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I would like to make a request to news outlets, editors, writers, youtubers, anyone who creates/disseminates media, and especially Sikhs: Let's stop using the term "Mistaken Identity".
I have seen the term "Mistaken Identity" a lot since the world trade attacks on 9/11. It generally refers to Sikhs being mistaken for Muslims and being targeted for hate crimes, or any level of discrimination and physical/verbal abuse. There is even a documentary with the same title that follows hate crimes against Sikhs. The most recent and horrific example is the massacre at Oak Creek, Wisconsin where a man started shooting indiscriminately at a Gurdwara, killing 6. He likely saw the words "Temple" outside and that was enough for him to decide that he wants to take the life of the 'brown' people inside.
So why am I bothered by that term? Because it implies that his mistake was knowing the exact culture and religion of the people he was killing. It implies that if the killer had done a little more research, he would be shooting up a Mosque. By using the term 'mistaken identity' it is clearly distinguishing that Sikhs are not Muslims, WE are not THEM. While this is true, it's a useless distinction in context of hate crimes and discrimination. People hate because they are hateful and empty. People discriminate because they are ignorant.
The mistake of the Oak Creek shooter and anyone who attacks Sikhs or Muslims is "guilt by association". They think that because Arab/Saudi terrorists blew up the twin towers that that Muslim = terrorist, and brown skin/turban/beard = Muslim.
break this down.
"Muslim = terrorist" (guilt by association)
"Brown skin/turban/beard = Muslim" (mistaken identity)
Ultimately, the true mistake is internal fear and hate.
Unfortunately there is an image/stereotype that has been burned into the minds of Americans (with the help of the media) from day one. There were images of Arabs on the news even before the identity of the twin tower hijackers was known. Osama Bin Laden's turban dawning, bearded face was post up 24/7. Images are powerful and this made a deep subconscious pattern in the minds of the American people. The media does however always makes a point to back-step and point out that "Not all Muslims are terrorists", which is reassuring.... I guess. Statements like that let us know that some Muslims are terrorists.... but wait for it... the mixed message..... "not all" of them. Don't you feel safer now? And then there is the term "Muslim extremist", another mixed message. It's like saying, Islam isn't bad, except sometimes when it is. However, extremism isn't attached to a religion. There are extremists in every demographic. I can't help to wonder if they could just tone down (or eliminate altogether) the religious reference in context of terrorism.
Now, let me tell a personal experience I had. I was late for a flight out of the Albuquerque, NM airport. I had my dilruba with me. It is a tall instrument, about 5 feet, and has a fiberglass case. I always try to bring it as a carry on because it fits in the overhead and it's less likely to get damaged. As I barely made it to my flight I was the last one on. I was panting and had my dilruba clasped in front of me so I could navigate down the narrow airplane isle. Then I noticed something strange; Every single pair of eyes in the plane was staring at me. Not just staring, but following me as I walked to the back of the plane. There was an obvious feeling of tension and fear so thick you could cut it with a knife. I realized that perhaps, people thought my instrument was some sort of weapon, and although they didn't want to "profile" me, they couldn't help but be concerned for their own lives.
As there are mixed messages in the media, similarly there are mixed feelings in the American mind. Americans believe (as the media says) that Islam is a peaceful religion. But at the same time they are keeping their eye on any Muslim on a plane, ready to throw a blanket over his head and dog-pile him to prevent the next terrorist plane hijacking. What I'm talking about is a 'subconscious discrimination dynamic'. It is a wide-spread epidemic that manifests in many ways from people staring, to calling names, to shooting guns. Almost every citizen of USA is afflicted with it. I believe the media played a hand in creating it, and using a term like 'mistaken identity' is helping to perpetuate it.
So as Sikhs what should our reaction be? Should it be to point out that we are not Muslims? ...Point out that we are being wrongfully targeted? Is there someone else who is being 'rightfully targeted'? I don't think so. I think our job is to point out that, Sikhs or Muslim, it doesn't matter. We are all one people, and we stand for spiritual upliftment and service to humanity. We stand for peace. We stand for love.
Ignorance is ignorance. Racism is racism. We don't have explain that we are not Muslims because that plays into the subconscious discrimination dynamic. Why play that game?
One solution that many Sikhs are taking the opportunity to try right now, is to educate. We are talking about 'What is Sikhism?' There is a featurette in every news outlet covering the Oak Creek incident about Sikhism. I believe that after Oak Creek, there are more people in USA and the World who know what Sikhism is, then there ever has been. This is a great thing, and an ironic side-effect of Sikhs being murdered.
But I still feel that there is a higher answer. I feel that telling people what Sikhism is, isn't enough to break the subconscious fear they have. People need to FEEL what Sikhism is. An educational article will never be as impactful as a kind gesture, a smile, a shared moment. Human beings need to bond in order to empathize. And right now, I honestly don't feel that the average American feels as deep of a human bond with the Sikhs as they do with the Aurora victims (average Americans). Because although Oak Creek was tragic, it was still 'those Sikhs' who got shot, and not 'us'. It was those 'turbaned people', or those 'religious people', or those 'immigrants', instead of 'us' average Americans.
To conclude, I think the answer to this situation is the same answer we've had since the time of the Guru's, Deg Teg Fateh. Let's serve people outside of our community. Let's extend langar from exclusively inside Gurdwaras, to be in public. If 'outsiders' aren't coming to our Gurdwaras, let's go to them. Let's serve the homeless as langar once did. The Gurus have given us so much, and what the Gurus gave, is for everyone. Without being preachy or trying to convert anyone, let's find a way to share the blessings we have with others. Let's teach people who are interested, how to meditate. I think personal connection the true way people will begin to know us.