The challenges faced by religious minorities due to increased discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes during the global pandemic
By Mirabel Nguyen | email@example.com
Los Angeles’ Huong Tich Temple is a place of Buddhist worship, education, and community. Despite its sacrosanctity, vandals did not hesitate to viciously desecrate the temple in November 2020 by defacing over a dozen Buddha and bodhisattva statues. The brutal attack was one of six perpetrated against the Vietnamese Little Saigon region—all within the same month.
Ignoring the need for unity during global catastrophe, these trends reveal discord and mistrust against those who already face persecution. Fear manifests in the resurgence of previous patterns, which include age-old contempt for members of minority communities. Falling back on convention makes novel threats less intimidating, and religious discrimination is no exception to this pattern. Certain members of religious majorities may find that sustaining their contempt for minorities reaffirms their sense of familiarity in the midst of upheaval. As a result, the political and social stigma against religious minorities has risen to new heights, largely due to the scapegoat narratives that intensify preexisting prejudices.
Religious Scapegoating in Politics
The scapegoat narrative has long played a role in the response to deadly diseases. For example, in fifteenth-century Europe, Jews were blamed for the spread of the Black Death and were forced to flee or face imprisonment and execution. During the COVID-19 crisis, a similar, fear-driven response arose as individuals across the globe developed increasing reliance on digital methods of communication. The perpetrators of religious discrimination also shifted with the times by making use of the most prolific and accessible platform: social media. Knowing their affiliations protect them from blame, users are easily able to add a derogatory hashtag to their tweet, comment on malignant cartoons, or repost hate speech of a misinformed activist.
Rather than condemning them for their bigotry, aggressors may derive validation from prominent political figures. Cambodia’s Ministry of Health attributed the country’s first cases to Khmer Muslims, who arrived from a foreign gathering, without mentioning the religious identities of other travellers in the group. Pakistani officials sealed off two large Hazara Shia areas while banning government workers from travelling to Hazara neighborhoods; the display inspired social media users to refer to COVID-19 as the “Shia virus.” These acts of discrimination echo a sentiment popularized by the officials who targeted the Shia region of Qatif in Saudi Arabia. Home to 500,000, the region’s 237 cases were ample grounds for shutdown according to the government.
India has similarly suffered from widespread hatred on social media platforms—some of which has been exacerbated by political leaders. A feature in the British Medical Journal, authored by Sonia Sarkar, reveals that the labels, “#coronajihad” and “Quran-e-virus,” gained frequency among the tweets composed and shared by certain Twitter users in India. The nation has struggled with religious stratification prior to the pandemic as a result of political misinformation.
“Ever since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in India in 2014, there has been an organised hatred campaign against Muslims through fake news and false narratives by certain social media users, who have often identified themselves as BJP supporters or even claimed to have been followed by PM Modi himself,” states Sarkar, an independent journalist covering conflict, religion and politics in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
As ruling party politicians maneuver to strengthen their support base, the relations between religious groups deteriorate: minorities suffer the consequences of a regime that prioritizes maintaining power—and popularity among Hindu right-wing majorities—over preserving peace during the pandemic.
Discriminatory patterns have existed long before the emergence of the virus. As new forms of hate speech arise, COVID-19 allows a clearer glimpse into religious discrimination as a deep-rooted practice in modern society. The pandemic has exacerbated antagonisms between religious groups; hostilities are becoming increasingly overt as aggressors allow their anxieties to fuel the flames of their prejudice.
“COVID-19 was really just the magnifying glass that allowed us to see the discrimination that was already happening on a daily occurrence,” Claire Thomas, deputy director of Minority Rights Group International, explained.
Religion occupies a unique space at the intersection of many social inequalities. Across the world, those belonging to religious minority groups are more likely to experience poverty, restrictions to healthcare and education, and adverse living conditions. Their position in each of these settings creates a greater vulnerability to “coronavirus-stigma,” a term used by UNICEF to account for the stereotypes, unequal treatment, and the loss of status experienced by discriminated groups during the pandemic. Not only do their circumstances generate a larger risk of infection, but they are also less likely to seek treatment for their symptoms, contributing to difficulties controlling infection rates and social tensions.
To many members of majority religious groups, even the opportunity to speak the same language as the remainder of the country is an overlooked advantage. According to Thomas, those who are members of religious majorities tend to speak the most common languages of the region, and rarely question the extent to which this privilege grants them easier access to healthcare.
Unlike religious minorities, majority groups do not have to consider “whether they will have been given access to information about COVID and vaccinations,” or “whether [information on COVID-19] will be explained to them in ways that are culturally appropriate.” These barriers serve as “evidence of problems that affect all other walks of life.”
Reversing Religious Bias
Resolving the discrimination specific to the pandemic may help to reverse the habits that disadvantage religious minorities beyond the reach of COVID-19. Combatting the scapegoat narrative not only has an impact on the COVID-19 response but may contribute to a greater degree of social equality. Thomas reveals that contesting religious bigotry emphasizes to minority religious groups that their liberties are prioritized.
“[It shows them that] they're free of discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief, so being of a particular faith doesn't mean you can’t succeed in life or have the same opportunities in life [as religious majorities].”
Eliminating religious tensions is a responsibility required of all citizens, but many are confined by the belief that they are incapable of addressing the issue. A successful response requires an analytical approach. Sarkar warns against falling into either of the two classifications of citizens: those who fail to interpret misinformation with a critical eye, and those who exclusively rely on information that reaffirms their bias.
“The first group of people is gullible and don't use their intelligence in rationale and reasoning... They are the fence sitters, they don't challenge the narrative or even look for ways to know if the information is true or false. The second group is those who have already decided to believe whatever suits their imagination. This is the group which will consume any information that suits their political agenda.” Therefore, “the real task is to spread the truth among these two sets of people."
By recognizing bigoted political agendas, online hate speech, and scapegoat narratives, individuals can identify the ways by which systemic faults emerge in everyday rhetoric. Rationality must be used to combat the effects of misdirected fear. Attention must be paid to those who seek to legitimize their power by casting blame. Above all else, to prevent the misinformation that contributes to religious marginalization, truth must prevail. Writer's Reflection
Social inequalities often intersect with one another, and groups that are persecuted for their religion must often contend with unequal access to the same resources and liberties as their religious majority counterparts. Therefore, by contacting a director of Minority Rights Group International and a journalist operating from south Asia, I learned that the issues facing religious minorities during COVID-19 represent only a small portion of the preestablished social injustice of today’s society. However, my information was limited due to the fact that I did not include the insight of individuals who have experienced religious discrimination firsthand, and I instead relied on organizations that represent their experiences from a secondary perspective. Being able to write this article revealed the importance of prioritizing facts and data over information that has become familiarized or reaffirms bias. I also learned that an effective response to any global crisis rarely consists of taking an easy route—becoming educated on sensitive issues requires uncomfortable introspection but helps to identify the truth.