The first I heard of last week’s fatal shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was through a text message from an acquaintance asking what state Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington) might be doing in Oak Creek. It was a tasteless joke to be sure, but it does help illustrate the surreal degree of extremism and ignorance which has been sweeping across the U.S. political landscape for over a decade.
Don’t get me wrong, no one is suggesting Knotts is capable of such a despicable act as gunning down six people during a religious ceremony. But Knotts’ comments in 2010 about Gov. Nikki Haley, herself the daughter of Sikh immigrants, are certainly indicative of the ridiculous “turban means terrorist” mindset which led to such a hate-motivated shooting.
“To a criminal, the turban is seen as a symbol of someone who is a fanatic, who is against democracy, against Western values,” Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Washington-based Sikh Council on Religion and Education, told USA Today this week. “To us, the turban is a symbol of justice, worn by a person you can count on, embrace and support, someone who fights for the equality of all men and women.”
The temple shooter, 40-year-old Army veteran Wade Michael Page, was described by police as a white supremacist with a 9/11 tattoo who was affiliated with “a virulently racist and anti-Semitic … neo-Nazi group” called Volksfront. Say, remember how angry conservatives got when the Department of Homeland Security sent out that alert about domestic right-wing terrorism?
The sooner Americans can accept the reality that terrorism can be committed by extremists on all sides of the political spectrum, the sooner we can focus on the motivations that drive such extreme actions. These feelings are borne from a deep-seated hatred of all things “other,” which leads some to assume that Sikhs and Muslims must be similar enough because of the whole beard-and-turban thing — even though the two religions are actually completely different.
It’s the same feeling that leads American Islamophobes to pass around an old photo of Barack Obama wearing a turban, and to make so much of his time spent in Indonesia. It’s the same feeling that turned the final days of the 2008 election into a truly ugly spectacle, with John McCain supporters yelling “He’s not a Christian!” as Sarah Palin stoked the flames of Obama’s “other-ness.”
It’s the same feeling being exploited right now by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose new ad accuses President Obama of “waging war on religion” by helping women obtain birth control.
It’s the seedy underbelly of U.S. politics, and it has to stop.