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Updated: August 13, 2012 00:03 IST

Sharing the same difference

Ravinder Kaur
Comment (20)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

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.

Media coverage

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.

Perverse logic

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)

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Its very unexpected move from such a brave Sikh community, whose
history shows,how Sikhs fought for saving Hindus from the terror of
Muslims at the time of Aurangjeb and whose prayer focus on "SARBAT DA
BHALLA" i.e wellness for everybody. Sikhs are considered as the army
of God to save everybody in need despite of their color, creed, or
religion. Then despite of campaigning for their proper identity to
save themselves from belligerent attacks,they need to campaign for the
safety of all minorities in abroad, as every Muslim is not a
terrorist. If they work for saving only themselves then its not
Sikhism nor they are true Sikhs, whose Guru Tegbhadur ji welcomed the
sword of death for saving the religion of Hindus.

from:  Surjit Singh Kalanour
Posted on: Aug 15, 2012 at 17:27 IST

Agree with the writer. The precise differences between various Eastern religions are lost on such people in the West (& elsewhere). It is the differences to themselves, mainly the visible ones, that they hate. The quicker you realize this, the better you will be in the new lands we are populating.
Think like this: If am a caucasian person with racist views, why would I care to know the reason why Sikhs started wearing a turban and having a beard. Even if they did, would it really move them? NO! They would just want you out of their sight.

from:  ashok
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 21:52 IST

@Ahmad: Holy books contains many good things. People read them but do not follow them. What is the use? Actions of people are more important than mearly reading holy books. People judge others by their actions not by the holy books they read. So does God too.

from:  subramanian
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 19:27 IST

@Ahmad, Abdul
What's wrong in Sikhs educating others the difference between themselves and muslims if that stops some racism against them. If muslims come out in open to protest against muslim killings in Myanmar and Assam and ignoring the Human rights violation every where else in the world where non-muslims are killed then expect the same from other communities as well.
By the way how many muslims protested against minority killings happening in Pakistan.

from:  John
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 14:20 IST

"Instead of differentiating itself from Muslims in the wake of Wisconsin, the Sikh diaspora must challenge racial hatred as a whole." (above)
This formulation of the remedy falsely presents it as an either-or choice between the two, occasioning a needless conflict. The former is a practical (and not immoral) aim acheviable within a relatively short time (a few years) while the latter seeks to bring about a moral state in a society which can take centuries (and is still ongoing). The two are by not incompatible in any way.

from:  Harit Trivedi
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 13:51 IST

The author is quite biased towards Sikhs rather than human. Killing any
innocent human should be condemned and education campaigns are required
to teach humanity rather than ideologies of any religion. No religion
teach to kill any person. Such articles from renowned person should be scrutinized properly as it will create wrong impression and will give
improper message to society.

from:  Vineet
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 10:28 IST

On a philosophical note,despite the enactment of laws and special emphasis on education to eradicate racism and prejudice, it will continue to rear its ugly head to varying degrees in different societies and nationalities across the length and breadth of our planet earth. No matter where we have decided to set up home, we need to individually and collectively strive to live in peace and harmony with each other and that "peace and harmony" on earth can only be achieved starting with each of us!

from:  Ivan DCosta
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 06:03 IST

The brutal incident at 'Oak Creek Gurudwara' has nothing to do with
religion. One random racially activated radical unit has planned this to
send a sick message to the future immigrants from the south east- "do
not come to US". I personally believe his message has already suppressed
some of the future aspirants from immigrating to the US.

from:  SANDEEP
Posted on: Aug 14, 2012 at 02:29 IST

The Wisconsin shooter Wade M. Page was fully aware that his target was a place of worship for Sikhs (not Muslims) – it was not a case of mistaken identity. This is known from many messages retrieved from his writings, where he expressed his ugly and obscene rage towards Sikhs (he specifically used the word “Sikh”). Though there are many Americans who can’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims (or don’t care), it was not the case in the Wisconsin shooting. Everyone, especially Sikhs, must be aware of this because (1) bigots and lunatics may target them just for who they are – and not just for whom they look like. (2) It is no use "educating" the lunatic saying "I am Sikh, not a Muslim" - the bigoted, enraged mad man cares not and he hates both.

from:  Mukundagiri Sadagopan
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 21:14 IST

Whether they are muslims or sikhs its not important..They are humans at first place and have all rights to live..How can you simply escape saying that sikhs were mistaken to be muslims and killed ruthlessly in their religious place for no fault of theirs..

from:  nithya
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 15:21 IST

Educational campaigns cannot combat racism and racist violence. Those that are
likely to target Muslims because they "stand out" from others are not going to be
considerate to Sikhs as these are also conspicuous by their appearance, like
blacks, orthodox Jews, or any other group which are different and hence in their
opinion outsiders.

Educational campaigns can merely promote awareness among the more open-
minded sections of society, those in other words that are anyway unlikely to act
with violence whether against Muslims or Sikhs. The racism latent here cannot be
fixed though.

I remember singing "Mazhab nahi sikhata" every morning, but that didn't help.
People would still call Sikhs "terrorists" even if as a jest, and we know how deep
religious animosity runs in our society, especially among the so-called educated
people who are often worse than the "ganwar" in their caste- and religious
discrimination.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 14:28 IST

I don't think the author should have a problem with this , Sikhs and
Muslims are as different as the two poles of earth,and Muslims are
looked with suspicion every where in the world so what is wrong in
educating people about their proper identity...

from:  Indian
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 14:27 IST

Thank you for a balanced and fair view on this.

Comments such as those from Prasanth Nambiar above are proof that more such awareness is needed.

Would it have been okay then, if a mosque had been targeted and Muslims had been killed?

from:  Abdul Rahman
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 14:14 IST

"the killings were a case of error caused by ignorance rather than domestic terrorism as was being suggested by the investigators".. How can they call it a case of error caused by ignorance. Even if they had been Muslims performing their religious ceremony, is this ignorance to come in open and blindly shoot at innocent people.

from:  Aditya
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 14:03 IST

I also found many of the news reports surprising in context of the shooting. From the reports it could be inferred that it is OK to shoot Muslims. That is a pretty dangerous impression which the media was giving.
@Prasanth Nambiar: Sir, I urge you to read more about Islam and Jihad, not blindly base your opinion on TV and internet articles which bombard us with anti Muslim propaganda 24*7 for the sake of their Imperialistic masters.

from:  Ahmad
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 13:51 IST

I was shocked at how media around the world began projecting this crime on grounds of mistaken identity and not addressing the underpinning racial hatred instead. Talks of these kind only help in widening the "gap". Articles like these were sorely missed in the initial days after the attack.

from:  Mak
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 13:22 IST

The author is skirting issues. Sikhs were attacked in the U.S. post Sept 11 because weeks before that a Canadian Court had convicted Canadian Sikhs for bombing of the Air India aircraft in which 329 innocent lives were lost. So when Americans saw a plane ram into the World Trade Centre they thought it might be the handiwork of these bearded men ie Sikhs. So they were wrongly attacked.
The author also forgets to mention that the word terrorist became synonomous with sections of the Sikh community because of the mass killing of both Hindus and Sikhs during the Khalistani Movement. 21000 Indians lost their lives during the Sikh Terror Movement between 1983-93. Which is why the 'Ji' that most Indians add to Sardar went missing.Sad wrong but ie the reality.

from:  vikramjit singh
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 09:13 IST

Racism has always existed and will always exist. A society free of racism is a utopian dream. The efforts of Sikhs to promote more awareness about their religion should be lauded and not questioned. I do agree with you, the American media is barking down the wrong tree by focusing more on the mistaken identity aspect of the case more than the fact that innocent people have been killed. Educating others about a religion is lauded, while nothing can eradicate racism, the goal is to educate, promote awareness and change perceptions and ultimately prevent visceral attacks in future.

from:  Sanjam
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 08:31 IST

Every sect, culture will try to safeguard it's interest and survival
first. Global goodwill, awareness is fine theoretically. Is it
practical. Human beings act mostly based on beliefs and not facts in
personal as well as social life. Teaching brotherhood, oneness,
compassion is a monumental thing , immediate things things are to be
first attended first no doubt. With Utopian dreams one cannot live
today. Everyone is watching what is happening around them everywhere.

from:  Gopalan
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 08:30 IST

While it is true that racism in its all forms must be opposed, there is nothing wrong in Sikh educational campaigns differentiating themselves from Muslims. After all, incorrectly or not, Muslim ideology and it's connection with violent jihad is under scrutiny all over the world from United stated to Timbuke- Male. It may be politically incorrect but it is understandable that Sikhs want to educate world that their community is seperate from Muslims.

from:  Prasanth Nambiar
Posted on: Aug 13, 2012 at 07:05 IST
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