The twenties has been an epiphanic decade for me and, generally, the epiphanies have been embarrassing. Just last year, I learnt that "awry" is pronounced aw-rye and not aw-ree. When in primary school, a Sikh friend convincingly told me that the "Kara" (a steel or iron bracelet that form part of the 5 "K's" of Sikhism) could only be removed if it had drawn the blood of a Muslim. Not thinking about the logistics of this, I went on believing it to be true until I witnessed the tears of laughter from a Sikh friend at university.
As details emerge of the shootings in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, initial reports, as well as the opinions of my Sikh friends, are converging to one point - that these shootings are a case of mistaken identity. The killer reportedly believed Sikhs to be Muslims on account of their turbans and beards. The ignorance of the killer aside, this sets a worrying precedent for the already fractured relationship between Sikhs and Muslims.
In 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered at the gas station he owned just four days after 9/11 by Frank Silva Roque for being a "turbanhead". Since then, there have been numerous instances, both at home and abroad, of Sikhs being mistakenly targeted as Muslims. In 2004, there were reports of a 16-year old Muslim boy being wounded by a ceremonial sword (the "Kirpan", another one of the 5 "K's" of Sikhism) at a Vaisakhi festival in Walsall. Two Sikh youths were subsequently attacked in an act of reprisal.
To appreciate the root of the differences between Sikhs and Muslims, we must turn to 17th century Mughal India. Sikhs opposed the forced conversion to Islam by Mughal emperors and, by the end of the century, had established their credentials as the "Warrior Caste" by being the first army in history to destroy the Mughal Empire and conquer Afghanistan. The Sikh Empire established by Ranjit Singh spread over Lahore, Kashmir, Peshawar and Multan in modern day Pakistan, and would rule for 50 years in the Punjab until its defeat by the British in 1849.
Indian and Pakstani independence in 1947 would further disrupt relationships between Sikhs and Muslims. The powerful Punjab region was split along religious lines (much like the rest of British India) and would see both Sikhs and Muslims displaced. Violence erupted along the borders of the newly formed Pakistan and India, leading to deaths on both sides. Today, many Muslims and Sikhs fondly remember their homes in Amritsar (India) and Lahore (Pakistan) respectively - now in opposing states - and despair at the loss of life.
It is this history that keeps Sikhs and Muslims largely independent of each other, even in the UK which has the largest Sikh population outside of India in the world. But there have also been instances of Sikhs and Muslims coming together; the dance group Signature is a Muslim-Sikh duo. Perhaps most notably, Sikhs and Muslims came together during last year's riots when they joined forces to protect Southall from rioters.
It is this kind of unity that is needed now to prevent a backlash from the attacks in Wisconsin and the difficult history of their relationship. It takes one flashpoint -- a misinformed argument or a revenge attack - to create a wave of mistrust and misunderstanding. Just like Sikhs are not Muslims, Muslims are not terrorists. If true, it is alarming that people are willing to go into a place of worship to attack Muslims who had nothing to do with 9/11, just as much as Sikhs didn't.
Both groups have experience of being a vilified minority, both at the hands of each other and by others. I am proud of my Punjabi heritage (my dad is a Pakistani from the Punjab), have been known to teach Punjabi to my Sikh friends and dance to Bhangra music (who wouldn't want to?). In this month of Ramadan, Muslims and Sikhs should unite in their condemnation at these attacks, which are not only against Sikhs but against humanity.
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