On Sunday morning, August 5, a man entered a Sikh temple and interrupted a ceremony that had been going on for two whole days. He gunned down six people, then he was wounded in the sanctuary and killed in the temple’s parking lot by police.
The shooter, Michael Wade Page, was a white supremacist. The massacre happened at the culmination of a 48-hour ceremony–the continuous reading of the entire text of a Sikh scripture, explained Jaipal Singh, an architect and Sikh from Cincinnati, Ohio. The congregation was eating prashad, or blessed food. “It was the most vulnerable moment,” he said. “An acceptance of the work, when people were most mindful, most thoughtful.”
Jaipal and his fiancé Ridhi Kaur were visiting Washington, DC to work with three organizations as part of an effort to “direct the dialogue” following the shooting at the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), the Sikh Coalition, and United Sikhs organized a candlelight vigil in front of the White House on August 12.
Approaching the anniversary of 9/11, it’s the time of the year when we remember the fear and helplessness we experienced when the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked. The reaction that followed was anger. It was often directed at Muslims or people who “look like” Muslims.
Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims because they wear turbans and Sikh men grow beards as an article of faith. Their appearance fits a stereotypical image Americans have of Muslims. Confusing Sikhs and Muslims may have contributed to hate-crimes against them. According to the Associated Press, more than 700 hate-related incidents against Sikhs have been reported since 9/11.
Although Jaipal is in every sense American–he was born and raised in Cincinnati–he says he has often experienced discrimination personally. Because he is dark-skinned and wears a beard and turban, people have come up to him on the street and said hostile things to him. He says he had to learn how not to react to the hostility. He found that any anger was counterproductive.
He attributes the cause of discrimination and violence against Sikhs to a “sense of other.” “It’s the idea of not accepting those other than ourselves,” he says. He thinks white supremacists like Michael Wade Page are essentially saying, “You are not us, and get out!”
He contrasts this with the Sikh belief in non-duality. “We believe in one God, Divine Being, or Creator,” he says. “Truth without hatred. There is no good or evil, only oneness. There is a sense of divinity in everyone.” Since every person contains this divinity, he says, harming another person is in reality harming oneself.
The shooting in Wisconsin was tragic, but Jaipal sees an opportunity for a positive change in the way Americans and the media view Sikhs. “We want everyone to know, love, and understand who we are,” he says. “Until Americans see themselves in Sikhs, we’re going to have to keep revisiting this.”
United Sikhs have started a campaign called “I Pledge Against Hate Crime.”
- Valarie Kaur: Underneath The Turban: Why Sikhs Do Not Hide (huffingtonpost.com)
- Washington DC Police Department: First to Accommodate Sikh Police Officers (saldef.org)
- An American Tragedy (newyorker.com)