Trends we can’t ignore: 2) Anti-Sikh hate crimes

In my last post, I discussed the problem of religious illiteracy in America. One sad result of this illiteracy is the wave of hate crimes against Sikh Americans in the wake of September 11.

Valerie Kaur, an activist and film-maker who has documented hate crimes against Sikhs in post 9/11-America, writes that “Sikh men with turbans have been most affected by post 9/11 hate crimes”:

Post September 11 backlash violence has been primarily directed at those perceived to resemble the enemy – a turbaned and bearded Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda leader. Nearly all people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikh, members of the world’s fifth largest religion who trace their heritage to the Punjab region of India. On September 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, became the first person murdered in the hate epidemic. Out of the estimated nineteen people murdered in the immediate aftermath, four were turbaned Sikh men.

Other cases of violence against Sikhs include arson, harassment, beatings, forced haircutting, and vandalism. In many cases, the attackers made their ignorant, anti-Muslim intentions known. Before beating a Sikh man to death in Los Angeles in 2001, the attackers shouted, “We’ll kill bin Laden today.”

Despite the trauma that the Sikh American community has undergone because of these hate crimes, the federal government does not keep statistics on anti-Sikh hate crimes. The FBI simply includes them in anti-Muslims hate crime statistics.

In a Washington Post commentary, Kaur argues that not keeping separate statistics for Sikhs is “wrong and dangerous.” Hate crimes against Sikhs, she says, shouldn’t always be simply seen as a “case of mistaken identity.” Though in many cases it has been proved that crimes occurred under the premise that Sikhs were Muslim or Arab, Sikhs are attacked for simply being different, for not fitting into the (false) homogenous picture of America that some fearful whites cling to. Kaur:

I believe it would not have mattered much to Wade Michael Page [the Oak Creek terrorist] if he knew that the people he killed were Sikh rather than Muslim. From what we have gathered so far, Page is just like others who have targeted Sikhs in hate violence: they see people with dark skin, beards, and turbans as the enemy.

No matter if specific anti-Muslim sentiment or more general xenophobia drive hate crimes against them, “Sikhs deserve the dignity of being a statistic.” If we can’t even grant them something so simple and small—documenting hate crimes against them—how can we ever begin to take the next and most important step: acknowledging and honoring Sikh’s dignity as human beings.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss the recent rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.

Trends we can’t ignore (Series introduction)

The shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.—and the nationwide string of hate crimes against Muslims that went virtually unreported by the media—reveals a number of disturbing, yet ignored, trends about extremism and ignorance in America.

Sikh worshippers outside their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. after the shooting on August 5, 2012.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting about issues that are not new, but that have been re-illuminated by these recent hate crimes. They include religious illiteracy in America, post-9/11 attacks against Sikhs, the recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the (intentionally covered-up) threat of white supremacist domestic terrorism.

For those who heard little about the shooting at the Sikh place of worship a few weeks ago, here’s a brief recap:

Wade Page, a prominent member of a white supremacist organization, opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisc. during a Sunday worship service. He entered the temple and he killed three, and then murdered three others outside, where he was shot in the stomach by police.  He then shot himself in the head. Four others, including a police officer, were wounded.

The hate crime is rightly being treated as a case of domestic terrorism by the FBI, given that Page appeared to have political motives.  He was an active member of the racist skinhead group, Hammerskin Nation, and was a musician in white supremacist bands.

The FBI defines terrorism in the following way: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

But according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. NBC News reported that ‘it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism.’ A Fox News analyst claimed the shooting was not terrorism because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims.”

Like NBC and FOX, most media outlets have been hesitant to refer to the attack as terrorism, however.  Is this surprising?  No, because since 9/11, the American media—and thus the American public—have only considered attacks committed by Muslims terrorism.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin posting about specific trends, starting with an essay about religious illiteracy in the U.S.  I’ll provide background on the string of attacks against Islamic places of worship in one of my later posts.

My commentary in The Indianapolis Star

I was invited to write the following commentary for The Indianapolis Star’s Faith Forum column on Saturday, August 11, 2012.  The positive feedback has been tremendous; I’ve already been told that it was discussed at length at a local Quaker meeting, and a professor at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indy will use it as required reading for his class on dialogue!

Dialogue deepens, not weakens, woman’s faith
Jordan Denari

“Are you converting to Islam?”

This question was addressed to me multiple times during my freshman year at Georgetown University, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked it now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), lived a Muslim living-learning community, and worked at an Islamic advocacy organization.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before. And, that’s not in spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which isn’t only formal discussions, but also lived engagement with those different from oneself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.

At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.

Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (which this year is being celebrated from mid-July to mid-August.) I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.

Finding these things in Islam — prayer and community — reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.

My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills–the familiarity of Catholicism. Instead, Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.

That’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are they are good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism. And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and they identify similarities and crucial differences, which I would argue, are a positive thing worth discussing. Differences in creed and ritual show us the diversity of forms in which believers understand their relationship with God, and help us identify the unique position espoused by our own tradition.

This kind of dialogue challenges the assumption held by many believers who feel that engaging with people of other faiths forces us to sideline aspects of our practice, water down our doctrines, and drop our distinct identities. But the dialogue in which I participate and promote doesn’t ask us to compromise on or abandon our differences; it thrives on the sharing of them.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith — and for making me a better Catholic. I hope others can say this about their experience of dialogue, too.

Bio: Jordan Denari, an Indianapolis native, is a senior at Georgetown University. She has been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, and her efforts at building interfaith relationships have been featured in other Catholic news outlets. She writes about Muslim-Christian relations on her blog, Witness (jordandenari.com).

 

Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act

*This is a long post.  But its length reflects the importance of its topic.  I hope this discussion communicates the complexity of the NDAA and the significance of the law’s implications.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was signed into law by President Obama on December 31.  This bill is passed yearly to determine the budget for the Department of Defense, but this year it also contains short but sweeping provisions that affect ordinary Americans and expand the scope of the executive branch’s power.  Civil rights groups, military officials, and others have expressed concerns about this law, fearing that it infringes on the rights of Americans and hampers America’s ability to fight terrorism.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): This law “contains harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com: “It will be the first time that the United States Congress has codified the power of indefinite detention into the law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s.”

New York Times Editorial: “The measures… will strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military, which has made clear that it doesn’t want the job.”

These criticisms of the law seem outrageous and scary, if they are indeed true.  As I hope to explain clearly through this Q&A-style post, these claims about the NDAA are true, meaning that we, as Americans, have lost some of the basic rights that make our country the free place we believe it to be.

1) What exactly do the NDAA’s “harmful provisions” say?

Sections 1021 and 1022 are the provisions that concern the ACLU, the New York Times, Glenn Greenwald, and me.

Let’s look at the first section (p. 265)  It authorizes the president and armed forces to detain the following people:

These individuals can be detained indefinitely without charges or trial, until the end of the War on Terror:

Now let’s look at Section 1022 (p. 266), summarized by Glenn Greenwald, the Salon.com columnist and former constitutional and civil rights litigator:

“[Section 1022] mandates that all accused Terrorists be indefinitely imprisoned by the military rather than in the civilian court system; it also unquestionably permits (but does not mandate) that even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil accused of Terrorism be held by the military rather than charged in the civilian court system (Sec. 1032).”

Here’s the text from the provision specific to US citizens:

2) Why are these provisions problematic?

Let’s look at the portions that were highlighted above by Greenwald.

Substantially supported;” “associated forces”:  These phrases are extremely vague, and can be interpreted widely by those enforcing the law: the president and the military.  How can one determine what “substantially supporting“ a group means?  (See Question 8 for a more detailed discussion on this point.) How can one determine if a group is “associated” with al-Qaeda?

This broad language was likely intentional, written to bring the law in line with the Obama and Bush administrations’ post-9/11 policy of indefinitely detaining individuals without trial.  (See Question 6 for further discussion.)

Without trial until the end of hostilities”: The line doesn’t need much elaboration.  A detainee held without charges and trial doesn’t need to be released until the end of the war, in this case, the War on Terror. But how do we know when the War on Terror has been won?  When all terrorists are killed?  When anti-American sentiment has been quashed?  (In my opinion, more American military action yields more anti-American feelings and contributes to the creation of terrorist groups.)

Military custody”: Those detained are not held by civilian law enforcement, but by the military, no matter if they were captured in a war zone or an American neighborhood.

The requirement to detain a person…does not extend to US citizens”:  This new law affects both foreigners and American citizens.  Foreigners must be held by the military.  US citizens are not required to be held by the military, but the option is still there.  This means that Americans are not protected from indefinite detention.  They can be subjected to it without formal charges for their supposed support of terrorism.

It is important to note that, under existing American law, even non-citizens are guaranteed the right to a trial.  The NDAA strips away that right as well.

The full issue is a long, complicated one, and Glenn Greenwald has done a good job answering it in his article, “Three myths about the detention bill.”

3) Indefinite detention seems wrong.  Don’t we have laws that should protect us from that?

Yes, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.  The fifth guarantees due process, and the sixth a speedy and public trial.

4) This talk of indefinite detention rings a bell.  Has Congress passed a similar provision before?

Yep.  Glenn Greenwald:

“This is the first time indefinite detention has been enshrined in law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when — as the ACLU put it — “President Truman had the courage to veto” the Internal Security Act of 1950 on the ground that it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights” and then watched Congress override the veto. That Act authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other “subversives” without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these War on Terror policies of indefinite detention).

5) I heard that President Obama was going to veto this law.  Why did he threaten to veto and then change his mind?

Initially, the Obama Administration objected to a portion of an earlier draft of the bill that would exempt accused US citizens from mandatory military detention.  Why would it urge the drafters to take out this portion?  Greenwald and many argue that the administration wanted to increase its own power to determine who and how is detained.  Greenwald:

“This was an example of the White House demanding greater detention powers in the bill by insisting on the removal of one of its few constraints (the prohibition on military detention for Americans captured on U.S. soil). “

The current version of the law—the one that passed and was signed by Obama—has the new provision I mentioned in Question 2: US citizens aren’t required to be detained by the military, but they still can be.

Greenwald: “Those changes were almost entirely about removing the parts of the bill that constrained his power, and had nothing to do with improving the bill from a civil liberties perspective. Once the sole concern of the White House was addressed — eliminating limits on the President’s power — they were happy to sign the bill even though (rather: because) none of the civil liberties assaults were fixed.

6) Didn’t the Bush and Obama administrations indefinitely detain Americans before this law was passed?  How does this law change anything?

In practice, the law changes little.  Obama, like Bush before him, claims that the president possesses the authority to detain Americans indefinitely.  (See Question 7 for more details.) These administrations have detained many Americans (and even more foreigners) without charges and held them.  This law only codifies this practice into law—protects it—and that’s what is scary and dangerous.

7) What gives the President and the military authority to indefinitely detain people?

According to Bush and Obama, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which was passed by the Congress just days after September 11, 2001.  Here’s an excerpt from the AUMF:

Greenwald: “…First the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have aggressively argued that the original 2001 AUMF already empowers them to imprison people without charges, use force against even U.S. citizens without due process (Anwar Awlaki), and target not only members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban (as the law states) but also anyone who “substantially supports” those groups and/or “associated forces” (whatever those terms mean). That’s why this bill states that it does not intend to change the 2001 AUMF (even as it codifies far broader language defining the scope of the war) or the detention powers of the President, and it’s why they purposely made the bill vague on whether it expressly authorizes military detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil: it’s because the bill’s proponents and the White House both believe that the President already possesses these broadened powers with or without this bill. With a couple of exceptions, this bill just “clarifies” — and codifies — the powers President Obama has already claimed, seized and exercised.

8) I’ve heard that this law also threatens free speech.  How so?

Let’s go back to the brief discussion about what it means to “substantially support” al-Qaeda or terrorist groups.  As I said, this term is extremely vague, and as Greenwald has argued above, this vagueness is likely intentionally so.

Generally, we understand “support” to mean material support—giving weapons, money, etc. However, a 2010 Supreme Court case changes all that—a case that went virtually unnoticed despite its surprising verdict and widespread negative implications.

In Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, the US Supreme Court ruled that ‘speech’ given in support of an organization is the same as ‘material support.’  This decision was made to match similar rulings in the UK, where free speech is not guaranteed in the way it is in the US.

This ruling, coupled with the practices of indefinite detainment and the NDAA, greatly endangers the First Amendment and free speech.  If speech equals material support, and material support is a detainable offense, then speech, simply speech, is a crime.  And a crime that doesn’t result in a fair trial or even formal charges.

In my opinion, this is what makes the NDAA’s implications so frightening.  For engaging in what should be free speech, an American can be rounded up and held.  For simply being “associated” with terrorist groups, an American can be detained.  And because these Americans are held without formal charges and aren’t guaranteed to see court, it will never be truly known if those detained were actually “guilty.” 

9) Why should I care about the NDAA and the practice of indefinite detention?

Many Americans citizens, and even more non-citizens, have been affected.

Look at Murat Kurnaz, a German who was held in Guantanamo without charges for five years.

And Sami al-Arian, an American and outspoken Palestine activist.  He was detained and treated horribly in civilian prisons on terrorism charges.  Most of the evidence brought against him in his eventual trial were things like books he own and things he said. 

And Tarik Mehanna, who translated al-Qaeda documents into English for American readers.  Despite that this action is in the realm of free speech, he was arrested and tried in a civilian court for them.

All Americans, myself included, have the potential to be affected by the NDAA.  If the government decided that I somehow had ties to or supported terrorism because of books I read or things I said, I could be locked up.

Sadly, though, this law will likely be only used to target Muslims, people like Kurnaz, al-Arian, and Mehanna.

Non-Muslim Americans who advocate violence and terrorism will probably not be targeted.  People like a middle-aged American who commented on my YouTube account, calling for Muslims to be expelled from America.  When I went to his YouTube page, I found a video in his “Favorites” list, called “Top 10 Mosques to Bomb.”  This man was supporting violence against Muslims.  I called him out on it, and he removed the video.  (Click the photo to the right to see the conversation I had with this man.)

I want to make this very clear: violence and terrorism are both wrong.  I don’t support violence and terrorism, and I condemn those who do. But a Muslim’s verbal support of these tactics should not be more punishable than a non-Muslim’s.

As I’ve talked to friends and professors about the NDAA, I’ve heard a one main concern expressed, one beyond specifics of the bill and its possible uses.  What does it means for our country when our legislators and our executives are able to sit around and discuss taking away some of our most basic rights, as if it doesn’t matter? There have been dissenting voices, but there is no loud outcry. As Americans, we pride ourselves on our freedoms, and want to spread them to the ends of the earth.  Ironic, given that we’ve done away with many of them.

The NDAA needs to receive much more critical media attention if we hope to preserve the rights we still have and regain the ones we’ve lost.  I hope this post can contribute in some small way to the national discussion we must have about the NDAA.

10) What can I do about this?

Contact your legislators and ask them to vote for the Due Process Guarantee Act.  In the wake of Obama’s passage of the NDAA, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed this bill to amend part of the law and protect American citizens.

It says: “An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.” (See the entire bill here.)

This bill doesn’t fix the entire problem, but it goes along way in addressing the issues of the NDAA.

Have any questions I didn’t answer?  Ask them in the comments section.