Targeted Sikhs Wary Of Saying 'We Are Not Muslims'

Since the shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., on Sunday, there's been much discussion in the Sikh community as to how to better educate the public about their culture and religion. Audie Cornish speaks with Amardeep Singh, a professor of English at Lehigh University and a Sikh himself, about how much that would help in preventing the kind of violence in Wisconsin.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sunday's horrific shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin adds to an already long tally of attacks against American Sikhs since 2001. Just days after 9/11, a Sikh man in Arizona was shot and killed while pumping gas. Countless more with beards and turbans endured verbal taunts, people shouting Osama or Taliban. Amardeep Singh is Sikh and an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Looking back to 2001, he says, things weren't easy.

AMARDEEP SINGH, LEHIGH UNIVERSITY: It was a difficult time. I found quite a bit of hostility both in Bethlehem, but also in other East Coast cities, including Philadelphia and New York. I was surprised by it, frankly. I initially thought it might be small town issue, but then I came to discover that, in fact, there was a general feeling of anger directed against - and it was understandable, I think - directed against people who looked like me.

CORNISH: Amardeep, you write on your blog that in the wake of the attack in Wisconsin that there's been a lot of talk about not stressing the point that Sikhs are not Muslim, essentially Sikhs saying, we're not Muslim, and yet it's something we've certainly heard a lot in the past two days. What the discussions you're having with your friends and family in the Sikh community on this?

UNIVERSITY: Well, I think our orientation as a community has been to stress that we are opposed to religious hostility and hate-crime type violence directed against any community, whether it be the Muslim community or the Jewish community or any other religious minority in America. And unfortunately, at times like this when we are dealing with a really shocking tragedy which seemed to really come out of nowhere, it is true that some members of the community, some commentators in the media have used that phrasing, that, you know, we didn't deserve this, perhaps not thinking through how it might come across and the ways in which it might seem to validate hate crimes directed against other communities, particularly Muslims, right?

If some of these attacks, including the Wisconsin attack, was aimed at the Muslim community and not necessarily at us, we would be as shocked and horrified if this attack had been against a mosque at Friday prayers as we are in that it's been directed against us on a Sunday.

CORNISH: Now, we've also heard calls from the Sikh community, from Sikh community advocates that what's needed is more education about the culture and the religion. And yet, you've written that you wonder if that really would have made a difference in this case.

UNIVERSITY: Well, yes, I think one reality of being a very visibly different-looking religious minority is that our appearance - Sikhs wear turbans, Sikh men have beards - will draw attention and be a kind of lightning rod for people who are upset about sort of religious diversity in America and the presence of new religious minorities such as Sikhs and Muslims. And I think it makes many people uncomfortable to see a turban and beard in the United States and they are - some people are reminded of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

And we understand that. And so I think that visceral reaction that the turban can provoke is something that I think we have to deal with and recognize and work around. And so I don't think that it's simply that if we had told this particular person, the shooter in the Wisconsin shootings, that Sikhs are not Muslims or that Sikhs are, you know, whatever you could have told him about our faith, that that would have made a difference.

CORNISH: You've also made the argument about the turban in particular, likening it to Muslim women wearing the hijab, for instance. And what is it about it that you're saying goes beyond religion, essentially?

UNIVERSITY: Yeah, I think it has to do with it being a symbol of religious identity that is attached to or worn on the body. All of these visible signs of religious difference I think can make some people uncomfortable and can be a source of confusion for people. And, I mean, throughout my life, I've kind of known that and I've come to try and make it a point to put people at ease and to kind of indicate, you know, sort of my benign-ness, if you will.

And that's just simply been kind of a part of my everyday lived experience as a member of the Sikh community in the United States.

CORNISH: Amardeep Singh is an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for talking with us.

UNIVERSITY: Thank you.

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