Confident that the Sikh-American community shall overcome the trauma of the Wisconsin gurdwara shooting, its leaders have sought laws against school bullying, workplace discrimination and racial profiling to make bigotry unacceptable in society.
“Government officials must create an environment where bigotry is unacceptable,” Rajdeep Singh, director of Law and Policy at the New York-based advocacy organisation Sikh Coalition, told IANS when asked what needs to be done to reassure the community.
“American politicians should also abstain from making xenophobic remarks about racial and religious minorities,” he said, noting that Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs, and South Asians have all been so targeted as documented by the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT).
“This type of rhetoric fuels hatred toward minorities and needs to be stopped.”
Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), agreed. “Before 9/11 Sikhs enjoyed no sense of being seen as foreigners or aliens. They were well respected and easily identified as Indians.”
But 9/11 changed it all and “suddenly turban was seen as somehow associated with backwardness, extremism and intolerance like Taliban”, he said.
He sought opportunities from federal and state governments to “educate fellow Americans about the rich diversity and also about the conspicuous minority like us”.
Six Sikh worshippers were killed and three injured when a gunman opened fire at the Wisconsin gurdwara Aug 5. The gunman then shot himself in the head.
Both community leaders agreed that “domestic terrorism” was a wrong term to use for the Oak Creek gurdwara tragedy and were glad that Attorney General Eric Holder had since acknowledged it as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime”.
Hoping that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will also begin to track hate crimes against Sikhs, Rajdeep Singh said: “The only way to address the problem of hate crimes is to eliminate hatred and bigotry from the roots of American society.
“All of the vital institutions of American society — our schools, our media, our government, our workforce — need to foster a culture where diversity is encouraged and appreciated,” he said.
While Rajdeep Singh felt “American society needs to have a robust debate about gun control”, Rajwant Singh feared that such a debate could “be very divisive and take the whole conversation in a different direction”.
“The issue here is of simple ignorance,” he said, suggesting that American schools should educate young students about the country’s rich diversity and cultures and beliefs of Sikhism and other smaller religions.
Expressing confidence about the long-term success of the 500,000-strong Sikh-American community, Rajdeep Singh said: “Sikh-Americans are resilient and have channelled their grief into fostering inter-faith dialogue and inter-community solidarity.
“Over time, as we continue to pursue leadership positions in American society, we are confident of our long-term success,” he said.
Rajwant Singh felt that “Americans in general have come around Sikhs during this difficult time and this has eliminated a sense of alienation which was there before since 9/11”.
For those in India protesting the Sikh killings, both leaders had one message: “Do not burn the American flag!”
Calling such actions “an insult to Sikh Americans who are proud to be living in the US”, the two said the American government and people had extended overwhelming support to Sikh neighbours after the killings.
“We are proud Americans and confident about our future in the US,” said Rajdeep Singh.