‘ SIKHS ARE NOT MUS­LIMS’

Mem­bers of the community be­come reg­u­lar tar­gets of post- 9/ 11 vi­o­lence in the US

India Today - - NATION - By Indira Kan­nan

Most re­ports on the tragic Au­gust 5 mass shoot­ing at a gur­d­wara in Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin, took care to give read­ers a crash course in Sikhism as well. This was a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure to pre­vent fur­ther hate crimes against the community. Sikhs are ad­her­ents of a re­li­gion that orig­i­nated in In­dia, TV an­chors would say, of­ten adding, “Sikhs are not Mus­lims.”

That just about sums up the quandary of the community, as it mourned the six vic­tims— in­clud­ing four In­dian cit­i­zens— gunned down by 40- year- old Wade Michael Page, a dis­charged US Army sol­dier. Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion ( FBI), Page died by shoot­ing him­self in the head af­ter a po­lice of­fi­cer fired at him. While it was re­vealed that Page had been a long- time mem­ber of white su­prem­a­cist groups and mu­sic bands, it’s not yet known what caused his ram­page— whether it was a ran­dom shoot­ing, or if he thought he was at­tack­ing ‘ Mus­lims’ or if he was ac­tu­ally tar­get­ing Sikhs.

The dis­tinc­tion, even if it be­comes clear, will of­fer lit­tle com­fort to the Sikh community, es­ti­mated to num­ber be­tween 300,000 and 500,000 in the US. Since the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, they have borne the brunt of any back­lash that has oc­curred. The first vic­tim of a post- 9/ 11 hate crime in the US was a Sikh gas sta­tion owner in Ari­zona, Bal­bir Singh Sodhi, shot dead just four days af­ter 9/ 11 by an Amer­i­can who wanted to “kill a Mus­lim” in re­tal­i­a­tion.

“There’s an in­un­da­tion in the pop­u­lar news me­dia over the last 11 years with sto­ries about ter­ror­ism and bin Laden and the Tal­iban, and that’s the only im­age you see when you see a tur­ban and beard,” says Amardeep Singh, di­rec­tor of pro­grammes at the New York- based Sikh Coali­tion. He re­calls there was sim­i­larly mis­di­rected anger to­wards Sikhs dur­ing the Ira­nian hostage cri­sis of 1979. “My fa­ther was told to go back to Iran be­cause they as­so­ci­ated Sikhs with Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini,” says Amardeep.

About half of the Sikh men in the US sport the tra­di­tional beard and tur­ban, ac­cord­ing to Ra­jwant Singh, chair­man of the Wash­ing­ton- based Sikh Coun­cil on Re­li­gion and Ed­u­ca­tion ( SCORE). In con­trast, vir­tu­ally no Mus­lims in the US wear tur­bans. As Harvin­der Kaur Kochar, vice- pres­i­dent of the Philadel­phia Sikh So­ci­ety, notes, “It’s very sim­ple, 99.9 per cent of peo­ple with tur­bans in Amer­ica are Sikhs, they are not Mus­lims.”

But sim­ply pro­claim­ing they are dif­fer­ent from Mus­lims puts Sikh groups in an awk­ward spot. “We can’t deny all the time that we’re not Mus­lim. That means, go af­ter Mus­lims. We don’t want to say that,” points out Ra­jwant. In­stead, Sikh groups say they of­ten col­lab­o­rate with Mus­lim groups to jointly counter any bias and hate. In April, Con­gress­man Joe Crow­ley from New York led 92 mem­bers of the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in call­ing for FBI to start col­lect­ing data on hate crimes against Sikh Amer­i­cans who are cur­rently clubbed with other mi­nor­ity groups on this is­sue.

Ra­jwant notes that even the elec­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh in In­dia, or his state visit to the White House in 2009, did not in­crease aware­ness about Sikhs in the US. But he be­lieves the Wis­con­sin mas­sacre could be a “teach­able mo­ment”, even if it took a tragedy to cre­ate one. Adds Amardeep, “In the last two days, I’ve seen more sto­ries about Sikhs, our her­itage and our back­ground than I’ve ever seen in my whole life. We just need that times a hun­dred.”

ACAN­DLE- LIGHTVIGIL FOR THE VIC­TIMS OF THE WIS­CON­SIN MAS­SACRE

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