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By now we are familiar with the events that unfolded on that fateful Sunday in a quiet, peaceful suburb of Milwaukee. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. on August 5, 2012, Sikh men, women and children were gathering for a service at their gurdwara. Preparations for langar, the shared community meal were already underway. In the kitchen Sewadars were chopping vegetables, making the dough for fresh rotis, getting the karah parsad ready for the morning service. When the sound of the first bullet pierced the tranquil morning, the congregants were puzzled. Mayhem broke as the horror of what was happening sunk in.
People scurried to hide in the pantry, restrooms; any place that seemed safe. In terrified whispers they called friends and relatives to stay away from the temple. Fear and confusion took over the temple where singing, prayers and sacred recitation formed part of the usual Sunday service.
By the time the gunman was taken out, six innocent people were dead and many seriously wounded. The senseless killing sent a wave of outrage and grief all across the world.
Thousands gathered to hold vigils in gurdwaras and city halls across America. The Sikh community saw an outpouring of support from neighbors who came to their temples to express grief and solidarity. Many that came to the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek professed to know nothing about Sikh Americans. They wondered about the turbans and beards, but were ill-informed about who they were, what religion they belonged to, and why they wore a turban.
A Distinct Identity
The Sikh faith was founded by Guru Nanak was born in the 15th century. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, created the Khalsa community in the 17th century and gave them a distinct identity when he stipulated that the Sikhs must leave their hair unshorn as an article of faith. The turban became a cultural symbol donned mostly by Sikh men, but women also are known to adopt the turban.
The tenets of the faith are simple and egalitarian. There is one Creator who has fashioned everyone from the same Light. No one is born high or low, no one has monopoly over God. In spite of a distinctive outer appearance, the Sikh way of life is an internal journey in which you evolve to your purest essence and merge back with the Light. Meaningless rituals are shunned. Honest labor, sharing of one’s gifts with the less fortunate, and living in divine remembrance form the cornerstone of the creed.
Perhaps so little is known about Sikhs because the religion does not demand proselytizing.
Sikh history is replete with fierce heroes who gave up their lives to uphold freedom of worship for all—the most prominent of them being Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru. The sacrifices of Sikh martyrs have seared in the Sikh psyche an acceptance and respect for all faiths. The lessons of respect for all traditions are passed on through Sikh hymns that extol the One creator as being the source of all creation. This is further instilled by life stories of the Gurus who preached equality and oneness at a time when India was rigidly divided by the caste system on the one hand, and tyrannized by bigoted Mughal emperors like Aurangzeb on the other. It is tragically ironic that their own members are assaulted in a house of worship that welcomes people of all faiths.
A concerned friend called me to express his sympathy, “They had the wrong group,” he commiserated. “There is no right group for this kind of violence,” I said.
Some in the media called the incident a “hate crime,” others dubbed it “domestic terrorism.” Many like my friend thought that it was once again a case of “mistaken identity.” But senseless killing is a terrible thing no matter what the religion of the victims.
Starting with the murder of Balwant Singh Sodhi who was shot at his gas station five days after 9/11, Sikh Americans continue to face assaults on their person and property. Sikh Coalition, a civil rights and advocacy organization has cited more than 300 incidents of violent attacks on Sikh Americans. Earlier this year, two elderly men were slain in Sacramento, a Sikh temple was vandalized in New York, Sikh men have been targeted in buses, trains, in quiet neighborhoods, and busy airports; young Sikh American boys have been bullied in schools, their head gear torn and their top knots tugged in a shameful mix of ignorance and bigotry. At airport security, Sikhs are singled out for secondary screening as a routine matter.
My 23 year old son who wears a turban chooses to drive whenever possible than be subjected to what he considers demeaning profiling at the airports. It is a difficult time to wear a turban in the land of the free. It is viewed with suspicion and Sikh American men and women often have to choose between keeping their head gear or getting a job.
For almost a week CNN covered the temple tragedy. For the first time the Sikh-American community was front and center stage on mainstream networks and Americans learned more about their Sikh neighbors in one week than they have known their entire life.
The vigils are long over, the media attention has died down, and the gun-control debate that is often triggered by such incidents has receded to the background, but the lives of those that lost their loved ones has been changed forever. The question of why such horrific incidents are happening with alarming frequency continues to haunt all Americans as it should.
FBI and the police are trying to figure out the motives of Wade Page who was identified as the gunman that went on an unprovoked rampage against innocent people. A forty year old Army veteran with less than an honorable discharge, Wade was a member of neo-Nazi rock band that spouts lyrics of hatred.
Was this a lone man gone crazy? Or is it a group of sick individuals that have banded together for a sinister purpose? Can it happen again? Will the Sikh American community ever get answers to the questions that haunt them? Do temples, synagogues and churches now need security personnel like airports to guard them against twisted minds? Are we safe anywhere?
These concerns become more potent and relevant given that the Wisconsin temple tragedy was preceded by the chilling Aurora shooting that killed 12 and wounded dozens of people. Do the two tragedies have anything in common? Wade Page was part of a growing movement that seeks racial dominance. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was a psychopath who dressed up as the Joker from Batman and for whom killing was no more than a game. Both men were heartless sociopaths without empathy or humanity. How many more such crazy individuals lurk amongst us? The day after the temple shooting, a mosque was gutted in Missouri. The authorities are trying to determine the cause of the fire. On August 13 another crazy shooter killed three innocent people near the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, Texas.
What is causing this epidemic of hate and senseless shootings? What has broken down the fabric of our society? Is it guns that kill, or people? Are video games raising a culture of mindless shootings? Are movies becoming too violent? Is censorship the answer? Do we need new policies and petitions to ban guns to have a safe society?
We have to go beyond what the federal government and law enforcement authorities can do to thwart this epidemic of hate crimes. We cannot look to policy makers to bring about a change in our society. Values that teach respect for human beings no matter how different they are, or how little you know about them have to be taught first and foremost within the family structure. No community can afford to live in silos any more. Respect and dignity for all has to be practiced not by words but by actions. A hate crime against any community is a hate crime towards all Americans. We have to create a global narrative of mutual respect. Using the resources that exist—Internet, YouTube, social media, TV channels—and by creating new tools and opportunities, we need to mingle outside of work and school environments; honor each other’s festivals and traditions, open our homes and hearts especially to those who seem different. We need to do everything in our power to bring down the walls that divide and separate us. Every day has to be a National Community Day in word and deed.
The Milwaukee Sikhs showed tremendous spirit when in spite of experiencing shock and grief at their slain brethren, offered food to the police officers and the responders elevating the tradition of langar to new heights. The darkest hours in the history of our country have often become the biggest catalysts of change. Can we hope that the recent spate of tragic killings awakens us to our collective responsibility to fight the forces of ignorance, hate and violence in every way?
Jessi Kaur is the author of two highly acclaimed children’s books. She is a frequent speaker at interfaith conferences and founder of a non-profit IGS NOW that seeks to work in and towards global synergy through education and empowerment. www.jessikaur.com; www.igsnow.com
Finding Middle Ground
The Wisconsin temple shooting once again gives voice to the reactionary society we live in. This was a horrific incident, beyond doubt, and was deservedly condemned by law enforcement, politicians and the media. But almost everyone felt compelled to uphold the religion as a proponent of peace and goodness. In my opinion, it seems highly unnecessary to defend the beliefs of the victims. Killing innocent civilians in and of itself is a horrendous act. Why should there be a need to defend the character, beliefs and religion of the victims?
Would the horrific acts be justified if the victims were found lacking in any of these qualities?
In fact, the victims’ beliefs are entirely irrelevant, what’s relevant is that a group of people, going about their lives, was attacked in their place of worship.
Obviously we need to resist speculating on the motives of the gunman. But an attack on a place of worship gives away the motive to a certain extent. Even more baffling are the few public statements emphasizing that the victims are not Muslims. Yes, they are not Muslims, nor are they Christians, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists. So why does their not being Muslims deserve specific attention? Expecting Muslims alone to face attacks is like expecting African-Americans alone to face racism.
Since 9/11 Muslims have received extreme attention and scrutiny. A similar deluge of information on Islam and its followers was evident subsequent to the 9/11 attacks. Numerous public statements on the attacks upheld Islam as an advocate of peace. There were talks on how people need to be educated on Islam. A few rushed to make accommodations for the religion. These initiatives were led by well meaning individuals trying to counteract the anti-Muslim sentiment in a world polarized by the rhetoric “you’re either with us or against us.”
Unfortunately these efforts had a reverse impact. They singled out Muslims even further. Additionally, they marginalized other minority communities. They emphasized one minority religion over others as opposed to addressing the bigger issue of the rapidly changing social fabric of the nation.
This resulted in a more polarized society, contrary to what was intended.
Responses to the Wisconsin attack now run the very same risk. Media and public officials need to refrain from singling out minority communities in the light of such incidents. These should be approached as broad-spectrum minority concerns. Responses and reactions to these incidents thus far have inspired islamophobes, islamophilics, sikhophobes and sikhophilics and hence has failed to actualize a happy medium. We need to act before this rhetoric expands by creating mindfulness on all minority communities, hopefully not in response to such horrific events.
Preeti Sharma is a Bay Area technology professional. An ardent follower of sociopolitical issues she aims to reach out via writing.