Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Sikh Temple Shooting: A Dialogue on Unity and Religious Freedom

By Elora Kilian 
IFC Communications Intern

As the debate surrounding the HHS mandate, a law that will require all employers to provide employees with health insurance that includes contraception, continues to rage on, and in the wake of the horrifyingly violent acts that occurred in Colorado, August 5th’s Sikh temple shooting must cause us to pause and turned towards a renewed focus on our shared desires for freedom, safety, and community, and less on the perceived, surface-level differences that derive from ignorance.

As gunman Wade Michael Page, a military veteran with alleged white supremacy ties and “extreme radical views,” entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and opened fire killing seven worshipers on Sunday, the Sikh community has begun to cope with the tragedy in much the same way as Christian congregations have responded to the Colorado massacre.  They have come together to support their members and have shown a steadfast understanding for all those involved.  Just as the parish pastor has chosen to stand behind the family of suspected Colorado gunman James Holmes, Sikh leaders have “ urged followers of the faith to wait until the police investigation before making any assumption as to the gunman's motive.”(Wisconsin Shooting: Sikh leaders urge caution before police investigation)

There is an underlying desire for the freedom to practise our faiths as we please without the threat of insecurity and intrusion from others.  The same issue is currently being faced by the Catholic Church as it struggles over the debate of the HHS mandate that would cause some to act against their beliefs.

This is precisely why we “do dialogue”; to contemplate and separate our perceived differences from our actual differences, and find common ground in between.  From Leonard Swidler’s Dialogue Decalogue, “The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn, that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.”  

I think it is clear to most that Wade Michael Page was not exactly in touch with reality, and neither is anyone who participates in a hate crime.  He, like any others who have mistakenly persecuted Sikhs in the equally grievous effort to persecute Muslims following the 9/11 attacks, have fallen into a classic misstep that frequently occurs in interfaith interactions.  This is the assumption that national, cultural, or ethnic differences are the same as religious differences.

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world.  Originating in Punjab (Northern India, now Pakistan), the majority of Sikhs are from this region and speak Punjabi.  However, there are 20 million Sikhs worldwide with approximately 10,000 western converts.  It is a religion based on deep faith with God, justice and truth, and equality for all.  Sikh customs are centered on the 5 Ks: Keshas (unshorn hair symbolizing spirituality), Kanga (small comb symbolizing cleanliness and refraining from an ascetic life), Kara (steel bracelet symbolizing attachment to Guru), Kacha (short breeches symbolizing moral character,) and Kirpan (ceremonial dagger symbolizing a commitment to social justice). (Sikhism)

This emphasis on outward symbols through dress have lent itself more easily to perceived difference and discrimination.  “Prominent Sikh leaders believe the violence against the Sikh community that began after 9/11 stemmed largely from prejudice against Muslims; Sikhs were confused with Muslims because most Sikhs wear turbans.”(Wisconsin Shooting Rattles American Sikhs)

But is that what this violence and hate is about, turbans?  Because others choose varying symbols and appearances to express their faith, does that make us so different?

Every society must make a choice about how to approach the diversity of faiths.  Some choose one faith to be at the center of society, others like the French secularity laws do away with religious symbols all together, and then there is the U.S. tradition of separation of church and state.

“In the Virginia stature that would serve as the underpinning for the constitutional protection of religious freedom, Jefferson wrote: “Be it enacted by the General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”” (Shooting at Sikh Temple Tests the Founding Faiths of America)

It is a recognition and embracing of difference.  Though we may choose different forms of expressing these beliefs, we all retain the right to have faith.  We need to realize is that any action taken against another faith only hinders our own right to believe. This can be summed up quite nicely with a description of the traditional Sikh ceremonies:

The high point is the final Ardas (prayer) observed by standing, folding hands and asking God's blessing for all humanity.  Worship is open to all and everyone is required to cover their head to pay respect to the Guru.”

We need to remind ourselves there is always the common thread of humanity that holds us together as one.  We owe it to all of our fellow humans to make worship open to “all and everyone” and we must “pay respect” to the different ways we choose to show this.

If you would like to take action and "learn to respect each other through a framework of experiential education, compassionate leadership, and intentional service"
, come out for the annual 9/11 Unity Walk co-sponsored by InterFaith Conference. It is an event that encompasses this belief that only by learning and supporting other faiths can we truly grow and protect our own. We hope to see you there!

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