Thousands of Sikhs all throughout the country congregate with their local communities every week to celebrate and practice their faith. People from all walks of life come together to partake in regular services -- looking to learn form the teachings of peace, love and justice that Sikhism so openly teaches. The sound of mellifluous hymns and prayers vibrate within the air, as a beautiful tranquility eternally blankets the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship).
However, on this day exactly a year ago, the tranquility that surrounds these peaceful devotees was suddenly shattered. On August 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and brought chaos and destruction with him. Driven by hate, he killed six people and wounded four others. Not only did he take the lives innocent mothers and fathers, he single-handedly struck fear and insecurity in people all across the United States. He disrupted a safe haven violated our collective freedom and trust. Many Americans were scarred by the fact that human beings still feel justified to murder others simple because of differences in beliefs and appearances.
As we reflect on Oak Creek, it is important for us to realize that Page's act of hate is not an isolated incident -- it is integrally embedded within a larger oppressive system of discrimination and xenophobia. The increase in the number of hates towards Sikh, Arab, and Muslim Americans since 9/11 is extremely horrifying. Apart from the immediate backlash that ensued, there have been thousands of crimes that are all too many to describe with a few words. According to the FBI, approximately 1,233 hate crimes that happened in just 2011 alone were motivated by religious bias.
Although the shooting of Oak Creek is arguably one of the most tragic, it is just one of the many ways incidents in which people were harmed solely because of the faith they follow. The very next day after the shootings at Oak Creek, a Mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. Apart from whole institutions being attacked, a Muslim woman was punched in the face after the Boston Marathon Bombings solely because of her connection to her faith. A few months ago, an 82-year old Sikh man was savagely beaten with steel pipe on his way home.
The reality of the situation is that the attacks on the United States in September of 2001 forever changed the way we perceive a large portion of ethnic minorities. The faces of Sikhs, Arab and Muslim Americans have become linked to our trauma and animosities. This link has fueled the misconceptions of many -- leading to an exponential increase in bigotry towards innocent people.
As the "War on Terror" has been the focus of our political conversations, we have overlooked what these rash misconceptions are actually doing for many good-hearted American citizens. Looking at the original definition of the word, terrorize is defined as the process of striking fear into the heart of others. Mob mentalities and the lack of awareness have been forcing thousands of people to live in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, psychologically oppressing their fundamental rights as Americans. While our nation wages a war on terrorism abroad, many in our society have taken to terrorizing our very own neighbors. Different religious groups that add to the fibers of our countries are being attacked, beaten, burned and shot because of ignorance.
Being a Sikh male who wears a turban and does not shave his beard, I often worry that my identity as a person of faith will bring harm to both myself and those around me. Whether I am taking the subway home in New York City, passing through airport security, going to the Gurdwara, or even having a conversation about the concept of terrorism itself, I find myself constantly feeling hyper-vigilant about not being linked to the negative misconceptions that are so deeply ingrained.
Even though I have worked hard to give back to my communities, I am automatically seen as a suspect because of the dominant stigmas that exist about people who look like me. I have become adept at shutting myself out from these negative thoughts; but yet, I constantly find myself being stared down by people who I know are questioning my role within society. I am afraid that my credibility solely as an individual is always at stake. I am afraid I will be hurt.
Although I value the cautionary measures we take to guard against another foreign attack on our soil, I do not accept the justification of hurting and the subordination of people who happen to look somewhat like the perpetrators. The killing of innocent people in their house of worship can never be okay. Xenophobic ideologies have become so heightened that religious minorities are the ones who are now being terrorized within our very own borders. All my endeavors and hard work should not be undermined solely because I choose to wear the articles of faith that represent my religion.
Oak Creek was an American tragedy that deeply affects us all. Though the challenges marginalized communities face can be sorrowful, I truly have faith in our nation to collectively take a stance and put an end to these detrimental mentalities. A lot of progress has been made to raise awareness about the issues revolving around religious minorities in a post 9/11 America, but the continuing acts of hate remind me that there is still much progress to be made.
We cannot truly honor the lives of those lost until the moment that we abandon our lens of bias and adopt the lens of individual acceptance. I imagine a world where seeing a Sikh walking down the street is no different from seeing an Orthodox Jew or a Catholic Nun. Going to the Gurdwara is no different from going to a church, synagogue or mosque. It is our responsibility as true Americans to step up and decolonize our minds so that we can live in a country where there is truly justice and freedom for all.