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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. Michael

    A murder by any name is still murder. Label it what you want, but the innocent lives lost Sunday in Wisconsin won't be brought back no matter what you call it. Certainly we can agree that this was a hate crime.

    August 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  2. gatecrasher1

    Call the Islamic massacre at Fort Hood terrorism, and you might have a deal.

    August 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  3. amanda

    The only reason it matters in terminology is so the Government can attempt additional gun rights violations and try to clamp down on the freedom of Americans under the disguise of "safety" for all.

    They are already trying to expand the TSA to stop people on trains, buses and eventually road checkpoints just like East Germany used to do.

    August 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  4. Kris

    There will always be stupid, uneducated people who choose violence over trying to understand why a group of people is different from them. Arresting or killing these people after they've committed their heinous crimes doesn't seem to be that effective...

    August 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  5. RM

    Funny how the media and this administration calls this act terrorism, but calls the Fort Hood shootings of our military hero's work place violence... Amazing!

    August 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  6. Alex

    HEAD COVERED WOMEN ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ??
    What is he talking about ? The heads of the women look perfectly uncovered to me,

    August 6, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  7. Nick

    Another way to look at it: is there any act of mass homicide that is NOT terrorism? The very definition of terrorism is to terrorize – so who isn't terrified of a mass homicide? The term "domestic terrorism" has been coined by a government that wants to both a) incite a crisis and b) promote an "us against them" mentality because they can use that to continually increase their control over the individual.

    August 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Sarcastro

      The very definition of Terrorism implies a political agenda.

      That's why robbing someone and killing them isn't a terrorist activity. Taking hostages and killing them to sway a government's actions is.

      A psycho shooting up a movie theater because he is insane is a terrifying activity, but not a terrorist act in the common definition of the word. A person shooting up a target in revenge for an act of war (even if they were completely wrong in which group was responsible for 9-11) fits the definition of terrorism.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  8. Sarcastro

    What a misleading story.

    The author is making it sound like there was some sort of controversy over whether to call it terrorism- making up a racism issue where none exists. In reality it was labeled as an act of terrorism on every major news agency from the start.

    I realize you have a deep need to paint everything with a giant racist brush. But making up facts just to sound some sort of liberal rallying cry just disgraces you and your employer.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  9. Ranjit Singh

    I am Christian and a white male, believe in white supremacy.
    Like to kill everyone who is not a Christian, but then there are whites who are not Christian, I will end up killing so many whites.
    I will only kill those who are not white, but then there are so many Christian who are not white. I will end up killing so many Christian.
    Oh, maybe I should kill only those wore turban and have long bearded. But then there are so many Christian and whites who wear turban or have long bear. Jesus wore turban and kept long hair non white and was long bearded too.
    I am confused.
    Maybe I should kill myself?
    I am an American and I came to America 100’s of years ago. I don’t own this land. No one has given me right or transferred a deed on my name of America.
    America belongs to everyone regardless race, color, religion, or nationality, and if I will have problem with that maybe I should look for another planet to migrate.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Jason

      I must say you are an idiot. America does not belong to the world. It belongs to American citizens and that is it. Just like I don't think India belongs to anyone other than Indians (red dot, not American Indians).

      August 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Nick

    Let us please differentiate between those who kill out of menatl illness from those who plan to kill out of hate, and understand that just because skin color is different that doesn't automtically mean that one hated the other. Would this have been called "terrorism" if it was white-on-white or black-on-black? And already we have liberals calling for gun control when stats show gun control laws 1994-2004 were completely ineffective in keeping guns from criminals. The 2nd amendment guaranteeing an armed citizenry is all that protects you from tyranny by making the government AFRAID of you.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Ken

      The government is not afraid of you. If you think so, you are an idiot.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      If you think the government is afraid of you, you're delusional.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Severinus

      The governement is supposed to be afraid of us? Can I go out and get my own M1 tank? My own F-15 fighter jet? How about my own nuclear sub? Nonsense! The second amendment has been grossly misinterpreted by conservative zealots, including some on the supreme court. The second amendment creates the national guard, and nothing more. The founders never intended there to be an individual right to bear arms. Wing nuts like Scalia, etc. disregarded nearly 200 years of precedent to impose their own politically driven view.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  11. Delbre

    just for Justi: Flight 182 bombing was planned and blamed on the Sikhs, by the indian government., go read "Soft Target" and the history of the invasion of the golden temple by the indian government, in 1984

    indra gandhi killed over 10,000 innocent sikhs (men, wiomen and children), attacked all the sikh temples in Panjab, destroyed the holiest of the Sikh temples. Those who rule by the sword die by the sword.

    Humble request: please read up on the facts before you misalign anyone or any religion.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  12. A+

    I have noticed that the term terrorism is only used in the media when it's brown versus white violence. I'm glad to see the media starting to call it for what it is. No one called the white guy who flew an airplane into the IRS building in Texas several years ago a terrorist although that's exactly what he was. This is an act of terrorism as much as the Fort Hood shooting was. Both were acts designed to cause terror.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Sarcastro

      Way to ignore facts. It was labeled domestic terrorism from the start. I realize you want to fight some great battle against racism, but blatantly lying to claim racism where none exists just hurts your cause and makes you look like a complete tool.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • TruthBeTold

      A bureaucratic labeling defining which law enforcement jurisdiction it falls in is a far cry from screaming "terrorist" at the top of your lungs...

      Which is usually the case if it involves someone non-white doing the act.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  13. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    @whatsthedif

    I know it wasn't the Shik harboring OBL. I was referring to GWB.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  14. scoto

    I dont know what he is talking about. Ever since Timothy Mcveigh and the Oklahoma bombing the term "domestic terrrorism" has been widely used in this country regardless of the color of the skin of the perpetrator. White supremacist groups are routinely labellled as such. Check out any publication by the SPLC
    I think this is another case of the "muslimguy" looking for issues that dont exist.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      The Tea Party is an act of domestic terrorism!

      August 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • TruthBeTold

      Has Wade Michael Page (or James Holmes) been once called a terrorist in the headlines? Have the headlines stated that he committed and act of terrorism?

      Have they spoken outright about being diligent on identifying and rooting out domestic-terrorists?

      There is your difference.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Terrorism is simply using violence for political purposes. There is no skin color, ethnic, or national reference.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  15. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    @Duane

    Your mama is an idiot for having you! Confederate moron.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  16. Katie

    Since when is terrorism a left/right or political issue? When someone walks into a place where people are going about their daily lives, whips out a gun and starts shooting, it IS terrorism. When that someone is a citizen of the country in which he commits this terrible act, is it DOMESTIC TERRORISM. We should all rally together and stand united against such heinous, pointless acts.

    (And no to encouraging people to carry concealed weapons, not only would this not prevent such things, arming more people would only serve to cause more pointless deaths...)

    August 6, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Political purpose makes it Terrorism, officially. Generically, any act of violence is terrorism (small t).

      August 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • No, it's not.

      Every violent act is not terrorism. The term terrorism carries with it an implied motive and intent; usually political and systematic in nature. Arizona and Colorado, from what's known so far, weren't terroristic acts - both instigators appear to have non-political motivations. Oklahoma and this incident? Sure call it terrorism if you will.

      I do have a problem with this article in that is sounds too much like "...they do it too...", and an attempt to make this into a racial issue. The sanctimonious tone really grates.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • Scary

      Since you have a computer, look up the definition of terrorism. Simply walking into a place and shooting everyone in sight is not by definition terrorism. Unless it was done to bring attention to a greater cause such as a political movement then it is simply mass murder.

      August 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  17. Shakira

    Sadly no matter of killing innocents will make American's let go of their guns. Most mass killers got their guns legally before they nutted up and shot people. America has a facination with guns that will never go away no matter how many are killed in the name of the 2nd amendment.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Mohammed_Islam

      Do you know that all the child are being born in Iraq are with physical difficulties and they are suspecting that something had been exposed to the air like hiroshima... killing or hating others initiates this hatrate acts... i wish i could see a world having no trouble and living with peace either hindu or muslim or christian or jews or any other faiths as this is the 'free will' given by The Creator and let The Creator handle it and lets live with peace...

      August 6, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  18. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    @IIatop

    What's your point? By the way, who harbored OBL before our President bolstered our national security by sending in Seal Team Six?

    August 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • whatsthedif

      ...Blah, blah, I can tell you that it was not Sikhs who were harboring OBL.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Sanitation

      who kept OBL? that would be the Pakistanis, sir, who have nothing to do with Sikhs. That's who. It sounds as if you are, well, I'll have to say it. Thinking that sounds a lot like the shooter. Own a gun?

      August 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • squashleo05

      dear blah blah who was OBL to the US before the US decided to not pay the enforcers for a job well done,this includes hikmatyar,now the next target,even though he was standing in the white house with reagan at one time,and being called,alongwith others who then became the taliban,at that time were called the mujahiddin,a group with the wisdom of america's founding fathers,by reagan.you would think that it would be easy for those who trained them,nurtured them,married into them,to turn on them??you know the whole story,blah blah.if only the US would get it's foreign policy together,not be so short term in it,everyone would benefit.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • squashleo05

      @sanitation,
      pakistan has everything to do with sikhs,pakistan is home to panj sahab,one of their holiest shrines,protected and preserved by the pakistani govt.pakistan hosts tens of thousands of sikhs annually as they perform their annual pilgrimage there.now compare that too what happened to their only other holy site,the golden temple,which is in india,blown to bits by the indian govt!as the indian govt did to the babri mosque later.india's hindi/urdu official name is hindustan,which means land of hindus,you could check that on your own!

      August 6, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  19. joeu0715

    Way to go CNN with making this a right v. left issue. Truly, you care more about dividing this country than sticking with the facts. The FACT is...this guy was a racist Nazi. He gave up any "rights" to be right or left when he started to spew his demonic hate.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So many right wing militant Christians want to distance themselves from Nazisim.

      Sorry, but they go hand in hand.

      Read the books, hear the music and admit the truth.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Open Minded

      joeu0715, where in this article does it talk about a "right v. left issue"? I looked but could not find anything. Please elaborate.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      William: Their reaction doesn't surprise me in the least. That ginormous bubble they reside in can't be permeated.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  20. Sikh

    is Pakistan , an islamic country, the entire sikh community has been almost entirely wiped out because

    they are not muslims.......how strange that they are terrorised in the US because people think

    they are muslims.......they are not...!!!

    August 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • squashleo05

      pakistan,my sikh brother is the home of one of your holiest shrine,panj sahab,which is protected by the pakistani govt,pakistan,my sikh brother,welcomes many many sikh's every year as they come for their annual pilgrimage,contrast this,my sikh brother,to what india did to one of your holiest shrines,golden temple,in 1984!!!shame on you,my sikh brother!

      August 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Shakira

      Sadly people like this nutter only see the turban and can't read signs. They see Turban, think Muslim and that is all. The need to educate people between the differances is important.

      August 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • haha

      another MORON

      August 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • haha

      so, you advocate to go to a mosque and shoot all muslims?

      August 6, 2012 at 3:52 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.