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'Gurdwara shooting is attack on freedom of religion'

August 10, 2012 12:09 IST

US lawmaker recalls the sad irony of hearing news about the massacre of innocent Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin while he was on his way to address concerns of the community regarding hate crimes at a gurdwara in Walnut, California.

United States Congressman Ed Royce, a California Republican co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, still can't get over the sad irony of hearing the horrific news of the Wisconsin shootout while he was on his way to a gurdwara in Walnut, California. Royce was going to address the congregation in Walnut about their concerns over continuing racial profiles and hate crimes against the Sikh community.

A senior member of the foreign affairs committee of the Republican majority US House of Representatives, who has had a long association with the Sikh community, told, "I learned about the attack just before I arrived at the Sikh temple in Walnut. I was scheduled to speak at the gurdwara and as I was driving there, this information came over the radio and I heard the report from the chief of police."

"It was horrific. I don't understand how someone can hate so much to take another's life. It is incomprehensible," he said.

Royce said, "I listened to this report and then I went in to give my remarks and I was to speak on this issue Â…and so, the irony of another attack on the Sikh community was extremely saddening. The worshipers there were understandably on edge -- they were very somber."

"I was specifically going to speak about these issues and so the irony of it all. Also, to see the sadness on the faces of the people practicing their faith and to know that prior to my arrival, other Sikhs had been slaughtered by this man filled with hate. Looking around in the temple at the men and women and young people and children, just really brought the tragedy home in terms of the injustice of it."

He observed that yet another irony -- and a continuing one at that -- was that the Sikh community, which emphasises on peace, equality, virtue and the values that are sorely lacking in segments of our society, continued to bear the brunt of these hate crimes.

Royce on his recent trip to India along with the visiting CODEL (Congressional delegation) had a chance to see the Golden Temple, meet with the leaders of the Shiromani Gurdwara Pharbhandak Committee, and have productive meetings. He said that he found it sad that "even more than 10 years after 9/11, when Sikhs had been singled out mistakenly as Muslims and supporters of Osama bin Laden because of their turbans and beards, this ignorance continued to manifest itself, and in such a violent way on August 5 in Oak Creek".

"Americans unfortunately lack knowledge about the rich diversity that is India and about Sikhism and the Sikh experience, and I remain committed to educating people about the contributions of the Sikh community, which are numerous," he said.

Royce acknowledged the tremendous outreach the Sikh community had made after 9/11 and while the community had made a lot of progress to change the misperceptions of the Sikhs, "there are some hearts and minds in this country, who are so filled with hate and that's the ultimate tragedy of it".

"Targeting someone because of their faith is a reprehensible act and this will always be remembered throughout the community and throughout the country," he predicted. "Every American should be treated with respect and dignity. We are all Americans. We are bound together by the common ideals and common values and America's religious diversity has always been a strength of our country. We were founded on the basic principle of religious diversity and religious freedom."

Royce asserted that "Sikhs are a vital part of our country's social fabric and a crime like this is an attack on the basic foundation of freedom of religion in this country."

He acknowledged that all the outreach white supremacists and racists like Wade Page had absolutely no idea who Sikhs are. Thus, "it is particularly difficult to reach out to individuals like this gunman who are so filled with hate and rage. It's just so senseless. It is such a terrible tragedy."

Royce also said he could understand how traumatised the Sikh children would be now and perhaps may opt not to wear the turban because of bullying in schools, which is rampant.

He said he would also continue to push to make sure "we do a better job of teaching in the schools that the motivation for people traveling to the new world from the onset of this country forward has been to protect religious diversity, freedom of religion -- which is the cornerstone of this country."

"So, hopefully, if we can teach this more effectively in our schools, everyone, even those like this white supremacist may get the message. There must be a continued, concentrated effort."

Royce said, "What I can tell you is that in reviewing schoolbooks, I see how much effort is put into this today and that a generation of Americans is being raised with the lessons of understanding about religious tolerance and religious diversity and hopefully, this will assist in the future."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC