But, as Prothero points out, anti-Sikh violence predates 9/11. It has been a part of American religious history since Sikhs first settled on the west coast to work on the railroads and in lumber mills at the end of the 19th century.
“When they first came, they were called ‘Hindus’ and lumped together with other Indian immigrants,” Prothero explained. In 1907, claiming that the Indians were taking away jobs from “native” Americans, a mob of several hundred white men attacked the Sikh community in Bellingham, Wash., beating the Sikhs in the streets and ransacking their homes.
This ongoing confusion about exactly who Sikhs are and what they stand for has led the Sikh community to take a more active role in protecting its own believers. Modeled in part after organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which Jewish Americans started in 1913 to fight against anti-Semitism, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) was established in 2004 to monitor hate crimes against Sikhs and to make sure law enforcement responds appropriately.
As was the case after 9/11, it has most often been assumed that anti-Sikh violence is the result of “mistaken identity.” In fact, the U.S. Justice Department doesn’t monitor hate crimes specifically committed against Sikh Americans. In the wake of the Oak Creek shootings, the American media took a similar approach to that of the U.S. government, presuming that the Sikhs were attacked by mistake, scrambling to explain what Sikhs are not — namely, Muslims.
Yet, while American TV pundits took to the airwaves to explain that “Sikhs are not Muslims,” many Sikhs rejected this approach. Valarie Kaur and Simran Jeet Sing wrote in the Washington Post that such a response “implies that there is a ‘correct’ target, and it further implies that hate violence should rightfully be directed at Muslims. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Who Sikhs are
Through organizations like SALDEF, Sikh activists are trying to educate the American public not just about who Sikhs aren’t but also who they are: A people who believe there is one god, and every human, regardless of race, class, gender, and even religion is equal, united together in a universal community of humanity. This sense of universalism extends so far that many Sikhs were quick to offer prayers of forgiveness to the alleged shooter at Oak Creek. Some even insisted that the tally of the massacre should not include only the six Sikhs who were killed but also Page, who was shot multiple times by police officers before turning a gun on himself.
Just two days after the shootings, on NPR, Rajdeep Singh, the national director of the Sikh Coalition, echoed this sentiment of unity with and care for all humanity. “Every gurdwara has four doors signifying openness to the entire world,” Singh said. Along with singing hymns and reading scriptures, a key part of Sikh worship is the “Langar” meal. Following each service, Sikhs gather and sit on the floor as a symbol of equality and unity and share a meal of traditional Punjabi Indian food.
But Rajdeep Singh explained that the gurdwaras’ “free community kitchen isn’t just designed for the community. The purpose for the kitchen is to provide food to anybody who wishes to visit a Sikh place of worship.” As Rajvir Singh, a dental student at Tufts University in Boston, who participated in service at Trinity Church, explained, this means if Page “had brought an open heart instead of [guns], he could have shared a meal with those he shot instead.”
Prothero, who also serves as the faculty advisor to BU’s Sikh student coalition, believes that while the attack at Oak Creek has brought a lot of attention to the American Sikh community, “unfortunately, these stories often repeat themselves, in part because Americans lose interest and forget.” Prothero may be right. At the Trinity service in Boston, there were no TV satellite trucks parked in front of the church, nor were there droves of reporters on hand (The Boston Globe did run a story the morning of the service announcing the event).
Trinity’s Senior Associate Rector for Christian Formation, the Rev. Dr. William Rich, is a bit more optimistic the Oak Creek events have led to a fundamental change.
“After this, we see Sikhs in our communities,” Rich said. “An attack on one set of believers is an attack on all Americans of faith.” And while the media might not have shown up to the Trinity event, the fact that some 1,500 Bostonians came to the worship service — far exceeding the expectation of the event’s organizers who planned to host just a few hundred worshippers — indicates that Americans of all beliefs, and no belief at all, seem committed to showing support for their Sikh neighbors.
Rajvir Singh agrees that perhaps the tragedy at Oak Creek has led to a “Sikh moment” in American history. “Sadly, it takes a tragedy like this to encourage Americans to learn about each other. But what Americans should know is that Sikhism reflects American values. It is our principle that we respect all paths to God.”
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