Understanding Sikhism And The Tragic Shooting In Wisconsin
When I was young my family would often go to temple where we would sing jovial praises of the Hindu gods and socialize with the local Indian community. It filled me with a sense of peace and unity within myself with the added bonus of delicious food to eat after the prayer sessions were finished. I looked forward to going to the temple and reconvening with the community at large, to get further in touch with my roots.
In Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012, Sikhs convened in religious union to praise their lord in their Gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship). The sense of peace was broken when Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran and former leader of a white supremacist heavy metal band, unloaded a 9-mm. handgun at the temple, killing six and wounding three.
Four innocents were slain inside the temple. Three bodies (including the shooter’s), were found outside. The victims were identified Monday as Sita Singh, 41, Ranjit Singh, 49, Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, Prakash Singh, 39, Paramjit Kaur, 41, and Suveg Singh, 84. Lieutenant Brian Murphy was among those injured, when he was shot multiple times before taking down the gunman. Though Wade Michael Page was killed, police in Oak Creak are still seeking a person of interest, who looked suspicious and left the scene before anyone could ascertain what he was doing there (see photo below).
Satwant Singh Kaleka was the president of the temple, and died trying to defend the congregation from the crazed gunman. He is being hailed as a hero for attacking Page with a simple butter knife that was found in the temple, after being shot twice. During the struggle, other attendees, including women and children, were given a chance to hide and find shelter. His son, Amardeep, remembers his father as a person who gave his life to the community, investing in the Oak Creek Gurdwara and devoting himself to the Sikh religion.
Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Islamophobia has swept the United States. Anti-Muslim bigotry is responsible for the domestic terrorism in Milwaukee. Because some Sikhs wear turbans and don full beards, many are mistaken for Muslims, which in turn has motivated over 700 attacks on Sikh-Americans since 2001. While Islamophobia in the United States is unfounded and proliferated by hate-filled and ignorant people, Sikhism is a very distinct religion from both Islam and Hinduism, and should be recognized as such.
What is Sikhism? From Saldef.org, Sikhs at a glance:
- 99 percent of people wearing turbans in the U.S. are Sikhs from India
- Sikhs have been in the U.S. for over 100 years
- There are roughly 700,000 Sikhs in the U.S. today
- Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion with 25 million adherents worldwide
- Sikhs believe in one God, equality, freedom of religion, and community service
- Sikhs cover their uncut hair with a turban
- The Sikh turban represents a commitment to equality and justice
The Sikh faith is only 500 years old and was founded by Guru Nanak who taught a message of love. He spoke of a universal God, common to all mankind, not limited to any religion, nation, race, creed, color, or gender. The Sikh religion is strictly monotheistic, believing in one supreme Creator, free of gender, absolute, all-pervading, and eternal.
The Sikh faith is committed to the equality of women, and necessarily so, as it defines God as gender neutral, perhaps one of the few major world religions to do so. There is no activity in a gurdwara or within the community that is permitted to a man but not to a woman. There is no religious function from which women are barred at any time of their lives.
Five articles of faith are part of the unique Sikh identity:
- unshorn hair as a gift of God and Guru and a mark of Sikh identity
- a small comb for the hair
- a steel bracelet which signifies a reality with no beginning and no end, and is also symbolic of a Sikh’s commitment to the ideals of his faith, much as wedding ring might indicate fealty and identity
- a sword indicative of resolve and commitment to justice, and
- knee-length breeches in keeping with the disciplined life-style of a Sikh
My friend Sheena Madan, a Sikh woman from Ontario, Canada, loves her religion. She emphasizes that “Sikhism teaches equality; it teaches people not to judge other peoples’ beliefs, but rather to be willing to give your life to defend your won. The religion does not include bias towards sex, religion, or creed. It teaches brotherhood and oneness of humanity. It teaches and strives to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It teaches that knowledge is the strongest weapon in your arsenal.”
Sheena’s community in Canada has been deeply affected by the tragedy in Milwaukee. Several of its members feel helpless because there is not much they can do besides pass on their sympathies and prayers to the victims’ families and communities. To prevent such a horror from reoccurring in the future, it is necessary to try to take steps through awareness and spreading the Sikh message of peace and equality.
You can help support the victims’ families through a donation here.
Reader submission by Kali Cuddi
Kali lives in Brooklyn with a little black dog. You can check out her band, Waiting For Bobby.