CNN—Imagine that you woke up on a beautiful Sunday morning to hear the news of a brown, bearded, gun-wielding madman who stormed into a Wisconsin church full of blond-haired parishioners and killed six innocent people.
If that scenario did occur, would most Americans have any problem calling that an act of “terrorism”?
Of course not.
Now imagine that the shooter was a white man and the innocent victims were bearded brown men and head-covered women. Suddenly, the discussion of “terrorism” gets a lot more complicated.
Of course, this is exactly what happened in a Milwaukee suburb on Sunday, when six people and the alleged gunman were killed at a Sikh temple.
One of the congregation’s members told a local news station, “Nobody’s angry here. We’re just confused. Was this a random act? Was this directed at us because of the way we look?”
Sadly, it’s probably going to be the latter.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Police Chief John Edwards said at a news conference that the case is being treated as domestic terrorism, and the FBI is taking over.
But it’s important for our greater American society to also condemn acts of terrorism when the perpetrator happens to be a white guy.
If not, we send millions of people of color around America the message that the term “terrorism” has been co-opted, that it shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters and not when they are the tragic victims.
Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americas to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that “terrorism” is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.
To give another recent example, imagine that a brown Arab Muslim male tried to assassinate a member of Congress by shooting her in the head, killing six innocent people and wounding 13 others outside a grocery store during this assassination attempt.
Would we have any trouble calling this scenario above an act of terrorism? Nope.
Since authorities say the gunman was a white dude named Jared Lee Loughner, he was just a kooky loner whose mental health must have been the triggering factor. But if his name were Ali Akbar Nahasapeemapetilon, nobody in America would care a bit about his mental health issues.
Since observant Sikh men keep a turban (known as dastaar or pagri) and unshorn hair, which often manifests itself into a long beard, many Americans after September 11 wrongfully conflated Sikh Americans with Muslim Americans because of this “turban-and-beard” look. To highlight the sheer tragic irony and stupid human ignorance of bias-motivated hate crimes within America, the first actual tragic victim of a post-9/11 “hate crime” murder in the United States was neither a Muslim nor an Arab.
Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Indian Sikh-American businessman, was brutally shot several times and killed instantly by Frank Roque in a Mesa, Arizona, gas station. According to BBC World News, the county attorney stated that Sodhi was killed for no other apparent reason than that he was dark-skinned and wore a turban.
Just like America has been on high alert for brown-skinned terrorism since September 11, millions of Americans of Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian descent have equally been on high alert about reprisal attacks against brown-skinned Americans that happened immediately after September 11.
On the same day as the Sodhi murder, September 15, 2001, Adel Karas, a 48-year-old Egyptian Orthodox Coptic Christian and father of three, was viciously murdered outside his suburban Los Angeles import shop. In Texas, both the FBI and local police investigated the murder of Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani store owner who was found shot to death outside his grocery store in suburban Dallas.
One day after 9/11, in the early morning hours of September 12, at least six bullets shattered several windows of the Islamic Center of Irving in suburban Dallas. Similarly, on September 12, 2001, 29-year-old Eric Richley of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, decided to drive his white Ford Mustang into the front glass doors of the Grand Mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland. Places of worship including Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras became instant targets for patriotic terrorists seeking to lash out at innocent Americans like the Sikh victims of the terrorist attack in Wisconsin.
Belonging to a five-century-old monotheistic tradition, professor Stephen Prothero writes,
Sikhism emerged out of a culture steeped in both Hinduism and Islam, and early Sikhs attempted to reconcile the two, in part by focusing on heartfelt devotion to God rather than rites and doctrines. “There is no Hindu and no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow?” asked (Sikh founder) Guru Nanak. “I shall follow the path of God.” Like Muslims, Sikhs are strict monotheists who emphasize divine sovereignty. They reject the view that God incarnates in human form, believing instead in a formless God that can be known through singing and meditation.
According to professor Gurinder Singh Mann, the “Sikhs lay emphasis on a life of hard work, social commitment, and ethical living. A complex set of doctrinal, historical and sociological reasons made them a very political people and they have kept up that heritage in both the Punjab, the land of their origin, and wherever they have migrated to in the past century.”
Most Americans do not know that the first Sikh American member of Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, who represented California’s 29th congressional district in 1957. Since Sikhs have served America as doctors, lawyers and teachers for more than a century, any attack on their house of worship should be considered an attack on all houses of worship.
So, if the mass murder at the Sikh temple is not referred to as an act of “terrorism” by virtually every member of our American media and sociopolitical elite, the only message that this will send to millions of people of color across America is that the term “terrorism” has been co-opted and shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters, not when they are the tragic victims.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of the book “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era.”