More than 60 people huddled together with candles in hand on the steps of Brower Commons for an interfaith vigil in memory of the seven Sikhs who died Aug. 5 after a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
The vigil was held to bring awareness and understanding about the hate crime that occurred, said Rashmeen Kaur, president of the Sikh Student Association at the University.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion based on prayer, earning an honest living and serving the community around its followers, said Gurpal Sran, public relations officer for the Sikh Student Association.
With more than 20 million practicing Sikhs, it is the fifth-largest organized religion in the world, he said.
Kaur, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior, was upset a crime against Sikhs could happen now, when many have learned to accept the differences of others.
“Even though it wasn’t my mother or my uncle, it still affected us deep in our heart,” Kaur said.
Sran said he was in Michigan on a cross-country road trip with his father when the shooting happened.
“We were shocked. We were appalled. We didn’t think that something like that could happen in this country,” said Sran, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
Sran said they took a detour to visit Oak Creek the next day and attended a vigil at a sister temple.
The people at the vigil were not just sad and angry, but proud their community could come together after an event like this and hope for better things ahead, he said.
Sran said many tend to confuse Islam with Sikhism.
“Islam and Sikhism are both very peaceful religions. The people are peaceful, and the fact that they’re confused with each other isn’t really a big deal with me — that happens,” Sran said, adding that most religions have the same goals of tolerance, equality and serving others.
As an American citizen, Sran is troubled by xenophobic attitudes toward unfamiliar religions in this country, and he thinks that needs to change.
“I think we’ve accomplished harder things in this country, and I think we do have the ability to really go out there and really campaign for knowledge — to show that all these people are the same,” he said.
Kaur said she thinks the shooting occurred because American citizens have failed to learn about other people and understand their religions over the past 10 to 15 years.
“We’ve become less accepting than we should be,” she said.
Sikhs are sometimes labeled as Pakistani or Muslim or terrorists if they wear a turban, Kaur said.
“Just by looking at our outside appearance, they fail to recognize who we are,” she said. “We’re not terrorists. We’re peaceful, loving people.”
Harinder Singh, community educator and co-founder of the Sikh Research Institute, said the shooting should be used as a moment to teach religious tolerance.
Sikhs do not have an idea of grieving, Singh told the crowd at the vigil.
Sikhs believe evil is a perversion of mind, and the way to fight is to educate more people to diminish this kind of perversion, he said.
They instead pray for strength to become agents of change to prevent future hate, he said.
“We invoke the one force, the universal force, to help us deal with the tragedy that has taken place,” Singh said, adding that there needs to be systematic government policy changes to help prevent this from happening in the future.
“When we come together as citizenry, as students, what matters is everyone has a right to live the way they want to live,” he said.
Singh said the shooting teaches others to stand up for other people’s rights even when they might not follow their religion or lifestyle.
“In Sikh tradition, we believe there is no ‘other,’” Singh said.
He said persisting judgments about non-mainstream religions only create new manifestations of hate.
“When somebody is belittling the ‘other,’ if you stand up and question them, [if] you stop being a bystander and become an upstander, that’s when the hate and vengeance will stop,” Singh said.
Clarification: When Sran mentions xenophobia, he is speaking of very rare and isolated incidents with a few individuals, not of a trend throughout the nation.