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. thats not terrorism, its racism

    its the ugly face of the kkk...the brownshirt losers who frequent stormfront and blame everyone else for their pathetic lives...

    August 6, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  2. Lizzy10

    When anyone commits a violent act against someone in our country, they commit it against us all. If we learned nothing from 9/11 it should be this.

    August 6, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  3. like someone above said, where was this article for the ft. hood shooter

    like someone above said, where was this article for the ft. hood shooter ....or was that a "man made disaster" a la obama speak....

    August 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  4. MNTaxpayer

    Terorism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion

    That's not what happened here. This was someone killing people he hated because of their race or religiion. If he had been threating these people, or harrasing them prior to the shooting, then yes. But it doe snot look like terrorism to me.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      I think its hard to say just yet. If in fact this were part of a white supremacist plot and designed to create fear, then it is terrorism. That is why the police want to investigate it under powers availble to them as a domestic terrorsim incident. (There's enough here to warrant that.)

      It is certainly hate crime, but I don't think we can say more than that with any certainty.

      I certainly wouldn't want to be one of Mr. Page's skinhead buddies right now, and I don't feel sorry for them.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  5. TakebackAmerica

    Americans are striking back at Fraud of "Multiculturalism and Diversity"

    August 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Stony Stevenson

      Yeah, thank heavens a patriot mowed down some templegoers before they did something dangerous.
      This new meme about how diversity is impossible is the final brushstroke of the Right painting itself into a corner.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  6. Islam4fools

    For hundreds of Islamic acts of terrorism, we have this one crazy white guy. And so to justify that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, Muslims (like this author) are jumping on to this issue.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Islam4ALL

      Really? Focus here mister hater. You keep count to justify your own means which are the same as this crazed, hate-filled murderer. Are you upset that he missed his mark- your mark?? IF these innocent, good and decent people were muslim, would you be OK???

      Death is death-black, whtie, muslim, jew, christian, sikh or anyone-- It is an absolute tragedy what happend, but hate filled people like you focus on yourself and your own agenda of hate to spread your vile hatred. I pray to Allah All Mighty that you and those like you are given the true light from God to understand rather than twist everything and anything to point fingers at those that you HATE.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  7. M. Danby

    Yeah, absolutely nobody is insisting this is not terrorism. We're all right along side you in your disgust for this senseless violence.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  8. Butwhatabout

    About 8 years ago a "brown" man did massacre some "blonde" people in the woods in Northern Wisconsin. That was not deemed terrorism. This author is a tool.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  9. Terror Vs Hate

    That is the question. Is there a difference between a hate crime and a terrorist act? There are differences but honestly who cares? Both are evil. Why is it so important to label something? Does it somehow make the victims feel better? Do the laws apply differently? Is society less fearful of hate crimes opposed to terrorist acts?
    Arsalan Iftikhar if an idiot for starting this discussion.... He also seems to forget that the Colorado shooter is white and IS labeled as a terrorist and mass murderer.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The question is fair – both are certainly evil.

      The important distinction is that designating this as domestic terrorism gives the police much broader investigative powers. In this case, I think it is warranted. They will try to determine whether this act was terrorist, and calculated to create fear, or a hate crime commited by a nut job.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  10. krehator

    Someone called me something bad. That's a terrorist act.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  11. David

    It the current administration who came up with absurd term "man made disaster" for things like this, that they then tried to apply to Fort Hood. Were you writing articles like this then, when instead of calling something what it was, President Obama was calling it something else entirely?

    Don't get me wrong, your point is well taken, but I think the idea that acts like this committed by white Americans are somehow not being considered "terrorist" is just not true. We can't even get the President to say that obvious acts of terror are acts of terror, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Don't make this a white vs everyone else thing, because its much much bigger than that.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • David

      Yeah, on further review, who is disagreeing this is terrorism, or a hate crime? As far as I can tell, this article is in response to a characterization of the crime that only exists in the authors mind.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  12. Samaritan


    August 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • M. Danby

      Name one that isn't.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      OK, let's restate.

      There are more racists in the US than in most western countries. ... And they have more guns.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • M. Danby

      While I wouldn't argue about the guns, you do need to substantiate your bold claim that the US is more racist than other western countries. And while we're at it why are we speaking only of so called "western countries?"

      Do we have problems with race in this country? Absolutely. Are they more pronounced in this country than others of similarly diverse composition? Maybe, but I doubt it. For that matter there really aren't any other countries on the planet that are even close to us in terms of ethnic diversity. With all of the disparate groups we have bumping into each other there is bound to be friction and problems. Thus I don't object to the idea that the U.S. has problems. What I do object to is the unfair characterization of our problems as somehow grander or worse than any other country on the planet. The fact is no other country is more scrutinized or has its dirty laundry more widely publicized than the U.S. If you want people to listen to your points I think you'll find better luck if you screaming specious hyperbolic half truths and instead learn to speak facts.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • M. Danby

      *stop screaming

      August 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @M. Danby,

      you make a fair point that I cannot substantiate the claim that there are more racists in the US than other western countries. It just feels true to me.

      I have travelled to countries like Britain and France and they are much more multicultural than what I see in the US. They are not without problems. Increasing Muslims in France (from northern Africa) and in Britain (from Pakistan) form a visible front in the culture wars there. Nevertheless, I experience much less visible racism there than I see here in the US.

      The Toulouse shootings illustrate that France is not immune to this kind of problem. Mohamed Merah killed three paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish children in three shootings over eight days in the southern cities of Toulouse and Montauban in March.

      But generally people in most western countries don't have the same access to guns.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  13. Singh

    As a turbaned Sikh I am very sad that in a Sikh Gurudwara a mad not liking us the way we looked killed innocent people. The founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak did not teach to take revenge. On the contrary, we open our temples to all, visit our temple and share food with us and see who we are. Sikhs in its history have gone through worst than this. An average American is not angry at us. Sikhs were one of the 1st one from Asia to arrive of their own free will more than 120 years back. America has offered us opportunity and we took calculated business risk, worked hard and prospered. You can call it terrorism or not but Sikhs have full faith in good sense of an average American to do the right thing.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  14. us_1776

    It was a hate crime.

    Not terrorism.

    The shooter was a skinhead Neo-Nazi racist.

    He called the people he targeted "towelheads".

    He was a bigot. He was a racist.

    If he wanted to be a terrorist he would have just gone out and started shooting random people.


    August 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • no.terrorist

      Terrorism = Act of spreading terror.
      This Wade Michael Page Skinhead is spreading terror by killing a lot of innocent people.
      So this skinhead = Terrorist
      Got that???

      August 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • us_1776

      He committed a hate crime.

      The fact that some people were terrorized by what he did was secondary.

      First and foremost his crime was about hate.


      August 6, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      us_1776 is correct here.

      This is clearly a hate crime. It is not clearly terrorism. To be terrorism the intent to create an atmosphere of fear caused by a violent act must be manifest.

      Given the white supremacist connections, granting the police broader rights to investigate this crime under domestic terrorism laws is worthwhile. They will determine whether this was terrorism or a nutcase killing people with unreasoned hatred because they looked 'different'.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • mr.butters

      But doesn't this spread terror in other Sikh communities of potential copy cats?

      August 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      Sadly yes, but was that the perpetrator's intent or was he just crazy and didn't do this for any purpose other than unreasoning hatred of people who look 'different'? This distinction has legal rammifications.

      August 6, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  15. t.sarcastic

    Welcome to the new world.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  16. sharky

    If he is a domestic terrorist then ok. I then have to ask why was the Ft. Hood killer, Nadal, termed a workplace violence and not terrorism.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • sharky

      Sorry Nidal Hassam was the name of the Ft. Hood terrorist, oh I mean workplace violence perpetrator.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  17. xfiler93

    But the Fort Hood shooting was not Terrorism? Hmm. only when WHITE guys do it. Okay got it.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • sharky

      Nah you forgot Political Correctness.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. Josh

    Has anyone been insisting that this event not be labeled 'terrorism'? I thought that the authorities had even called it a case of dometic terrorism?

    August 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      for the police to call it 'domestic terrorism' is relevant in that it gives them broader powers to investigate this crime. (Which is just fine by me in this particular case.)

      To be terrorism the perpetrator needed to be trying to create an atmosphere of fear by his violent act. The investigation may show this. Otherwise it is almost certainly a hate crime.

      Most of the people here seem unable to distinguish between hate crime and terrorism, or understand that there are important legal semantic differences. To call all violent crime "terrorism" increases the power of the investigation, again not a bad thing in this case, but it is dangerous to generalize here.

      August 6, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  19. thisisterrorismandimawhiteamericanman

    Ive come to the conclusion that cnn.com is not the place to go for any sort of rational conversation. The only conversation going on here is completely irrational.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  20. Reality




    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does BO and his family) (As did the late, beyond-stupid, red-neck Christian aka Wade Michael Page,

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    August 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
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