Racially Motivated

There is a religion whose fundamentalist followers have instigated riots in which thousands of non-believers have been killed, whose fanatical devotees have attacked branches of America's McDonalds restaurant chain and whose rabble-rousing politicians have banned the works of Salman Rushdie.

But you would be wrong to consider the culprit to be Islam. I am talking about Hinduism - the creed of 700 million Indians. Unlike Islam, Hinduism gets given a fairly easy ride by the British press, which tends to lend a nutty flavour to stories about the religion.

So there are tales of Hindus besieging temples as elephant-headed stone idols drink milk, of water companies that have been attacked for using the bones of cows - considered holy by Hindu religious types - in their filtration processes, and of obscure sexual practises.

Muslims, meanwhile, are castigated by liberals and conservatives alike. Charles Moore, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, has written of the "hooded hordes" and said that his Islamic neighbours' prayers made him feel "uneasy".

At the other end of the political pole, Lord Jenkins, the epitome of liberal tolerance and a former home secretary, is on the record as saying: "In retrospect, we might have been more cautious about allowing the creation in the Fifties of such substantial Muslim communities here."

But Hindus have had little of the opprobrium that has been heaped upon Muslims. This may be because Hinduism is not perceived as a threat to the West. The American political theorist Samuel Huntington predicted that, in the search for a new enemy after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, the great conflict of the 21st century will be between Islam and America and her allies.

Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which disguises its abrasive xenophobia as Hindu pride, has taken office in India - a nuclear power of 800 million people - and talks of future foreign investment being "curbed" in certain industries. Another chauvinistic political grouping, Shiv Sena - which runs India's most prosperous state, Maharashtara - has a charismatic leader in Bal Thackeray. Mr Thackeray admires Hitler for having "the charisma to cause a big earthquake for the whole world".

Perhaps the reason is that Hinduism is not perceived as "illiberal" - a charge often levelled at Muslims. This is quite funny for a faith whose priests sat atop a caste system which effectively imprisoned members of Indian society.

I am not calling for a parity of prejudice. There would be little to be gained for the same crude caricatures that led to Islamophobia being applied to Hindus. But the changing shape of the race debate means that religion, like custom and language, will become increasingly important considerations. The colour line, according to the black radical W E B Du Bois, is the most important thing about the 20th century. As we near the millennium, culture will smudge the difference between black and white.

This is already happening in America, a land built on immigration. Latinos are set to become the largest ethnic group in the US, overtaking Afro- Americans by 2010. This has seen arguments about whether resources should be diverted to teach Spanish as a second language; produced a new set of opinions on affirmative action and raised the question of how the dominant American culture can accommodate the need for immigrants to emphasis their own ethnic identity.

Ethnicity in Britain, too, has become an recurring theme in the race debate. The nature of immigration has ensured that the black community in Britain is not homogeneous. In Britain, two-thirds of the three million non-white people originate from the sub-continent. This has meant temples in many British towns, the teaching of Bangladeshi in some schools, and seen supermarket shelves stuffed with such delights as Garam Masala and Dhaniya seeds.There is nothing wrong with a plurality of the black experience in Britain - but it is somewhat unjust to elevate one of those non-white ethnicities above another.

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