New Delhi.

Even more ironic is the fact that Sikhs and Muslims in the Punjab share a history of mutual enmity. This includes episodes like the seventeenth century martyrdom of Sikh religious leaders by Muslim rulers when they were drawn into the latter’s succession struggles. Then there was the establishment of a Sikh kingdom over a restive Muslim population in the eighteenth century, and the bloodletting that accompanied the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when the Sikh homeland was divided between the two countries. Numbers of its men went on to justify their self-description, in the killings that followed, as the “sword-arm of Hinduism”. Those in the US who either attack Sikhs or report upon such attacks have ignored these facts, even though there exist large and long-established Sikh communities in California as well as Canada. They, like the Muslims who have also settled there, are overwhelmingly peaceable, despite the fact some members of both groups have on occasion been involved in terrorist and other forms of violence.

Of course Sikhs comprise a small religious community, and have not taken the West as their enemy, which might explain why their history and practices have held little interest for Americans. More can be said about the narrative of American ignorance that informs the mistaken identification of Sikhs as Muslims, which is at the same time one of American innocence, seen as something that can be manipulated for political gain. In this version of reality the ignorant Americans who commit such crimes are certainly not blameless. Neither are they fully responsible for their acts, such responsibility belonging rather to political agitators who might not themselves mistake Sikhs for Muslims, or indeed desire to kill the latter. Innocence and malice thus work together in such a way as to exculpate both of any real hatred for Muslims, who after all can’t even be properly identified. Since the Sikhs targeted were not in fact Muslims, their murders cannot be defined either as anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh acts, but simply as cases of mistaken identity. And this mistake is made understandable not only because its victims appeared more Muslim than Muslims did themselves, but also because the Sikh religion, as the media constantly reminds us, shares a great deal with Islam.

Like the stories told of the President having been born outside the US and so ineligible to hold office, or of his being a Muslim and thus sympathetic to America’s enemies, the tale of Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims is understood in terms of the relationship between ignorance and guile. This has the effect of dispersing all responsibility for the politics involved in such beliefs, turning the issue into one of insufficient education among the many and unscrupulous means among the few. That such a narrative is elitist and even anti-democratic goes without saying. But it belongs at the heart of liberal politics, for which free speech and the press allow public opinion to be formed in discussion and debate that should promote knowledge – but might well induce falsehood instead. For the problem with public opinion is that it can be educated into goodness or misguided by evil, which is why liberal democracies require safeguards like electoral colleges to prevent freedom from turning in all innocence against itself.

More interesting than this narrative of liberal pedagogy and its risks is to ask what it means to believe that President Obama was born abroad, or that either he or Sikh men in general are Muslims. Is the Prime Minister of India, a turbaned and bearded Sikh, mistaken for a Muslim in the US, and will the President be tarred with this association when pictured standing beside him? If the answer to this question is “no”, then the mistaken identity thesis  - that identity in this case is produced by the coming together of ignorance and guile – has to be abandoned. Instead, the superficial identification of Sikh as Muslim means that any belief, whether correct or mistaken, has become irrelevant to the process. One might even say that Americans do not truly believe Sikhs to be Muslims, only of playing the part assigned to Muslims. They are in other words recognized not as a set of people, the followers of a particular religion, but merely as empty signs. The same goes for the “belief” in Obama’s foreign birth or terrorist religiosity, which also have nothing behind them.

We have seen that for liberals public opinion is formed through the press and other institutions of civil society, but in such a way as to be guided by the discerning few in a pedagogical process. In the context of a mass culture that goes well beyond the traditional bounds of civil society, however, such opinion-making can no longer be guided or even constitute itself as a debate. Internet and satellite communication expand conversations across the globe while destroying any meaningful distinction between public and private spheres. Opinions can neither be located within particular communities nor indeed be referred to some external truth or authority for adjudication. In a world saturated by media, there is no appeal to any reality that lies outside, so that attempts to disseminate images of the President’s birth certificate on television or over the Internet, for example, probably convinced nobody who required it of Obama’s American origins. These images were after all available only in the form of media reports, and thus equivalent to others stating exactly the opposite. 

By making the reference to all outside reality or neutral authority redundant, the purely internal world of media debate renders all opinions equally valid. This results in the kind of pluralism that allows each side in any controversy to retain its opinion, with victory declared only in terms of the number of debating points scored. Yet opponents are never convinced because the opinions on offer cannot be described as reasoning in any case, but rather pre-digested arguments deployed as weapons at hand. It is only a question therefore of building up one’s own stockpile and defending one’s position ever more strenuously. This is very clear when we look at what is perhaps the most popular form that such debate takes: online comments. The digital response to news reports, articles and the like is to spar with others writing in with their own opinions, invariably abandoning any reference to the original text. Nobody is ever convinced in such debates, of course, which suggests that at issue is not debate, opinion or belief, so much as signs and gestures.

The pedagogy of liberalism has broken down in mass society, where old-fashioned conversion by way of public debate is becoming a rarity. Rather than viewing the rival claims over Obama’s birthplace and religion as products of ignorance or guile, it might be more accurate to compare them with other elements of mass culture, like advertisements, which take the form of information but presume no belief either among their producers or consumers. For whatever the verifiable data that advertisements contain, it is clear that they work not as aggregates of information but as evocations of glamour and pleasure that nobody would for a minute take seriously. Advertisements, in other words, work not because people believe in them but because they don’t. Belief is irrelevant here, as is ignorance and guile. The Sikh stands in for the Muslim not because he appears to summarize in his person traits and qualities that have been mistakenly identified, but because he represents nothing at all.

Yet if “belief” is so hollow a thing in mass culture, it is capable of changing rapidly and without leaving any residue behind, just as is the case with advertising. Surely the very fact that Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims suggests precisely this, because the identification is based on nothing, and even ignores the far more complex details of anti-Muslim rhetoric, thus proving that it is the result of no learning at all. American liberals are certainly right to be worried about the decline in public debate, or about the political implications of holding egregiously and sometimes dangerously false views regarding the President, Muslims and Sikhs. But they needn’t go so far as to envisage the emergence of an intolerant or even fascistic society in the US. The superficiality of such views, absurd and violent though they may be, suggests that they can be transformed in very little time. How to accomplish such a transformation is of course the problem, though it should by now be clear that liberal pedagogy in the public sphere is not the way to do so. The point is not to oppose an argument to a sign, but to replace it with another – something the Obama administration has not yet learnt to do. But in India, Sikh spokesmen have already veered the media debate in another direction, arguing that the President’s refusal to visit the Golden Temple would accomplish nothing but insult India’s minority groups, who include of course Sikhs and Muslims both.