Sehgal: Sikh temple shooting shows how hatred can transcend boundaries

'No matter who is shot and killed in there, it's going to affect all of us out here," said Simran Kaleka, the niece of Satwant Singh Kaleka, president of the Sikh gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wis.

Her uncle was preparing to deliver remarks for the community's peaceful religious gathering Sunday morning when the temple erupted in horror, as shooting suspect Wade Michael Page entered the scene with a 9 mm semiautomatic gun. Six Sikhs were killed. Satwant Singh Kaleka was one of them.

The words of his niece resonated with me, particularly when I heard many news organizations make the point that Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims, as they attempted to identify the motivation behind the tragedy.


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My family hails from Punjab, the region in India home to a majority of the country's Sikh population. We are Hindu-Punjabi, a distinct religion and culture, that has long lived alongside and even married Sikhs, and our cultures have twined together. In our homes, hanging next to images of Hindu gods, are pictures of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism. My male relatives wear the kara, a metal bracelet that is one of Sikhism's five outward signs of faith, the best known of which is the uncut beard and hair protected by a turban.

The region of Punjab, likewise, has historically been a shared space between Hindu and Muslim communities. When my parents moved to the United States, looking for fellow new immigrants with similar stories or backgrounds, they became part of new communities of American Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike.

Sharing a space transforms what might have been divided groups into a community -- and nowhere does this occur more dynamically than in the United States. In every multicultural American neighborhood, wherever we find cultural or religious differences, we also find similarities as the different groups influence each other. Distinct groups become increasingly difficult to separate.

Since 9/11, terms like "Islamophobia" and "anti-Muslim bigotry" have framed conversations about the growing divide in our country, whether those discussions were about investigating hate crimes, examining police or government racial profiling, and reconsidering immigration policies. Both sides -- those who seek to further such a divide and those who stand against one -- seem to think we can somehow make hatred and intolerance a discrete concern of American Muslims, that is unconnected to relationships between other groups.

News reports about Oak Creek point out that because Sikhs wear a turban and beard, have brown skin, and speak a foreign language, a terrorist could believe that the Sikhs who had gathered for quiet prayer were in fact Muslims. Is the message that American Muslims are an isolated group that we have come to "expect" will be in the crossfire?

It's true that some Sikhs resemble Muslims. Some Hindus resemble Muslims. Some members of all races, religions and ethnicities resemble Muslims, because there are simply no defining physical features of being an American Muslim. Just as Hindus in my ancestral state of Punjab adopt the kara, many young American Sikhs and Muslims forego the traditional physical garb of their religion and adopt the fashions of American culture. In a community, influence and overlap are inevitable.

We cannot hope to address the hatred in our country that led to Sunday's horrific events by framing it simply as possibly misguided anti-Muslim bigotry. We cannot hope to restrain hate within arbitrary lines of our own choosing. Terrorists pay no attention to these lines. We are Americans, and we are a community. "No matter who is shot and killed in there, it's going to affect all of us out here."

We must all take a stand against terrorism, ignorance and hatred in every form. We can only hope to prevent such tragedies and restore safety to our community if we stop wasting investigative resources profiling innocent people solely because of their race, religion or dress. Instead, we should devote ourselves to investigating true terrorists -- even when they look like shooting suspect Wade Michael Page.

Ujala Sehgal is communications coordinator at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans.

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