By Jim Hagerty
A local religious leader fears a disturbing national trend could rear its head in Rockford.
Baba Ji, of the Nanaksar Sikh Temple, 714 Third Ave., said while many people confuse his parishioners with Muslims – something he is glad to correct – a growing number of those he encounters often make another mischaracterization, one with a much more sinister connotation.
“People think we are terrorists,” Ji said.
Although no violence has come upon the Rockford Sikh community, Ji’s fears are hardly without merit. In 2012, a gunman shot six people dead at a Milwaukee temple. Officials believe the incident was a hate crime directed at Muslims, a faith Ji says is also often misunderstood.
“Just because one or two terrorists claim to be Muslim, it doesn’t mean you can bind the whole community who believe in Islam,” Ji said.
“In the Middle East, people are fighting with each other – Shia and Sunni. And sometimes Christians and non-Muslims are killed. That is what brings misidentification. And it is happening with Sikh. People ask me, ‘Are you radical Islamic?’”
The answer, Ji said, is “no,” yet since Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden remains the stereotypical image of a terrorist. Taliban, al-Qaeda and now ISIS have institutionalized religious hatemongering, placing those who appear to have roots in the Middle East in wrongfully familiar category.
“They see our turbans and our beards and immediately think Sikh are in favor of violence,” Ji said.
Sikh is anything but violent, Ji continued. In America, Sikhism comes with pride of citizenship, and an indoctrination of the American melting pot. Absent is a disdain for western culture, Christianity or Judaism, an earmark of radical groups around the world, including those who claim to follow Islam.
“Terrorists only use the name of Islam,” Ji said. “They are not true Muslims. They are like Sikh. True followers of Islam are a peaceful people who do not believe in terrorism. Please, don’t hit them or shoot them.”
Other recent incidents of violent race crimes and attacks on the Sikh community have also occurred in Arizona, Atlanta, California, Kansas City and New York. Ji said each attack was fueled largely by misinformation and a brand of jingoism that has no place in peaceful, loving society.
Ji is also a realist. Not everyone will adhere to peaceful values and consider others above themselves. When that occurs, he said, we must step aside and allow our public servants to take over.
“If you see somebody – anybody – looking suspicious, call the police,” he said. “Don’t take the law into your (own) hands. The United States is the biggest county in the world that is always talking about civil rights, freedom of religion and racism. If we (allow) racism, vandalism and hate crime, it is a black spot on the Constitution and the supreme law of the land.”
Ji is currently participating in Zion Lutheran Church’s Neighbors of Faith program.
“We talk about how we can make a strong relationship with those with a different culture,” he said. “We have to know each other. And with all of the differences and diversity, there is one thing to remember: We are one family.”