Over his two terms, President Obama has recognized the Sikh community (and seems comfortable in doing so) perhaps more than any other US president in history. In his recent speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he makes reference to the Sikh American community as victims of anti-Islamic bigotry in the United States:
No surprise, then, that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged. Here at this mosque, twice last year, threats were made against your children. Around the country, women wearing the hijab — just like Sabah — have been targeted. We’ve seen children bullied. We’ve seen mosques vandalized. Sikh Americans and others who are perceived to be Muslims have been targeted, as well.
His speech in Baltimore was a message to America’s Muslims around their place in American society, but as much so, it was a message to America at large about the contributions and history of Muslims in this country. It was a bold and significant step as, predictably, even his speech calling for unity has met with some disfavor among more extreme sides of American society.
The messages provided by the President are certainly welcome by communities who continue to be victimized by a cultural supremacist ideology. However, while such a speech could be delivered in a mosque, the President may not be so welcome to give such a speech in many places across the United States. We still require a substantial cultural shift away from the assumption that people of color are secondary in their status. One cannot forget that the President himself neglected to visit the Sikh victims of the 2012 mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek — which was a unique lack of action by the President after any mass shooting.
The President’s speech was a thorough overview, crossing seamlessly between his own Christian background to that of his audience. However, the speech was lacking of any specific measures or suggestions around policy changes that reinforce religious liberty and freedom from discrimination. Cultural change is necessary, but this involves the backing of policy and educational reform. When America’s political/security infrastructure is structurally designed to target extremism from certain communities, it only reinforces the perception by Americans about who should be considered threats. When considering domestic extremism and the origins/sources of race-based violence, we don’t find the same level of discourse or attention by our policymakers.
You can read the transcript of the President’s speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore here.