Remembering the Oak Creek tragedy

Sadly, violence against Sikhs continues five years after the horrific massacre.

Raghu Vinder listens to speakers during a candlelight vigil in the parking lot of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2013, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, marking the one-year anniversary of the shooting rampage in which a white supremacist killed six people. A seventh person later died of injuries sustained in the attack. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

BOSTON (RNS) — Five years ago this Saturday (Aug. 5), I sat and prayed in my gurdwara after hearing heartbreaking news.

A neo-Nazi had walked into a gurdwara — or Sikh temple — in Oak Creek, Wis., and gone on a rampage, fatally shooting six worshippers and wounding several others, including a police officer. To this day, the attack on the Oak Creek gurdwara remains one of the deadliest acts of violence on an American house of worship in our nation’s history.

Sadly, violence against Sikhs continues. Last September, a Sikh in the San Francisco Bay Area was brutally assaulted by attackers who ambushed him in his car. Last March, a Sikh man near Seattle was shot and injured in his driveway by a gunman who told him to “go back to your own country.” Since the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi outside Phoenix in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Sikh Americans have been subjected to an avalanche of hate crimes.

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Observant Sikhs wear a religious uniform to express their fidelity to Sikh values. The Sikh religion is rooted in a belief that all people are equal before God, and the Sikh turban visibly represents our commitment to promoting equality and justice for all people. Sadly, in the post-9/11 environment, ignorance and stereotypes have led many Americans to view my turban with fear and contempt.

In response to the Oak Creek tragedy, I have tried my best to change that perception. On that fateful day five years ago, I made a choice to start talking about my Sikh faith more openly around my friends and colleagues, and part of this journey included volunteering to serve in the U.S. Army. Our military is composed of people of diverse backgrounds, but my fellow soldiers and I share a common commitment to upholding our nation’s constitutional values, especially the freedom of religion.

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My experience in the U.S. Army makes me confident about the future of our nation, but we must do more to overcome prejudice. In October 2016, two law enforcement officers detained me as I was walking home from U.S. Army training, simply because of my Sikh appearance. Although the police department later apologized for the incident and committed to learning more about the Sikh community, it was another reminder of the challenges that Sikh Americans continue to face nationwide.

Addressing these challenges requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Our educators should include teaching about Sikhism in state standards. In over 40 states, Sikhism is still not included in the curriculum, despite being the fifth-largest religion in the world. If we begin to include more of this multicultural material in our schools, we can educate future generations and prevent hate before it takes hold.

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We must also report hate crimes when they happen and then make reporting by law enforcement agencies mandatory. Before the Oak Creek tragedy, our federal law enforcement agencies didn’t even track anti-Sikh hate crimes. While that has changed, such crimes don’t have to be reported. If we continue to fail to acknowledge and report the problem for what it is, we will never dedicate the necessary resources to address this crisis.

Finally, we must hold each other accountable. From our public officials to our classmates and colleagues, we should never ignore the very real dangers of bigotry. While it’s healthy to have our political differences, it’s dangerous when we allow and engage in divisive rhetoric that demeans entire groups of people. We cannot ignore the direct impact that this has for millions of Americans nationwide.

While these actions won’t necessarily end acts of violence against Sikhs and other minority communities, they will further solidify our nation’s commitment to ensuring that Sikhs and other religious minorities can fearlessly practice our faith. As we honor those who needlessly lost their lives in Oak Creek at the hands of this problem, let’s recognize that we all have a vital role to play in making sure that such a tragedy doesn’t happen again.

Kanwar Singh. Photo courtesy of the Sikh Coalition

(Kanwar Singh currently serves in the Massachusetts National Guard and is the co-founder of Portraits of Sikhs and a volunteer advocate for the Sikh Coalition)

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