Instead of differentiating itself from Muslims in the wake of Wisconsin, the Sikh diaspora must challenge racial hatred as a whole
A dominant theme underpinning the American media coverage of last week’s attack at the Oak Creek gurdwara is that Sikh worshippers were killed because they were “mistaken” for Muslims. While Sikh organisations have refrained, and rightly so, from framing it this way, the perception of being misrecognised is widely shared among the Sikh diaspora. It is not a coincidence that in the past decade or so, an increasing number of websites run by Sikh diasporic communities have aimed to increase awareness of the Sikh religion in their countries of residence. While some offer sophisticated “educational tools” as well as basic knowledge designed as frequently-asked-questions that can be grasped quickly by even the simplest of minds, others do so through more rudimentary blogs, awareness camps, open houses, personal commentaries and online chats available in nearly all major European languages. The need to establish visible difference, it seems, has never been greater than now.
How and when did awareness campaigns turn into a survival strategy for a diasporic community? This question has mostly not been part of the media coverage that followed in the U.S. or, for that matter, the European press. There are two reasons for this reluctance. First, because the media itself has been perpetuating this angle of “mistaken enemy” and pinning its commentaries around this premise. And second, any answers would require a critical account of the ways in which the “Other” has been profiled, classified and excluded in the decade-long war on terror, and how racial hostility and violent aggression have shaped the recent discourse of security in the West. Rather than addressing the questions of extremist politics, race and exclusion, the coverage has curiously been turned into an occasion to spread mass awareness about Sikhs and their religion.
To understand the knowledge/survival co-relations, let us begin with the media profiles of the killer — who is called domestic terrorist by the FBI, but mostly considered a “nutcase” by journalists — that have emerged in the past week. The terrorist, Wade Micahel Page, is a 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran who became a prominent player in neo-Nazi circles. He was particularly well known for white supremacist music he produced in a band called End Apathy. The essence of his hate-filled music was etched on his body too, in the form of a tattoo imprint of a Celtic cross marked with the number 14. The coded number stands for a 14-word-long slogan that reads “We must secure the existence of our people and future of white children.” According to witnesses, he is also said to have “9/11” tattooed on his arm invoking the legacy of September 11, 2001 and thereby positioning himself as a warrior on the frontlines of the never ending war on terror. The belligerent rhetoric of the war on terror is what probably helped him draw direct connection where none existed between September 11 and the Sikh worshippers in Oak Creek preparing their community lunch.
If we were to follow the commentaries on American media outlets, then his chief crime was not the chilling murder of men praying peacefully but his ignorance — his inability to distinguish between a Muslim and a Sikh man; between an Arab turban and a Sikh turban. This explains how we first witnessed the discourse of mistaken identity by fumbling anchors who seemed more focussed on the barely known religion than on the crime committed. The Sikh religion was slightly puzzling — it was neither Christianity nor Islam, not even Hinduism that they were more familiar with. Even a newspaper as thorough as the New York Times initially advised its readers to pronounce the name ‘Sikh’ as ‘sick’ in one of its background articles explaining the victims’ religion. If the media could be so ignorant, then there was little hope for someone like Page to avoid such mistakes, seemed to be the logic running through the media coverage. The second step taken by helpful anchors naturally was to help create public awareness so that Sikhs could be distinguished from Muslims. Some newspapers even carried photos of different styles of turbans in a “know your enemy” kind of manual so that Sikh turbans could be differentiated properly. The point was not that there wasn’t an enemy, but that the one Michael Page had targeted was a false enemy. In short, the killings were a case of error caused by ignorance rather than domestic terrorism as was being suggested by the investigators.
The Sikh diaspora is only too well aware of the perverse logic of this stance and, in fact, has revised its public campaigns since 2001. Some of the first campaigns following hate attacks on Sikh men in the U.S. carried an explicit message on placards stating that “Sikhs are not Muslims.” When the unintended implication of this message became clear, these slogans were dropped. However, the attacks, insults, discrimination and, in some cases, murder, in everyday life have not ceased for the Sikh men who are particularly targeted because of their visibility marked by turbans. This visceral hatred evoked by visible symbols of difference has resulted in more than 700 racial attacks in the U.S. since 9/11. Against this background, the bid to create awareness of Sikh identity as distinct from Muslims appears more as a tragic and desperate move by a community whose safety is seemingly at the mercy of vengeful extremists armed with loaded guns. In other words, it’s an ill-conceived but last ditch effort to survive in a society which has scorched its insides in the war on terror.
It is precisely therefore that one must question the strategy adopted by the Sikh groups of focussing awareness campaigns and spreading knowledge about Sikhism. Or put another way, the idea is to draw attention towards their religion in order to gain recognition as Sikhs. Their hope is that greater awareness will correct perceptions about their religion which, in turn, will foster harmony and understanding within the wider communities they live in. While these are laudable objectives, the problem is that, one, such an approach puts the onus of establishing innocence upon the victims. And two, it is bound to remain ineffective as long as racial hatred remains unchallenged in its totality as such. Until and unless the discourse of intolerance and extremism in society is addressed as well, awareness campaigns will bear little result. The profile that has emerged so far of Wade Michael Page has nothing to suggest that information or education about ethnic differences would have altered the shape of events. Even if we presume that he had the ability to recognise Sikhs apart from Muslims, his white supremacist views would leave no room really for anyone who was different.
In the Sikh community, the theme of mis/recognition has another painful history too. It was as recent as early 1990s when the category of “terrorist” in India was still synonymous with Sikhs. It was common to see public places, bus shelters, walls, notice boards in Delhi filled with black and white photos of young Sikh men with visible turbans who were wanted by the authorities on charges of terrorism. This was long before the word terrorism entered the western lexicon and long before September 11 would even be conceived. The acts of violence, then as now, were seen not as the work of a few — rather those of an entire community. In fact, the category of terrorist itself had come to be constitutive of Sikh collectivity which in public imagination had subsumed even those who were opposed to violence.
This traumatic period in recent Sikh history is probably yet too raw to be unpacked. The Oak Creek killings, meanwhile, have brought to the surface deep-rooted anxieties of a community that has historically been shaped by experiences of alienation. The lesson derived from the killings is that it is as important to confront the structures that engender hostilities and allow them to grow unchecked as it is to correct perceptions about the victim’s faith.
(Ravinder Kaur is Director, Centre of Global South Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen)