The rise of social media and new cultures and strategies

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This is the third in a series of posts on Sikhism, written by Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, Senior Lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham.

In my last post I discussed leadership and who speaks/represents Sikhs in the UK.  Now I want to discuss the way that people interact within their respective communities. For the Sikh community, the impact of social media and its use by individuals and organisations to discuss Sikhi and the concerns of the community is proving to be far greater than had ever been imagined and is in fact changing interpretations of history and scripture.

Over the last couple of decades, a raft of Sikh organizations, such as Network of Sikh OrganisationsSikh Federation UK, Sikh Council UK, City Sikhs, and The Sikh Network    have sprouted and they have drawn a following through the power of social media. By using media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, organizations have in many respects managed to emulate successful marketing campaigns and create a space for themselves in what can often be a challenging and competitive environment.    Groups like Network of Sikh Organisations,   Sikh Council UK, and City Sikhs have Facebook and Twitter profiles which aim to provide a professional voice on Sikhi and campaigned sucessfully on issues and concerns, such as race hate crime, that  the majority of Sikhs may hold.  These groups come from a different perspective compared to other groups whose raison d’êtres are more often than not associated with a specific, some may say fundamentalist, agenda. The Sikh Federation UK, , is a good example of the latter category of groups, and they have used various means of promoting their ultimate goal of creating Khalistan, an independent Sikh nation state based on the rule of theocracy carved out of the Punjab region in India. They present the Sikhs of India as an oppressed and downtrodden community, historically wronged by successive governments and whose very survival is at threat. They have organized a Remembrance March and Freedom Rally in London every June since the middle of the 2000s, and they have been very successful in tying together the desire for justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and the Indian Army raid of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, with the demands for a separate homeland for the Sikhs. As a result of their efforts, the two issues are now seen as a single issue for Sikhs to be supporting – justice for Sikhs and the creation of Khalistan, or as their slogan says,  ‘Remembrance March and Freedom Rally’.

The advent of YouTube allows new youth orientated Sikh organizations to establish a space for themselves. Most gurdwaras do not have any services in English, which means that Second, Third and now Fourth Generation Sikhs in the UK struggle to understand what is being said. Basics of Sikhi was created to engage with English-speaking Sikhs and to explain Sikh theology and history in an easy-to-understand way. It has developed a very popular YouTube channel, with some of its videos viewed over 100,000 times. The videos are then shared using Facebook and discussions take place based on the content of the videos. Their worldview and general approach to proselytization is based on a narrative that suggests that only Sikhs initiated into the Khalsa can claim to be ‘true’, or ‘good’ Sikhs, and those who are uninitiated have no claim to call themselves Sikhs of the Guru.

A very similar organization is Sikh2Inspire. It too uses YouTube videos to spread its version of Sikhism, but its origins are in organizing Sikh retreats and camps for teenagers and university students to help inculcate a better understanding of Sikhism amongst them. The brand of Sikhism they support is again bordering on the conservative or ultra-conservative, with any Sikhs who do not conform with their world view being seen as non-Sikhs or, at worst, a threat to Sikhism. Whilst their video views on YouTube are quite small, being under 10,000 in all but a couple of them, they have managed to grow their influence by returning to the gurdwaras to preach in traditional services with a mixture of English and Punjabi.

When it comes to Twitter, The Sikh Network have created a remarkable campaign recently which looked at the achievements of UK female Sikhs called #350SikhWomen. Inspired by the 350th birth anniversary of the 10th Guru in January 2017, it has done much to highlight the normally overlooked group within Sikhism. However, it might be argued that there also appears to be an element of expectation involved within the campaign as its aim appears to be to curry favour with leading Sikh females so that they support the Sikh Network and the Sikh Federation UK with their ultimate goals  – Amazed at amount of Sikh women talent in media & entertainment. Should come together for community to take message of Sikh Qaum [nation] to next level’ (Jan 15 2017). It is not clear what this ‘message’ is, but one may conjecture that it will revolve around the views of the campaign sponsors. The Sikh Network is extremely close to the Sikh Federation UK, effectively acting as its youth wing and providing mutual support where needed. That overlap has meant it has provided a moderate façade to what is a radical and more than likely a vocal minority within the mainstream Sikh community. The two groups have also created the UK Sikh Survey and the 2015 Sikh Manifesto as documents to support their campaigning on so-called ‘Sikh issues’.

The groups already mentioned have support from other groups too. Sikh Press Association  was set up by Basics of Sikhi as a media agency to correct the religious illiteracy surrounding the Sikh faith in news reports, and to support positive Sikh news stories, but it might be argued that it seems to have focused solely on promoting Sikh groups which share their views regarding Sikhism.

In the next post I will be discussing how particular issues can be hijacked, and how the discussion on social media can result in intimidation and bullying, and also damage the community’s reputation.

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal

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