On the TV show Parks & Recreation Aziz Asnari’s character, Darwish Ghani, changes his name to Tom Haverford. The joke is that as a brown-skinned man he can change his name all he wants, but he’ll always be Darwish Ghani to the fair citizens of Indiana.
I thought of this while after I listened to Mindy Kaling on Fresh Air talking about her new show, Never Have I Ever, and a scene where aunties are ostracizing a woman who had married a Muslim. Kaling mentions offhand that the “racism” against Muslims is something that she remembers from her childhood. She uses the word racism, rather than prejudice, because for the predominantly white liberal/progressive listeners of NPR Muslims are a “race” after a fashion.
But if Darwish Ghani changed his name to Vikram Chokalingam, he would be able to “pass.”
Kaling’s peculiar interpolation of the Western view of Islam, as a “nonwhite religion,” has resonances in the Indian subcontinent with some Hindu nationalists, who view Muslims as an alien race, the scions of foreigners, and some Muslims, who proclaim their Arab, Iranian or Turkic antecedents. All the while, genetics and the plain evidence of our faces makes it clear we are basically all the same “race” (i.e., Punjabi Hindus and Punjabi Muslims aren’t really different except a tiny bit on the margins*).
* Muslims are more likely to have a bit of ‘exotic’ ancestry.