The Sikh Temple Shooting:  Who “Should” Have Been Targeted?

The Sikh Temple Shooting:  Who “Should” Have Been Targeted?

by Sheila Musaji

I am grateful that very few Sikh’s have promoted the strange analysis that the terrible tragedy at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin was a case of “mistaken identity” or “collateral damage” or a “misdirected hate crime”.  This “explanation” for this awful tragedy is problematic on many levels.

Most Sikhs have rejected that sort of dubious analysis.  This statement by Lehigh Prof. Amardeep Singh is typical of the common response from the Sikh Community:

The Sikh community had to find a way to address mounting hostilities in the US after 9/11. There’s definitely been a movement to assert who we are and to inform the public about our beliefs, but it is tricky to do so without seeming to validate religious-based hostilities against any other group. Saying, ‘Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim’ is not a response. A number of Sikh advocacy groups formed shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.

We don’t know what the shooter’s motive was yet, but as I’ve kept up with the community’s reaction to the incident I’ve been seeing a lot of friends and family reminding everyone not to dwell on the shooter’s likely ‘misrecognition’ (Manpreet Singh Badal, founder-president of the People’s Party of Punjab, told the AFP news agency on Monday that he believed the shooting was the result of “mistaken identity”, noting that “Sikhs are often mistaken to be from the Middle East.”). The sentiment that ‘we didn’t do anything, we don’t deserve this’ is actually not one we should be giving voice to, even if it might be understandable after such a ghastly attack.

I listened to the coverage on CNN as the incident was taking place, and can’t even count how many times the reporters pointed out that Sikhs are different than Muslims, and in fact a “peaceful faith”. 

Some articles have appeared that talk about this as a “mistaken identity”, or as in these particularly egregious examples of missing the point right from the article title.  One was titled Sikhs in metro Detroit fear misdirected hate is behind Wisconsin temple attack.   Another was titled Mourning Victims, Sikhs Lament Being Mistaken for Radicals or Militants.

Here are a few excerpts from various media articles on this tragedy that focus on the terrible “you got the wrong people understanding:

—  “This case of mistaken identity led to some tragic results”  **
—  “Some people still ... are mistaking us for a different religion and targeting some particular members of the community,” said Jaspreet Singh, a scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina. “They mistake us for a Middle Eastern religion, and that is completely untrue. We are from India. Sikhism is a very, very distinct religion, completely different from the one they are comparing us with.  ... “Sikh people are the most humble, most helping community, especially up in the North where you have so much presence,” Singh said. “We have never called for aggression against any human being or any religion. We are one of the most peaceful communities.” **
“We have not done any harm to anyone. Why are we targeted? Maybe some other religions have done harm. They think that we are the same. Maybe that’s the reason.” **

The subtext of some of these quotes is disturbing:

— Sikhs are peaceful people (and that makes Sikhs different from Muslims?) 
— Sikhs contribute to the greater society (unlike Muslims who only cause problems?) 
— Sikhs are unfairly mistaken for radicals or militants (Muslims are fair game because they are all radicals or militants?) 
— Sikhs are humble and generous (as opposed to Muslims who are arrogant and uncharitable?) 
— Sikhs don’t deserve to be targeted because they have not done anything (as opposed to Muslims who deserve to be targeted because they are all guilty?). 
— And, most disturbingly of all, the idea that there might be an “appropriate” target for such a criminal attack.

All of this reminds me of the incident when Presidential candidate John McCain, responding to a voter who accused President Obama of being an “Arab” during a campaign rally in the 2008 presidential race, said: “No, ma’am. He is a decent family man”, and blew it, failing to challenge the bigotry implied in the question.  As an American Muslim, this response from John McCain, and similar responses from others was very painful.

And, I remember my joy when Former Secretary of State Colin Powell finally asked a question that has not been asked often enough by our elected representatives and government officials, particularly during the last US Presidential Campaign —  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?  Powell said

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarising ourselves in this way. And John McCain is as non-discriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

In the article The terrorist attack on the Sikh Temple Must be a wake up call , I said

We may never know which particular form of bigotry caused Wade Michael Page to walk into a house of worship and murder innocent people in cold blood.  Unless he left written documentation, he may have taken that information to his grave.  Whether he did this because they were dark skinned, or because he thought they were Muslims, or because they were immigrants - the awful result is the same.   There was no mistaken identity, he targeted people because they were different from him, and therefore beyond compassion.   There is no appropriate target for such a hateful act.  There is no “correct” group to target in such a way.

Those who spread divisiveness and bigotry need to seriously consider what effect they are having.  Whatever form of bigotry some find to be “reasonable” whether it is anti-Semitism, anti-Gay, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Sikh, anti-immigrant, it doesn’t matter.  They are all equally wrong, and they all poison the well of public discourse, and harm us all.  Whatever the particular focus of blind hatred, it is corrosive and harms real human beings. 

All of those who are presenting this particular point of view need to understand that all hate is misdirected.  There is no appropriate target of hatred and bigotry.  The Muslim community is no more guilty than the Sikh community, or any other minority community, for the crimes of some members of that minority. 

Here are some quotes from individuals who clearly understand why it is so important to resist the “mistaken identity” problam:

“The US mass media suspected that the shooter actually intended to massacre Muslims, and some unfortunately referred to the temple attendees as “innocent,” as though a mosque congregation would not have been equally innocent.”  Prof. Juan Cole

“But we do know that far too many Americans have misguided prejudices about the Sikh community – just as they do of the American Muslim community, whose law-abiding and loyal citizens often suffer those same “crimes of ignorance”. Amardeep Singh

Strikingly, Muslims have not been the only targets of Islamophobic violence. A number of different American communities have been impacted by Islamophobia, and practitioners of the Sikh religion make up one of the most adversely affected minority groups. The distinctive physical appearance of typical Sikh males in particular—brown skin, turban, beard—correlates with the stereotypical images of terrorists projected in western media. Scholars have recently described this perceived relationship as a racialization of religious identity. This process has led to a conflation of Sikhs and Muslims, and therefore, has produced a corollary to Islamophobia—Sikhophobia.  Simran Jeet Singh

This is how cultural racism operates: Anyone who bears the markers of the “enemy” must necessarily be guilty. For members of the Sikh community, this bizarre attitude is baffling. Some have gone out of their way to insist that Sikhs are not Muslim and should therefore not be targeted in these ways.  Yet, the horrific murders in Wisconsin should teach us that racism is about the dehumanization of an entire group of people. It is the worst kind of guilt by association.  If the Sikh community is not to blame for the events of Sept. 11, neither is the Muslim community.  It was not Islam that caused the 19 hijackers to carry out the attacks. It was the nihilistic political views of those particular assassins.  Similarly, it was not something intrinsic to white American males that precipitated this attack on Sikhs in Wisconsin. It was the neo-Nazi attitudes of this particular white gunman.”  Deepa Kumar

“To my Sikh sisters and brothers: this incident is yet another reminder of what it means for us to be racialized as Others and as eternal Outsiders. No matter how hard we strive to be “hard-working, tax-paying model minorities,” our bodies and lives and labour will always be rendered disposable and expendable. We are and have been deliberate targets much before 9/11. The turning back of the Komagatamaru and the experience of the Ghadr Party on the west coast are our most salient reminders. So perhaps it is time to stop attempting to assimilate into white supremacy, to stop capitulating to colonialism and empire, and to take a stand against oppression. We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism. While racism and its impacts often paralyze us, we must channel our collective grief and outrage as a space for alliance and solidarity with other racialized communities–with Muslim communities bearing the brunt of Islamophia, with Blacks who disproportionately endure police violence and over- incarceration, with Indigenous people who are being dispossessed of their lands and resources, with non-status migrants who have been deemed illegal and are facing deportation. Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be. Chardi kala.”  Harsha Walia

Many talk about the prevalence of anti-Sikh attacks as a case of “mistaken identity.” Sikhs mistaken for Muslims. Indeed, we are by and large attacked because of anti-Muslim bigotry. The Michigan gurdwara was targeted for that reason, and most of us who experience racist harassment as Sikhs in the U.S. experience it through the vilification of Muslims and/or Arabs.    Ironically, many Sikhs themselves vilify Muslims or at least distance themselves from the Muslim community at every possible opportunity. I remember in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, the first thing out of the mouths of many Sikhs when talking to the press, to politicians or even to their neighbors was, “We are not Muslims.” While this is of course a fact, the implication of the statement if it stops there is: You’re attacking the wrong community. Don’t come after us, go after the Muslims! Sikhs believe in equality and freedom and love our country and our government. But Muslims? We don’t like them either.  ...  “We are not Muslims” hasn’t been so effective for our community, has it? Even if we do so in a positive way that does not condone attacks on Muslims, simply educating the public about the fact that we are a distinct community and that we in fact “are not Muslim” will not get to the root of the problem. As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.   Sonny Singh

“One of the standard lines about this violence is that it’s “misdirected,” a case of “mistaken identity” — that these are hate crimes against Muslims, complete with anti-Islamic rhetoric and slurs, that have been pointed, through sheer ignorance, at turban-wearing Sikhs. (In fact, one of the Coalition’s current initiatives is revising the FBI’s hate-crime reporting system, which files attacks on Sikhs among anti-Muslim crimes.) Hence, perhaps, the way Sunday’s CNN coverage of the shooting filled the long gaps between fresh news by circling the same two themes: the platitude that “we don’t yet know” why this happened, and the oft-repeated fact that Sikhs are not Muslims, Sikhs are not Muslims, and, breaking news, Sikhs are still not Muslims.  Leading Sikh advocacy groups don’t go out of their way to underline this fact, or attempt to distance themselves from the American Muslim community: The problems both groups face are bigotry and violence, not confusion about “rightful” targets. But the issue has been a tricky one. “There’s an existential fear,” said Amardeep Singh, “so part of the reaction is to say, ‘We’re not the group that you hate and are attacking.’ There was a bit of divide between Sikhs born and raised in the U.S. and Sikhs raised in India — with our parents’ generation being more likely to say ‘we’re not Muslim,’ both because of religious tensions in India and not being in tune with the social implications.”
It wasn’t “mistaken identity” that led to the tragedy but bigotry,  The results would have been just as tragic if the victims had been Muslims, or anyone else.”
  Nitsuh Abebe

“The obvious conclusion is that Sikhs and Muslims should join together to oppose Islamophobia. The right-wing response, however, is to try and set the two communities against each other by suggesting that whereas hostility towards Islam is legitimate and a significant number of Muslims are indeed violent extremists, Sikhs are unfairly tarred with the same brush.  Take for example the article in yesterday’s Daily Mail, which states that Sikhs in Wisconsin were targeted despite the fact that they are “adherents of a peaceful religion that stresses the equality of people”. Unlike Muslims, is the implied subtext.  Sikhism is of course a peaceful religion just like any other, in the sense that this is how the overwhelming majority of its followers interpret their beliefs. However, as with all faiths, Sikhism has its extremist minority who carry out acts of terrorist violence – hence the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the attacks on Hindu civilians by Khalistani militants in the 1980s. Sikhs are no more peaceful, or violent, than Muslims, Christians or Jews are.  ...  There are some bigots who find it convenient to hide their racism behind the claim that they are solely concerned with the supposed threat posed by Islam (which, as they never cease to remind us, is a religion not a race) and that they have nothing against other, non-Muslim minorities. Neo-Nazis generally don’t bother – they just hate people whose skin isn’t white and make no attempt to pretend otherwise. Minority communities have a common interest in resisting both sorts of racism.”  Bob Pitt

All of us need to work harder to make sure that our fellow Americans know that Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and many other minority religious communities are all a part of the fabric of America, and all contribute to the good of the entire society.