Flags at half-mast; flowers left at Gurdwara steps; candles lit against a dark, silent gathering of people from all backgrounds in solidarity with their mourning neighbors.
Days earlier. Sunday morning, August 5th. A man enters a Sikh temple mid-service and murders seven peaceful worshippers, severely injuring another two.
In the shooting’s immediate wake, a great amount of the response was utterly uplifting towards the Sikh community. Many of the loudest voices across the political and religious sphere spoke out in appreciation of their characteristic pacifism, seeking to make our nation a comfortable place for Sikhs, as they feel the weight of a peaceful space violated.
This newfound solidarity with American Sikhs comes at a critical moment, and yet, it comes far too late, and will evaporate far too quickly. In blogger Gagan Singh’s words on the day of the attack: “I request all Sikhs…who have access to media. Talk now. The world is listening. Tomorrow they won’t.”
This fact that Gagan highlights compounds the existing heartbreak of a terrorist invading and slaughtering our neighbors in a peaceful place of worship and reflection. The fact that it takes a concentrated dose of tragedy to draw society’s gaze to a people who have been misattributed, maligned, and murdered on American streets for the past decade. Since September 11th, and even before, Sikhs in America have been subject to extraordinary hate and maltreatment that extends beyond just being mistaken for Muslims: xenophobia, distaste for religious difference, racism—and they have faced it with dignity, and without violent recourse.
This is the greater tragedy: the ongoing oppression and distrust of American Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and anyone who otherwise might fit the profile of the “enemy”. Just this week, a mosque in Missouri was burned down in the second arson attempt against it since a July 4th attack. Several teenagers in California were recently arrested for pelting fruit at a group of Muslims during a Ramadan prayer. Every week, a new story appears, but rather than give each one ample airtime as a jigsaw in the incredible puzzle of xenophobic subjugation, the American media reduces them to a whisper. And now, mainstream outlets find they first have to identify what a Sikh even is before they can report on the crime, for they have waited for a massacre to give the community sufficient coverage.
If we are “never to forget” some of this nation’s—this world’s—tragedies, we never should forget any of them. But remembrance does not exclusively entail wristbands and tattoos and monuments. For society to forget would be for society to remain the same. We should use these dark moments as inspiration, and indications of where we can improve, in this case, diversity education and religious literacy, to support mental health and police services, to hold accountable our media for its educational shortcomings. Most importantly, though, we can use this as an opportunity to better ourselves, as we learn to find compassion in ways we may not have before.
If you’re in the Boston area, tomorrow (Sunday, August 12th), we’ll be making an interfaith trip to a local Gurdwara to educate ourselves about Sikh practices and to stand in solidarity with our neighbors. If hearing of this tragedy has inspired you to change yourself and your society, as it has me, please consider joining us:
Memorial Service for Sikh Gurdwara Shooting
Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar (Medford, MA) at 11:30, August 12th
For details on carpooling visit the Humanist Community Project at Harvard website.
Walker Bristol is the president of the Tufts Freethought Society, and the Director of Communications for the Foundation Beyond Belief. Originally from North Carolina, Walker was raised in a largely Quaker community before exploring several Christian traditions throughout high school and ultimately becoming a secular humanist at age 15. Alongside fellow NPS panelist Chelsea Link, he is a contributing editor to The Unelectables, covering religious minorities and atheists in the 2012 election. And along with fellow Tufts Freethought member Lauren Rose, Walker hosts the internet radio show FreethoughtCast. In addition to being involved in secular student activism, Walker is a hobbyist musician, ballroom dancer, and aspiring jedi. He tweets nonsense @GodlessWalker.