Last Sunday morning, horrible news broke out of Oak Creek, Wisconsin and quickly spread through the media. As Sikhs gathered at the place of prayer and worship in a local gurdwara outside Milwaukee, a man walked through the parking lot and shot individuals before moving into the worship facility and shooting worshipers, including the community’s religious leader. At the end of the incident seven people were dead, including the suspect, who was killed by a police officer. Several others were wounded and three people remain in the hospital in critical condition.
In the initial hours after the shooting, which occurred just weeks after another killing spree in a crowded Aurora, Colorado movie-theater, the media speculated about the shooter’s motives. While little is known for certain as the investigation continues, some outlets are reporting that the shooter had connections to white supremacy ideology. If this is confirmed it would make this incident a hate crime.
Of course this is not the first case of hate crime directed at Sikhs. Sikhism has been the unfortunate recipient of religious misidentification and hatred since 9/11. In the days following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Sikhs, identified by turbans and beards among males, were assumed to be Muslims by vengeance-minded and religiously illiterate Americans, and as a result, some were assaulted and killed in cases of mistaken religious identity. This unacceptable state of affairs continues to be a major problem for the Sikh community, so much so that some Sikh men have considered violating their deeply held religious practices by cutting their long hair and removing their turbans. The incidents of violence have been so numerous that some members of Congress have urged the FBI to begin collecting data on how the Sikh community has become the special focus of hate crimes paralleling that directed at Muslims. Understandably, the Sikh community nationwide now lives in a state of fear.
In addition to the shooting at the Sikh temple in Michigan, this week saw another incident of religiously inspired violence. This one was directed at Islam as a mosque was burned to the ground in Joplin, Missouri, just one month after it had previously been the target of arson.
It has been over a decade since 9/11, and the recent violence toward Sikhs and Muslims is a clear signal that America still bristles at its experiment with religious pluralism. At times the melting pot is not mixing, and those who chaff at the presence of certain religions on the American landscape make their displeasure known through acts of violence.
Even so, there has been positive pushback from those opposed to hate crimes directed at religious groups. The communities in Wisconsin and Missouri are rallying around the Sikhs and Muslims as they come to grips with grief, fear, and how to overcome these challenges. In addition, religious groups are lending support and speaking out from diverse places. Recently The Hindu American Foundation issued a statement discussing their outrage at the attacks and their support with the victims. The earth-based religions making up the pagan community have also been supportive expressing interfaith condolences through Cherry Hill Seminary and other noted personalities within the pagan movement.
Although it has not often responded well to the realities of religiously plural America, Christians must also join this chorus of support for the Sikh and Muslim victims of hate crimes. One organization within evangelicalism, the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy offers its deepest sympathies to the Sikh community of Oak Creek, Michigan for their recent losses. It also extends the same to the Muslim community of Joplin, Missouri as they rebuild their place of worship.
In this situation Evangelicals must exemplify the best from their religious tradition in the ethic of love for their neighbor. We must reach out to both the Sikh and Muslim communities in Michigan, Missouri, and beyond to contribute to a national climate that fosters understanding and the ability to embrace the other in civility despite our religious differences.
America’s Founding Fathers put together a form of government that enabled its citizens to maintain their religious differences but to express them in ways that avoided the religion-fueled wars of Europe. But episodes like those in Wisconsin and Missouri test these important American ideals. Our grand experiment must continue but something new needs to be added to the mix. What is needed at this juncture of American history is a program that contributes to religious freedom and diversity. The prescription comes through peaceful contestation provided for a citizenry committed to a life lived in service to others through religious diplomacy.
Submitted by John W. Morehead
John W. Morehead, M.A., is Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and Editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.