Washington: It is tragic and there is no right way to say it — Sikhs in Oak Creek were targeted because the gunman probably thought they were Muslims. You can’t call it a mistake because a crime against Muslims would be just as heinous.
Six men are dead, including a granthi who had recently brought his wife and daughter to Wisconsin from India. The president of the gurdwara lies injured in a hospital in Milwaukee as does a policeman who faced down the gunman. The details so far show the attacker to be a white male of about 40 years, 6 feet in height wearing a white T-shirt and black pants. He reportedly had a tattoo on his arm about 9/11.
Was he seeking revenge for the attack that changed the way many in America think about Muslims in particular and non-white people in general? Or was he unhinged and just happened to come by the gurdwara in a fit of rage armed with a semi-automatic pistol? The FBI and police will hopefully piece together enough details to give us some clues and some bearing on reality.
But for the Sikh community in the United States, solving one hate crime may not be enough. They have been at the receiving end since 9/11 — repeatedly mistaken for who they are not. Ignorance about the turban, long hair and kirpan is rampant.
The Sikh Coalition, an activist group, counts 700 cases of random violence, killings, vandalism, bullying, beatings and intimidation against the Sikh community. “Real Sikhism,” another community group, counts 1000 cases of hate crimes, starting on the very day the airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and changed the way many think about crime and punishment.
So in the aftermath of the Wisconsin shootings, surrealism reigned on the news channels. Anchors were educating the average American about Sikhism and Islam and patiently explaining the differences. But should the distinction matter? I can be any faith, wear a turban or not, wear a hijab or not, wear a kara or not, but I shouldn’t be killed for wearing my religion on my sleeve.
To the enormous credit of Sikh community leaders and spokesmen, after every incident of violence, they haven’t emphasised the differences between their beards and the others’ but pleaded for tolerance for all. It may astound some but the first killing of a Sikh in the aftermath of 9/11 was just four days later — on 15 September, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was shot five times by Frank Roque in the belief that Sodhi was an Arab.
Fast forward to March 2011 when two elderly Sikh men, both retired after a life time of service in Punjab, were strolling in a Sacramento suburb and were shot. Surinder Singh, 65, died while his friend Gurmej Atwal, 78, was seriously wounded. In between there have been hundreds of other minor and major incidents. Insults are hurled along with an order to “go back home.” A turban is a “rag head.”
Amid the fear and loathing, the US Congress was compelled to act. Last April, more than 90 Congressmen signed a letter to the FBI, asking the bureau to investigate and record hate crimes against Sikhs as a separate category and not club them with those against Muslims. The statistical separation may appear unseemly to some but Sikh community leaders want official agencies to be cognizant of the collateral damage Sikhs have suffered in the aftermath of 9/11.
If a few ignorant, trigger-happy Joe Schmos harbour hatred, airport security officials tend to target Sikhs too for extra questioning. They routinely separate Sikh men from other passengers. Why? Yes, because of beards and turbans. The Sikh Coalition, in one of the most successful cases of community activism, came up with a mobile application called FlyRights, which allows individuals to report racial profiling and discrimination by the Transportation Security Administration in real time.
FlyRights was downloaded 5,000 times in the first two days and quickly climbed the charts on Apple’s iTunes. Everyone was downloading it – that is everyone with a “strange” name or “look.” It’s seen as a landmark in protecting civil rights of all communities, not just Sikhs.
In the end, what happened in Wisconsin on Sunday is a quintessential American tragedy. It recurs on a periodic basis with different combinations of the same ingredients — racism, ignorance, hatred, delusion and mental problems. But one ingredient remains constant and that is the easy availability of guns. Sadly, no body will connect that dot in the matrix.