It was the afternoon before the Jewish New Year, and I was at a press conference in West Sacramento, Calif., at a Sikh temple. The state attorney general invited law enforcement representatives, local elected officials and members of the clergy to condemn the rash of beatings against Sikhs in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Sikhs, who wear turbans, grow long beards and have darker skin, were being mistaken for Muslims -- and therefore terrorists. When I was a rabbi in Sacramento, I worked with the Sikh community. They are hard-working, peaceful, religiously committed and loyal citizens of this country.
Eleven years later, we see that the bullying of Sikhs and continued criminal acts against them have only increased -- leading up to last Sunday's horrific shootings at their temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, Sikh temples and other religious places all have been the targets of home-grown terrorists, who are burning with hatred against newcomers who represent a threat to their perverse and hate-filled vision of America. Yet the threat is not just about the individuals who carry out such heinous crimes -- it's about these acts challenging the promise that America represents religious, political and economic freedom.
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So who are the Sikhs? What do we know about their religion? The word "Sikh" refers to a strong and able disciple. The religion has its roots in mid-16th century India. The context of its development originated from conflicts between Hinduism and Islam. The founder of Sikhism, Guru (teacher) Nanak Dev, was a Hindu but also preached to Muslims. He is reported to have said, "There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. Then what path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God!" For this reason Sikhism became a monotheistic religion, and one with a universal message.
Sikh men wear turbans and traditionally do not cut their hair. They pray to one god. Their temple (gurdwara), is the center of their religious and cultural lives. Sikhs revere their gurus, whom they believe are inspired with the spirit of God. The gurus teach the Sikh scripture, which is called Adi Granth. The Sikh religion teaches that humans must struggle against five vices: lust, anger, greed, worldly attachments and pride.
Sikhs represent about 27 million people worldwide. Most live in the Punjab province of India. Other nations with sizable Sikh populations are the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Malaysia and Singapore. In fact, the current prime minister of India is a Sikh. Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world. It is a peaceful religion, and its people are known to be hard-working and family-oriented. They put a high priority on education.
The truth is that most Americans do not know about the Sikh religion. But how much do we know about faith traditions other than our own? The perpetrator of this rampage against the Sikhs knew nothing about their faith -- or about the Muslim faith, either. His faith was in hatred. His scripture of hatred included anyone who did not look like him or have his beliefs.
Never underestimate people who silently approve of poisonous ideology like this, even if they would not take up arms. Our democracy is strong and our unity resolute in these moments. But the long-term strategy is to educate kids on how to accept that a country like ours can handle diverse religious traditions. If we start with the children, we have a better chance of protecting this country and fulfilling its potential to be the nation we cherish for the next generation.
The sad reality is that violence against Sikhs continues. Will we simply cover our eyes and shrug our shoulders about this terrorist act on our soil? Isolated outbursts of terrorism are happening too often. The incidents at Fort Hood, Texas; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and now Oak Creek, Wis., demonstrate why all of us should be vigilant about welcoming new faith traditions that seek the same promise of freedom that America represented to our ancestors.
Instead of buying more guns, can we invest in education? Americans from all religious traditions need to condemn this recent attack against the Sikh community and those who spew this poisonous ideology throughout our country. This is a time for action; when every American should shout out against hatred and make a difference by welcoming and protecting the peace-loving religions in our midst.
A sage in my tradition said long ago about making a difference, "If not now, when?"