Today, friends and family members will hold a collective funeral at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I’m sure most of you have heard by now of the shooting at this temple that killed six people. It is a crime that is shocking and horrifying, even more so because it seems clear now that it was motivated by ignorance, intolerance, and blind hatred.
There is some hope that something good might come out of this irredeemable tragedy. Suddenly this week, most Americans have started to think about and learn about their neighbors who identify as Sikhs, and have started to learn something about the Sikh religion and Sikh culture. So perhaps this can dissipate some of the benign ignorance we all live with.
Even more importantly, perhaps this can dissipate some of the malign mistrust and hatred of “different” people we might feel. Initial news reports about the shootings repeatedly pointed out that Sikhs are not Muslims, which disturbingly implies that shooting several innocent Muslim worshippers might be more understandable. But everyone I know reacted strongly and immediately against that idea. The point is not that they’re the wrong kind of different. And as people are learning more about what Sikhism is all about, and about the hardships that Sikhs have had to endure in recent years, I hope very much that we are all learning to think more carefully about the ways that both Sikhs and Muslims are unfairly mistreated, judged, and, occasionally, viciously attacked. As the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America said, “It is my hope that this is more than a time to express personal sorrows.”
I realize that this post doesn’t seem to have much to do with language, but I hope you’ll forgive me. And it’s not exactly unrelated – language is yet another way we notice and mark difference between communities. It is far too easy, sometimes, for difference to take on negative connotations; those-not-like-us are easy targets for frustrations and malice. But it is my firm belief that diversity – cultural, religious, and of course linguistic – is what gives color and contour to our experience of being human. As Wade Davis says, it makes the world polychromatic.
So, here is my small attempt at solidarity with my unknown brothers and sisters in the Sikh community. Maybe we can honor the memory of the victims by reading a little bit about Punjabi, the language in which the Sikh scriptures were written. Or by watching this video, sung in Punjabi, demonstrating some of the Sikh ritual practices.
And please take a moment to read this short but beautiful piece titled “As a Sikh-American I Refuse to Live in Fear and Negativity.” It’s in English, but I’ll blog more about languages some other day.