Coronavirus and the BRI

The Corona Virus epidemic has shaken the world in numerous ways. The virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province), has led to the loss of over 12,000 lives globally. The three countries most impacted so far have been Italy (4,825 lives lost), China (3,287 lives lost), and Iran (1,500 lives lost) as of Saturday, March 21, 2020.

While there are reports that China is limping back to normalcy, the overall outlook for the economy is grim, to say the least, with some forecasts clearly predicting that even with aggressive stimulus measures China may not be able to attain 3% growth this year.

The Chinese slow down could have an impact on the country’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While China has been trying to send out a message that BRI will not be impacted excessively, the ground realities could be different given a number of factors.

One of the important, and more controversial, components of the BRI has been the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has often been cited as a clear indicator of ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy’ (this, some analysts argue, is China’s way of increasing other country’s dependency on it, by providing loans for big ticket infrastructural projects, which ultimately lead to a rise in debts).

The US and multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have predictably questioned the project, but even in Pakistan many have questioned CPEC, including politicians, with most concerns revolving around its transparency and long-term economic implications. Yet the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government, and the previous Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) government, have given the project immense importance, arguing that it would be a game changer for the South Asian nation.

On more than one occasion, Beijing has assured Pakistan that CPEC will go ahead as planned with China’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, stating on numerous occasions that the project will not be hit in spite of the Corona Virus. Senior officials in the Imran Khan government, including the Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview with the Global Times, stated that while in the short run Corona may have an impact on CPEC, in the long run there would be no significant impact.

Analysts in Pakistan however, doubt that there will be no impact, given the fact that a large number of Chinese workers who had left Pakistan are unlikely to return. Since February 2020, a number of reports have been predicting that the CPEC project is likely to be impacted significantly.

Similarly, in the cases of other countries too, there are likely to be significant problems with regard to the resource crunch in China as well as the fact that Chinese workers cannot travel. Not only is Beijing not in a position to send workers, but countries hit by COVID-19 themselves will not be in a position to get the project back on track immediately, as they will first have to deal with the consequences of the outbreak.

Some BRI projects which had begun to slow down even before the outbreak spread globally were in Indonesia and Bangladesh. In Indonesia, a high speed rail project connecting Jakarta with Bandung (estimated at $6 billion) has slowed down since the beginning of the year, and ever since the onset of the Corona Virus, skilled Chinese personnel have been prevented from going back to Indonesia. Bangladesh too has announced delays on the Payra Coal power plant in February 2020. As casualties arising out of the virus increase in Indonesia and other parts of Asia and Africa, the first priority for countries is to prevent the spread of the virus.

While it is true that Beijing would want to send a clear message of keeping its commitments, matching up to its earlier targets is not likely to be a mean task. Even before the outbreak, there were issues due to the terms and conditions of the project and a number of projects had to be renegotiated due to pressure from local populations.

What China has managed to do successfully is provide assistance for dealing with COVID-19. In response to a request for assistance from the Italian government, China has sent a group of 300 doctors and corona virus testing kits and ventilators. The founder of Ali Baba and one of Asia’s richest men, Jack Ma, has also taken the lead in providing assistance to countries in need. After announcing that he will send 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and 1 million masks to the United States, Ma pledged to donate more than 1 million kits to Africa on Monday March 17, 2020, and on March 21, 2020, in a tweet, the Chinese billionaire said that he would be donating emergency supplies to a number of South Asian and South East Asian countries — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The emergency supplies include 1.8 million masks, 210,000 test kits, 36,000 protective suits and ventilators, and thermometers.

China is bothered not just about it’s own economic gains from the BRI, but is also concerned about the long term interests of countries which have signed up for BRI.

The Corona Virus has shaken the whole world, not just China, and the immediate priority of most countries is to control the spread of the pandemic and minimize the number of casualties. Countries dependent upon China, especially those which have joined the BRI, are likely to be impacted. What remains to be seen is the degree to which BRI is affected, and how developing countries which have put high stakes on BRI related projects respond.

Coronavirus and the spirit of internationalism

Introduction

Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for emergency funding (it is for the first time since 1962 that Iran has sought IMF assistance) to fight the deadly Corona Virus outbreak (COVID19).

As of Saturday, March 14, 2020, Iran reported over 600 deaths (611) and over 12,000 cases arising out of the deadly virus. That makes Iran the third most affected country in the world after China and Italy. A number of prominent personalities, including the country’s Vice President (Eshaq Jahangari) and two other senior cabinet members, have contracted the virus.

On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, the IMF’s managing director, Kristilina Georgieva, stated that developing countries will be supported in their efforts to take on the Corona Virus through the Fund’s Rapid Financial Instrument. The IMF announced a $50 billion aid package with the aim of specifically assisting ‘low income’ and ‘emerging market’ economies. (On Monday, the World Bank had announced a $12 billion package to deal with the epidemic.)

Iran’s Central Bank chief, Abdolnaser Hemmati, said on Thursday that he had written to the IMF requesting $5 billion in emergency funding via the latter’s Rapid Financing Instrument. In a tweet on Thursday, the Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, urged the IMF to release this amount immediately. The Iranian Foreign Minister also said that Iran was facing a severe shortage of medicines and equipment. US sanctions on Iran, which have prevented it from selling oil or participating fully in the world’s financial ecosystem, have had a detrimental impact on the country’s economy. Iran, in a letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guerres, stated that US sanctions should be suspended keeping in mind the current crisis.

Iran’s apprehensions

Even if the IMF were to agree to releasing $5 billion for Iran, there are a number of obstacles that may result in Iran not being able to get the money from the IMF. First, the US is part of the IMF’s decision-making board (interestingly, in his tweet Zarif had stated that the IMF/IMF board should act responsibly) and even if the IMF agrees to disburse the amount, given the strains between Washington and Tehran it is quite possible that the US will veto such a move by the IMF. If Trump is willing to annoy US allies like the EU (on Wednesday, Trump took a decision to suspend flights from 26 Schengen countries to US, for a period of 30 days without consulting the EU), there is no reason why he will adopt a nuanced approach towards Iran.

Second, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has blacklisted Iran, which means that even if IMF agrees to provide the loan, banks and financial institutions can block such transactions.

Corona Virus is an opportunity for the US to exhibit statesmanship and maturity, and also lower tensions with Iran. While Trump has claimed to being open towards engaging with the Iranians, and seems to have changed his approach towards Tehran, he has not really exhibited much statesmanship in dealing with Tehran. Ever since the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleiman (a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in a drone attack, in January 2020, ties went further downhill.

Opportunity for the US

This is an opportunity for the US to send a positive message to the international community, and to also distinguish between the Iranian public and its political class. China’s messaging with regard to helping the international community has been far better. On March 12, 2020, a team of Chinese doctors reached Italy (Italy, which is the most worst hit nation after China, had requested assistance from the latter). A number of Italian leaders have also criticised EU countries for being slow in reacting to Italy’s call for assistance.

Positive steps taken by China

What is also significant is that at a time when Washington and Beijing have been engaged in unnecessary mud-slinging with regard to the virus, with the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dubbing the Corona Virus as ‘Wuhan Virus’, and a senior Chinese diplomat responding by calling it a ‘conspiracy’ by the US army, on Friday March 13, 2020, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma stated in a tweet that he would donate one million face masks and 500,000 corona virus testing kits to the US. Earlier, Jack Ma’s charitable foundation, and his China-based company’s foundation, the Alibaba Foundation, had already donated supplies to a number of countries including  Japan, Korea, Italy, Iran, and Spain.

Conclusion

In case, the US does not agree to provide immediate assistance to Iran, other countries should step in including US allies like the UK, EU member states, and Japan. It is also important for multilateral organizations to show their teeth and not allow petty politics to come in the way of the fight against COVID 19. The Corona Virus is a clear reiteration of the point that while there may be numerous problems with economic globalization, we live in a truly interconnected world however much we may try to obliterate this fact. Humanity should trump petty politics and bickering, and this is an opportunity to revive the true spirit of internationalism.

Biden vs. Sanders: The view from New Delhi

After Joe Biden’s remarkable performance on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, where he won 10 states, Wall Street surged on Wednesday. Many argue that the former Vice President, with his centrist economic views as compared to Senator Bernie Sanders, would be more acceptable not just to centrist supporters of the Democrats, as well as US corporates, but interestingly even some Republicans who are not comfortable with Trump’s economic policies. Donors of the Democratic Party are also rallying behind Biden, and Sanders is trying to use this point in his favor, saying that the ‘political establishment’ is not happy with his rise. The Vermont Senator, with his radical economic policies, has based his campaign on challenging the current status quo (where a section of the elite have disproportionate influence).

If one were to look at Biden’s key stand on foreign policy issues, his remarks on Afghanistan were criticised not just by Afghan leaders but also strategic analysts. Biden stated that US should not be concerned with ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, but rather with countering terrorism. Reacting to his remarks, spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated:

Afghanistan fought and stood as a whole nation to the face of tyrants such as the Soviet Invasion, Terrorism invasion and now, it is in the front lines so that the other nations are safer. ISIS [Daesh] & the Taliban, the major terror networks and the enemies of the world are defeated here.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai stated that Biden’s remarks were ‘unrealistic and immature’ and sent a message that US was not really concerned about nation building in Afghanistan. Other observers of Afghanistan were also surprised by Biden’s remarks (as number 2 in the Obama Administration, he played a key role in the formation of the Unity government in 2014).

On China, Biden’s approach seems to be more nuanced than Trump’s. In May 2019, he stated that while US needed to watch its own interests, excessive paranoia vis-à-vis China was uncalled for. A month later (in June 2019) he stated that “China poses a serious challenge to us, and in some areas are a real threat.”

At the same time, like the Republicans and Democrats, Biden has opposed the entry of Huawei into the United States’ 5G network, arguing that this would be a security threat (in a presidential primary debate, Biden alluded to this point along with other candidates). Interestingly, an article in China’s main English-language daily, Global Times, argues that Biden would be a better bet for China than Bernie Sanders given that he is more predictable and has experience in dealing with China.

One issue on which Biden has drawn flak from Bernie Sanders is the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a brain child of former President Barack Obama (TPP was an important component of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which sought to counter China’s economic and strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region – now referred to as Indo-Pacific).

Sanders’ approach to TPP is identical to that of Trump (whose first decision was to pull out of the TPP). Sanders had praised Trump’s decision saying that this decision was in the interest of American workers.

The Vermont Senator has argued that Biden supported the TPP, which would be damaging to American workers. While seeing the popular mood, Biden has revised his stand and stated that he would go ahead with the deal but will renegotiate it (interestingly, Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton also turned against the TPP even though as Secretary of State she had fervently backed the deal).

When in power, the approach to crucial policy issues changes and that could be the case as far as Joe Biden is concerned. On issues like China and TPP it is highly unlikely that Biden will take a fundamentally different position from the Republican Party given the current narrative prevalent in the US. Having been an insider, it is likely though that he will follow a more cautious approach and not upset the apple cart too much.

New thorns in the Special Relationship: Persian, Chinese, and populist

The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.

Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA

In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.

Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.

During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.

Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.

Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks

Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.

UK-US relations

Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.

This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.

US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same

Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.

It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.

Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei

Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.

Johnson’s approach towards Huawei

In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.

Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues

It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.

Conclusion

If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).

In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.

Despite pressure from Trump, Iran’s world role will continue to be important

Introduction

Ever since taking over as President, Donald Trump’s approach towards Iran has been excessively rash and lacking in nuance. The US withdrawal from JCPOA (Joint Comprehension for Plan of Action), the imposition of sanctions, and brash statements by Trump have heightened tensions between both countries. Allies of the US, including EU member states (especially Germany and France), have expressed their disapproval of Trump’s Iran policy on numerous occasions.

In August 2019, during the G7 Summit at Biarritz (France), it seemed that Trump might have changed his approach towards Iran. The US President expressed his openness to engaging with Iran and dubbed it as a country of immense potential. After the attack on Saudi Oil facilities, there has been a visible shift in the approach of Germany, France, and the UK towards Iran. All three countries blamed Iran for the attacks. In a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) these three countries issued a statement condemning the attack. They also held Iran squarely responsible for the attack. Said the joint statement:

It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack

Why China is giving importance to Iran Continue reading

A short note on Ethiopia and the African continent

Introduction

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. He is the 12th winner from Africa. The Nobel Committee stated that Abiy had been awarded the Nobel for his efforts towards resolving the border conflict with Eritrea (in September 2018, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace deal in Jeddah).

A border war in the years between 1998 and 2000 had resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people, and was responsible for the displacement of over one million people and the splintering of many families. The agreement has helped in reducing tensions between both countries and has led to a number of other important steps; it has paved the way for air connectivity (Ethiopian Airlines resumed its flight from Addis Abbaba to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea after two decades), resumption of communications between both countries (telephone lines had been disconnected in 1998), reduction of military hostilities, and most importantly reuniting of families.

Abiy’s reaction

While reacting to the Nobel Committee’s decision, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said that this reward was not merely for Ethiopia, but the whole of Africa, and hoped that leaders in the region would work towards peace-building.

Said the Ethiopian PM:

…It is a prize given to Africa, given to Ethiopia, and I can imagine how the rest of Africa’s leaders will take it positively to work on the peace-building process in our continent.

It would be pertinent to point out that, in recent years, the outside world has begun to take note of Ethiopia for its economic progress – in spite of numerous political challenges.

In recent years — almost a decade — the country’s economic growth has been a whopping 10% according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates. In 2018, Ethiopia’s growth was estimated at well over 8% (8.5), and was the fastest growing economy in Africa. One of the key factors for Ethiopia’s impressive economic performance has been the shift from the agricultural sector to the industry & service sector and favourable demographics.

Reforms introduced by Abiy Ahmed: Political Sphere

Abiy’s election has generated immense hope, as he has seemed genuine in his commitment to political and economic reforms. During his tenure, a number of political prisoners have been released. There is also a reasonable amount of press freedom. There have been no arrests of journalists ever since he has taken over (2018 was the first year since 2004 when not a single journalist was arrested).

Abiy’s reforms – both political and economic – are significant because in many countries which have made economic progress, leaders have exhibited authoritarian tendencies. In many countries with economic promise, leaders have also failed to bite the bullet, as far as big bang economic reforms are concerned. Abiy, on the other hand, has reiterated his commitment to reforms.

Reforms introduced by Abiy Ahmed: Economic Sphere

In September 2019, Abiy unveiled his vision for economic reform titled ‘Home-Grown Economic Reform,’ which focuses on drawing greater public sector participation, reducing debts, and enhancing foreign exchange reserves. While speaking on the occasion of the launch of the roll out of his government’s agenda, Abiy emphasized on the fact that this approach is holistic: pro-job, pro-growth, and pro-inclusivity.

Privatization of a number of state run enterprises, such as Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and the sole telecom provider, EthioTelecom, has also been high on the agenda of Abiy ever since he has taken over.

Challenges

This is not to say that all is well in Ethiopia. In June 2019, Ethiopia faced two attacks, one in the Amhara regional capital of Bahir Dar and the other in the federal capital of Addis Ababa. While Abiy has made efforts towards reducing acrimony in the country’s polity, there are still numerous ethnic divisions, and a large number of political players are seeking to cash in on these schisms.

Expectations from Abiy are sky high, and the country faces numerous debts. While his agenda for reforms is well-intentioned, and does represent a significant break from the past, it is rather ambitious and it remains to be seen whether stakeholders involved in the implementation will be in sync with the PM.

Africa no longer the Dark Continent

For very long, many Western commentators have consistently adopted a patronizing approach towards Africa. The Nobel Award to the Ethiopian PM comes at an interesting time. At a time when the whole world is becoming insular, 54 African countries have signed the AfCTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) agreement. AfCTA. This is the world’s largest free trade agreement since the World Trade Organisation).

AfCTA is a crucial step towards strengthening intra-regional trade linkages and overall connectivity. AfCTA has the potential of connecting over 1 billion people, creating a bloc worth over an estimated $3 billion and pushing intra-Africa trade by up to 15-25% by 2040 (as of 2018, intra-regional trade was less than 20%).

It would be pertinent to point out that the Ethiopian PM has on repeated occasions reiterated his commitment to Pan-Africanism, and has been one of the most fervent backers of AfCTA.

Africa is also being viewed as the world’s next manufacturing hub (China has already moved in a big way, though of course many countries are looking to other alternatives). Political stability and investor-friendly policies of course are imperative.

Conclusion

One hopes that other leaders in Africa follow Abiy’s footsteps in focusing on economic and political changes which could pave the way for sustainable growth and prosperity.

For long the world’s attention has been driven by a Western narrative, but in recent years Africa along with Asia has begun to draw attention due to high economic growth rates. If Africa can get its act together, and growth in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam is sustained, we could witness the rise of new Non-Western groupings (consisting of developing countries from different regions). Such groupings will not be driven by geopolitical compulsions, geographic proximity, or sheer size, but by economic consideration and could play a pivotal role in shaping a new narrative, while promoting globalization, connectivity and free trade.

The role of religious minorities in combating Islamophobia: The Sikh case

A channel to counter Islamophobia

On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are supposed to have discussed the idea of setting up of a television channel to counter ‘Islamophobia’. In a tweet, the Pakistan PM said that it was decided that the three countries would set up a BBC type channel which will raise Muslim issues and also counter Islamophobia.

The role of Sikh public figures, in the UK and Canada, in countering Islamophobia

It would be pertinent to point out that prominent Sikh public figures in Canada and the UK have played a pivotal role in countering hate towards Muslims. This includes the first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament (MP) in British Parliament, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Labour MP from Slough), who criticised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for highly offensive remarks Johnson had made, in an opinion piece written for The Telegraph in 2018, against Muslim women wearing burqas.

Johnson had stated that Muslim women wearing burqas look like ‘letter boxes and bank robbers’. Dhesi sought an unequivocal apology from the British PM for his remarks.

The Labour MP from Slough stated that if anyone decides to wear religious symbols, it gives no one the right to make ‘derogatory and derisive’ remarks. Dhesi also invoked the experiences of immigrants like himself, and those hailing from other countries, and the racist slurs which they had to contend with.

The leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada, Jagmeet Singh, has also repeatedly spoken against ‘Islamophobia’. In 2017, when Singh was still a candidate for the NDP leadership, he was accosted by a heckler, who confused Singh’s religious identity and mistook him for a Muslim. The woman accused Jagmeet Singh of being in favor of imposing the Shariah (Islamic law defined by the Quran) and a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a tweet, Singh had then clarified his stance, saying:

Many people have commented that I could have just said I’m not Muslim. In fact many have clarified that I’m actually Sikh. While I’m proud of who I am, I purposely didn’t go down that road because it suggests their hate would be ok if I was Muslim

On September 1, 2019, Jagmeet Singh’s brother, Gurratan Singh, a legislator from Brampton East, was accosted after speaking at a Muslim Fest in Mississauga and accused by Stephen Garvey, leader of the National Citizens Alliance (NCA), of adopting a ‘politically correct approach’ towards issues like ‘Shariah’ and ‘Political Islam’. Gurratan responded calmly, stating that Canada could do without racism. In a tweet later on, Gurratan, like his brother, said that he would never respond to Islamophobia by pointing out that he was not Muslim. Jagmeet Singh also praised his brother for his reaction.

Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary

That these Sikh politicians in the diaspora are standing up against Islamophobia at a time when Sikhs are preparing to commemorate the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib, the founder of the Sikh faith, is important. Guru Nanak Sahib was truly a multi-faceted personality – social crusader, traveler, poet, and even ambassador of peace and harmony in South Asia and outside. The first Guru of the Sikhs always stood up for the oppressed, be it against Mughal oppression or social ills prevalent during the time.

Today, Sikhs in the UK, Canada, and the US who have attained success in various spheres are trying to carry forward the message of tolerance, compassion, and standing up for the weak. While being clear about its distinct identity, the Sikh diaspora also realizes the importance of finding common cause with members of other immigrants and minority communities and standing up for their rights. This emphasis on co-existence and interfaith harmony has helped in creating awareness about the faith.

A good example of the growing respect of the Sikh community is not just the number of tributes (including from senior officials in Texas as well as the Federal Government) which have poured in after the brutal murder of a Sikh police officer, Sandeep Singh Dhaliwal, in Houston, Texas (Dhaliwal happened to be the first Sikh in the Harris County Sheriff’s office), but also a recognition of the true values of the Sikh faith, which include compassion, sacrifice, and commitment to duty. While Sikhs still have been victims of numerous hate crimes, in recent years there is an increasing awareness with regard to not just Sikh symbols, but also the philosophical and moral underpinning of this faith.

Conclusion

While countering Islamophobia is important, it can not be done in silos. It is important for minority communities to find common cause and be empathetic to each other’s needs. Setting up a TV channel may be an important symbolic gesture, but it’s overall efficacy is doubtful unless there is a genuine effort towards interfaith globally.