Kulpreet Singh on Wisconsin shooting: We all have a responsibility to act and raise awareness

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A vigil in Wisconsin held the night of the mass shooting.

On Sunday, August 5, white supremacist and U.S. army veteran Wade Michael Page shot and killed six people and seriously wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Yesterday, on the W2 Morning radio show, I spoke with Kulpreet Singh, a Sikh community advocate based in Richmond, British Columbia, about this massacre and its broader implications and context. Singh is a founder of South Asian Mental Health Action & Awareness (SAMHAA). You can follow him on Twitter @KulpreetSingh. What follows is a slightly abridged version of our conversation from yesterday.

Derrick O’Keefe: What was your reaction to the shooting on Sunday?

Kulpreet Singh: Obviously, my first reaction was sadness. It seemed unreal that a shooting would happen at a place of worship. I think it's a sad testimony to the kind of situation we are in, in the United States and Canada, that we've kind of become used to mass shootings. When I heard there was a mass shooting, I kind of almost expected it, because now these types of shootings have been happening a few times every year. But when I heard that it was at a place of worship that was when it really shocked me -- the audacity, the insensitivity. And it must have been hate, coming from a person that would go into a place of worship and attack and shoot down innocent people. So, first sadness and then shock.

DO: Mother Jones magazine has tallied at least 58 mass murders with firearms in the U.S. over the past 30 years -- so that's almost two every year, and of course there just was one last month with the shooting at the Batman screening in Colorado. Now there was a particular reaction, I'm sure, from members of the Sikh community in the Lower Mainland, who have been targeted at times by hate crimes. We remember the 1999 hate crime murder of Nirmal Singh Gill, and the Coalition Against Racism which responded to that. Could you describe what the Sikh community in both Canada and the United States has faced, and continues to face, in terms of racism and specifically targeting by hate groups?

KS: Well, after 9/11, because of I think 'mistaken identity,' a lot of people had a lot of hate towards the Muslim community, which was also misdirected. There shouldn't be any type of hatred or animosity towards any community, especially innocent civilians who are going about their lives in society. But after 9/11, a lot of individuals who had frustration or anger against their perception about what a terrorist is, or their perception of what someone who is a criminal is, they lashed out against Sikh individuals in the United States and Canada -- especially racist organizations and white supremacist organizations, and also people who just had racist beliefs.

Shortly after 9/11 [on September 15, 2001], there was an individual in Mesa, Arizona -- Balbir Singh Sodhi -- who was gunned down at a gas station. I think it's an issue of frustration, hate and anger and -- in addition to that -- ignorance, not knowing the neighbours around you, and not knowing Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and people of all faiths feel as if they are Americans or Canadians as well; they are peaceful, law-abiding citizens and they have no animosity towards the mainstream society. That feeling of being attacked by foreigners, which comes out of a spirit of arrogance and ignorance, that's what caused a lot of Sikh individuals and also institutions that were run by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims to be attacked since 9/11. I think that in the United States there have been 700 reported hate crimes against Sikhs since 9/11.

DO: There's been an analysis of the media and authorities that, since 9/11, crimes or attacks committed by Muslims or by other people of colour were labelled as terrorist attacks, whereas mass killings committed by white Americans or others were just labelled as mental health issues or just a lone shooter doing something irrational. But the Wisconsin authorities yesterday did say they considered this terrorism, an incident of 'domestic terrorism.' Could you talk about the use of this very loaded term?

KS: There's a whole industrial power, a corporate power behind the "war on terror" that wants to promote it as the United States, Canada and others against foreigners, against the Other. When it's promoted in that way people get into the emotion or way of thinking that those types of foreigners that we are fighting against from 'our soil' -- we are going to Iraq, or we are going to Afghanistan -- and then any of those 'foreigners' that live in the United States or Canada must also be affiliated. So then people, out of ignorance and arrogance, make connections. And they also make connections with people who just look like other individuals. For example, the Taliban, they wear turbans as a headdress, so they associate those, few Taliban with the Sikh community, whereas in North America 99 per cent of the people who wear turbans are Sikhs.

What this resulted in was a kind of defensive, deflection syndrome which I am strongly against as well, where people would say 'but we are not Arab, we are not Muslim.' That's hazardous. And I saw this yesterday on CNN as well, the anchor was Don Lemon and there was a religion expert. Something that struck a nerve with me was that he said 'since 9/11 Sikhs have been unfairly targeted as Muslims.' And I really resented that because 'unfairly' means that it must be fair to target to Muslims.

So I sent those sentiments to BC Sikhs, a non-profit advocacy group we have, and they tweeted about it: "#Sikhs who are mistaken for #Muslims are not 'unfairly' targeted. NOBODY deserves to be hurt for their faith -- Muslim, Sikh or otherwise." And just to show you the kind of sentiment there was, this has been retweeted 920 times...

DO: That's wonderful, and captures the point very well. We could talk a lot more about issues of hatred and racism, but I wanted to also talk about the issue of gun control. What's it going to take for some serious action on this?

KS: It has to take some political courage. I mean people are so afraid to take on this issue because of votes and it has become a kind of deception of the American people, because whichever candidate tried to bring this issue to the forefront, that person will be judged in the future. I think that if someone would have the courage, I think that decades in the future that person, that president, would be looked upon as a hero... The only purpose of semi-automatic weapons is to do mass damage. And if we are putting that in the hands of people, what are we saying as a society? We want to allow that? It doesn't make any logical sense.

DO: What can people do, other than expressing their solidarity and support for the Sikh community here, to prevent these kind of hate crimes and violent attacks?

KS: I would like to encourage everyone to educate their neighbours about minority groups, educate their children. It starts with your neighbourhood, it starts with your own family. Because sometimes we don't realize we have prejudices, we don't realize we have stereotypes in our own family. And when those go forward, and if they, God forbid, fester in our children's minds and one of our children goes out and does something like this then we will regret it.

So we all, as individual citizens, have a responsibility to raise awareness about diversity and raise awareness about acceptance of other faiths. In terms of this particular tragedy, there is a fund that has been developed for the victims' families, which people can donate to. And locally there is a prayer and vigil at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey (7050-120th Street), at 6p.m. on Tuesday. 

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