Was the Oak Creek Sikh Temple shooting a mistake?

AP People attend a flag ceremony being held outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. … Continued

AP

People attend a flag ceremony being held outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis., on Aug. 12, 2012, the first Sunday prayer service since a white supremacist shot and killed six people there before fatally shooting himself.

It has been one month since the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., caught the attention of our entire nation. Americans followed the news for days, and many would later confess that the event helped shatter their stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like.

While modern media and political rhetoric teaches us to typecast terrorists as people with brown skin and bushy beards, the shooting has flipped the script. The terrorist, Wade Michael Page, was a former soldier in the U.S. Army with close ties to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. The victims were practitioners of the Sikh religion, a group that has long been targeted around the globe due to their distinct religious identity.

The juxtaposition of the two – terrorist and terrorized – has caused us all to rethink our stereotypes.

In rethinking our stereotypes after the shooting rampage in Oak Creek, the national discourse has centered on the notion of “mistaken identity.” Analysts and pundits have widely suggested that hate-crimes against Sikhs began in the post-Sept. 11 context due to confusion between Sikhs and Muslims. The popular narrative purports that all hate-violence committed against Sikhs, including the massacre in Oak Creek, is actually intended for Muslims.


View Photo Gallery: After a shooting at a temple in Wisconsin leaves six dead, Sikhs and their supporters mourn while the nation learns more about the gunman’s ties to the white supremacy movement.

It is overly simplistic and highly problematic to frame the recent terrorism in Oak Creek as “mistaken.”

A number of people have challenged the moniker of “mistaken identity” on different grounds. Some have problematized the notion because it implies the “correctness” of targeting Muslims. Some have suggested that a neo-Nazi and white supremacist would not care to distinguish between Muslims and Sikhs. Others have argued that Sikhs fit into the new racialized identity of Muslims and that the targeting of such minority groups is completely intentional.

I agree with the above assessments, and in fact, I have written about each of these issues. At the same time, I think there is a more fundamental problem in our national discussions about Oak Creek.

The framework of “mistaken identity” forces us to think of the domestic terrorism as unintentional and confused. As a result, we end up focusing on issues of ignorance, and we delude ourselves into thinking that there is a simple solution – education and awareness.

In short, “mistaken identity” is a flawed framework that leads us to a flawed understanding of what is really going on. As long as we continue to ask the wrong questions, we will continue to end up with the wrong solutions.

We need to step back and rethink our assumptions in order to better understand the real source of this violence. Part of this reconsideration compels us to challenge the assumption that a white supremacist would not intend to target the Sikh community.

White supremacist Web sites clearly demonstrate that anti-Sikh sentiments are intentional and targeted. For example, Page frequented the message board of Hammerskins, one of the most violent neo-Nazi skinhead groups in modern America, that often features obscenity laced, racially divisive statements from commenters.

Anti-Sikh statements on the site make it painfully obvious that feelings harbored by neo-Nazis are no mistake. They do not result from “mistaken identity.” These sentiments are purposeful and targeted, and we perform an incredible injustice every time we overlook or oversimplify their motivations.

We would be naïve to think that anti-Sikh hate-violence would cease to exist if we simply increased awareness. The problem in our nation goes much deeper than that.

Growing up in South Texas, I can attest to the fact that ignorance is only part of the problem. People would attack my siblings and me equally, whether or not they knew that we were Sikhs. I vividly remember my elementary school auditorium, where my mother would come and give presentations to the entire school about our Sikh heritage. We would share unique aspects from our tradition, such as tying turbans and singing from our scripture. Despite being absolutely clear about who we were, people would still bully us on account of our turbans – the harassment we endured had nothing to do with “mistaken identity.”

Coupling my own experiences with recent neo-Nazi rhetoric, it is clear that we need to stop assuming that every instance of hate-violence against a Sikh is meant for a Muslim. We must go beyond lumping together anti-Sikh violence and anti-Muslim violence. This approach is overly simplistic and inaccurate.

A reconsideration of “mistaken identity” clearly demonstrates that we must abandon this problematic framework and develop a new approach that sufficiently accounts for the motivations of our attackers. Given the recent violence against America, it is clear that the stakes are too high. We have to better understand the situation so that we can begin to ask the right questions. Until then, we will continue to get the wrong answers.


View Photo Gallery: Thousands of mourners were expected to gather Friday morning to pay their final respects to the six worshipers gunned down by a white supremacist at their Sikh temple over the weekend.

Simran Jeet Singh is a PhD candidate in the religion department at Columbia University. He is also the deputy director for the Sikh Spirit Foundation.

About

Simran Jeet Singh Simran Jeet Singh is the Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, including The Washington Post's OnFaith, Newsweek's The Daily Beast, and The Huffington Post. Simran currently serves as a Truman National Security Fellow and the Rachel F. and Scott McDermott Fellow for the American Institute of Indian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @SimranColumbia.
  • SimonTemplar

    Kind of difficult to answer the questions at all when we don’t have all of the facts and the case has not yet gone to trial.

    “The juxtaposition of the two – terrorist and terrorized – has caused us all to rethink our stereotypes.”

    Stereotypes don’t arise from a single incident.

  • whosear1

    Interesting commentary, and valid if you were dealing with a groupthink action. But this was an action of a mass murder, and we know plenty about them through the decades long efforts of the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit at Quantico.

    I no more think that the shooting at the military base was a terrorist act than this one is. In the generic sense of the word terror, it was that. But despite this guys connections to white supremacy, he acted on his own, not in concert with others.

    It is overly simplistic and highly problematic that the murderer’s motivation was hatred of Sikhs. However, it does behoove any organization whether it be a business, charity, religion, or otherwise to learn how to protect themselves from these lone wolves (sometimes with a submissive accomplice).

  • GrampaCaligula

    I think you’re minimalizing the effects of September 11, 2001.

    It didn’t create the negative stereotypes in this country, but it did serve as an amplifier for them.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

noplaceonearth
An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

shutterstock_148333673
Friend or Foe? Learning from Judas About Friendship with Jesus

We call Judas a betrayer. Jesus called him “friend.”

shutterstock_53190298
Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism

The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

shutterstock_185995553
How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

HIFR
Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

shutterstock_186364295
This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

SONY DSC
Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.