I heard about what was unfolding in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, last Sunday when I saw the words “shooting” and “Sikh temple” on the screen of CNN as I walked into a hotel lobby. It felt like a punch in the stomach. Despite the lack of concrete information, I and other Sikhs who I talked with in those first few hours all knew in our guts what was happening: another hate attack.
Sobbing in front of a computer screen in the hotel’s business center, I thought about how easily it could have been my parents` or my brother`s gurdwara being attacked. I thought about how all gurdwaras are made up of my extended family members, and we were all targeted. I thought about all that our Sikh community in the US has dealt with over the last eleven years. All the lives stolen, from Balbir Singh Sodhi in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, in 2001, to Gurmej Singh and Surinder Singh shot dead while taking their evening walk in Elk Grove, California, last year. All the Sikh children tormented by bullying and harassment in schools on a daily basis, being called “Osama” or “raghead,” their turbans pulled off, just as mine was in the fifth grade and on the New York City subway a few years ago.
Being targeted is nothing new for the Sikh community. Yet for many Americans, the headlines of the last few days are the first they are learning about the Sikh community or about Sikhism. Our knee-jerk reaction is to cite ignorance about Sikhism as the root of the harassment and prejudice we face. So it falls upon us to educate the public. I have heard many Sikh commentators in the mainstream media explaining, almost defensively, that Sikhism is a peaceful religion and that our Sikh values of equality and justice are completely in line with those same “American values.” While I understand the rationale behind this type of explanation, I cringe nevertheless.
Why do we Sikhs have to assert our patriotic credibility at a time like this? Why do we have to explain that we are a peaceful people? We, who have just been the victims of a white supremacist murderous rampage. We, who have been in this country for over one hundred years. We, who were born to stand up for the oppressed and overthrow the tyrant.
As the mass media frenzy about this latest horrific tragedy quickly fades, I hope that we will begin to shift the conversation away from how Sikh values and American values are compatible, not to mention all the reiterations that Sikhs are not Muslims, and that we will begin to discuss the root causes of such white supremacist acts of terror. To do so, we must begin to dig deeper and look to at the bigger picture, which begins long before 9/11.
While we need to learn about extremist white supremacist groups like those that the shooter, Wade Michael Page, belonged to, it is equally important that we understand the ways in which racism is, and always has been, a part of mainstream America. The targets of white supremacist terror may change (or expand) over time—with Sikhs, Muslims, and other immigrants bearing the brunt lately—but let us not forget that this country was built through violent colonial conquest, justified by a deep-seated ideology of white superiority. Indeed, racist violence has been central to this country since its inception, from the genocide of indigenous nations and the enslavement of Africans, to the thousands of lynchings in the South and the “massive resistance” movement against civil rights that took its toll in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four black girls.
Over forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. forced America to see the bigger picture through his "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church in New York City. He made the connection between racism at home and war and militarism abroad. Dr. King identified the roots of the problems as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
His analysis could not be more relevant to making sense of the supposedly-senseless Wisconsin tragedy and the seemingly endless and ever-escalating bigotry in our post-9/11 United States. The racist attacks on Muslims and Sikhs rage on, while our very own government wages seemingly-endless wars on predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. Our communities’ gurdwaras and mosques are vandalized, our uncles and aunties are murdered while praying, while the people of Iraq and Afghanistan endure a decade of brutal military occupation, with over a million brown bodies killed by the US military with no end in sight.
Our children are bullied at school and our uncles are beaten up while they are working while our government sends spies to our mosques, tracks our grocery purchases, randomly selects us for additional screening 100 percent of the time at airports, puts us on no-fly lists, and detains us indefinitely without charges.
If our own government treats an entire community (or communities) like suspects, if our own government deems the lives of countless Iraqis and Afghanis dispensable, should I be surprised when a random stranger yells “Osama” or “terrorist” at me on the streets of New York? Should we be surprised when Shaima Alawdi, an Iraqi woman in San Diego, is beaten to death with a note left saying “Go back to your country?” Should we be surprised when someone like Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran, goes on a shooting spree in a gurdwara?
The war on terror breeds only more terror. Racist government policies breed racist terror at home.
Dr. King courageously stated in 1968, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.” The US military and CIA have waged countless wars, interventions, covert operations, and occupations since World War II, arrogantly standing on what Dr. King called the “wrong side of the world revolution.” Today the US military has at least 900 bases in over 130 countries and spends upwards of $700 billion a year on the military.
While combating ignorance is admirable and I welcome any opportunity to educate mainstream America about Sikhism, I believe it is high time that we begin to take Dr. King`s words to heart and refocus our efforts on the deeper issues. It will be much more difficult and will stir up much more controversy, which cost Dr. King him his life. I agree with President Obama that last Sunday`s tragedy requires us to do some serious soul searching as a country. But in doing so, we must go beyond Sikhism 101, diversity training, or gun control. Indeed, as Dr. King stated in that 1968 speech, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” In doing so, perhaps we might find our collective soul.