Recognizing religions and the tragic Sikh murders in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

Religion, it seems, divides us as much as anything.  And as the world gets smaller, the differences get broader. Photo: Muslim and Sikh in worship

VIENNA, VA  August 19, 2012 – Religion, it seems, divides us as much as anything.  And as the world gets smaller, the differences get broader.

Until the horrific events in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, few of us knew very much about the Sikhs as a people or as a religion. A gunman, whose name we won’t honor, killed six Sikhs, and critically injured two more, in an unprovoked killing spree. 

Those killed and injured, lest we forget their names, are 

Bhai Seeta Singh (Granthi)
Bhai Parkash Singh (Granthi)
Bhai Ranjit Singh (Raagee)
Satwant Singh Kaleka – President of the Gurdwara
Subegh Singh – Sangat member
Parmjit Kaur Toor – Sangat member
Bhai Punjab Singh – exteremly critical
Santokh Singh – He is in serious condition too.

Reports are that the gunmen, a white supremacist and neo-nazist, killed the Sikhs believing them to be Muslim, which had it been a Muslim Mosque instead of a Sikh Temple, would be no less horrific. 

But it does go to prove that in a country as diverse as America, it truly IS difficult for the casual observer to discern Muslims from Sikhs as well as other ethnicities.

But there are differences and it behooves us to become knowledgeable about them.

Muslims come basically from the Middle East, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.

Sikhs, a monotheistic religious group, which derive from a centuries old religion, come from parts of Asia basically, and India. There are about 20 million Sikhs in the world today. 

While Sikh and Muslim may both be seen wearing turbans and beards, the similarities end there. Perhaps the most recognizable Sikh today in the United States is Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, although she has converted to Christianity. 

Although many of us see Muslims as a terroristic enemy, based on the example of September 11, 2011, which is more properly laid at the collective feet of a group of radical Islamists, Sikhs were recruited by the British Army back in World War I and have been in at least two wars with the United States, fighting as our allies. 

Some 183,000 Sikhs from countries other than the U.S. did serve in World War I as well as a a large number of Muslims whom also fought with U.S. troops in these conflicts.

Sikh serving in military

Sikh serving in military

It took some arguing and negotiating in the early 1900s for the Sikh soldiers to be able to be fighting men and keep their long hair and turbans intact, which is an undeniable part of their religious observance. Sikh men may wear their long beards, but for the most part their hair is never cut, thus is wound around and neatly secured beneath the turban.  

The government finally agreed and they served in full military uniform, with the turban. 

This arrangement lasted until the Reagan Administration, when a ban was again instituted and Sikhs could not serve.  One of the pleas of the numerous Sikh recruits ran thus:

“Since the time of the Reagan administration, Sikhs have been presumptively banned from joining the U.S. Armed Forces.  Supporters of the status quo claim that accommodating Sikh articles of faith (including turbans and uncut hair) will disrupt military protocol and unit cohesion, but it is important to note that similarly discredited arguments were also used to justify the exclusion of women and racial minorities from the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Sikh Americans brought court challenges against Army regulations that were sufficiently restrictive to effectively prohibit those with turbans and beards from serving in the U. S. Armed Forces.

There were no specific reasons given, except for the vague idea of these religious items disrupting military protocol.

Apparently to “look different” would destroy some semblance of the normally anticipated “cohesion” expected of soldiers.

It goes on to say in conjunction with a petition to be signed:

There is simply no contradiction between pursuing a military career and observing the mandates of the Sikh faith. Sikh soldiers fought bravely in defense of the United States in World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Sikhs serve in the militaries of Great Britain, Canada, and India, among others, and as United Nations Peacekeepers—often working closely with American troops in troubled regions of the world.

Within the last year, the U.S. Army has accepted Sikh recruits, but these are rare and precarious exceptions to a categorical rule of exclusion that continues to send dismissive signals to Sikhs who wish to wear the uniform of their country. Now more than ever, it is important for the U.S. Armed Forces to embrace religious freedom—an ideal in defense of which Sikh Americans are eager to serve.”  [Emphasis added.]

In very recent times, a Jewish rabbi was permitted to serve without shaving his beard, and each situation brought up is now being considered on a case-by-case basis.

The reaction of the Sikhs as a whole in the Temple near the Oak Creek area of Wisconsin has been one not of hatred and retribution toward the shooter, but one of forgiveness. This is in keeping with the Sikh tradition since they believe that anger is not just a futile emotion, in reality it is a sin. 

While they mourn the Sikh lives lost, they pray for the healing of Officer Brian Murphy who was seriously injured by the gunman.  

Many articles on the shooting, identify the shooter as a veteran who fought in Desert Storm and Desert Shield.  

While his service may have been admirable, it had nothing to do with the violence he visited on a group of gentle folk worshipping in their own Temple.  He had apparently stayed under the radar of law enforcement though they had been aware of him for a decade, as an anti-Semite and white supremacist, who enjoyed band music praising those hatreds.

It would seem that his white supremacist leaning had more to do with the shooting than anything he encountered while in the service. 

The Department of Justice recently produced, making available to the public, an instructional video entitled “On Common Ground,” which explaines to the viewer the significance of the turban giving instructions to law enforcement entities such as the TSA the right and wrong way to handle the removal of a Sikh’s turban, in great detail, if it is deemed absolutely essential. 

The video may be viewed at the Justice Department’s website.

In the meantime, a little understanding and empathy might well be in order from all of us as we think about accepting our neighbors and according to them the same rights and life we ask for ourselves.  Shouldn’t be too hard, if we try.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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