“We are all Sikhs”: The Oak Creek shooting, and what it means for South Asians in the United States

Monday, September 3, 2012

Monisha Das Gupta was the director of the Center for South Asian Studies until 2014, and is associate professor of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

She is the author of Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics (Duke University press, 2006), and has written about the post-9/11 racial landscape, and its impact on South Asians.  The essay, “Of Hardship and Hostility” in Wounded City: The Social Impact of 9/11 edited by Nancy Foner (Russell Sage Foundation, 2005) documents the violence directed at South Asian and Middle Eastern yellow cab drivers in New York City.

On August 5, 2012, terror and death visited those gathered to worship at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple of Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee.  Across the United States, mourners signaled the message, “We Are All Sikhs,” printed across t-shirts, or signs at the vigils to grieve those who were shot dead at Oak Creek, and to remember the many named and unnamed victims of anti-South Asian violence. The stalking and shooting crystallizes the South Asian diasporaʻs history and experience in North America, and marks yet another manifestation of the racism that has accompanied our presence in the United States and Canada.  As the advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together underlined in a statement issued immediately after the shooting, it was “as a tragic reminder of the violence in the form of hate crimes that Sikhs and many members if the South Asian community have frequently endured since September 11, 2001.”

If we stretch our historical memory to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, we will be reminded of the deadly xenophobic hysteria over the “tide of turbans” directed at South Asian migrants, among them Sikhs, in the Pacific Northwest.  What happened in the gurudwara in Wisconsin becomes even more disturbing when we consider that the U.S. diaspora includes many survivors who fled state-sponsored violence unleashed in Punjab in the 1980s by the Indian central government under the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, to flush out ‘terrorists.’  This included the 1984 battle conducted by the Indian Army inside Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest place of worship for Sikhs, where separatists led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale were camped.

The violence in Punjab continued well into the mid-1990s, and during the fifteen-year period, civilians were targeted and killed both by separatists demanding autonomy, and by the Indian government’s counterinsurgency forces.  Almost all media reports in the United States about Oak Creek missed this transnational context within which the contemporary Sikh diaspora has taken shape, thus obscuring a painful history of displacement, and the repeated signification of an ethnic group as a national threat – whether in India or in the United States.

Reflecting on the Oak Creek killings that came in the wake of a series of gun violence-related events in which civilians perished, Hamid Khan, the former executive director of the South Asia Network, pointed out the blind spot – the role of the state – in the discussions about the roots of such violence. In an e-mail communication soon after the Oak Creek shooting, he observed, “The question is where does this [gun-happy] orientation come from: home – Yes; school – Yes; place of worship – Yes; media – Yes; political culture—Yes; corporate profit-making – Yes; and we can go on and on.  But one place that seems to get a free pass most of the time is the state itself.”   The post-9/11 national security-driven domestic policies, and the war in Afghanistan that has destabilized the entire region, have fed the ongoing hate crimes across the United States against South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

South Asians in the United States felt the full weight of the state’s punitive machinery after 9/11, when, as part of the war on terror, they were relentlessly surveilled by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the local police force.  The surveillance was particularly intense in places of worship – institutions that the immigrants had built to create a sense of community – but that were now watched for fomenting religious fundamentalism. Family members and friends were racially profiled.  Many disappeared into prisons and detention centers.  Neighbors and colleagues became arms of the state helping it identify suspected terrorists on the basis of appearance and religious markers. These state-sponsored actions fostered a public culture that framed those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent as the enemies within.

Two reports, one released by SAALT in 2001, and another by the New York Commission on Civil Rights in 2003, carefully documented the intensification of violence –physical and verbal – against South Asians, Muslims, and Arabs in their neighborhoods and workplaces.  Between 2001 and 2007, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office reported investigating 750 incidents involving these groups.  The actual numbers, according to South Asian organizations, are a lot higher.  Not surprisingly, practicing Sikhs, including young boys, have been easy targets (and there is a long post-1965 history of that), as the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund have documented.  Both organizations have repeatedly demanded that government authorities record hate crimes against Sikhs, and that they record the desecration of gurudwaras as hate crimes too. The Sikh community in Milwaukee had been expressing grave concerns about their treatment for over a year before the Oak Creek attack, according to Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist and writer whose family members attended the gurudwara.

Despite the very public organizing in the South Asian communities against the escalation of racial and religious profiling in the last decade, few of these progressive community-based leaders were approached by mainstream media, in particular network television, to comment on what happened at Oak Creek or on White supremacy.  Since Vincent Chinwas beaten to death by two white autoworkers thirty years ago in Detroit, Asian Americans, including South Asians, have made a conscious effort to build a political infrastructure that can draw media attention to such violence, and parse for the American public the sociopolitical environment that breeds it.

Among mainstream outlets, USA Today did carry an op-ed by SAALT’s executive director, Deepa Iyer, and the CNN interviewed the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund board chair, Manjit Singh, and Valarie Kaur, the maker of the documentary, Divided We Fall, and the founder of the multifaith advocacy network, Groundswell.  (See her blog entry on the inclusion of a Sikh-led prayer at the RNC).  But most of the analysis was to be found in Left-leaning media.  Within a day of the shooting, Salon had carried a reflection on White Supremacy by Rinku Sen, the publisher of Colorlines, and executive director of the Applied Research Center.  Vijay Prashad, professor of South Asian History and International Studies at Trinity College, commented on Counterpunch, adding the much-needed historical dimension to the shooting and the discussions of White Supremacy while also highlighting the resistance to such violence from the Sikh and the broader South Asian community.  Democracy Now! interviewed the director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, Rajdeep Singh Jolly, who had eloquently debated the author of the novel, Towelhead,  and the director of the movie by the same name in 2007, to make the case that using such pejorative language loaded with a long, xenophobic history normalizes the violence directed at South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Even when mainstream or progressive media channels interviewed Sikh leaders, the framing of the event remained limited to gaining a basic familiarity with U.S. Sikhs and Sikhism in order to explain why Sikhs should not be “mistaken” for Muslims.   As a thoughtful opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune written by Scott Anderson, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, points out, the frame, “Sikhs are not Muslims,” does little to challenge the demonization of Muslims and Sikhs, and the legitimacy of targeting a whole group of people signified as terrorists.  Taking on the CNN’s repeated clarification to its audience, Anderson says, “One cannot help wonder whether those at CNN cringe as they listen repeatedly, as I have over the past few days, to the mantra that ‘Sikhs are not Muslims.’… [A]re we to believe that no one at CNN is aware that the statement “Sikhs are not Muslims” — in the post-9/11context of a deadly act of domestic white supremacist terrorism against a largely ethnically South Asian faith community with a number of bearded men in turbans — is more than just another example of what can happen when people don’t read up on world religions?  Is no one at CNN aware of the insidious subtext, however unintentional it may be, of this allegedly simple clarification of facts?”

The power of the message, “We Are All Sikhs,” that the South Asian community sent out at the vigils directly counters the dreadful speciousness of “Sikhs are not Muslims.”   The South Asian activist community learned its lesson from the early months that followed 9/11 when some Sikh advocacy groups promoted the “mistaken identity” argument.  Such arguments, especially when deployed by the media, are reminiscent of the infamous December 22, 1941 Life Magazine article that sought to teach the public in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor to distinguish Chinese from Japanese immigrants.  The same argument of misplaced anger about the competition in auto manufacturing from Japan was used to ‘make sense’ of the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American.  Reflecting the political education that has gone on for over a decade in the South Asian community, mourners expressed their solidarity with, and mourned for all the casualties of the war on terror in a conscious effort to expose and reject the racializing logic operating through the apparently benign language of religious diversity.