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Sikh Community Activist Simran Jeet Singh: After Wisconsin Attack, I Refuse to Live in Fear

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As memorials are held to remember the Sikh worshipers shot dead at a Wisconsin temple,
we’re joined by Simran Jeet Singh, a Sikh community activist and doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University. In response to Sunday’s shooting, he posted a commentary called, “As a Sikh-American I Refuse to Live in Fear and Negativity.” Singh writes: “Although it will be important to understand what motivated the violence, this should not color the inspiration behind our own reactions. We should draw from our American and Sikh traditions by continuing to respond with love and compassion. Let us stand up together and turn the tragedy in Wisconsin into a turning point for our nation.” We also speak with Don Walker, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel covering the Sikh temple shooting. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryAug 06, 2012Fear and Outrage in Wisconsin After 6 Killed at Sikh Temple; Gunman ID’d as White Supremacist Vet
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A community-wide memorial service is being planned in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Friday for the six victims of Sunday’s attack on a Sikh temple. The service is being organized by family members of the president of the temple, who was shot dead on Sunday. On Monday, President Obama said the nation needs soul searching after Sunday’s rampage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don’t yet know fully what motivated this individual to carry out this terrible act. If it turns out, as some early reports indicate, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple, I think the American people immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes, and I think it will be very important for us to reaffirm once again that in this country, regardless of what we look like, where we come from, who we worship, we are all one people, and we look after one another, and we respect one another.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the shooting at the Oak Creek Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we’re joined by Simran Jeet Singh, a Sikh community activist, doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University here in New York. In response to Sunday’s shooting, he wrote an article titled “As a Sikh-American, I Refuse to Live in Fear and Negativity.” Still with us, Don Walker, reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Don, before you go, you’ve been reporting on this extensively since Sunday. The reaction of the Sikh community and the overall greater Milwaukee community?

DON WALKER: Yes. Right after the shooting occurred, of course, many people are prone to rush to the scene, for better or for worse. Sometimes that complicates law enforcement, but these were people who rushed who wanted to help. The Sikh people themselves also offered assistance while police were cleaning out the temple and checking into it, the Sikh community themselves reaching out to journalists and law enforcement, offering them food and refreshment. So it was that kind of atmosphere on Sunday. Last night, for example, hundreds of people of all faiths showed up at the Sikh temple, the other one in suburban Milwaukee, to pay their respects and condolences. Governor Scott Walker was there on hand with his wife Tonette. So, there’s a lot of that happening, a lot of vigils. People, frankly, feel very badly about this. This is a small group, obviously. There are approximately 3,000 Sikhs who live and worship in southeastern Wisconsin, and it’s a community that’s growing. It’s a people who come from all walks of life—cabbies, gas station owners, surgeons, doctors—a real widespread group of people. And the community of other faiths, be it Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, have offered their assistance in any way they can.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Don, for being with us, as we turn to Simran Jeet Singh here in New York City. Talk about your community. You also are a religious—a religion doctoral student at Columbia.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Sure. I mean, generally, the community is going through an emotional roller coaster at this point. And the community is feeling sadness, feeling hurt, feeling targeted and alienated. But as Don was briefly mentioning with us just now, there is this deep appreciation and outpouring of support from the broader community, both in Milwaukee and on a national level. And so, the community is feeling a wide range of emotions.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote a piece, “As a Sikh-American, I Refuse to Live in Fear and Negativity.” Talk about your own response.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Sure. Well, according to basic Sikh teachings, the basic principles of Sikhism encourage us to constantly respond with positive love and compassion, no matter the situation. And our gurus teach us to always accept the will of the divine gracefully. And so, the idea for us is, with that love, when you have moments of suffering, you feel empathy, you feel compassion, you feel the pain of others, and then you use that momentum and that deep connection with people to create something positive. And that’s kind of the sort of discourse and the movement that I wanted to push forward as a collective response, both on a Sikh level and on a national level.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your feelings, in the streets of New York, in talking with other Sikhs after 9/11, the increase in hate attacks. In fact, today there will be a news conference out in Queens at a Sikh temple with Congressman Crowley and others, who have been speaking for a while now about the increase in threats against Sikhs.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: I guess I would call attention to what I was saying earlier, in the sense that there is a deep tension in what the Sikh community is feeling right now. On the one hand, we feel frustrated. We feel like we have been continually persecuted and targeted here in America since 9/11. I’ve personally experienced this, but not to the level of others who have been killed, who have been bullied in school, physically assaulted, verbally assaulted. I’ve experienced things like that, but the scale is very different here than Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: What have you personally experienced?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Oh, all sorts of things. You know, growing up in South Texas, which is where I grew up, I would be—I remember—my first memory, actually, of being bullied was in elementary school, when the young boys wouldn’t allow me to go into the boys’ bathroom. And they said, you know, “You can come back when you have short hair like us,” and they pushed me into the girls’ bathroom. So that was deeply humiliating for me. And then, constantly, my siblings and I would—we were involved in sports. We would be disallowed from participating in our soccer games, our basketball games. One referee told me that, you know, “I know you’re hiding bombs and knives in there,” and he kicked me off the field before the game started, so…

AMY GOODMAN: In your turban?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: In my turban, mm-hmm. And then this continues in—after 9/11, immediately, our family received phone calls, death threats. And this has continued. You know, when I moved to Boston to begin my graduate work at Harvard, I really had the hope that things would change with time and with, you know, moving to a generally more liberal part of the country. Moving to Boston, New York, things haven’t really changed. Last year I was running the New York Marathon, for example, and some kids were throwing rocks at me and saying, “Let’s get bin Laden,” and people were, you know, shouting insults and epithets at me. So, it’s a—what I really see here is that it’s a—it’s a consistent pattern that’s fitting in together.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were running the marathon and the kids were throwing stones—

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Throwing stones.

AMY GOODMAN: —were other runners helping you? Were they castigating the kids?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Other runners weren’t, but other spectators were. And this is part of the deep tension. On one hand, we have a broad, overwhelming amount of support, as we see in response to the Wisconsin massacre. On the other hand, there are people who go out of their way to make us feel isolated and alienated and target us. And sometimes, as an individual and as a community, those attackers—those attacks outweigh the broad amount of support.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the religious and cultural significance of the turban, why men don’t cut their hair?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Sure. I should point out that, generally, women and men don’t cut their hair. The turban is expected and more likely to it be seen on a male, but women also can choose to wear them. There are many reasons that people—that Sikhs understand why they keep their hair and wear a turban. For me, in particular, I understand my turban as a public symbol, as a public commitment to tell everyone, “Hey, this turban represents what my principles are, the Sikh principles of love and integrity and justice and equality.” And by making that public proclamation, I hold—I ask people to hold me accountable. So, that is one of the basic reasons.

The other is—and this is probably the central reason for me—I view my identity — my turban, my bracelet that I wear called a kara — we have five articles of faith that Sikhs wear. I view these articles of faith, and many Sikhs do, as gifts from our guru, and in a relationship of love, you accept those gifts, just like if a spouse was to give you a wedding ring. You don’t really question why they give it to you; you just appreciate and cherish the value of that particular object. It may not have the same meaning for anybody else, but it’s a very deeply personal feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on the shooter, Page, who was also killed by a police officer at the rampage, at the massacre site, being a white supremacist?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: As with every other American, I’m deeply disturbed. And it calls attention to a larger systemic problem, I think. And we see this time and time again, with the Aurora shootings and what Senator Gabby Giffords went through. These acts of hatred and violence really call attention to a longstanding culture of fear. And this is something that, you know, if you look in our last century of history, American culture has been riddled with fear, whether it’s Japanese Americans, African Americans, communist Americans. And the way in which our culture has responded to different communities is very troubling to me. It happens to be that today this happened to a Sikh community. It very well could have happened to a Muslim community. In my eyes, the new age African Americans and Japanese Americans, the new targets are Sikh Americans and Muslim Americans. So, it’s very understandable for me, sitting here in 2012 in a post-9/11 American context, that a Muslim or a Sikh would be attacked rather than a Jew or an African American or someone like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts that—the constant explanations that, no, Sikhs are not Muslims.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Right, yeah. I find that it’s an important distinction to make, because this is—as we see, the source of the problem, I believe, is largely ignorance. And so, this is an important opportunity to educate ourselves and say, you know, Sikhs actually aren’t Muslims, and they’re not Hindus, and it’s an independent religion, and let’s learn about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s the fifth largest in the world.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: And it’s the fifth largest religion in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-five million people?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: That’s right. That’s right. And approximately 700,000 here in the U.S. And so, it’s a large community, and it happens to be that nobody knows about it. But at the same time, I am a little bit troubled by this discourse, that we keep pointing to the fact that Sikhs aren’t Muslims, but we forget to say that even if this happened to Muslims, that wouldn’t be OK, and we would stand up against that. And it’s—you know, this mosque burning in Joplin that occurred yesterday, it’s very similar to what we saw in Wisconsin, but for some reason it’s not receiving the same sort of media attention, and that’s very troubling to me.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, how is your community and other communities organizing right now? What gives you hope, and what makes you still afraid? Although you say you refuse to live in fear.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: There’s much to be hopeful for. And I’m very appreciative of and inspired by the reactions that people have had to this point. There are candlelight vigils being organized throughout the country. Americans have been invited to attend a gurdwara service this weekend, or this week, and get—

AMY GOODMAN: And gurdwara means?

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Gurdwara means the place of worship, a center where the Sikhs gather.

AMY GOODMAN: Where they were killed in Oak Creek.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Right, where people were killed in Oak Creek. So, Americans have been invited to these programs. There have been fundraisers that have been established to support the medical expenses, funeral costs of the victims in Wisconsin. There have been education campaigns, awareness efforts. There’s a lot of support and a lot of reason to see this as a possible turning point for American society, where we all come together and say, “Let’s stop allowing ourselves to participate in this culture of fear.” And that’s what I’m looking forward to in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Simran Jeet Singh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a Sikh community activist here in New York, doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, tonight a man is scheduled to die in Texas who has an IQ of 61, despite the Supreme Court 2002 ruling that people with mental retardation should not be executed. We’ll find out more. Stay with us.

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