By Melat Menwyelet, Immigrant Rights Program Coordinator
Having remained nearly invisible or confused with its more well-known Asian counterpart Islam, the world’s 5th largest religion finally came into focus in the U.S. on August 5, 2012, through the tragic events in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran who is described by the media as having ties with hate groups, entered a Gurdgwara, a Sikh temple, and opened fire, killing six people and himself. This tragic event took place at the most ironic of times as it was the part of the Sunday service where community members from all backgrounds – Sikhs and non-Sikhs – come together and break bread as a sign of equality.
The Sikh religion is monotheistic (believing in one God) and emphasizes ethics, morality and values. They are warriors for social justice, advocating for tolerance for all people, and have been described as one of the most peaceful people in the world. Although a minority in the U.S., Sikhs make up an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 of the country’s population. Sikh men are easily identified by their beautifully colored turbans, which have also led them to be easily targeted by hate groups. This has especially been the case in the U.S. since 9-11, as they are often mistaken for Muslims. Although they understand this misplaced hate, true to their beliefs, many Sikh Americans stand up against the injustice that the Muslim American and Arab American communities have faced as a result of constant harassment over the last several years.
I attended a candle light vigil in Washington, D.C. on August 8, 2012, held in remembrance of the seven individuals killed, which includes the five members of the Sikh community, Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy and the gunman. Members of the local Sikh community and others came together to pray for all of the individuals harmed during this tragic event, including Page and his family, and to complete the ritual meal that was interrupted by the shooting. They prayed for our country and for this tragedy to serve as an opportunity for our nation to address issues of hate and religious intolerance. As an individual who knew very little about Sikhs before this event, I have learned so much about this wonderful community of people.
Our country is unique in its wealth of cultures from the many immigrant communities that thrive here, including religious wealth from the many spiritual beliefs and practices. We shine as an example in highlighting freedom and we must continue to come together and defend freedom of practice of religion by fighting against hate crimes the best way we can. In stride with our Sikh brothers and sisters, we can open our doors to our community, our neighbors, and take time to learn about our differences. Staring fear directly in the face is the only way to see that fear itself is truly not an obstacle, but an opportunity to learn and grow as a nation.