How Will We Teach About Sikhism After the Tragedy?

Access to the Sikh temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin is still restricted as police search for clues to the unspeakable violence that occurred there last Sunday. But across the country, other Sikh temples are responding to the shooting not by shutting their doors, but by opening them.

The Sikh temple in San Jose held an open house and gave out free head coverings. Over five hundred people gathered for a vigil at the gurdwara in Plymouth, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. This weekend, many Sikh temples have issued an open invitation to all to come and worship, in a concerted effort to welcome and educate America about their traditions.

Hospitality is a key element o the Sikh tradition. All four doors of a gurdwara are meant to be open, symbolizing the fact that everyone, regardless of faith, is welcome. The Sikh tradition of langar is perhaps the most dramatic symbol of radical hospitality: every visitor to the temple is fed in the “guru’s free kitchen.” Langar is based on the idea, begun by Nanak Dev, the first Sikh guru, that feeding and clothing people is the most fundamental human transaction of all. To feed people is seva—voluntary, selfless service.

A Sikh community in Medford, Massachusetts, Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar, is typical of many Sikh places of worship in this tradition of hospitality. On Sunday, August 12 the Gurdwara is holding a vigil for those injured or killed in the Oak Creek shootings. Everyone in the community is welcome, and non-Sikhs are invited to show their solidarity.

Just underneath that announcement of welcome, the “Law Enforcement Training Video On Sikhism” is posted. The description of the video reads:

Awareness of cultural and religious observations, including those of Sikhism, can help avoid misunderstanding and tension—assisting the public in understanding the challenges and realizing the contributions of the Sikh community in America.

The need for this video indicates the deep price of such open hospitality—a kind of vulnerability that many minority communities still face—especially when they become religiously organized.

Indeed, when one or two Sikhs lived in a town, they may have been the town’s “quirky” exceptions, the strangers that were token symbols of tolerance. But when a community of Sikhs began to gather amongst themselves, and to build buildings, they could easily become different kinds of targets of hate crimes. They became group targets by virtue of the fact that they were, indeed, now no longer an exception, but an integrated thread in the larger fabric of the town.

As a result, and especially after a tragedy, each minority religious community that suffers discrimination must pay a cultural tax: the extra burden of educating the rest of the country about its traditions, its rituals, and its cultures. After 9/11, there was a massive outpouring of videos, blogs, and articles by Muslim leaders aiming to educate Americans about Islam. In the various radio appearances by Sikh leaders this week, all of them articulated the need for education about Sikhism.

To be sure, this is part of the bedrock upon which American society is built. Minority religious communities should have the right and freedom to represent themselves and their traditions—however, wherever, and whenever they choose.

But something is deeply wrong when the burden remains exclusively on the community itself to conduct all of the outreach, to articulate its values and defend its contributions to the rest of society. There is a deep isolation, not to mention exhaustion, in that “cultural tax”—especially after a tragedy.

Do we as Americans simply leave the community to articulate itself to its neighbors? Do we ask them to teach us at the same time as they are burying their dead? Or are there ways that fellow travelers can participate in the educational process?

“First I Must Help Mourn Our Dead”

This is an old debate in the study of religions—how and in what circumstances should an “outsider” to a tradition actually teach that tradition. The history of teaching about Asian religions in the United States began with Anglo-American scholars who became knowledgeable and the history and languages of Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many others. But as more immigrants arrived to the United States after the 1965 immigration act, that situation began to shift.

By the 1990s, two key trends emerged: there were many communities who preferred that they teach about their own traditions, and not leave it only to university professors who did not experience the tradition themselves. Second, several communities, including Sikhs, had been in the U.S. long enough to send their own children to receive PhDs in the study of these traditions. And students from abroad came to American universities study their own traditions as well.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the debate raged: should insiders or outsiders have final authority in the representation of a tradition? And what about all of those in between, who might be insiders but not with university PhDs? Or who might be outsiders who have devoted their lives to the study of a tradition’s sacred texts? There are a myriad possibilities and definitions of who constituted an “insider” and who an “outsider,” and how one judged their relative authority to speak. And communities and scholars argued about them all.

And yet, as this debate raged, attacks on religious minorities kept happening. And the cultural tax of religious minorities to explain themselves, and to do all the educating alone, has remained. As one Sikh colleague said to me this week, “Yes, I want to educate even more actively than I have already been doing. But first I must help mourn our dead.”

In light of this most horrifying incident, just one among so many mass shootings in the U.S., it is time for us to build a new paradigm for education about religious minorities: one of partnership and alliance. It is no longer enough to be mired in an endless, fruitless debate about the relative status of insiders and outsiders. Rather, we should be asking a different question: How can we help each minority community alleviate the cultural tax that it so often has to pay in the wake of a tragedy?

What if the Sikh temples had not only government law enforcement videos on their websites, but Sikhs and non-Sikhs educating together about the Sikh tradition in primary school, secondary school, and university classrooms? Such alliances would not be simply “token” appearances of “representative” Sikhs, but rather long-term engagements between Sikh and non-Sikh educators on a variety of projects. They would involve mutual correction, and an honest exploration of key differences as well as similarities in religious and educational approaches to the world. Long-term alliances between religious institutions, and the mutual engagement between different forms of expertise, are essential to this paradigm.

Steven Prothero rightly has pointed out the profound religious illiteracy of most American citizens, and has called for an educational curriculum that includes the study of religion as a prerequisite for 21st-century citizenship. Even more important for us now is to imagine the mechanisms by which we build such an educational vision. No community can, in isolation, educate an entire country about itself. No community should bear that cultural tax alone.

There was a moving moment in the announcement of the deaths of the Sikh community members in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The police chief knew that he would not sufficiently honor the dead if he tried to pronounce the names by himself. So he turned to a leader of the community to read the names properly.

This was a small moment, but one which acknowledges the interdependence of our educational burden. We need to continue to explore and deepen such interdependence in the months and years after a tragedy of this horrific magnitude. Perhaps then the United States will have finally lived up to its reputation for hospitality—a welcoming of the stranger that the Sikh community has exemplified so powerfully this week.