Combating Islamophobia with Our Shared Humanity

by: Tarunjit Singh Butalia


With cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, 13-year-old displaced Syrian girl Malek Al Rifai stands in front of a U.S. flag while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York August 21, 2013. Several dozens supporters of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria gathered outside the United Nations building on Wednesday to protest the alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus. The U.N. Security Council said it was necessary to clarify an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus suburbs on Wednesday but stopped short of demanding a probe by U.N. investigators currently in Syria. Coalition for a Democratic Syria. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX12SRD

With the US presidential primary season in full swing, some of our aspiring presidential candidates have begun to raise slogans of exclusion – particularly targeting Muslim Americans and their faith. The underlying assumption seems to be that if you vilify certain ethnic and religious minorities, then your prospects of becoming a presidential candidate are enhanced. Such divisions in the fabric of our nation have been tried in the past but fortunately have failed miserably.


These recent events remind me of an incident that occurred a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 while I was visiting with my doctor. On entering the small waiting room, a three-year-old child playing in the corner looked up at me (wearing a turban) and exclaimed to his mother “Mom — there is the bad guy.”


Then silence descended on the waiting room. There were only the three of us in the room — the child, his mom, and me. The child went back to playing with the legos. The mom and I silently looked at each other for a few minutes or so but it seemed like eternity.


What could one say to a 3-year-old who shared what was on his mind? How could I get mad at this little child for exhibiting such prejudice? These are the questions that went through my mind and probably through the mind of the embarrassed mother.


But soon my thoughts shifted to the ill-fated morning of 9/11. I remember being in New Hampshire that morning getting ready to go to the Boston airport for a flight back home. The horrific news of the attacks was shocking and disgusting. The Boston airport was shut down and I was told to drive my rental car home — all the way to Ohio. So I began the journey home on the evening of 9/11. Nearly all fellow travelers were courteous and understanding except one who screamed at me and showed me half of a peace sign…


While driving home I recollected the following verse from Siri Guru Granth Sahib — the Sikh scripture (English translation):

Merciful God, keep all beings and creatures in your care. Give them an abundance of grain and water; eliminate their pain and poverty; ferry them across. The Great Benefactor heard our cry; the parched earth was rendered green and my smoldering heart was made cool. Keep us in Your Embrace; remove all obstructions. Nanak, stay immersed in the Name and be forever fulfilled.


America was attacked on 9/11 by ruthless terrorists who used their twisted interpretations of Islam to justify their horrible deeds. That was not the only attack on America. Muslims and anyone who looked like them were attacked soon thereafter to cleanse America of these terrorist look-alikes.


Observant Sikh men wear the turban in the public to cover their hair as a religious head covering. Islam does not require Muslim men to wear the turban. Rarely does a Muslim American man wear a turban on a regular basis. In fact, if you see a man or woman wearing a turban on the street, you can be quite sure that he or she is a Sikh.


However, repeated media images of Muslim radicals from Middle East countries wearing turbans were enough to arouse the passions of a backlash. Soon after 9/11, many Sikhs became a Muslim in the eyes of some of our misinformed fellow Americans.


One of the first casualties of this backlash was a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona – Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was gunned down on September 15, 2001 in a drive by shooting. His attacker, Frank Roque, shot Balbir fatally five times and then proceeded to take his vengeance on a Lebanese worker as well as a local Afghan family. When arrested by police at his home, Frank shouted “I’m a patriot … I’m an American. Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild?” as he was led away in handcuffs.


The wheels of justice may be slow but they do turn. In 2003 the murderer of Balbir was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the death penalty. The family of Balbir then requested a pardon for the death penalty of Frank Roque. Balbir’s brother was quoted in a newspaper report: “We have lost our Balbir and have suffered the intense pain of losing him. Now we realize that the same would be the case with family of Frank, which, we don’t want. What is the crime of his family?” In 2006 the Arizona Supreme Court overturned Roque’s death sentence and instead sentenced him to life in prison.


What an honorable and gracious act of love by a brother towards the murderer of his loving brother. This reminds me of the eternal forgiveness that Sikhs are called upon to uphold. It is said that a Sikh will forgive in a moment but not forget in a hundred years.


There have been countless attacks on Sikh places of worship as well as individual Sikhs since then. Fortunately such incidents have largely been aberrations for the large majority of Sikhs. We continue to live among our fellow Americans of all (and no) faiths proudly upholding the values and traditions of our faith as laid down by the Sikh Gurus.


Many Sikhs will declare authoritatively (and rightfully so) that Sikhs are not Muslims. It is true that prejudice against Sikhs is misdirected. However dealing with misdirected prejudice does not mean that we should be spared at the expense of our fellow Muslim Americans. We should take inspiration from the Ninth Sikh Guru, Siri Guru Tegh Bahaadar Sahib, who gave up his life in 1675 to protect the practices of the Hindu faith even though he did not believe in the practices of that faith. Sikhs, as well as believers of other faiths, need to continue to stand in solidarity with Muslims to reduce Islamophobia in our country.


By now the embarrassed mother and I had silently looked at each other for more than a few minutes. Then she gracefully hugged the child and looked at me. She asked about me and my family. I shared a photo of my three kids. And then I stumbled onto a BlackBerry photo of my then five-year-old son Sukhjit (his name translates as Winner of Peace) holding a rock bass that he had caught the day before on a fishing trip. The boy was thrilled to see this and exclaimed “Mom — when can I go fishing?” By then it was my turn to see the doctor. As I left my chair, the mom and son together waved at me exclaiming “Good bye good guy!”


The child’s mom did not verbally apologize to me during our encounter. She did more than that. She responded by asking us to share our humanity with each other so the innocent child could feel the human passion and be freed of prejudice. This young mother grasped the essence of our common humanity but I wonder why our some of our presidential hopefuls can’t.


Here lies the lesson for all of us as Americans as we delve deeper into the presidential campaign – our hope for the future lies in our shared humanity. The edifices of religious prejudice and hate are built upon foundations of dehumanization of the religious other. It is time for us to re-humanize our fellow human beings to develop increased mutual respect and promote shared security. We are only as secure as the least among us.

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