Ethno-Religious Profiling of Campaign Donors is Bigoted and UnAmerican

Earlier this month, conservative activists in Tarrant County, Texas tried to oust the Muslim American vice-chair of the county Republican Party because they claimed he was unfit for leadership on their assertion that Islam was incompatible with American values.

Two years ago, one senior Democratic senator pointedly asked a law professor being considered for federal judgeship, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?”

Religious bigotry has reared its ugly head throughout our nation’s political history. And neither Democrats nor Republicans are above reproach for its perpetuation in spite of Article VI of the US Constitution.

But a new and alarming trend seems to be emerging — one in which the donors to political candidates are being profiled and targeted on the basis of their presumed religion.

Recently a handful of reporters (links here and here) painstakingly scoured campaign contribution records for Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), the first Hindu American to have been elected to the US House of Representatives, and now the first to make a presidential run.

What were they looking for?

“Hindu sounding” names to attribute un-American and sinister political agendas and false ties to political parties in India. Contributions by “Hindu-sounding name” donors to Gabbard have been problematized. Their contributions to non-Hindu candidates have not.

Here’s the plot to these articles:

  1. Hindu-sounding name donors made contributions to Gabbard
  2. These same donors also support nationalist causes in India and India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi
  3. Representative Tulsi Gabbard met with Prime Minister Modi
  4. Therefore, Hindu Americans are suspect and beholden to foreign and dangerous agendas

Aside from being deeply offensive and dangerous, their plot is sloppy. But that hasn’t stopped other media outlets from citing to the initial reports as sources. As propaganda machinery has proven historically — if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. So this nonsense has to be stopped before that happens.

Donors have been profiled in these stories based on the ostensible ethnic origins of their names, and their religious identities attributed on the basis of their names. For the most part, the writers didn’t speak directly to any of the profiled donors with “Hindu sounding names” to ascertain whether they identify as Hindu, what they believe, or why they support Gabbard. In the few instances where they were, the writers didn’t bother asking about campaign contributions these donors may have made to other candidates.

Did they stop to think how to overcome the challenge of identifying Hindus not of Indian descent, like Gabbard herself, who may have names that don’t necessarily “sound Hindu”? Or what the consequences of their fishing expedition might be on a religious and ethnic minority just starting to find its political voice in America? Ironically, one can also predict with some certainty, based on the subtext in these articles, that these same writers would report with harsh criticism and indignant outcries had donors with “Muslim sounding names” to Muslim candidates been similarly profiled.

Readers are also asked to take the writers’ word about American Hindus “who support nationalist causes in India.” This requires several logical leaps absent actual “proof.” We’re asked to believe that if some Americans of Indian origin with Hindu sounding names support causes in India, that some of these causes would naturally or obviously be “nationalist.” What “nationalist causes” means is left to the imagination, but the intent behind and cost of such accusations is clear and not unlike calling someone a communist during the McCarthy era.

Federal law prohibits foreign nationals from making campaign contributions. So these individuals who have been profiled and targeted are clearly Americans. How then are Hindu and Indian Americans, who are ineligible to vote in India, supporters of any political party there? Because they’ve favorably talked about the Indian prime minister? Or is it because they took advantage of a photo opp with him? Well, so have Priyanka and Nick, Richard Gere, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos amongst others. Are these folks right wing nationalists too?

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and members of both the Trump and Obama administrations have visited India to demonstrate their commitment to expanding the US-India strategic partnership. President Obama met with Prime Minister Modi eight times during his second term, described his relationship with PM Modi as one of his highest foreign policy priorities, and even called to say goodbye during the last days of his presidency. Countless lawmakers have also visited Indian and BJP leaders to demonstrate their commitment to expanding this democratic alliance. Many traveled to both New York City’s Madison Square Garden and California’s Silicon Valley to attend massive Indian American community welcome gatherings for the popular Indian leader.

Representative Gabbard similarly has met with Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Why is her meeting any different than that of Speaker Pelosi, Representative Jim McGovern, Representative Betty McCollum or Representative Pete Olsen? Why is Gabbard judged by a different standard?

The reason is simple: xenophobia and Hinduphobia.

Our country has already travelled the road of impugning others with having “special” relationships with foreign governments simply on the basis of their ethnic origin or shared religion. It’s a road better left in the rearview because the destination is truly unAmerican.

Suhag Shukla, Esq., is Executive Director and co-founder at the Hindu American Foundation