A Sikhs Response to What Next? After the Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre

PowerpointThe news is still a shock. The question of why has been one that I have heard most often. Followed by what next?

It is this second question that most interests me, as well.

The responses have been varied.

There are some that have called out that we are all American Sikhs,although most within the community would be a bit confused as most of us use the title Sikh-Americans, while the term American Sikhs is generally used for those sections in our community that often were first introduced to Sikhi by the late Yogi Bhajan.

There are others that are taking on the task to teach others about Sikhi and raise talking points, when speaking to the media either national or even regional. SALDEF and Sikh Coalitionhave been at the forefront and have even produced Sikhi 101-type materialsthat can be used when speaking to non-Sikh audiences. Both should be commended for their work.

Still far more interesting to me and is often the case within The Langar Hall is how Sikhs dialogue with each other. While still important in some ways it seems a bit less significant how Sikhs speak to non-Sikhs, when compared to how we speak to one another. National attention will wane; the media will become bored; yet, we will still be there with one another. Two recent postings one published on this very blog largely speak to this very question.

Santbir Singh, a volunteer with the Sikh Research Institute, eloquently made a case for his thoughts on where do we go from here?He provided much food for thought and Ill bite.

While in concert with many of his assertions, I do have misgivings towards his comment that Balbir Singh Sodhi was the only case of murderous Muslimophobia and his comments of greater security measures at Gurdwaras, although understood in this particular context, do not seem to me the actual need of the time. If it is to provide a temporary sense of safety for some, I can understand the sentiment. Still, let us not confuse a sense with actual safety. And as Santbir himself seems be uneasily treading – introducing the security state into our Gurdwaras is ANTITHETICAL to the belief of the 4 doors of the Gurdwara as open to all!

From what I have observed on US national media, I have not really seen disorganized responses, despite being uncoordinated. While I, again, understand the sentiment from where this is coming from belief that we can have ahomogeneousresponse doesnt seem to me a burning need. It was exactly from this belief that the Sikh Media And Resource Task Force (SMART) was first launched in the mid-1990s (now transforming into SALDEF to better project its new duties) and it was after 9/11 that the press release that would later germinate into the Sikh Coalition was born. Both of these groups have been amply quoted and supplemented by local voices in local media. Still these national voices are no substitute for the voices of those Sikhs that were there at the Oak Creek Gurdwara. One can quibble that these voices are unprofessional (I think that means that the speaker doesnt speak English with an American accent), but these are the genuine and authentic views of those that were there and we need not be so patronizing (again, if my assumption of unprofessional is correct). The US press is not as vitriolic anti-Sikh as that of the Canadian press, but then again politically in the US, Sikhs as a community dont matter to the same extent we do as in Canada. Maybe our Canadian brothers and sisters can learn from our example and create SALDEF or Sikh Coalition-like organizations, if they believe that is the pressing need.

Another interesting response came from Amardeep Singh, a professor at Lehigh University. For those familiar with the now-defunct Sepia Mutiny, he needs no introduction. On Sunday, soon after the tragedy he wrote a post titled Beyond Recognition and Misrecognitionand wrote a comment that I too have expressed:

But heres the thing: I dont know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred.

He observes that the turban seems to generate a visceral reaction by hate-filled individuals that detest difference. Amardeep supposes that the turban and even the hijab, as being articles worn on the body, evoke this visceral reaction.

To this point, I think I would somewhat agree, but try to give it an even larger context. In a racially fluid society such as that we live in this particular settler-colony the United States identities are largely constructed and external signifiers can be the objects that are targeted. Believe it or not, far before the hijab and pagh, even a precursor to the modern day business suit the zoot suit worn mainly by Mexican-American men in the 1940s became an object that evoked visceral violent reactions of hatred. Some military men and nativists that largely hated the Mexicans in their city (despite the history and even the name of it gives a sense of that history!!) – Los Angeles, CA attacked the Mexican youth that wore these clothes, causing deaths and disarray. The racist police force of course punished the Mexican youth, instead of the perpetrators. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and many other groups have not been spared, if we take a larger view of the history of this country.

In the current political context, there is a new racial group racialized Muslim. Sikhs, along with other brown people, fall into the group regardless of their religion they could be Lebanese Druze, Syrian Christian, Iranian Jew, or even Punjabi Sikh. The Sikh, especially those with their turbans, is seen as even more Muslim than the Muslims! He/She can attempt to teach people about Sikhi and he/she should do that, but I do not think that really goes to the root of the problem. Also – since I do not believe it has anything to do with theology, but rather with racialization I do not use the term Islamophobia. We are victims of Muslimophobia, but we are also perpetrators when we wish to disassociate from Muslims for political expediency. We must stand together with other communities in opposition fearless (nirbhao) and without hate (nirvair).

We can also be proud of the difference and be part of the process to change American society in coming to terms with difference. Some Americans seem to fear others icons, symbols, or persons, until they can be tamed and rendered harmless through commodification. My fellow langa(w)r-iter, Brooklynwala, wrote an article not too long ago about this topic and even posted a video When the Coolie becomes Cool. I see Cinco de Mayo celebrations every year, where Mexican cultural iconography has been commodified to nothing more than mariachis and ponchos to be worn on the way to bar. St. Patricks Day for the Irish-American community, long out-casted by the traditional WASP elite, has been commodified and rendered harmless. I would loathe the day where college fraternities would have Basaikhi Parties, wearing single-use turbans and fake beards, as they drink. I always see this impulse within our community be it with kirpans or other integral articles where in appeasement and hoping to render harmless, we begin this pitfall-ridden road of commodification, dance presentations, and ethnic food nights.

So what next? Santbir and Amardeep have given two important responses and why their responses especially generated enthusiasm with me is they were asking questions and making points not just about what we should be communicating with non-Sikhs, but most importantly what sort of conversations we should be having with one another. Although on the issue of how to communicate with non-Sikhs, just as I believe that Sikh-Canadians can learn from us through our media savvy organizations, maybe we Sikh-Americans can learn from their example especially the Seva Food Bank. Instead of just talking about Sikhi (although it is important), why dont we begin living Sikhi and make seva a key part of our very existence and make ourselves relevant to the local communities in which we live. Opening community pantries and food banks at our Gurdwaras makes perfect sense to me. I hope it resonates with others too.

In Amardeeps post, he shared that he will not be talking about the tragedy with his 5-year-old son. That is his choice as a parent and should be respected. But I do believe that we should be talking about this in our communities. If others agree, what should we be saying to our youth? To our elders? Along with all the vigils planned for this week and for the upcoming weekend what else should we be saying and doing? Along with collecting money from your Sangat to help the families of those deceased, injured, or even the policeman that risked his life, what conversations should we be having?

Friends with the Jakara Movement have produced the following powerpoint titled DEGH TEGH FATEH to help facilitate that critical internal conversation.

I hope that our readers will step up in this time and be leaders to help generate these sometimes awkward, painful, but very necessary conversations. For those that use this tool or have had/plan to have these conversations with their families, friends, and sangat please share!

This is a moment for us to take a breath as Santbir Singh called for but we can emerge inspired, energized, and recommitted. A new interest in Sikhi will not only be generated amongst non-Sikhs, but also most importantly amongst members of our own community. This is the time to have a much-needed conversation within our community of our past, of our present, but also of our individual and collective futures.

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12 Responses to “A Sikhs Response to What Next? After the Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre”

  1. Excellent conclusion Jodha, I sincerely hope this is a time where we begin to converse. Sadly, I think the opportunity to do so will come and go as it has before.

  2. sukhvirk150 says:

    Thank you for pointing out the problem of commodification.

    I saw the urge of making ourselves look 'harmless' to the general American public as problematic, but couldn't enumerate or describe the problem it created.

    Thanks again.

  3. brooklynwala says:

    YES. thank you brother.

  4. wedefineourselves says:

    Good stuff in your response, don’t agree with some of it. But. We aren’t racialized anything. We are sikhs. Don’t let your pomo classes run away with you.

    Also we need in person forums to discuss next steps. The more the better. Our activists can help by organization with these. Leave the pomo identity theories for essay classes.

  5. defineourselves says:

    Tell me if this is close – the wider society which constructs identity on the Other, in this case or community, sees us under the wider rubrick of the Other- Muslim. Much like the dichotomy between White and Black – where everyone non-White is treated and considered Black in varying degrees to which they vary from the standard of White-ness.

    Therefore even though we know our identity as Sikh (which is Jodha's distinction that this is not a theological concept) we are treated by the wider society as Other (in this case Other is consider by the dialogue of Power to be "Muslim.") So therefore rather than try to define ourselves as Sikhs and go with our centuries old tradition of asserting our identity in a way that is respectful and generous to all, we should align ourselves and understand ourselves as the Other.

    I think that's all pretty standard post-modernism.

  6. G Singh says:

    I am so confused and concerned at how the most visible and powerful Punjabi ethnicity figure heads Gov Nikki Hailey and Gov Jindal didnt even come on TV to make any statement or offer condolences. Take Nikki is she embarrassed by her back ground and afraid of political fall out? This basically summarizes our attitude towards the community. Time and time again I have seen successful Sikhs talk down or avoid meeting folks who do business. There is no sense of kinship, us and them Need to unite folks ABCD vs IBCD etc this is it stay united we succeed.. Sikhs dont beg and believe in Self help so dont need hollow words form politicos but it does hurt..Give it to Deepak Chopra atleast he came to CNN I aint his fan but he earned some respect from me

  7. H Singh says:

    Great post!!! Saying what no one dares. Jodha Singh is the most important Sikh thinker on the Internet today. Another tour de force!

  8. kayemofnmy says:

    My condolences to the families who've lost their loved ones at Oak Creek. Don't know if you'll welcome a comment from a non-Sikh. There are always the "other" haters (within our own communities too) but it helps to know that most folks are easy going about differences and your traditional langars are one place to meet with many such people. Unfortunately, in view of the current situation, letting things settle and then holding a langar in safety (in collusion with the police and to start with, by invitation only?) would be an idea worth considering.

  9. Bostonvala says:

    BTW – Jodha – the Degh Tegh Fateh ppt is really good. Kudos to Jakara Movement for producing this.

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