‘ SIKHS ARE NOT MUSLIMS’
Members of the community become regular targets of post- 9/ 11 violence in the US
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.”
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