I was having a relaxing day at Central Park when I started getting cryptic texts from my brother -- "CNN NOW!!!!" and "online NOW!!!" Then the ambiguity vanished when I received the final text -- "Gurdwara shooting all over news!!!".
I felt nothing. I was completely numb. Quick, Sahaj, this is not a drill. How do you feel? How are you going to react? Who are you? What do you stand for? And the most awful thought, who will you stand with?
I automatically pitted myself against the rest of the American population, and I'm strongly ashamed that I even had this instinct.
I am the first person in my family that was born and raised in America -- something I've always recognized as a core part of my identity and, more importantly, in my ongoing identity crisis. I am American. I am Indian. I am Sikh.
But I've always considered myself American first, no religion, just American. I cherish and adore my American rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of individuality. Yes, I believe there's some work to be done on ideas like gun control and gay rights but overall, I'm beyond proud to be an American.
My feelings about being a Sikh have been totally different. Not because I don't believe in what we stand for, but rather because I have some serious issues with the concept of religion. I've had my own personal struggles with faith, God, death and the general, "why do bad things happen to good people?" I've never felt that my religion was being tested, only that my personal faith was.
Sept. 11 had a number of repercussions on the Sikh population, but I was 12 and too young to process its effects on my identity as a Sikh. Instead, I got angry and infuriated on America's behalf. My America was terrorized.
As I got older, I grew disgusted with the domestic terrorism that followed. That there were some Americans who categorized all Muslims, and that some people were bound by their turbans to experience heinous hate crimes. I felt badly that Sikhs were cutting their hair or cutting their kids' hair to avoid the stereotypes and subjection.
I feel betrayed by my people. Americans are my people.
I realize now that I'll still struggle with my personal identity. I will question religion, faith, culture and what I, as my own person, stand for. But, what I never thought I'd ever have to face was the pain that comes when those who are religious are penalized for practicing their faith. That my practicing, active friends and loved ones in the Sikh community have been threatened for partaking in religious rituals. I am indignant that in my own beloved country, my religion is currently being tested.
I am defensive and on edge. I want the world to know that I am a Sikh. I want to stand tall, not down. Not only on the behalf of the Sikh community but even more so for Americans who are subjected to religious persecution.
I'm ashamed that it took a tragic event for me to acknowledge the innateness of my religion. I have a compelling urge to protect and defend my baby, a baby I didn't realize I was still mothering, Sikhism. Even more so, I'm embarrassed that it took an attack on my religion for me to voice my concern of the consequences that living "freely" has in America. From those going to a movie in Denver to those peacefully praying on a Sunday.
I am a member of the fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism. And I am an American. Being both should not be this difficult since the principles of Sikhism align with the rights that America strives to fight for -- equality and social justice. It only becomes a war when one group turns on the other.
Today, I am sad that a Sikh temple has been targeted by a fellow American for such a heinous crime as innocent humans practice their religion. I am Sikh. But more importantly, I am human. My religion does not undermine my or anyone's human rights to freely practice a religion, safely.
So, what's next? What can we do as a united country to take steps forward in fighting for equality, understanding, respect and most importantly education? What are you going to do?