Editor's Note: This article first appeared last fall, around the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. The importance of this issue is renewed all the more by this weekend's shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin. Our prayers are with the victims.
On September 15, 2001, I received an email from my close friend and Stanford classmate Valarie Kaur, an email that would launch us both into a whirlwind over the subsequent decade. When the terrorist attacks hit, I was far away from my California home, studying abroad at the Jesuit University in El Salvador. At school, Valarie and I had taken classes together, collaborated on projects and stayed up into the wee hours talking about our beliefs and ideas and what we wanted to do with our lives. She was the first person I knew who practiced Sikhism, the world’s fifth largest religion. She taught me that her faith shared many values in common with my own Catholic tradition: love, devotion to God, living a moral life, and practicing social justice.
Now, in an internet café thousands of miles away from home, I read a message from Valarie telling me that a Sikh man in Arizona had just been shot. His name was Balbir Singh Sodhi, he owned a gas station in Mesa, and someone drove up and shot him because he was wearing a turban on his head and they thought that made him a terrorist. Valarie’s family knew him.
All the other news I had been hearing from home said that Americans were uniting to rescue survivors and help each other cope, and I was shocked to hear of Americans turning against one another in this moment of great sorrow. I knew men who looked like Mr. Singh Sodhi, who wore long beards and turbans and had darker skin than mine. They were Valarie’s cousins and uncles. Her family lived just down the road from mine; I had been to their home, shared meals with them, and danced at their parties. Her family had roots in California as old as those of my Italian and German Catholic ancestors, and it never occurred to me to question whether they were truly American.
But the news was constantly showing images of a turbaned, bearded Osama Bin Laden, searing a connection in many minds between turbans and terrorism, between brown skin and evil acts, and people wanted revenge.
Balbir Singh Sodhi’s death was only the first murder in a wave of violent backlash against Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians, Arabs and others. In the first year alone after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than one thousand men, women, and children suffered some kind of hate crime – vandalism, arson, harassment, attacks, beatings, and at least nineteen murders – because of their perceived ethnicity or religion. Turbaned Sikh men and boys bore a disproportionate brunt of the attacks. Many more people were taunted, stared at, called names, ignored, and discriminated against at work and school because of their dress or skin color.
Today, Muslims and Sikhs continue to confront a climate of fear and insecurity. A 2006 Harvard study found that 83% of Sikh Americans had themselves, or knew someone who had, personally experienced a hate crime, and 64% expressed fear of danger to themselves and families. At that time over 40% of Muslim Americans said they also feared danger to themselves and their families.
The discrimination has not been limited to private acts of violence, either. Soon after 9/11, our government sanctioned racial profiling in immigration enforcement and homeland security programs. Though intended to protect our national security, these initiatives resulted in further alienation and abuse of turbaned Sikhs, detained South Asian and Arab immigrants, and Muslims targeted for special registration. This year, Congress held hearings provoking further suspicion and fear about the Muslim American community. The government’s discriminatory policies have lent legitimacy to many private individuals’ own fear and hatred of Muslims, Sikhs, and anyone else they perceive to be foreign.
In 2010 and 2011, beatings and vandalism against Muslims and Sikhs persisted across the United States, while public condemnation of Muslims grew more shrill and extreme even as it shifted further into the mainstream. The controversy surrounding the Park51 community center and mosque in lower Manhattan dominated the national discourse in the summer of 2010 and spurred numerous other efforts to prevent Muslims from worshiping in their own communities. Prominent public figures have persistently conflated Islam with terrorism, ignoring the reality that, save the tiniest fraction of extremists, Muslims share the same values as Christians, Jews, and Sikhs – community service, justice, peace, human dignity, and love.
According to a 2010 Time Magazine poll, 62% of Americans don’t personally know a Muslim American, and only 44% have a favorable view of Islam. This lack of basic understanding about minority religions, and the lack of personal relationships between people of different faiths, has helped perpetuate the fear and mistrust against Sikhs and Muslims that has enabled such terrible discrimination and violence.
Sadly, America has been here before. In the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, over 100,000 Japanese Americans – many of whose families had been living in the United States for generations – were rounded up and interned hundreds of miles away from their homes, losing their livelihoods and possessions, because their national origin marked them as suspect. Before that, Catholics and Jews were discriminated against and marked as suspect because of their faiths throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1950s, McCarthyism turned neighbors against neighbors in the search for suspected communists. In times of crisis and fear, Americans have too often looked for a group to blame, and have swept up many innocents in the quest for vengeance.
Responding in Love
But there is another story to be told about how we can respond in times of crisis. In the last decade, grass-roots efforts have emerged to build greater understanding between people of different faiths. Many people report that their personal experiences of discrimination and fear since 9/11 have moved them to become more involved in public life than they would have otherwise.
In the days following Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder, my friend Valarie decided to take the semester off and go on the road with a video camera because these stories of violence against her community weren’t being told on the television news. By the time we both returned to school in January, Valarie had hundreds of hours of footage. She had traveled all over the country to interview the men, women, and children who had suffered the trauma of 9/11 twice over – first as any other American, and then again as the targets of discrimination and violence. Her student project evolved into a feature length documentary film, Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath (watch the trailer on Ministry Matters) The film was the first of its kind to document the hate crimes and backlash following 9/11. It screened in over two hundred cities around the country, and community dialogues about race, religion and national identity followed each screening, inspiring people from all walks of life to share their stories with one another.
Another project that emerged immediately after 9/11 is the Sikh Coalition, a group that advocates for Sikhs and educates others about the community, and which recently launched a website of user-generated videos to showcase the unheard voices and stories of the September 11 aftermath. The Shelbyville Multimedia Project is chronicling the efforts among residents of a small Tennessee town – whites, blacks, Muslim African immigrants, and Latino immigrants – who are working to get to know one another through shared conversations and meals. My Fellow American is another user-generated video project telling stories of Muslims, and the people who are their friends, neighbors and colleagues, to show that Muslims are real Americans too.
There is an emerging groundswell of many more efforts like these, initiated by ordinary people, offering alternatives to the bigotry, scapegoating and fear that has divided our nation for the past decade. We can do so much better.
What Can We Do?
What other steps might Christians take to prevent further violence, discrimination and bigotry against our neighbors? First, we must speak out when we see injustice take place, and we must speak loudly enough to be heard. For too long, the language of our faith has been co-opted in the public discourse by people who use it to perpetuate fear, intolerance and hate. We must stand up for the true Gospel message of love and compassion and refuse to allow our neighbors, or our government, to mistreat anyone because of his or her faith, ethnicity, or skin color in the name of God.
Secondly, we must make greater efforts to live alongside and educate ourselves about our neighbors who come from different faiths and cultures. We need to adopt humble, open-minded attitudes as we engage with them, and we should create safe spaces so that we can ask honest questions and truly learn from one another. I felt compelled to help Valarie tell her community’s stories not out of duty or obligation, but because she was my friend and because I already knew her story. Authentically sharing our stories will transform the way we understand and relate to one another.
We can look to the Gospel for inspiration. Jesus constantly traveled with, accompanied, and shared meals with people who his contemporaries deemed to be “different," “other,” and “outcast," and he welcomed them as his brothers and sisters. Our faith as Christians compels us to do whatever we can to accompany people in need, and to put aside our own fears and insecurities to act out of compassion and love. How can we learn to accompany people whose lives, cultures and faiths we might not completely understand? We can start by building community at the most basic level – by sharing meals, by visiting people in their homes and inviting them into our own. This is how we can start to build trust and get to know each other. Interfaith dialogue will truly take hold when it emerges organically from these shared, intimate human experiences.
We continue to live in uncertain, frightening times. But as people of faith, we are challenged to respond not from a place of fear, but a place of love.