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2012-08-06

Sikh Temple Shooting Stokes Fears in Community with Deep Roots in Wisconsin and Across U.S.

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Many members of the Sikh community say the massacre in Oak Ridge has shaken their sense of security. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world with more than 25 million followers, of which roughly 500,000 live in the United States. We’re joined from Wisconsin by John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation whose article on Sunday’s killing spree is "Shootings at a Temple Test the Founding Faith of America," and by Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition based in Washington, D.C. "Many people aren’t aware of this, but Sikhs have been in this country for over a century," Singh says. "Unfortunately and ironically, we are still facing existential challenges in the form of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by John Nichols, political writer based in Wisconsin for The Nation. His piece on Sunday’s killing spree is called "Shootings at a Temple Test the Founding Faith of America."

Welcome, John, to Democracy Now! Can you talk further about what took place at the Oak Creek temple, where the gunman, who has now been named—CNN saying it is believed he is a white supremacist. He was in the Army, now CBS reporting in psychological operations unit at Fort Bliss, as well as another military base. Wade Michael Page, his name. John, talk about Wisconsin and the Sikh community.

JOHN NICHOLS: The Sikh community has been in Wisconsin for a good deal of time. Wisconsin has deep roots with India. Robert M. La Follette, our great progressive senator, was one of the most passionate, perhaps the most passionate, supporter of the anti-colonial movement in the 1920s, 1930s, with his family. Then the University of Wisconsin was very welcoming to Sikh scholars over the years. So, as a result, this state’s got an old Sikh community. It’s grown tremendously in recent years, however, and particularly in the Milwaukee area, particularly there on the south side around that suburb of Oak Creek. And one of the deep, deep tragedies of this shooting is that many of the people who were killed or wounded yesterday were folks who had built that temple. In fact, they had built that community over several decades. And so, this is a deep, deep loss.

But it’s also a deep loss for the neighboring community. A state legislator for the area—in fact, state legislators who are of Polish-American background were literally breaking down in tears. And one of the reasons is that this community is very integrated. It’s been a part of the Milwaukee area. And it’s also done a great deal of outreach to our political leaders. Remarkably enough, yesterday morning, at the same time that this shooting was taking place, former Governor Tommy Thompson, who was the Bush administration’s secretary of Health and Human Services, was speaking at another Sikh temple just about 20 miles away.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. In fact, we were just speaking with the leader of that Sikh temple who said that, in the end, Tommy Thompson didn’t speak, of course—

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, he was present. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —because that’s when they were learning what took place, but he was there.

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The tradition in Wisconsin with the Sikh community, going back to La Follette?

JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, it is, and an aware and conscious tradition, not an unspoken one, that Sikh scholars came to this state, not—he was not, obviously, of this faith, but Nehru came to Wisconsin and spoke at the University of Wisconsin during the days of the colonial struggle. And so, there are connections there that go back in a deep way.

But I do want to emphasize that this community, the particular community we’re talking about, the temple that was attacked, was largely made up of relatively recent immigrants, folks who had come to Wisconsin and, frankly, become quite successful in a variety of businesses and also in medicine and academia. This was a quite remarkable community. I’ve been in this area, been at that temple. And frankly, I have to tell you that most people in public life in Wisconsin and most people who are engaged in Wisconsin were well aware of, if not this particular temple, the Brookfield temple and other Sikh activities in our state.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Rajdeep Singh, who is director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition in Washington, D.C. Again, our deep condolences, Rajdeep Singh, for your whole community. Can you talk about how you learned about what was happening yesterday and how this fits into the larger picture of what’s happening to Sikhs in America?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Right. Thanks for having us, Amy. We learned about it like everybody else. We were shocked to see the news reports breaking over the TV networks and on social media. And as we continue to learn more about the assailant and his motives, you know, we’re going to have to start thinking about the larger context of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination against Sikhs in the post-9/11 environment.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what has happened to your community, to the Sikh community, since the September 11th attacks.

RAJDEEP SINGH: Right. Since the 9/11 attacks, unfortunately, the prevailing stereotype, which has been perpetuated by the media, is that if somebody wears a turban, they are associated with al-Qaeda or other forms of extremism. That’s obviously not the case. And unfortunately, ignorance is a breeding ground for bigotry and discrimination, and Sikhs have been subjected not only to hate crimes around the United States but also to school bullying, job discrimination and racial profiling.

AMY GOODMAN: And the number of incidents of hate crimes against Sikhs, can you talk about specific instances and what authorities are doing about them?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Right. It’s very difficult to give an exact number of hate incidents, hate crimes, involving Sikhs, in part because the FBI does not track or document hate crimes against Sikh Americans. We know anecdotally of Sikhs who have been targeted. Many of them are our clients. One of the first high-profile casualties of post-9/11 backlash, for example, was a Sikh gentleman, Mr. Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was shot and killed on September 15, 2001, by somebody in Arizona. Over the years, from time to time, there have been similar incidents, very violent. You mentioned some of them earlier in the show. Last year, two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed outside of Sacramento in what authorities believe to have been a hate crime. And unfortunately, just when we think that things have sort of abated, we sort of get another rude shock and realize that we still have a lot of work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Rajdeep Singh, can you talk about the history of your religion, to give us a lesson, to introduce us to your community?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Sure. So, the Sikh religion is the fifth largest religion in the world, with about 25 million adherents throughout the world. It was founded over five centuries ago in South Asia. And essentially, the fundamental pillars of the Sikh religion are that there is one god and that all human beings are created equal, regardless of their race, religion, gender and other sorts of categories. For us, what matters is that we’re human first and that the content of our character as human beings ought to be of importance to people, not our religious labels and other affiliations.

AMY GOODMAN: And Sikhs in America, what brought Sikhs to America?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Well, Sikhs began to migrate to the United States at the end of the 19th century. Many of them—in fact, most of them—settled on the West Coast and worked as farmers and as laborers. And, in fact, there were some hate incidents. Many people aren’t aware of this, but there were actually riots, race riots, in which Sikhs were targeted around the very early part of the 20 century, the early 1900s. And notwithstanding some of the bigotry and overt hostility which they faced, they built very successful careers as farmers, agriculturalists, entrepreneurs, professionals. And many people aren’t aware of this, but Sikhs have been in this country for over a century. And we are thriving in the professions that we pursue, but unfortunately and ironically, we are still facing existential challenges in the form of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about your dress, why men choose to wear a turban?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Well, the turban is a religious requirement for Sikh men. It is something which signifies a commitment to upholding the traditions and principles of the Sikh religion. It is sort of a declaration of Sikh identity and says to the world that we are Sikhs and that we are bound to our traditions and that we stand by our convictions and are committed to protecting people and protecting them against any form of tyranny or oppression. And so, what’s ironic for us is that, ideologically speaking, Sikhs are among the most American of Americans. We believe in religious pluralism. We believe in religious freedom. We believe in justice and equality for all. The turban is something which signifies a commitment to those values. Nevertheless, we continue to be regarded as something other than American in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you hoping now will come out of this horror that took place in Oak Creek, Wisconsin? What are you calling for?

RAJDEEP SINGH: Well, you know, in the first place, in the near term, you know, we hope that the families of the victims get support from their friends and neighbors, within the Sikh community and also outside the Sikh community. In the fullness of time, in the long term, we hope that we can have a much needed dialogue in this country about religious pluralism, diversity, appreciation of diversity, and the need to not just accept each other but also appreciate each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Rajdeep Singh, for joining us, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition in Washington, D.C. I know that you have to move on.

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