Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
A gunman killed six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin yesterday, stunning the Sikh community in the U.S. and around the world. Law enforcement there is looking into the possibility that this was a hate crime. We talk with a leader in the Washington Sikh community who is among those reaching out to both devotees and to non-Sikhs, planning a nationwide candlelight vigil and hoping to educate people about a faith that is often misunderstood.
- Rajwant Singh Chairman, Sikh Council on Religion and Education
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the uneven course of economic reform in Cuba, but first a military veteran identified as Wade Michael Page opened fire at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. yesterday, killing six before he himself was shot by police officers. Law enforcement is looking into the possibility that this was a hate crime.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe mass shooting stunned the Sikh community here and abroad. Local Sikh leaders are reaching out to the community to help devotees come to terms with this tragedy. They're also hoping to educate people about a faith that is often misunderstood. Joining us in studio to have this conversation is Dr. Rajwant Singh. He is the chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education. It's based in Washington. Dr. Singh, thank you so much for joining us.
DR. RAJWANT SINGHThank you so much for inviting me to share my thoughts and creating a bond with the larger American community.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Rajwant Singh, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. How much do you know about the faith and tradition of Sikhs? What did your organization do when you first heard the news about the shooting in Oak Creek, Wis.?
SINGHWell, we immediately tried to contact the Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wis. Luckily, we were able to talk to a couple of board members who were on their way to the Sikh gurdwara. We call it a gurdwara instead of temple. And they expressed that luckily they got delayed because of some reasons, and so -- and then we immediately also called The White House and for presidential interference or assistance. And we also reached out to media, and we offered a prayer that -- it was a conclusion of our prayer, so we prayed for the families as well as for the police officers.
NNAMDIYou -- it was who as you pointed out reached out to The White House and helped The White House to contact the leadership of the temple in Wisconsin. What has been the response of President Obama?
SINGHPresident Obama reached out, called the -- one of the board members and also the local mayor and the governor of Wisconsin, and he also issued a statement reassuring the community that he is with them. And we are -- and, in addition, we are asking if there is a way President can visit the Sikh gurdwara here in Washington or in Wisconsin.
NNAMDIWell, the last part of the President's White House -- the President's statement says, "As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs who are a part of our broader American family." How big is the Sikh community here in our region, and how are you reaching out to local temples?
SINGHWell, we are about 25,000 members of the Sikh community in Washington area, and there are close to 700,000 Sikhs throughout the United States. And we are asking each Sikh gurdwara to organize a candlelight vigil tomorrow from 7:00 to 8:30, and also there will be a candlelight vigil being organized by youngsters throughout the Washington area in front of the White House. And there will be a daily prayer at the Sikh gurdwara in Rockville, Md., so there's a lot of efforts are being -- to bring people together, especially it's a very challenging time for our children and youngsters in the community.
NNAMDIAre non-Sikhs welcome to attend these -- any of these vigils or events?
SINGHAbsolutely. Our faith, you know, is built -- the very core of our faith is inter-faith and bringing people together, so we are absolutely -- would be delighted if anybody can join and express their love and support to the community and youngsters.
NNAMDIAre you a member of the Sikh community? Call us, 800-433-8850. What has been the reaction to the shooting in your community? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here on the phone is Prof. Harjant Gill. Harjant Gill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PROF. HARJANT GILLYes, Hi, Kojo. How are you?
GILLThank you for having me here.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. Go ahead, please.
GILLSo, yes, you know, I'm truly sad about what has happened, and I think this is sort of a continuation of racial -- kind of racial profiling, especially after 9/11, that Sikhs have experienced because of the turban involved because it's a visible symbol, a part of the Sikh identity. So I actually look at the changing ideas about hair and turbans amongst the Sikh community.
NNAMDIYes, indeed, I was telling Dr. Singh earlier that I had participated in a conference of Sikhs a few years ago in which that was one of the issues being discussed, and I'm glad you brought that up because, Rajwant Singh, you feel that media coverage, while good, has perhaps not focused enough on educating people about the Sikh faith. People sometimes confuse Sikhs with Muslims. Can you and Prof. Harjant Gill talk a little bit about that? First you, Rajwant Singh.
SINGHYes. You know, Sikhism is the fifth largest religion. And we have been part of United States since late 1800s. And this year we are celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the first Sikh gurdwara built in Stockton, Calif. And Sikhs have contributed immensely for the strength -- to the strength of this nation and has really made this country richer and stronger. So there is -- but, unfortunately, it's sad that America finds out about Sikhs in these times.
SINGHAnd the faith itself is very similar to the ideals of America as a nation. It's the freedom of thought, freedom of religion and standing up for justice, a belief in one God and working by honest means and sharing your blessings with the under-privileged and unfortunate ones. These are the core three principles of Sikhism. So -- but, unfortunately, because of our identity since 9/11, the world has turned upside down.
SINGHPeople have identified Sikhs being either fanatics or being part of the Taliban or belonging to a deadly network of Bin Laden. So -- and whereas the Sikh turban stands for freedom, stands for sovereignty, the royalty and steadfastness and human rights and justice, these are the principles that turban stands for. And it's being seen totally opposite way.
NNAMDIWhat is the significance of the beard?
SINGHThat we keep unshorn hair as a dedication to God, as a devotion to God. That's how our founder, Guru Nanak, expressed that -- how'd you express your love towards your creator. So keeping hair is a symbol of spirituality. And we tie a knot with our unshorn hair on the -- on our head, and we tuck it inside the turban. And so turban is basically a symbol of a royal person.
NNAMDIProf. Harjant Gill, is this the issue you were saying that you discussed at Towson in Sikh studies?
GILLYes. So one of the things that I look at as an anthropologist and a filmmaker is the way in which turban is perceived in India and as well as in the American community -- American culture, and I think after 9/11, there is this very problematic discourse that the turban has attained, you know, falsely being associated with being terrorists. But, in fact, you know, turban is very important part of Sikh identity but also Sikh culture.
GILLYou know, men go through the rite of passage where they, you know, they put on the turban at a young age, and it is -- hair and turban represents a link to the community, something that the entire community cares for and the entire family is invested in. So there's a lot of -- it has -- it's a symbol of love and responsibility, and it is really unfortunate that in the post-9/11 discourse, it has been associated with, you know, these sort of negative ideas and has led to racial profiling. And I think this incident in Wisconsin is an extension of that perhaps.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Harjant Gill is a professor at Towson in Sikh studies. Joining us in studio is Dr. Rajwant Singh. He is the chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, which is based in Washington, D.C. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How much do you know about the faith and tradition of Sikhs? 800-433-8850. Have there been incidents of hate crimes against Sikhs in our region?
SINGHThere have been many incidents after 9/11 in the image at time there was a Sikh priest in Rockville who was chased by strangers. And then there have been an incident -- a gun was shown to a Sikh boy. And there have been, like, pushings and shoving and also graffiti outside the Sikh temple here in Washington, D.C., as well as in Fairfax, Va. We haven't seen a very violent acts, but incidents here and there, yes.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Keith in Alexandria, Va. Keith you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KEITHHey, good morning, Kojo. I sound happy now, but I'm actually very heartbroken over the shooting. And I just wanted to share my condolences. I am an American brought up as a Catholic, but I've been blessed with the opportunity to travel around the world and live in various situations and be exposed to cultures. I've had a Sikh friend years back. And he was so witty, and, I mean, his just -- his line of thought...
NNAMDIWell, the religion doesn't ban a sense of humor. That's for sure.
SINGHNo, in fact, the Guru Nanak said, (unintelligible). While playing, while dressing well, while you're having fun, you can still be a spiritual and connect to God.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Keith.
KEITHI think a happy spirit is the gift from God, you know. It's being open to that. And I just wanted to say I'm so sorry, and, you know, your community is in my prayers. And it isn't just that it's your community. It's my community as well. You're a citizen here, and even if you were overseas, I'd still consider you a brother, you know. So I just want you to know that a lot of us are just very aghast, very heartbroken, and we just pray that your community will heal. And, you know, you're always welcome in our hearts and our homes. And thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Keith. Reports by local law enforcement continue to say that they're treating this crime as a possible domestic terrorism crime. A lot of people in the Sikh community are not happy with that initial designation. Can you talk about that, please?
SINGHYes. When you use the word terrorism, it's -- the connotation is totally different. When -- it's either the two groups are don't like each other or somebody has resentment or somebody has been mistreated by somebody. So you go after your aggressor or your offender. Or there's a conflict. But in this situation, there's no conflict between the Sikhs and the person who came to kill them.
SINGHIt's obviously that he was shooting the people who were wearing turbans. So in his mind, I am -- we are quite convinced that, in his mind, he was going after either Arabs or Talibans or Muslims. And he couldn't see the difference.
NNAMDIIn that view, that makes it a hate crime.
SINGHAbsolutely. And when you do a hate crime -- when you call it a hate crime, then there is a larger responsibility of the school systems, of the political leaders, the media. Everybody has some role to play that how do we educate fellow Americans -- all Americans about everybody, all the diversity and the richness that we have in our nation. So terming it a domestic terrorism, it just completely takes it in a totally different direction.
NNAMDIHere is Daljet (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Daljet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DALJETHi, how are you? Thank you for taking my call.
DALJETFirst of all, Kojo, I want to say thank you for having this represented on this -- your show this afternoon. This really shows the commitment that NPR has to this. And, Dr. Singh, thank you as well for your participation in today's call. My question is, post-9/11, there's been 700 hate crimes against the Sikh community. And I'm at this point now where I'm outraged that the major media channels are not carrying information about who the Sikhs are. Post-9/11, I stayed home with my dad for three days and didn't let him leave the house.
DALJETNow, my question is two part. One, what does it mean to be an American, and how do we educate the larger public about what that means? Two, the point is that I think a greater grassroots effort needs to be made with getting education out there because, quite frankly, the people who do these crimes don't listen to NPR or watch PBS. They're in the nooks and crannies of America, and this education needs to start from the ground up.
NNAMDIHere is Dr. Singh.
SINGHI totally agree that this is an important thing that I'm also equally appalled that very soon the whole attention is, you know, whether Sen. Reed has called Senator -- I mean, Gov. Romney a liar and who's a liar. So that issue has -- is dominating since morning. I mean, instead of talking about the -- and it's not a Sikh tragedy, so now it's an American tragedy.
SINGHAnd the people have lost lives while practicing their own faith, and that speaks volumes about how this society is and which direction this society is going. And, secondly, we cannot let any minority or anybody be ignored in whatever their events are taking place or whatever their issues are.
NNAMDIDaljet, thank you very much for your call. We got this email from Sarah in Foggy Bottom. "The mistaken impression that Sikhs are Muslims is a bad thing, but there is an equally unfortunate implication, that it's okay to shoot Muslims."
SINGHAnd absolutely not. We have made it very clear again and again that we feel perturbed by the hysteria and hype created in the media and some of the commentary that people are targeting Muslims. And we've seen recently, as Sen. Clinton's assistant was targeted as somehow being planted as an Islamic, you know, cell in the American political system. So it is very unfortunate, and it needs to stop. But at the same time where we come in in the picture, because most -- all of this is leading to anti-Muslim prejudice. And 99 percent of the people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikhs.
SINGHAnd so anybody who is looking for a Muslim to express their anger or rage, they will not be able to identify Muslims, which is not good. I mean, we are not approving of that kind of act, but, unfortunately, when he sees a person wearing a turban and a beard, he easily identifies us as either Arabs or Taliban or Muslim or whoever. So that's where the problem is. It's not okay -- I'm making it very clearly it's condemnable that anybody would target either Muslims or anybody wearing a turban looking for as a target.
NNAMDIHere is James in Woodbridge, Va. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, James, are you there? James, I can't hear you very well.
JAMESThanks. Yes. Dr. Singh?
JAMESOkay. Maybe I've got a bad connection, but can we -- rather than focusing on the turban being a signal of Sikhism, can we focus on the medal band that you -- that Sikhs wear on the right hand, which most Americans would call a bracelet? I don't know the correct term, but my friend who is a Sikh and spent 20 years in the Air Force, he never wore a turban, because of military requirements, or the beard, but he always wore his bracelet.
SINGHYes. We -- well, the initiated Sikhs, the observant Sikhs carry five symbols. One is the unshorn hair, which is your connection to God. And second one is a bracelet which is a -- is like that -- my deeper connection to God and that any work that I'm going to do through my hands, it will stop me from doing stealing or any bad act. So it's a connection to God through a bracelet. And then we wear a special kind of shorts, which again reminds us of high moral character.
SINGHAnd then we also have a comb in our hair which symbolizes that we must stay engaged in society and cleanliness and keeping a very straightforward life. And last is a small kirpan, which is a dagger -- a symbolic dagger which reminds us of our duty to stand up for justice and underprivileged in the society. So it's a system which gives us a full sort of understanding of where -- what is our role in society and our deeper sort of destiny that we all need to go towards, which is our creator, God.
NNAMDIJames, thank you very much for your call. Dr. Rajwant Singh is the Chairman of the Sikh Council on religion and education. Dr. Singh, thank you very much for sharing that with us.
SINGHThank you so much, Kojo. I just want to thank you. This is a very important role the media has to play to bring the consciousness of all Americans to really appreciate the diversity that we all have. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIAnd one that I hope we can continue to play. Thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the uneven course of economic reform in Cuba. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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