When a white supremacist gunman shot and killed six people in a Wisconsin Sikh temple last week, some Sikh community members and the media commented the killer must have mistaken the worshippers for Muslims.
Since 9/11, the Sikh Coalition reported more than 300 attacks against Sikhs and their temples. Recorded incidents started with the Mesa, Arizona, shooting death of 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sohdi four days after the attacks at the World Trade Center. He apparently was mistaken for a Muslim.
The most recent incident before the Aug. 5 massacre at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin temple, occurred when vandals defaced a Sikh temple with graffiti, which contained references to 9/11.
To the ignorant, the men wearing long beards and turbans must be Muslim. And even if racists and bigots could make the distinction between a Sikh and a Muslim, it makes no difference. Sikhs and Muslims represent the “other” to many people in Western society.
Since Sikh men are more easily identifiable by bigots as “foreign” than perhaps many North American Muslims, it’s not difficult to conclude that Sikhs are more frequent targets of racist attacks.
In fact, up until 2010, the number of attacks against Muslims dropped since 9/11. According to the FBI there were about 500 attacks against Muslims in 2001, and then incidents fell dramatically by 2009 to just 107. However, in 2010, anti-Muslim attacks rose to 160.
The United States has been through this before with the persecution of Japanese Americans during World War II when more than 100,000 were interned in camps in California and the Northwest. For the most part, Japanese American citizens picked up the pieces of their lives after the war. While hate crimes against the Japanese generally ended with the war, they still often faced discrimination in housing and employment.
But unlike the Japanese experience, anti-Muslim violence and discrimination continue with regularity 11 years after the New York and Pennsylvania attacks.
It’s telling that Sikhs mistaken as Muslim is “understandable” and that attacks against Muslims are “expected.” It drives home the point that in American society the awfulness of being mistaken for a Muslim places the Muslim in a negative place. In other words, Islam in the minds of many Americans means terrorism. No other religious group suffers a similar stigma.
Yet 9/11 is only part of the reason for anti-Muslim violence. During the 2008 presidential campaign, many Republicans branded President Barack Obama a secret Muslim, never mind his Christian faith is well documented. This prompted the reply from former general Colin Powell, who said on the television show Meet the Press, “(Obama) is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no, that’s not America.”
The reality, however, is the negative connotation of being Muslim is now institutionalized in American society. Anti-Muslim hatred is a moneymaking business that has attracted the kind of people who once handed out leaflets on street corners and lived in the basement of their parents’ home.
People like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney Jr., Walfa Sultan and David Horowitz and his so-called David Horowitz Freedom Center advance the cause of right-wing extremism.
Horowitz provides funding for Spencer’s Jihad Watch anti-Muslim hate blog and the equally frothy anti-Muslim FrontPage magazine. His organization over a six-year period paid for 25 trips for US Republican senators and congress representatives to Horowitz’s events. Anders Breivik, the ring-wing gunman who killed 77 people in Norway, praised Spencer’s anti-Muslim rants in his writings.
The efforts by Spencer et al has changed the dynamic how Americans view Muslims and even how some members in government treat them. Republican representative Peter King of New York has held a series of hearings on the pretense of exposing homegrown Islamic terrorists and Republican representative Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota has questioned the loyalty of Muslims in government.
Samuel G. Freedman reported in the New York Times a few days ago that Iranian-American religious scholar Reza Aslan said, “Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it. And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.” We have reached a point that we now expect violence against Muslims and to react with a shrug of the shoulders. Anti-Muslim rhetoric is so prevalent that America’s government leaders parrot the hate advocated by Spencer in the name of national security.
Meanwhile, Muslims rest comfortably in the knowledge that their government — with its religious freedoms firmly imbedded in America’s DNA – will protect them from abuse and discrimination.
But for how long?