It has been five years since a white supremacist entered a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and went on a fatal shooting rampage that took the lives of six people and injured several more. I can still remember the moment on Aug. 5, 2012 when I learned the news and can still feel the shock and fear that this tragedy had on Sikhs and other religious minorities.
Five years later, what has changed? Not much. In fact, as a Sikh American, I’m as worried as I ever have been about the safety of minority communities and our current political climate has a lot to do with this.
Bigoted rhetoric matched by anti-immigrant policy making has empowered a new wave of white nationalism that is testing our basic values as a nation. The tone used at the top makes a difference in the lives of millions of minorities nationwide and we must realize that what our elected officials say impacts how we treat each other.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, our nation has experienced a sharp spike in hate incidents around the country following the election and an alarming growth in the number of hate groups.
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Our local, state and federal officials must do better than this, and they should start by using their convening power to organize community forums and task forces to prevent hate violence. In Fresno, we have seen the power of this approach when the Sikh Institute of Fresno recently hosted a Know Your Rights Workshop, organized by Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria.
The workshop was a start to community building, and it was inspiring to see such collaborative efforts by so many different community organizations of different faiths and backgrounds. Fresno’s diversity is one of our greatest assets, and I am hopeful that if we continue to plant these seeds, other cities across our nation will begin to take notice.
When our elected officials become the voice for the voiceless, it encourages other members of the community to learn about one another and gives room for conversations about common misconceptions that can be displaced. We should not fear being different, or make others feel any less for looking different.
As a member of our actively engaged local Sikh community in the Valley, I can attest to the importance of building a more inclusive society. Despite the relatively high concentration of Sikhs in this area of our country, many still don’t know that 99 percent of the people you see wearing turbans are members of the Sikh faith.
Worse yet, people still fail to understand that practicing Sikhs maintain these visible articles of faith (including uncut hair) as a commitment to equality, pluralism and justice for all.
As Sikhs, we stand together as your neighbors, colleagues and classmates and refuse to tolerate bigotry and hatred that leaves minorities in our country fending for themselves. We all have a role to play in preventing hate, but if we don’t each individually recognize that role by holding our public officials accountable, we will ask each other five years from now, what has changed?
Sikhs can’t afford for our answer to remain, “not much.”
Former Oak Creek Police Lieutenant Brian Murphy was the heroic first responder who suffered 15 gunshot wounds as he saved lives. In the years since, he has built an unbreakable bond with the Sikh community in Oak Creek.
His courage and resilience embody the best of who we are as Americans, but it’s something simple that he said really that really resonates: “I have learned that it is important to try to meet those you may think are different.”
Murphy was introduced to the Sikh community in the darkest of hours, but his remarkable response to hate should remind us all that we are strongest as a nation when we stand together.
Deepak Ahluwalia is an immigration attorney, practicing out of Fresno and San Antonio, Texas. He is an advocate for The Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil-rights organization.