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My Take: Sikh temple shooting is act of terrorism
August 6th, 2012
11:20 AM ET

My Take: Sikh temple shooting is act of terrorism

Editor's note: Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of the book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era."

By Arsalan Iftikhar, Special to CNN

(CNN)–Imagine that you woke up on a beautiful Sunday morning to hear the news of a brown, bearded, gun-wielding madman who stormed into a Wisconsin church full of blond-haired parishioners and killed six innocent people.

If that scenario did occur, would most Americans have any problem calling that an act of "terrorism"?

Of course not.

Now imagine that the shooter was a white man and the innocent victims were bearded brown men and head-covered women. Suddenly, the discussion of "terrorism" gets a lot more complicated.

Of course, this is exactly what happened in a Milwaukee suburb on Sunday, when six people and the alleged gunman were killed at a Sikh temple.

One of the congregation's members told a local news station, "Nobody's angry here. We're just confused. Was this a random act? Was this directed at us because of the way we look?"

Sadly, it's probably going to be the latter.

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Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Police Chief John Edwards said at a news conference that the case is being treated as domestic terrorism, and the FBI is taking over.

But it's important for our greater American society to also condemn acts of terrorism when the perpetrator happens to be a white guy.

If not, we send millions of people of color around America the message that the term "terrorism" has been co-opted, that it shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters and not when they are the tragic victims.

Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americans to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that "terrorism" is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.

To give another recent example, imagine that a brown Arab Muslim male tried to assassinate a member of Congress by shooting her in the head, killing six innocent people and wounding 13 others outside a grocery store during this assassination attempt.

Would we have any trouble calling this scenario above an act of terrorism? Nope.

Since authorities say the gunman was a white dude named Jared Lee Loughner, he was just a kooky loner whose mental health must have been the triggering factor. But if his name were Ali Akbar Nahasapeemapetilon, nobody in America would care a bit about his mental health issues.

Since observant Sikh men keep a turban (known as dastaar or pagri) and unshorn hair, which often manifests itself into a long beard, many Americans after September 11 wrongfully conflated Sikh Americans with Muslim Americans because of this "turban-and-beard" look. To highlight the sheer tragic irony and stupid human ignorance of bias-motivated hate crimes within America, the first actual tragic victim of a post-9/11 "hate crime" murder in the United States was neither a Muslim nor an Arab.

Four days after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Indian Sikh-American businessman, was brutally shot several times and killed instantly by Frank Roque in a Mesa, Arizona, gas station. According to BBC World News, the county attorney stated that Sodhi was killed for no other apparent reason than that he was dark-skinned and wore a turban.

Just like America has been on high alert for brown-skinned terrorism since September 11, millions of Americans of Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian descent have equally been on high alert about reprisal attacks against brown-skinned Americans that happened immediately after September 11.

On the same day as the Sodhi murder, September 15, 2001, Adel Karas, a 48-year-old Egyptian Orthodox Coptic Christian and father of three, was viciously murdered outside his suburban Los Angeles import shop. In Texas, both the FBI and local police investigated the murder of Waqar Hasan, a Pakistani store owner who was found shot to death outside his grocery store in suburban Dallas.

One day after 9/11, in the early morning hours of September 12, at least six bullets shattered several windows of the Islamic Center of Irving in suburban Dallas. Similarly, on September 12, 2001, 29-year-old Eric Richley of Middleburg Heights, Ohio, decided to drive his white Ford Mustang into the front glass doors of the Grand Mosque at the Islamic Center of Greater Cleveland. Places of worship including Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras became instant targets for patriotic terrorists seeking to lash out at innocent Americans like the Sikh victims of the terrorist attack in Wisconsin.

Belonging to a five-century-old monotheistic tradition, professor Stephen Prothero writes,

Sikhism emerged out of a culture steeped in both Hinduism and Islam, and early Sikhs attempted to reconcile the two, in part by focusing on heartfelt devotion to God rather than rites and doctrines. "There is no Hindu and no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow?" asked (Sikh founder) Guru Nanak. "I shall follow the path of God." Like Muslims, Sikhs are strict monotheists who emphasize divine sovereignty. They reject the view that God incarnates in human form, believing instead in a formless God that can be known through singing and meditation.

According to professor Gurinder Singh Mann, the "Sikhs lay emphasis on a life of hard work, social commitment, and ethical living. A complex set of doctrinal, historical and sociological reasons made them a very political people and they have kept up that heritage in both the Punjab, the land of their origin, and wherever they have migrated to in the past century."

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Most Americans do not know that the first Sikh American member of Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, who represented California's 29th congressional district in 1957. Since Sikhs have served America as doctors, lawyers and teachers for more than a century, any attack on their house of worship should be considered an attack on all houses of worship.

So, if the mass murder at the Sikh temple is not referred to as an act of "terrorism" by virtually every member of our American media and sociopolitical elite, the only message that this will send to millions of people of color across America is that the term "terrorism" has been co-opted and shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters, not when they are the tragic victims.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arsalan Iftikhar.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Crime • Sikh

soundoff (849 Responses)
  1. wcmed

    A terrorist is someone who engages in violent activities to effect larger change (be it political, cultural, religious, etc...). Until we know the guilty party's motive (if we ever do) calling him a terrorist is premature.

    In any case, accusing (or even speaking as) someone of being a terrorist lends their actions a romantic cachet (in some circles) and a sense of gravitas that is wholly undeserved. Better we ignore the causes that these cowards espouse and treat them instead as what they are, cowardly, simple, and common murders.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Hum?

      So George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Barrack Obama, Harry Truman, every US Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine are?

      When you use it against me it is terror, but when I use it against you it is foreign policy?

      When one feels the need to define, it is expected you give it some thought.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Jose

      The motive is to get people of a certain race/religion to leave, obviously. Good enough to fit the latest arbitrary definition of terrorism?

      August 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  2. mike

    It IS terrorism. Stop asking if it's OK to call it that, and just CALL IT WHAT IT IS. Don't leave it open for discussion.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  3. liz

    Just what this country needs: more idiotic people who can't tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and Ricky Martin and therefore lumps all people of that "color" together.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  4. trex

    "Oh, say can you hear, all the gun shots out there....
    What we think is freedom
    to worship your own GOD.
    There are nuts all around
    who have guns and surround
    all the freedom loved kids
    and the nuts have more ammo.
    And the guns roar to life
    The kids die from fright
    Who cares if we die
    as long as NRA's right.
    Oh, say can we get them
    to kill each other not the good guys,
    For the citizens proclaim,
    We will all die from guns flames.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
    • Nick

      How about we only let the government have guns then. I mean it's not like governments have ever used their guns to oppress unarmed people. Hitler banned guns in 1936 just so he could prevent people from hurting themselves, right? Former slave owners banned Blacks from owning guns after our civil war just because they were worried the former slaves might have hurt themselves, right?

      August 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  5. Briana

    What a double standard this country has! This should make everyone reading this article sick to their stomachs. Brown-skinned people are treated like second class citizens here. They do not get the respect they deserve like every human being deserves but only whites get. The word terrorist has absolutely nothing to do with color!! When will people see this?

    August 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  6. Don

    The shooter should be in Gitmo. Send the Aurora shooter there too!

    August 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  7. Wazzup

    For the lat time. Is not "terrorism". Is "man made disaster".

    August 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  8. Mannie

    I do not have the words to thank this author for writing this. He wrote everything that is going through the minds of many sikhs at this time. I am also a sikh and this news is just saddening. I mean it is just sad to know that when a brown person does something they are called terrorists but when a white person does the same thing its covered up by saying that they have mental issues. America might look like a great free nation from outside but it still has many hypocrites and ignorant people who cannot even tell the difference between two different religions they just jump to their own conclusions.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  9. davey

    auntie janet will be thrilled that he was a veteran.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  10. chip

    READ THIS

    Dental Trader
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    A Cherokee Legend
    An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

    "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too."

    The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

    The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

    August 6, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Bob from Pittsburgh

      Fantastic....

      August 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Axes

      How true.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • chatnoir676

      awesome insight (:

      August 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  11. William Demuth

    So another right wing Jeebus freak goes mad.

    The story remains the same.

    Perhaps Christianity just attracts a naturaly bigoted breed of mental patients?

    Well, I guess the race baiting has spread, and now they kill any religion other than Christianity, rather than just Jews.

    When will we ever grow up as a society, and hold these madmen accountable?

    August 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      It's like we're living in an insane asylum where the residents get to vote on house rules along with the Doctors. Tea party evangelical republicans with little to no sense of reallity who not only don't know there is a difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, they don't even care to know. Other people with differing beliefs are unimportant to them, they are the only thing that matters and if you don't believe the way they do they you don't count as human.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Nick

      I am a Tea Partier who has adopted black children (who I love). The Tea Party is not about being far right wing, it's about getting this country back to FISCAL health, in fact we started the movement while BUSH was in office after the bank bailouts.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  12. hc

    Nice article but disagree with the use of "brown bearded man" – instead non-white male fits the profile better.

    August 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  13. Bob from Pittsburgh

    The NRA stand is laughable; the USA is the only industrialized country where an insane person can buy a gun, and it happens again and again and again, and Americans repeat the same song, is like they are aware they have a problem but refuse to fix it..

    August 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • William Demuth

      They never will.

      Who is next? Obama?

      Perhaps we can't ban guns, but we sure as hell can tax them.

      1,000 registration fee for every gun. Failure to register means 3 years in the pen.

      This would raise 200 BILLION dollars, to provide for the needs of the victims.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Nick

      Tax your right to free speech too, or how about a tax to worship at the church of your choice. How much money could we make from the church goers? It's not like we'd be denying your right to worship, just taxing it! I don't like this guy's views but I'm not going to penalize him for having them, we have the Bill of Rights (ALL of them) for very good reasons.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Nick

      I like the Church tax idea quite a bit actually.

      In fact, just tax them like any other buisness, and we have no issues.

      Perhaps holding them accountable for selling a defective product is another approach.

      Perhaps a picture of one of this guys victims stuck on every Bible produced, reminding people that the book can cause madness and murder!

      August 6, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  14. Johny Utah

    Do you think the killer has a beef with any of the Patel Families who own motels/hotels and who are also members of Sikhs?...oppps sorry, they dont eat meat, right?...

    August 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Johnny Utah's mother's lover

      I am counting the number of days before this SO my B go crazy like this lunatic in Milwaukee....I am sure he thinks he is superior too even though he can hardly spell a thing.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • ASA

      Shows how ignorant you are... Hindus do not usually eat meat.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Patel

      Patels are Hindus not Sikhs. Geographically, you will find Sikhs in Punjab state in India while Patels are in Gujrat.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  15. Joey Merlino

    If I were a Sikh, I would carry at least one firearm, at all times. Sadly, this country is NOT as tolerant as it is preached to new immigrants. Bigoted idiots vastly outnumber intelligent people.

    Just read some of the comments on CNN and other sites to see for yourself.

    August 6, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Johny Utah

      What do you think in their turban?...perhaps a concealed weapon?...

      August 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Jose

      This site is actually not that bad. Try Yahoo - full of likely psychopaths.

      August 6, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  16. Donald in CA

    Sarah palin puts Gabby Gifford in the cross hairs and she is gunned down. Michele bachman goes own a hate filled rampage toward muslims and this guy thinks he's shooting up a mosque. Some times you have to wonder who the real terriorist are.

    August 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Bob from Pittsburgh

      Sarah is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Michele Bachman is very smart and intelligent, recently she made unfounded accusations against Hillary assistant, the real purpose was to collect money from her followers, never mind she was lying.. What do you call that? I called that extremism..

      August 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  17. Crystal

    The purpose of a terrorist is to create and instill terror...I believe that this man, Jared Loughner, and James Holmes are just as much terrorists as any of the 13. When will we finally put down the guns and listen to each other?

    August 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  18. Carl

    "But if his name were Ali Akbar Nahasapeemapetilon, nobody in America would care a bit about his mental health issues." And isn't that kind of blunt and foolish? Iftikhar is engaging in a childish fallacy. People are dopes in other cases, so why can't he be a dope in this case?

    By Iftikhar's intellectual level, "terrorism" is becoming a word which refers to anything bad and therefore has no real meaning.

    It isn't true that nobody cares about the difference when muslims do it. There was a lot of argument over exactly what happened when Hasan killed people at Ft. Hood, because even though he was a muslim with a lot of religious rhetoric, his behavior and character also matched the classic "lone nut" who just cracked and murdered people out of anger. At the other end of Iftikhar being wrong, the white guy named Timothy McVeigh was readily labeled a terrorist because he appeared to have killed people as a way of shocking people into accepting his political motives.

    People with more intelligence and concern than Iftikhar know that murderers who lose control of their minds are not the same kind of problem as terrorists who are clinically sane but are willing to commit atrocities for political ends, and they know that blurring them together will not help to prevent these things.

    If Iftikhar insists on lowering himself to what he perceives as the level of the average Joe on the street, he is free to blunt his brain in that way. But it makes his commentary worthless, and no more worthy of reading than a random person.

    August 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  19. cal usa

    Since we can't talk about guns, can we at least agree that every one of these mass murders is infact an act of terrorism and then try to see what if anything can be done about them? Or is the NRA into protecting the rights of terrorists?

    August 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  20. Joey Merlino

    The idiotic, bigoted comments here make a superb case for concealed carry of weapons, especially in places of mass gathering.

    It takes self-defense to put these animals down and stay alive, as was demonstrated in this case.

    August 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • William Demuth

      But Joey, the space cadet that killed the little old ladies had the same rational.

      If you want to live in todays challenging enviorment, you must have BIGGER guns and more AMMO

      A belt fed 50 cal mounted on a Hum Vee is the new minimum standard.

      Some An-Fo barrels and a genome specific virus targeting the "inferior" races is also highly in demand!.

      It's a hamsters on a habitrail situation, where no matter how hard you run, you stay in the same place.

      When will we ever learn? This guy advertised his madness, yet we gave him a gun.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • steve in texas

      A cop took down this guy. In your insane world, more guns makes us safer. Didn't work out in that cinema a couple of weeks ago did it.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.