It is with a great deal of sadness and with a heavy heart that I write this, not as an entertainment writer or critic, but as an enemy of bigotry, a concerned citizen, and an advocate on behalf of the Sikh Coalition.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s terrifying events in Oak Creek, the American Sikh community is grieving the loss of six lives while also awaiting answers. Why would such a heinous act be perpetrated, committed within their own house of worship? Although the investigations concerning the motives of the killer are ongoing from local, state, and federal authorities, there has been an unfortunate history of violence against Sikhs since September 11th.
Most devout Sikh males do not cut their hair, which they cover with turbans. The turbans and their uncut beards are frequently (and inaccurately) associated with images of terrorism and violence. Many times attacks against Sikhs are cases of mistaken identity, with the perpetrators thinking the Sikhs are Muslims.
If the perpetrator of this horrendous attack was driven by a fear or hatred of Islam and Muslims, it must be stressed that the Sikh Coalition is vehemently opposed to all acts of religious bigotry. Sikhism is a religion of love, strongly advocating a peaceful coexistence with other faiths.
The fifth-largest religion in the world, Sikhism was founded in the late 15th Century in the Punjab region of present-day India by a succession of ten gurus, or spiritual leaders. The first, Guru Nanak, was strongly opposed to the Hindu belief in castes, or classes, which in turn dictated one’s career, social standing, and even who they were allowed to marry. Another fundamental belief for Sikhs was the promotion of equality among men and women. Sikhism is also a monotheistic faith, meaning the only believe in one god, who they call Waheguru. Their image of Waheguru is gender neutral, further promoting their concept of gender equality.
The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, laid out several rules of conduct for Sikhs, the most obvious being unshorn hair. Another rule was the adoption of a shared last name: Singh, which means “lion,” for men, and Kaur, or “princess,” for women. Sikhs worship at temples called gurdwaras, where all are welcome. Following the worship service, the gurdwara offers a free community meal called langar.
Sikhs first came to the United States in the late 19th Century. Since then, the United States fourth-largest Sikh population in the world, behind only India, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Despite facing adversities such as bullying, job discrimination, and racial profiling, Sikhs are a proud part of our cultural landscape, working in all professions and contributing to their communities. In New York City, Queens boasts the largest Sikh population and is home to several gurdwaras in Richmond Hill, Forest Hills, Flushing, and Woodside. Local Sikh musicians frequently play live music at the Indian restaurants on East 6th Street in the East Village.
New York City is also the birthplace of the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization. The Coalition was founded in the aftermath of 9/11, when reports began to circulate that Sikhs were being targeted in hate crimes, committed as acts of revenge by people who perceived them to be Muslims. In the past few years, I have worked with the Sikh Coalition on video projects and earlier this summer trained with a group of individuals from across the country in Washington DC for the Coalition’s Advocacy program.
In my own experience, I have embraced many of Sikhism’s tenets into my own personal philosophy. They believe that we must conquer the five evils – anger, lust, greed, ego, and attachment – in order to attain spiritual peace. Since moving to New York three years ago, I found the Sikh community to be a warm and welcoming group of people with a lively spirit and a great sense of humor.
What happened this past Sunday was the latest in a dreadful saga of violence against Sikh Americans. What makes this the most upsetting is that this occurred at a house of worship. Attacks at any house of worship – church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or gurdwara – must be condemned, as these institutions are regarded as places of peace. Crimes like this strike at the heart of religious freedom, a core principle that is central to Sikhism and the United States alike. For more information, visit the Sikh Coalition’s page on Sikhs and Sikhism.