The U.S. media discover Sikhism

Rupinder Kaur Rehal, member of the Blue Mountain Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Bethel, holds an American flag as she lights candles during a memorial service for the victims of the August 5th shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in Bethel, Pa., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/The Republican-Herald, David McKeown)
Rupinder Kaur Rehal, member of the Blue Mountain Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in Bethel, holds an American flag as she lights candles during a memorial service for the victims of the August 5th shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in Bethel, Pa., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. (AP Photo/The Republican-Herald, David McKeown) (AP)
Posted: August 13, 2012

By Rozina Ali

Last week, Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and massacred six worshipers. Page, a white Christian with links to an extremist group, committed an act of violence against a religious community in the United States. This, by the FBI's definition, was an act of terrorism.

But that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. NBC News reported that "it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism." A Fox News analyst claimed the shooting was not terrorism because Page was a "nut job" who mistook Sikhs for Muslims.

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of "anti-Semitism." A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are "based in northern Italy." And the host of CNNNewsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the "murky detail" of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer "could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs." Oy.

Why the insensitive coverage? Part of the problem is American ignorance about Sikhs, who make up just 0.16 percent of the U.S. population. But the bigger problem is that too many American journalists (and Americans) equate terrorism with Muslims. So when an act of terrorism occurs that appears to have nothing to do with Islam, some media outlets struggle.

After realizing that Sikhism is a separate religion (based in northern India, not Italy), both Fox and CNN explained that Sikhs are "unfairly" mistaken for Muslims. In other words, Sikhs are an unfortunate casualty in the war on terrorism - "unfairly" mistaken for a group expected to be involved in the violence.

As Sunday unfolded, CNN decided it needed to clear Sikhs of any links to violent religious ideology. In a conversation with Surinder Singh of the Guru Nanak Mission Society of Atlanta, CNN's Rob Marciano and Lemon seemed more concerned about the tenets of Sikhism than the implications of a crime against, as the interviewee rightly put it, mankind:

Singh: But whoever did this one is - I would say - a crime against humanity. It is not about Sikhs. It is not about Muslims. It's not about Hindus. It's about the human mankind.

Lemon: Very well said.

Marciano: An excellent point, Mr. Singh. And back to the religion specifics, now that we have you, and our viewers may be wondering or are uneducated in the theology on this, describe for us in brief: What are the pillars of your faith?

To its credit, when CNN broke the story, it cautiously used a Sikh website to describe Sikhism as a religion that "developed about 500 years ago, and their main belief is to seek the truth." But the narrative of "mistaken identity" soon took hold. Several media outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, and the Associated Press, asserted that Americans confuse Sikhs with Muslims because of their beards and turbans.

Instead of simply stating that an act of hatred was committed against a religious group, the media put Sikhs on the defensive. They required Sikhs not only to explain the pillars of their faith, but to speculate on why this would happen to them. Sikhs had to continue to state that they are not Muslim or members of the Taliban. The media pushed Sikhs into a binary of "terrorist/good citizen" and used their sound bites to reinforce this narrative.

The coverage ultimately raised more questions than it answered: After a tragedy in which American lives were lost, why did we spend so much time trying to understand what Sikhs are? And if the shooter did want to kill Sikhs and hadn't mistaken them for Muslims, would Sikhs be responsible for explaining his motivations? Are we trying to decide whether or not they are "worthy" victims?

Many in the media missed an incredible opportunity to reframe our views of domestic terrorism - an act against Americans - even if the victims are brown and the perpetrator is a white Christian.


Rozina Ali is a researcher and blogger. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.

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