Real Muslims, fake Muslims: assessing the massacre at the Oak Creek Sikh Gurdwara

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zainab Cheema

Shawwal 14, 1433 2012-09-01

News & Analysis

by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 7, Shawwal, 1433)

White supremacist militias have mushroomed in the US since 911. The Wisconsin Gurdwara attack is but a small sample of its devastating effects whose principal target are Muslims.

In Summer 2012, a strange harvest ripened in the US. In six weeks’ span, five shootings splashed blood on pavements and ink across newspapers. A movie-house shooting in Colorado (the same state as the infamous Columbine massacre) on July 20 left 12 dead; a Washington, DC shootout at a conservative think tank on August 15 killed a security guard. The August 13 shootout near the Texas A&M campus killed three people and wounded several more. Finally, the infamous Sikh gurdwara shootout in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, where seven Sikhs were killed by a white gunman who walked into the temple and unleashed fire on the congregants.

The fifth is breaking news — eleven people shot in New York City on August 24. A disgruntled ex-employee of a clothing store, Jeffrey Johnson, opened fire on a rival whom he held responsible for his being laid off. Nine people and Johnson himself were shot in front of NYC’s iconic Empire State building in a gun battle between Johnson and the police (the nine were probably the result of police fire).

The most high profile case of all four — the one that drew some measure of honest reporting — is the massacre at the Sikh gurdwara. On Sunday, August 5, a gunman walked into a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and shot seven people, killing six of them. The gunman then committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Wade Michael Page, a 40-year old Army veteran, has been linked to several white supremacist groups, including Hammerskin Nation, End Apathy and others. Most shootings not committed by people who are not visibly Muslim are tagged in the “lone nut” category — that is, an anti-social loon going berserk, whose actions could not have been predictably prevented by law enforcement agencies.

The gurdwara shooting, however, was labeled as an example of “domestic terror,” even as Sikh groups and other religious minorities voiced outrage over the incident, and thousands showed up at candlelight vigils in Southern California and New York. President Barack Obama offered condolences in a televised speech, and Michelle Obama personally met with the gurdwara congregation. The politics of naming a crime is a subtle one — acts of physical and psychological violence against Muslims, such as arson or staking burning crosses in front of masjids, tend to get labeled as “hate crime” rather than “terrorism.” The idea is that since Muslims are organically linked with terrorism, they themselves cannot be the victims of terrorism.

Media commentary of the gurdwara massacre functioned as a public apology of sorts for US cultural ignorance — many commentators noted that Sikhs have often been mistaken for Muslims since 9/11 because the men wear turbans and women wear dupattas on their head for religious occasions. “No religious group has suffered more than Sikhs since 9/11,” one reporter declared, ignoring the fear-saturated histories of violence suffered by Muslim Americans since 2001. Or another reporter noting that one positive side benefit of the massacre is that the reclusive Sikh community is now better known to the US public. In other words, Sikhs have unjustly suffered violence because they were “fake Muslims” — their visual appearance mimics those of Muslims, who have been the real target of terrorist attacks.

“‘Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim’ is not a response,” noted Sheila Musaji in an article. “A number of Sikh advocacy groups formed shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.” Many Sikh spokesmen have reiterated the sentiment. “If we are implying that the Sikh community is being targeted for being considered Muslims,” observed the legal advisor for Sikhs for Justice, “We are implying that it’s ok to go after the Muslim community.”

Notwithstanding the media’s warped mea culpa, it appears that Wade Michael Page did in fact believe that he was targeting Muslims in the shootout. Evidence unearthed after the massacre revealed that his ex-girlfriend worked a mere two blocks away from the gurdwara. In addition, Page sported a 9/11 tattoo and a “14 words” tattoo on his body: the latter is reference to white supremicist David Lane’s adaptation of a line from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”

Page’s military background is critical to understanding the shadowy dynamics of violence and power underlying the “fake Muslim” debate. Page was a retired Army veteran, trained as a psychological operations specialist (a title suggestive of torture) and was an active member of neo-Nazi bands. Interviews with colleagues revealed that Page openly spouted his racist views in the military. According to University of Nebraska professor Pete Simi, who interviewed him in 2001, Page had griped about whites being discriminated against in the armed forces, and how African American soldiers were “coddled” and received promotions due to affirmative action style policies.

Page was dismissed from the US military not because of his toxic views, but because of his problems with alcohol. His comments to Simi are revelatory in many ways — “If you don’t go into the military as a racist, you definitely leave as one." Page intended this as a comment on reverse discrimination (developing bigotry after coming in contact with racism) but it underscores the culture of violence nourished in the military toward ethnic and racial “others” (notwithstanding the ROTC posters displaying multicultural lineup of soldiers).

In other words, it is not that the US military is designed to protect the country, but a particular vision of the country — the United States as a bastion of whiteness. Whether against “real Muslims” or “fake Muslims,” the government’s decision to tag such violence as an exceptional case, the actions of a “lone nut,” it becomes clear that this violence is tacitly permitted as long as it simmers below the pale of visibility. Former Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson describes how the DHS responded to pressure from Republican representatives and talk show hosts to squash his unit’s surveillance of growing white supremacy groups in the US. White terrorism is an oxymoron — the logic is that it is not violence but judicious force on behalf of a treasured national principle.

In the five shootings that have burst over US newspaper pages as summer winds to a close, the driving force seems to be economic desperation and the growth of white militancy in the United States. The two are not disconnected from one another. As Wall Street Inc defrauds the country of its wealth, many of the jobless are turning to right-wing ideologies to fill in the gaps left by meaning, purpose and hope. Summer 2012 will not be its final harvest.

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