08/07/2012

We honor Sikhs by learning about them

We know little about the motives of the gunman who opened fire yesterday in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  Many of us will monitor the news during the day, hoping to learn more about what the shooter thought he was doing, sure to hear more about the heroism and horror inside the building.

But it’s Monday, one of the first days of school for students throughout the South, where school starts early.  In those classrooms, teachers need to know how to talk about the shooting now, this morning.

Teaching Tolerance suggests starting with educating students about the Sikhs.

Sikhism rose in India at a time, about 350 years ago, when both Hinduism and Islam were practiced there; its followers seek enlightenment and brotherhood. It is a religious tradition that is little understood in the United States. Despite their rich heritage and distinctive dress, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims. And they have paid a heavy price for our cultural ignorance.

In fact, after 9/11, the first victim of anti-Muslim retaliation was a Sikh man, a 52-year-old gas station owner in Arizona.  Since then, according to the Sikh Coalition of Washington, Sikhs have endured more than 700 attacks.

Did the shooter confuse Sikhs with Muslims, and conflate Muslims with terrorists? We know only that he performed in racist skinhead bands and, according to some witnesses, had a tattoo marking the 9/11 attacks.  

We wrote about Sikhism last year in a blog about religious freedom, “Can My Sikh Student Carry a Sword?” As blogger Jackie Walker wrote, Sikh men are required to have uncut hair as a visible sign of affiliation. They should also carry a ceremonial sword or dagger, called a kirpan, to symbolize defense of the weak.

At least one Sikh in the temple died while defending the weak.  Amar Deep Kaleka, whose father died in the rampage, was told by police that he was killed after attacking “the intruder or the shooter in the lobby after gunshots were fired.” He slowed the gunman down, allowing others to find shelter.

And that reminds us of something we do know: Like most faiths, Sikhism is founded on love and concern, even in the face of fear and hate.

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