By Valarie Kaur
On Friday, I participated in a memorial for the victims of the 4 August shooting in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I am a third-generation Sikh American, and as the ceremony drew to a close, I tweeted, “May this not be the last moment the nation watches and mourns with us. May this be the start of lasting solidarity.”
Now is the time that we, as Americans already embroiled in an increasingly bitter election year, must curb the rise of hate, fear and discontent in our communities and on the airwaves. We must call on our elected officials, media, educational institutions and faith leaders to renew their commitment to a nation where all can live, work and worship without fear.
Hope can come out of tragedy. In the past week, an untold number of Americans learned something about the Sikh religion. People of all ages, races and religions came together at memorials, in numbers far surpassing expectations. Politicians like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg renewed the call for stronger gun control. Police officers who put their lives on the line to stop the shooting were hailed as heroes.
Now it’s time for everyone, as Sikhs believe, to accept the will of God and move forward, and to jumpstart a national conversation about how to transform hate, fear and polarisation in our country.
Sunday’s attack was not an isolated incident. It was part of a pattern of hate and violence against racial and religious minorities in the last decade and long before. Since 9/11, Sikh, Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans in particular have been marked as automatically suspect in our national imagination. Ignorance about these communities combined with a powerful impulse to scapegoat has led to hate crimes, discrimination, bullying, profiling, and prejudice.
The tragedy in Oak Creek can incite all Americans to do more to support Sikhs and other communities targeted by hate. Many have called for tougher laws restricting access to guns after the shooting. While we must pass tougher and smarter legislation, each of us has the opportunity to step up our commitment to human dignity in our own spheres of influence.
Elected officials and political candidates must commit to civil discourse and stop using ethnically and religiously exclusive rhetoric to score political points. We must recognise that hateful political rhetoric reverberates through society and dangerously activates the imagination of those seeking scapegoats.
Congress must pass the End Racial Profiling Act for all people who endure racial and religious profiling. If our government continues to profile in national security, immigration, and criminal arenas, how can we expect more of a person on the street?
The FBI must begin to track hate crimes against Sikhs. We must be able to measure the scope of this problem in order to solve it, and ensure that law enforcement can better serve all communities.
The media must help keep national attention on the causes and consequences of the tragedy in Oak Creek. Already, media coverage has rapidly decreased. Reporters can commit to following the story, reporting with accuracy, and maintaining relationships with Sikh Americans about their community’s issues.
Let’s use what happened in Oak Creek as a teachable moment and continue the conversation at home and in the classroom. We must teach students about Sikhism and world religions, starting in primary school. Sikhism dates to 1469 and is now the world’s fifth largest religion, with 26 million and counting. Sikhs first came to the United States in the late 1800s and now more than half a million live here. It’s time to incorporate all communities’ histories into our educational curricula.
More importantly, educators must step up campus interfaith projects that facilitate dialogue and service in all levels of education. We can equip a rising generation to not only tolerate one another – but to engage with one another with curiosity, compassion, and respect. I believe that storytelling has the power to cultivate the empathy that can change the world. Educators can use storytelling through films like American Made, Divided We Fall, Dream in Doubt, and Dastar on their campuses, starting this fall on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
Together, I believe we can respond to this tragedy with lasting solidarity – and, most importantly, change. As Americans, let’s set aside the metaphor of the “melting pot” and embrace the metaphor of a “mosaic” – a home where each of our differences are valued and celebrated.
Valarie Kaur is a filmmaker, legal advocate, interfaith organiser and founding director of Groundswell, an initiative that combines storytelling and advocacy. You can learn more about Sikh Americans at www.dwf-film.com.