What manliness you have shown by extinguishing a few sparks? You have made the conflagration brighter and more furious. — Guru Gobind Singh to Aurangzeb, Mughal emperor of India, 1705.
In 1705, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, wrote a letter in Persian entitled Zafarnama (“Epistle of Victory”) to Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor of India who engaged in a campaign to eradicate the Sikh people, resulting in the execution and deaths of the Guru’s four young sons and a large portion of the growing Sikh community. In the letter, the Guru defiantly chastised the emperor for his persecution of the Sikhs and for the emperor’s oppressive regime over the subcontinent, but he also invited the emperor to a dialogue to find a peaceful resolution.
Earlier this month, as the one-year anniversary of white supremacist Wade Michael Page’s massacre at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, murdering six people and seriously wounding four others, I found myself unable to parse my feelings about the anniversary. As the Oak Creek massacre has been a consistent and almost daily topic on this blog, it seemed as there was not more left to say in commemoration. And, I still struggle with examining where we are today.
However, I do find some solace when reflecting on Zafarnama, particularly of the resilient spirit exuded by the Guru, and the spirit shown by the community of Oak Creek — Sikhs and otherwise.
As much as we sympathize with their losses and feel solidarity with their community, the level of grief experienced by the families of Oak Creek is one that most of us cannot know. Still, the shooting attack has affected the Sikh American community profoundly — the words “Oak Creek” and “Wisconsin” are etched in our collective psyche and will always be a moment of our history in this country that we will never forget.
Last October, two months after the shooting at the Gurdwara in Wisconsin, I found myself at a Gurdwara in Stockton, California, celebrating the centennial of the oldest Gurdwara in the United States. Near the end of the evening, I was caught off-guard by the sounds of explosions — I was startled as my mind flashed to thoughts of gunfire. This flash of panic dissipated once I realized that it was simply the sounds of fireworks set off above the Gurdwara as part of the festivities. I discovered that I was harboring a sense of vulnerability in being our place of worship.
Sadly, a year after Oak Creek, I am not confident that we have moved significantly towards the day we can be assured that a repeat of Oak Creek would not happen elsewhere in the country — at a Gurdwara or another place of worship. Certainly there has been a greater awareness raised about who the Sikhs are — I have observed this in my own interaction with the public. While many Sikhs and non-Sikhs in local communities have taken on the charge of spreading awareness and the message of peace, there has been little done on a larger scale to discourage or prevent another extremist in the mould of Wade Michael Page from engaging in such violence again. And, indeed, even after Oak Creek, we continued to see Sikhs repeatedly fall victim to acts of hate across the country.
The media, one year later
It was interesting to reflect on the week after the Oak Creek attack with the week after the anniversary of the attack. In the wake of the shooting last year, there was intense interest by the media, and I was (unexpectedly) flooded with daily requests for information, comment, or opinion from news outlets in and outside of the United States. There was a certain comfort in this; perhaps such effort might help open the door to increased understanding about Sikh Americans and the issues imposed upon us by those unintentionally or intentionally misguided about our presence in this country. I held a hope that some of what I and others shared with the media would reach the dark spaces where hate manifests, and that, perhaps, we will find new ambassadors for us in the communities we cannot reach. I saw promise in the outreach by the broader public — especially in the form of major media — to understand and sympathize with the victims of Oak Creek, and in the presentation of Sikhs and South Asians as people other than terrorists. Maybe, with new understanding, we would see movement towards less discrimination in this country, and steps taken towards countering the hate crimes that have plagued our community for a century.
However, in stark contrast, one year later, the interest from media notably diminished. There was little in commemoration of the attack nor an in-depth reflection of what was learned. Instead, it was left to the Sikh and South Asian community to propagate this message to a largely disinterested public — it was a reminder that the Oak Creek attack was our problem, especially because most of the messaging was consistently focused on the victims. The discourse presented by media was filtered towards a consistent theme:
We are Sikhs. We are peaceful. We are not terrorists. We are Americans.
Certainly, there is a need and space for this argument, because there are those who believe otherwise. But, we must also consider whom it is we are trying to convince, and also consider why is it that our message must be presented in this way.
It is also noteworthy that since Oak Creek, the dialogue has not advanced further from these points. The media seems more interested in who and why Sikh Americans are, and not about the who and why the oppressors of the Sikh Americans are. The perpetrator, the movement and the belief system that drives them have been left relatively unchallenged. I contrast this with the fallout from the trial of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, when I then saw mainstream media outlets begin to discuss white privilege, institutional racism, and racial profiling. No such lengthy conversation emerged after Oak Creek other than assertions that Sikhs are a peace-loving people and are not terrorists. The actual terrorist involved in the Oak Creek attack, on the other hand, was swept under the rug.
On the street, most people would not recognize the name nor image of Wade Michael Page, as opposed to, for example, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev , the young man implicated in the Boston Marathon bombing and whose image was plastered all over the internet, television and print media. To controversy, he was even featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, which dissected Tsarnaev’s path towards extremism. Ironically, Wade Michael Page, a member of a rock band, has received minimal mention (if at all) by the pop culture periodical.
There has been little questioning about the “un-Americanness” of Wade Michael Page or of the white supremacy movement — but perhaps, it is because they aren’t considered un-American — it is well recorded in history that despite its founding values, this country was built on the premise of white supremacy over other races and ethnicities. Violent acts by members of the white supremacy movement is not new, and goes back decades. Yes, much of what was expressed on this blog eight months ago relating to the white supremacy movement (and since) still rings true today, and this is reflective of the media’s disinterest over the last twelve months in what really happened in Oak Creek.
From the government, a little more than sympathy
A few months after the Oak Creek shooting, the FBI closed its investigation, ending it with Wade Michael Page’s suicide. He acted alone and left no suicide note, leaving nothing more to investigate — at least for the FBI.
Federal and state agencies provided support and aid to the victims and community of Oak Creek, including financial and immigration aid to family members, and mental health support. But, what was left unresolved was the continued existence — and sweeping under the rug — of the reservoir from which Wade Michael Page emerged. The white supremacy movement was left untouched after the murder of six innocent people by one of its spawn, and this has been disappointing. Law enforcement agencies confirmed this hands-off approach during the congressional hearing on hate violence held last year by Senator Dick Durbin — whose presence in the hearing was especially notable by the absence of the rest of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to attend the hearing at all.
And, while the First Lady made a visit to the victims of Oak Creek one year ago today, unlike other sites of mass murder during his presidency, the President himself did not do so. This disparity has not escaped notice by observers and especially the victims of Oak Creek. Despite the fact that this President has been unprecedented in his level of support of the Sikh Americans, there appears to be some significance in the framing of this community as part of the “broader” American family. Second-cousin Americans, perhaps.
In the one year since the Oak Creek shooting, the major victory for civil rights organizations was when the FBI finally agreed to update its hate crime tracking to include categories for Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs. For hate crimes reported to the database, the FBI will explicitly quantify assaults on Sikhs based on motive of bias. However, the FBI database, as an information source, is rife with problems that affect its usefulness, so much so that in the current system, despite being the catalyst for the change, it is not inconceivable that even the shootings in Oak Creek would have not made it into the database, since Wade Michael Page’s motive was not officially determined (and his crime would have had to have been reported by the local law enforcement agency). More changes are needed to the database and the data collection process in order to make the data useful to lawmakers and policy advocates, but if the two-year campaign to have the FBI even count Sikh victims is any indication, implementing additional changes just to the database will require continued struggle.
Moreover, let us not forget that the database only records crimes after they have occurred. In the short term, this is not a solution to prevent bias-motivated crimes and murders (as we saw in Oak Creek) from happening in the first place, and law enforcement alone is not the solution.
Cynicism and resilience
It can be said that the country has certainly progressed in the 50 years since African Americans and members of other communities marched in Washington, DC, in the cause of civil rights, but we also found ourselves coming full circle in the cycle of violence. Just after the famous March on Washington in 1963 in which Martin Luther King, Jr., made his historic “I have a dream” speech, white supremacists bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four African American children. And, 49 years later, a white supremacist would strike again on another place of worship, this time targeting the Sikh community in Oak Creek. When we wonder whether an Oak Creek could happen again, we must remember: Oak Creek was already the “again” that we fear.
In the past year, the phrase chardhi kala — the Sikh ethos of eternal optimism — has been invoked to express the means by which Sikhs respond to tragedy, such as in Oak Creek. Guru Gobind Singh exuded this spirit in Zafarnama, and indeed, the Sikhs of Oak Creek have themselves been a model in that regard. Still, in the apathy of the media and the lack of will from government, it is easy to be cynical about attempting to reverse decades of bias and to change the gears in our legal, political and cultural systems to facilitate move away from hegemony of the dominant culture. Even in the wake of greatest tragedy, it is difficult to have our voices heard for real and impactful change. One only needs to look at the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting to see how futile it has been to address societal concerns around violence.
As I struggled to find words when the anniversary of the Oak Creek shooting approached and passed, I contemplated the sentiments shared by Sikhs near and far — some of whom I consider friends and colleagues — reflecting upon their experiences and opinions. I thought about Guru Gobind Singh’s letter to Aurangzeb in 1705, as many Sikh Americans also took to the pen to give voice to their experience in the aftermath of Oak Creek.
Indeed, there was a flood of activity by Sikhs and South Asians to commemorate the anniversary of the shooting on August 5, from the Chardhi Kala 6K Run/Walk in Oak Creek, to a National Day of Seva (Service) organized by Sikhs in other cities across the country. Local and alternative news outlets often served as the platform to members of the Sikh community to reflect on the Oak Creek shooting, where they described how the Oak Creek shooting affected them, how they dealt with the tragedy within their families and communities. For me, some of the most meaningful stories shared were those that described the impact of the massacre on our children.
Guru Gobind Singh concludes Zafarnama by taking the protection of the Almighty:
If the enemy brings thousands of his men against an individual (who has the protection of the Lord), not even a single hair of his will be harmed.
It is in this spirit that we find our fearless optimism and to hold to account those who perpetrate injustices towards us. While our societal machinery moves slowly and the Sikh American community — even since Oak Creek — continues to be victim of hate crimes, we must move beyond the victim narrative, as Guru Gobind Singh did in his letter to the oppressive Mughal emperor. I am inspired by those who have not relented at home, in their communities and on the national stage to ensure that we may live securely in full equality in this country.