Alexander Rocklin: Caravan Politics
Today we welcome a guest post from Alexander Rocklin, author of The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, just published this month by UNC Press.
How can religious freedom be granted to people who do not have a religion? While Indian indentured workers in colonial Trinidad practiced cherished rituals, “Hinduism” was not a widespread category in India at the time. On this Caribbean island, people of South Asian descent and African descent came together—under the watchful eyes of the British rulers—to walk on hot coals for fierce goddesses, summon spirits of the dead, or honor Muslim martyrs, practices that challenged colonial norms for religion and race. Drawing deeply on colonial archives, Alexander Rocklin examines the role of the category of religion in the regulation of the lives of Indian laborers struggling for autonomy.
The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Caravan Politics: Massacres and Islamophobia in the History of the Americas
On January 18th, 2019, during the government shutdown, President Donald Trump tweeted a quote from an unnamed rancher on the US Mexico border claiming, “We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal.” The president went on to write that migrants were crossing “the Southern Border from many countries, some of which would be a big surprise.” Trump was using this rumor as a dog whistle to spark Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment to drum up support for a wall along the southern border. Months earlier, in the lead up to 2018 midterm elections, the Trump administration had again attempted to play on voters’ fears of illegal immigration by hyping the supposed danger of a migrant “caravan” coming to the US from Honduras, the arrival of which, they claimed, threatened the very fabric of American society. They made the (unfounded) claim that Islamic terrorists were using the migrant caravan as cover to sneak into the country. This played into ongoing Islamophobic, anti-Latinx, and antisemitic hatred on the right of the American political spectrum. Trump tweeted about the caravan that, “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic].” This was echoed by Vice President Mike Pence, who, in his comments, specifically referred to the threat coming from Middle Eastern terrorists at the US/Mexico border. These conspiracy theories about hidden non-white, non-American, and non-Christian invaders has helped to justify Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s harsh treatment of vulnerable groups fleeing violence in Central America and looking for new opportunities in the US. It also has helped to fuel racist violence like the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th, 2018 by a white supremacist who massacred 11 people. However, although islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments are pervasive in our political discourse, the conflation of the two is not new.
The details and uses of these conspiracy theories about the caravan in the 21st century have echoes in a longer history of Islamophobia and white supremacy in the Anglophone Americas and beyond. In the 19th century, media in England and British colonies in the Caribbean repeated narratives of secret Muslim invaders from afar bent on using large processions of people as cover to attack the social order. As I discuss in chapter 3 of my book, The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, such stories helped to justify the repression and close control, and even the killing, of vulnerable colonized and unfree laboring populations like Indian indentured laborers in the Caribbean colonies of Trinidad and British Guiana.
We can trace the association of Islam with rebellion in this context back to British anxieties about India’s “Mutiny” of 1857. Muharram marks the life and death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Husayn and is commemorated in India and Indian diaspora communities. It became a site of colonial anxiety over covert Muslim rebellion. In the British empire, Muharram, with its large groups of people taking to the streets, became fodder for British colonial conspiracy theories about a repeat attempt at the 1857 Indian rebellion, either in India or abroad. This orientalist and Islamophobic trope of Muharram as mutiny appeared in newspaper articles, memoirs, and fiction, such as Rudyard Kipling’s short story “On the City Wall,” first published in 1888.
In the Americas, we see this trope in John Edward Jenkins’s 1877 novel Lutchmee and Dilloo. The novel is set in British Guiana, on South America’s Caribbean coast, and depicts the lives of Indian indentured laborers. Jenkins wrote the book as a call to reform the miserable conditions for Indian laborers in the British empire outside of India. Jenkins ultimately meant his novel, full of innocent love, jealousy, and fiery revenge, to inform British readers and spark positive change for Indians. However, the story repeats racist and Islamophobic stereotypes common at the time. In his chapter “The Tadja,” which takes place during Muharram, the revelry and “frenzy” of Indian indentured laborers’ Tadja or Muharram festival concealed Indian indentured laborers’ rebellion and then the attempted assassinations of the colonial magistrate. Leading the Muharram conspiracy was wicked Ramsammy, a Sepoy, or former soldier in the Indian army, who had participated in the 1857 “Mutiny.” The novel calls him a “Wahabee,” or Muslim radical. After the plot is foiled, the fleeing would-be mutineers look for refuge in the forest with an obeahman, an Afro-Caribbean ritual specialist who colonial officials and British popular culture imagined to be a dangerous and deceptive sorcerer who was also historically associated with social unrest as well, specifically slave revolts. The unity between Indo- and Afro-Caribbeans was an equally terrifying possibility for the planter class and colonizers.
Such conspiracy mongering spilled off the page and into real life. In the 1880s in the British colony of Trinidad, we see colonial elites spreading similar conspiracies, meant to engender fear and paranoia about Muslim Indian laborers there. Despite the British empire’s promises of the freedom of religion, the colonial government instituted regulations of public Hosay, or Muharram, processions in order to control potentially unruly crowds and stop purported plots against the government. In an article in the newspaper Palladium from October 21, 1882 commenting on possible unrest, an author lamented the continued allowance of “Heathenism” in the country but called for increased “respect” to be paid to the “religious convictions” of the Indians (in addition to the regulations). The author argued that the possibility of unrest, particularly among the “Musselmen,” or Muslims, was high, and so “respect” of Indian laborers’ religion would help keep order for managers, overseers, and police, and perhaps prevent an uprising like the “Sepoy rebellion” of 1857 in India. The tensions from the regulations, ratcheted up by the spread of conspiracies of concealed Muslim mutiny, lead to the police massacring Indian laborers on procession during the Hosay of 1884.
In the same way that the British government ostensibly respected religious practices but used the supposed threat of radical Muslim presence to crack down on Muharram, the US government ostensibly would accept “real” refugees but say that the presence of Muslims among refugee groups is proof that they are not legitimate. The supposed existence of radical Muslims, or Muslims of any sort, in these mixed groups is sufficient to delegitimize them. These stories of a treacherous Muslim threat secreted in large and moving crowds of people, both in the late 19th and early 21st centuries, reproduce dangerous stereotypes of Islam as inherently violent and deceptive. The American and British colonial regimes and their supporters have used these conspiracy theories to protect white supremacy and justify violence, both the structural violence of states and more specific violence, the massacre of innocents on the streets and in a synagogue.
Alexander Rocklin is visiting assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Idaho.
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