Beyond Recognition and Misrecognition: the Shooting at Oak Creek Gurdwara

One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the U.S. since 9/11 has been how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims. A man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Arizona just a few days after 9/11 for precisely that kind of misrecognition, and there were quite a number of other instances of attacks not as extreme as murder that occurred in those first few months.

2001-2002 happened to be my first year teaching at Lehigh. I was living alone in Bethlehem itself, close to the university, and believe me, I felt the intensity of that hostility, both while driving and of course on foot. But it wasn't just a small town issue; the sense of smouldering hostility was also something one felt on the streets of Philadelphia and, not surprisingly, New York. I heard a lot of ugly taunts and insults, and had a couple of encounters that might have been dangerous if I hadn't decided to walk away very quickly. I was kind of spooked, and like a lot of Sikhs that fall I put a bumper sticker on my car with a U.S. flag, announcing myself as a "Sikh American," crossed my fingers, and tried to stick to stay focused on teaching literature. That year I ate a lot of Drive-Thru fast food and missed the fun grad-school life I had left behind in cosmopolitan (really) North Carolina.

About a year later everyone started to calm down and I put a lot of my feelings from that first year behind me. (And yes, I eventually took the bumper sticker off the car.)

Obviously, the Sikh community realized very quickly that fall that it wouldn't do to simply say, "Don't hate me, I'm not a Muslim." And by and large people have avoided that particular phrasing and rhetoric. The Sikh advocacy organizations that were organized shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.

Today as I've been keeping up with the community's reaction to the Gurdwara shootings in Wisconsin I've been seeing a lot of friends and family reminding everyone not to dwell on the shooter's likely "misrecognition" -- the sentiment that "we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this" is actually not one we should be giving voice to, even if it might be understandable after such a ghastly attack.

Many of my friends online are also suggesting we renew our efforts as a community to educate Americans about who we are. These are well-meaning and valuable efforts, and I myself will try and support them if I can.

But here's the thing: I don't know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear -- or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred.

As I have experienced it, the turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that hostility. But I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition.

I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral -- perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn't provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract -- a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the "right one" was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter.

Years ago I tried to make a point along these lines in a conference presentation; I also took it a step further and claimed that in effect the turbans that Sikh men wear mark them as different in ways that rhyme with the hostility that Muslim women wearing Hijab also often face. That comparison wasn't received terribly well, but I stand by it. It's not that what the Hijab means for Muslims has very much to do with what the Dastar means in Sikhism. It's that both have the potential to provoke a kind of visceral reaction by these marks of religious difference worn on the body. Sometimes that reaction is simply a sense of discomfort or confusion, easily allayed by a winning smile or a comment about the local sports team or the weather. Sometimes, however, that negative reaction runs deeper and can't be readily resolved. (And yes, I think Hasidic Jews, for instance, provoke similar kinds of visceral reactions. And while there is likely no "9/11" connection in the minds of anti-Semites, it's worth remembering that anti-Semitic hate crimes and synagogue vandalism continue to occur at a pretty steady clip. And isn't homophobic gay-bashing connected to something similar -- a sense of difference operating at an uncomfortably intimate [to the attacker] level?)

I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting Sikhs not wear turbans to avoid hostility.  But I also don't think we should fool ourselves that incidents of this nature will be completely addressed purely by "education," nor should we presume that the shooter suffered from "ignorance." If the shooter  turns out to have been what it's currently thought he was (that is, some sort of white supremacist), all that mattered to him was that he hated difference -- and saw, in the Sikh Gurdwara at Oak Creek, a target for that hatred.

Indeed, I don't have any very constructive solution to offer today. I am, truthfully, at a loss right now as to how to understand this tragedy, or how I might explain it to my five-year old son (we haven't told him about it yet, and don't plan to). At times living in the United States seems like an amazing privilege; this year we were out waving our little American flags with the rest of the neighborhood for the Independence Day parade in the suburban Philadelphia town where we live.

But the level of violence that is regularly expressed here (and, seemingly tolerated, since nothing substantial is ever done to address it) also defies explanation. This -- naked gun violence -- is the nightmare that periodically creeps into, and overshadows, the American Dream. And I will try to let my son go on being a typical American kid who doesn't have to think about that.