Sikhism takes the spotlight after temple shooting

Mourners attend a vigil for those killed in Sunday’s shooting © Getty Images

On Sunday, a lone gunman opened fire in an American Sikh temple, killing seven people. In the wake of the tragedy, the Sikh community has been forced to confront prejudice and misunderstanding.

Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, were gathering for prayers when the gunman appeared. As he opened fire, their peaceful temple became a scene of chaos. By the time police arrived, seven worshippers – including several priests – were dead.

Now, America is processing the aftermath of a tragedy that was motivated, it seems, by racism. Some think killer Wade Page may have mistaken the Sikh temple for a Muslim place of worship. For Sikhs living in America, that raises some worrying questions.

Although it is unfamiliar to many, Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion. Founded in the 16th century in India, it is based on the wisdom of ten respected teachers, or gurus.

Sikhs believe in one God – a universal presence that humans can perceive in the world through meditation. In the eyes of this God, everyone is equal. Day to day, that means Sikhs are expected to be ‘saint-soldiers’, who work hard to combat their vices and live virtuously. They are encouraged to work for social justice in the community, while keeping God in mind at all times.

The sharing spirit inspires some unusual traditions. At Amritsar’s Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest place, kitchens churn out free meals for all visitors, 24 hours a day. All Sikhs are required to wear ‘five Ks’, including a dagger, and uncut hair that is covered with a turban, to remind them of God.

The Sikh community, however, has long been plagued by persecution – at the hands of tyrannical rulers and prejudiced populations. The last outbreak happened in 1986, when a massacre at the Golden Temple was followed by bloody uprisings in India. Thousands died, and many Sikhs fled to Europe and America.

Today, the children of those refugees face fresh obstacles. Their beards and turbans mean Sikhs are sometimes mistaken for Muslims – and since 9/11, that has prompted hate and prejudice. European Sikhs report being called ‘Taliban’ or ‘Bin Laden’. Tragically, the first ‘revenge’ attack for 9/11 targeted a shopkeeper who wore a turban. Many Sikhs feel they are ‘caught in the crossfire’ of another religion’s troubles.

United front?

Dealing with this is proving controversial. Frustrated that their religion is being mistaken for another faith, many Sikhs are keen to distance themselves from Islam. Stressing its very different identity, they say, will help Sikhism be properly understood – and stop some of the problems its followers are experiencing.

Others disagree. Islamic communities, they point out, are also innocent victims of persecution. Instead of distancing themselves from their Muslim neighbours, Sikhs should focus on standing by them and presenting a united front against unacceptable persecution.

You Decide

  1. Do different communities have a responsibility to help out other religious groups?
  2. Do you think ignorance toward different religions is a problem in your country?

Activities

  1. Research a key figure in Sikh history and create a fact-file of their life and achievements.
  2. After the Wisconsin shootings, many Americans became worried about people’s patchy knowledge of Sikhism. Create an informative ‘question and answer’ session for a TV news show, aimed to educate viewers on the basics of the religion.

Some People Say...

“Prejudice is always caused by ignorance.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Where do Sikhs live around the world?
There are currently nearly 30 million Sikhs living around the world. Around 75% live in the Punjab, where they make up 60% of the population. Others live in thriving immigrant communities in other nations. America is home to 500,000 Sikhs, and there are significant populations in the UK, Canada and East Africa, too.
Do all these communities struggle with prejudice?
It varies. In India, the Sikh community is small – around 2% of the population – but it is successful: Manmohan Singh recently became India’s first Sikh prime minister. Experiences of prejudice and ignorance, however, have led some Sikhs living elsewhere to shed the visible signs of their religion, such as the turban and long beard.

Word Watch

Golden Temple
The Golden Temple, in Amritsar, North India, is Sikhism’s holiest place. All Sikhs are required to visit and bathe in the waters that surround the temple at some point in their lives. As well as being a holy place, it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in India – 200,000 people pass through its gates every day.
Five Ks
The five Ks are symbolic religious objects that should be carried by all practising Sikhs. They are Kesh, or uncut hair; Kangha, a wooden comb; Kara, a metal bracelet; Kachera, a special type of undergarment, and Kirpan, a curved sword.
Massacre at the Golden Temple
In the early 1980s, a separatist Sikh group took refuge in the Golden Temple, and established a base there. By 1986, the Indian Army feared that the group was planning an armed uprising, and launched an attack to flush them out in the June of that year. The result was bloodshed: estimates of the number of dead range from around 500 to ten times that amount. Four months later, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in an act of vengeance.

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