“What Next?” – After the Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre

The 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 Coalition have been at the forefront and have even produced Sikhi 101-type materials that 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 largely speak to this very question.

Santbir Singh, a volunteer with the Sikh Research Institute, eloquently made a case for his thoughts onwhere do we go from here? He provided much food for thought and I’ll 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 a homogeneous response doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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 Misrecognition and wrote a comment that I too have expressed:

 But here’s the thing: I don’t 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. Patrick’s 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 don’t 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 Amardeep’s 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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  • Jakara Movement
    published this page in Blog 2012-08-09 18:00:34 -0700

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