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Above: A Muslim-American prays during a 'namaaz'.


A Thousand Sanctuaries





A few Muslims gather together to pray and break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan. They kneel on sparkling white sheets, neatly spread on the lawn of a place of worship. Hardly a remarkable sight during the Muslim holy month, except the place of worship is neither a mosque, nor in any way linked with the Muslim faith.

Instead, it is a Gurdwara, a Sikh church in Milford, Massachusetts, USA.

It is no ordinary summer’s day either.

Inside the sanctuary a solemn Sikh service is in progress. Hymns from the Sikh tradition have been sung and a reading from the Sikh scripture has been received by the congregants. Speaker after speaker from every possible religious tradition addresses the congregation, commiserating with it, speaking words of comfort, courage and compassion.

It is August 6, 2012, that is, one day after the shootings by a white supremacist at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin.

‘The worst of times bring out the best in us’.

‘What binds us together is much more profound than what divides us’.

How many times have we heard words like these, almost rolling our eyes? Today these are not shibboleths. Every Sikh who hears these words, spoken by Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, believers and non-believers, in the wake of the Oak Creek shootings feels comforted by them.

In the insanity that followed the horrors of 9-11, Muslims all over America were the target of much violence and rage. Sikhs, with their very visible identity which seemed to proclaim their otherness suffered collateral damage in the surreal days that followed the attacks, when it felt like the tolerant fabric of America was starting to come apart at the seams.

Yet, eventually, sanity prevailed.

More than four years later, the days after the election of Donald Trump eerily brought back echoes of both 9-11 and Oak Creek.

Just a few days ago, Maura Healey, the Attorney General of the pluralistic and inclusive haven that is Massachusetts talked about more than 400 instances of hate in the state. News reports from all over the country point to a frightening emergence of bigotry from the shadows. I can only imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim or a Sikh (who is often mistaken for a Muslim) in some of our backwaters where diversity is far from the norm.

However, I refuse to despair.

There were profound lessons in how ordinary people responded to both 9-11 and Oak Creek. The Muslims who came to pray at the Milford Gurdwara. The Sikhs, who upon being mistaken for Muslims and violently attacked in the wake of 9-11, responded not by distancing themselves from Muslims, but instead using the attention to unequivocally condemn attacks on anyone based on their respective identities. The 1500 who packed Trinity Church in Boston for a Sikh service in the wake of Oak Creek to condemn bigotry and express solidarity.

My personal faith as a Sikh takes me away from a place of cynicism by reinforcing a belief in the inherent goodness of humanity. At the same time it exhorts me to avoid the trap of passivity and reject the naïve belief that somehow everything will be fine eventually. It will not, unless all of those who reject the bigotry make common cause and simply refuse to accept it as the new norm.

Compassion is not the exclusive preserve of liberals or conservatives.

If there was ever a time to rise above our partisan beliefs, it is now. I am not a political pundit and I cannot even begin to make sense of why Donald Trump was elected president, but I do know for a fact though that it would be a huge mistake for me to assume that everyone who voted for him was motivated by bigotry and hatred. If I do that, how am I any different from the xenophobe who hurls a slur or worse at me because of the turban I wear on my head.

In fact, I am willing to bet that some of those who attended that service at Trinity Church four years ago voted for Donald Trump. I am pretty sure that their compassion is still alive and well today and they are cringing at the vileness that the election has wrought, just like my Sikh and Muslim brothers and sisters do. It would be foolish to not reach out to them.

I would love to see a thousand such gatherings all over America. A thousand sanctuaries from hate. A thousand affirmations of our common humanity.

In a time when Muslims in particular are being targeted, would it not be wonderful to repay them a thousand fold for their grand gesture four years ago, when they generously broke their fast at a Sikh place of worship to express their compassion during a very difficult time.

Imagine that. Millions of us. Visiting mosques. Sitting silently in prayer and solidarity. Quietly reassuring each other that the egalitarian heart of this country continues to beat as strongly as ever.

[The author is a playwright, commentator and poet, who has been writing while pursuing a career in technology for several years. He is the author of ‘Kultar’s Mime‘, a poem about the 1984 Sikh Genocide. He is the founder and director of the Gurmat Sangeet Project, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of traditional Sikh music. He serves as a spiritual advisor at Northeastern University.]

[Courtesy: The Huffington Post. Edited for]
December 2, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Tinku (Punjab), December 03, 2016, 7:49 AM.

How many mosques will allow a similar gesture?

2: Nirmal Singh (USA), December 05, 2016, 10:29 AM.

Sarbpreet ji is a very creative, articulate and persuasive advocate. But I do have some issues. Hate crimes and the killing of a few Sikhs in mistaken identity precede the coming of Trump on the US political scene. That likely could gather some momentum but that is where our identity activism has been focused since 911 and no doubt it has helped, albeit at a pretty heavy cost in effort and dollars. The added dimension that Trump has focused on is the flood of illegal immigrants, their identification, deportation and future blocking of entry. This can easily translate into immigrant targeting unless there are very clear and effective initiatives launched to preclude generalized immigrant hate. That is a very different kettle of fish from mistaken identity or even racism. Let us therefore widen our horizon and think of the larger issues that can crop up suddenly and find us unprepared. If this happens the safety in non-identity will minimize though identity will likely still provide easier targets. This will need strategic collaboration with different groups than we have cultivated to fight mistaken identity. Our arena for expression of 'maanas ki jaat sabhai eko pehchaanbho' will enlarge and make room for a million sanctuaries - for that will be the number who have stood with us in so many causes. So let us look beyond the familiar fear of misdirected Islamophobia to the direct risk in immigrant bashing.

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