Two Sikh American activists: Let’s retire ‘mistaken identity’

GETTY IMAGES Family and friends and community members gather at Oak Creek High School to mourn the loss of 6 … Continued


Family and friends and community members gather at Oak Creek High School to mourn the loss of 6 members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on August 10, 2012 in Oak Creek, Wis.

In the wake of the massacre at the Sikh gurdwara [house of worship] in Milwaukee, Americans are learning about Sikhs, many for the first time. As two Sikh Americans who have studied and advocated on behalf of our community for the last decade, we were at first encouraged by the national media attention – but now we’re a bit worried.

We hear reporters and officials describe the attack as a case of “mistaken identity,” that Sikh Americans are targeted in hate crimes because they have been confused with Muslims. While it’s true that perpetrators of hate violence against Sikhs tend to harbor hatred for Islam and Muslims, identifying the problem as “mistaken identity” is just plain wrong. “Mistaken identity” implies that there is a “correct” target, and it further implies that hate violence should rightfully be directed at Muslims. This is absolutely unacceptable.

“Mistaken identity” also misses the bigger picture: we must end violence against all innocent people – Muslim, Sikh, and anyone else – and build a world without terror.

We believe it would not have mattered much to Wade Michael Page if he knew that the people he killed were Sikh rather than Muslim. From what we have gathered so far Page looked at people with dark skin, beards, and turbans as the enemy. A difference in terminology would not have stayed his finger on the trigger. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Frank Roque was arrested for murdering Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh man, and Roque publicly declared himself to be a patriot. We can imagine Page, a self-avowed white supremacist, invoking the same sense of righteous defense.

View Photo Gallery: Thousands of mourners were expected to gather Friday morning to pay their final respects to the six worshipers gunned down by a white supremacist at their Sikh temple over the weekend.

The notion of “mistaken identity” is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. In the initial aftermath of 9/11, Sikhs told the media, “Sikhs are not Muslims.” Our community quickly realized its mistake, and made a commitment to express solidarity with Muslims. Although we are distinct religious communities, we have shared in the experience of hate violence, religious bigotry, and racial profiling. Sikhs stand with Muslims in solidarity, just as they have stood for us, in the wake of hate attacks against us.

We all sense that the Milwaukee massacre is about far more than Sikh or Muslim bigotry. The attacks shock our conscience, violate our deepest values as Americans, and threaten our shared security. They are also an attack on all people of faith who gather like Sikhs to worship as a community. None of us should ever fear gunfire in a place where we gather to pray.

It’s also time to connect the dots. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Matthew Shepard, Balbir Singh Sodhi, and the Sikh Americans in Wisconsin all rise from the same crisis in our social fabric: individuals driven by fear and hatred of people different from them believe senseless acts of violence are warranted and justified. In the context of a struggling economy and polarized election season, when people can easily access guns to express their rage, we call upon our government and our neighbors to do everything in our power to combat all terrorism in the name of hate.

But hate violence is only the publicly played out tragedy. Stereotyped communities face hardships every day. We must recognize the ongoing, daily struggle of people cast as “other” in the eyes of their neighbors: African Americans are stereotyped as “criminal,” Latinos as “illegal immigrants,” LGBTQ people as “sinners,” and Muslim and Sikh Americans as “terrorists.” We must renew our commitment to create an America where we are all seen and treated as fellow human beings. We must recognize that we all have a stake in this fight.

Through the course of our country’s history, from native to new Americans, we have had to push hard to expand the circle of “who counts” as American. The Sikh struggle is a part of this American story. We have only made progress when we have fought alongside one another in solidarity – from “Irish need not apply” to women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and present-day efforts to fight for equal justice. While our communities are different, we are bound together in the singular struggle for human dignity.

Let’s retire the term “mistaken identity” and renew our commitment to end violence against all people. Only then can we recommit to building a world and an America where all can live, work, and worship in safe and caring communities. The terror in Wisconsin calls upon us to honestly face this senseless national tragedy. We can start by mourning together, expressing our love and support at vigils across the country this week, and end the notion of hate crimes as “mistaken identity.”

View Photo Gallery: After a shooting at a temple in Wisconsin leaves six dead, Sikhs and their supporters mourn while the nation learns more about the gunman’s ties to the white supremacy movement.

Valarie Kaur, an award-winning filmmaker, legal advocate, and interfaith organizer, is founding director of Groundswell, a multifaith initiative. Her documentary “Divided We Fall” is the first feature film on hate crimes against Sikh Americans after 9/11. You can follow her on Twitter at @valariekaur.

Simran Jeet Singh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and deputy director for the Sikh Spirit Foundation. He also serves on the advisory board for the Sikh Coalition and the International Center of Advocates Against Discrimination. Follow him on Twitter at @SimranColumbia.

Valarie Kaur
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  • concerned human

    First, congratulations to both the writers and Washington Post for an attempt to rectify a flawed description of the violence Sikhs have been facing i.e. ‘mistaken identity’.
    The two writers have elucidated their viewpoint in a well-informed manner for which they deserve nothing but applause.
    Having said that, would it not have been even better if the two intellectuals had also written few words about the rising extremism and intolerance within the Sikh community?
    “Mistaken identity” also misses the bigger picture: we must end violence against all innocent people – Muslim, Sikh, and anyone else – and build a world without terror.”
    Very well said, the write-up represents, in this commentator’s opinion, the very essence of Sikhism – love and peace for humanity without any discrimination. But such words sound hollow (or even hypocritical) when you read about the veneration of the Sikh extremists by the members of the community living in North America.
    My indication is towards ‘protest’ marches organised recently in N America and other parts of the world in support of an admitted mass killer Balwant Singh Rajoana.
    To give a backgrounder, this extremist is behind the bars in an Indian prison as he made a totally volunteer confession in the late 1990s for his role in killing the Chief Minister of the Indian state Punjab (the so-called homeland of Sikh community) along with 17 civilians in a bomb blast (1995).
    Before this massacre, tens of thousands of innocent civilians (both Hindus and Sikhs) were butchered by Sikh terrorists in Punjab and other states of India. The state government also violated the norms of human rights.
    Based on his confession, an Indian court sentenced him to death in 2007.
    The Sikh extremist has been steadfastly refusing to contest the legal suit filed against him or appoint an attorney.He has also refused, in his perverse zeal for ‘martyrdom’, to file a mercy petition to the President of India. To this date, Rajoana has failed to show any remorse fo

  • Kd Singh

    There are many questions surrounding the stay of execution of of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was sentenced for his involvement in the 1995 assassination of Beant Singh — the former chief minister of Punjab who spear headed the genocide against Sikhs in the region. But Rajoana’s sentence has since been stayed.

    Beant Singh gave police officers the authority to carry-out extrajudicial executions, targeting and killing civilian Sikhs on the spot. This led to fake “encounter” killings, illegal detention, torture and rape. Beginning in 1984, and continuing until his assassination, an estimated 9,000-30,000 Sikhs were murdered in Punjab. During Beant Singh’s reign, thousands of Sikhs were killed for being “suspicious,” despite claims that there were only approximately 300 armed Nationalist Sikhs. After the death of Beant Singh in 1995, the senseless murders of Sikhs stopped.

    Why is the Sikh population displaying insurmountable support and rallying to stop the execution of Rajoana, who many consider a terrorist? The fact of the matter is that Sikhs do not support terrorists or terrorism, but are looking for equal treatment and justice in the so-called secular democracy known as India.

    Sikhs are minorities in India and are often jailed without a court hearing, not allowed to fight their cases, given more severe penalties than their non-Sikh inmates, and given longer jail terms and intentionally delayed sentences.

    In 1984, tens of thousands of Sikhs were killed in riots in Delhi that were believed to be led by accused Indian politicians Kumar and Tytler, but due to “technicalities,” their cases have been stayed. These riots happened almost 30 years ago, but these people are allowed to walk free. In 2003, accused politician Modi, started riots that led to the killings of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat. To this day, he walks free.

    The minority Sikhs have long been oppressed by the Indian government. Corruption and discrimination have plagued Rajoana’s case and, as a result, there h

  • Secular1

    Concerned HUman, From here on your comment was non-sequitur.
    “Having said that, would it not have been….” With your pseudonym you should know better.

  • Secular1

    I applaud the writers. They are way better than John McCain’s defense of Obama back in 2008. However, laudable his defense was, he missed the opportunity to tell that bat=crap-crazy woman she was wrong to insinuate against muslims and arabs. Hi defense of Obama should not have said Obama was not a muslim or an arab. Instead he should have said that Obama was nether, but even if he was it wouldn’t matter and then the rest. He missed that opportunity, to show people that in his book hating someone for their religion and race is wrong.

  • Greg53

    The premise is the article is wrong – ridiculously so.

    The phrase “mistaken identity” does NOT imply a deserving target, it only implies an intended target. If a man hires an assassin to kill his ex-wife and the assassin kills the wrong woman by mistake, it’s a case of mistaken identity. No one is suggesting that lethal force should be “rightfully directed” at the ex-wife, or that she deserved to die. It suggests only that she was the intended target.

  • salyer4

    It is amazing the gall of some of the Post comentators. They wish to live in a united individuality/Humanity world. Fine. But they appear to believe that they have a God-given right to crush anyone who stands in their way.

    Ultimately none of these atrocious incidents would occur if someone was not pushing themselves upon someone else. Or at least perceived to be doing so.

    It is NOT “fear,” or “hatred,” at least in the way the author wishes to use these words. It is a desire to have one’s own ethnic community, and not to be overrun by another. It is a desire to have a community with certain values and exclude those who defy those values. Which is what the commentator is doing in reality, but he is too hypocritical or self-deluded to realise it.

    There is no freedom without the ability to define oneself. There is no human dignity without the ability to exclude.

  • Kingofkings1

    Lots of common sense points in the essay.

  • subbanarasu

    Hate crime has become more common in the USA and it is very disturbing. We in India have a small part of this evil but we are largely more tolerant of other faiths.

  • blackandred777

    Your point is irrelevant. The relevancy is hate crime, period. America needs to bring it’s war on terror to the homefront. We should have learned this a long time ago. Oklahoma City was 1995.

  • blackandred777

    Domestic terrorists are more of a threat to the homeland than terrorists abroad for obvious reasons. It’s time to bring the war on terror home.

  • Secular1

    Slayer4, what is teh point of this rant of yours. Do you feel that Page fellow had justification to do what he did? Or areyou just ranting, because you don’t how else to contribute to the discussion. Who is being denied teh ability to define oneself? You think Sikhs are pushing themselves upon the like of Page and you? So teh answer is wanton massacre? If we go by your contention then European shouldn’t even have explored the world. We could all be still living that earth is flat and you would have been a serf under some lord in the UK or worse still a serf under one of the Cossacks. Perhaps those africans some 100,000 years ag should not have migrated out of africa. Then our species would have gone the way 99% of the species have already done. Morons like you would not have been around at all.

  • AndrewDover

    Perhaps it is better to look at people as fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons.
    We are human first, the other groupings matter less.

  • Catken1

    No. You don’t have the right to live in a world populated only by People Like You, or to restrict other people’s movements or liberties or behavior so that you don’t ever have to encounter anyone who’s not Just Like You. That’s not possible anymore, for any of us, nor is it a desirable goal for humanity as a whole.

    Nor are you allowed to kill people so that you may maintain your “pure” enclave, free of other Americans of whom you disapprove.

    “Define” yourself as you see fit – but you may not exclude others from American public life or citizenship so as to maintain your strange idea of “dignity.”

    That’s preschool ethics, people.

    “But they appear to believe that they have a God-given right to crush anyone who stands in their way. ”

    Yes, if you murder someone for having the gall to be different from you in public, you will be “crushed” by the law. And you ought to be.

  • concerned human

    KD Singh you are skirting the main issue – Sikhs support for a violent ideology and ruthless killers. Whatever you are saying about Indian government may or may not be correct but what is a fact in today’s world is that Sikhs have the portraits of terrorists in their temples and also that Sikhs indulge in total repression of other faiths in their ‘homeland’ Punjab.

    You cannot have both ways i.e. condemn a ruthless killer (Wade Page) while eulogising so many others (Rajoana, Bhindranwala, Talwinder Parmar, Sukhdev Babbar, Jagtar Hawara, etc).

    I am pretty sure the Wisconsin temple would also have portraits of such killers, terrorists unless removed now to sanitise the place for public glare/media scrutiny.

    As far as rant about India is concerned, only an idiot would believe such accusations. Not only the PM of India is a Sikh but also the Army Chief. enough said.

  • Greg53

    It’s not irrelevant at all, it directly addresses the main point of Kaur and Simran Jeet Singh’s article. You are the one who is wildly off point.

  • Vote Yes Scotland 2014

    Surely if everyone was just American it would be a start.
    The way politicians slice up the electorate and go for each caste vote separately is part of the problem .
    One may be aghast at the Indian caste system but the American system is in many ways worse because India is at least make slow headway against their system.
    America is entrenching hers .