Almost as quickly as it offered it, the FBI retreated from its characterization of the Oak Creek, Wis., shooting as “domestic terrorism”, signaling a hesitation to assign any particular motive to the crime. Since the shooter, himself, died in the episode, we may never know his motivation. It may be that Wade Michael Page intended to kill Muslims, and was too daft to realize his intended target was gathered in a Sikh gurdwara. It may be that he was simply a rabid white supremacist, and the people he killed could have been Mexican Catholics or Russian Jews, for all he cared. It may have been that he was just stark raving mad, in which case, motive has little to do with it.
But for the moment, we can’t ignore that this madman chose a specific and distinct community on which to wreak his havoc. The Sikh community stands apart, intentionally. For four centuries, Sikhs have made an effort to distinguish themselves, as much in the way that they look as in the way that they act. And we might well ask why a community would be so determined to look different. Why would a religious community, especially, be so committed to a look that attracts condescending, unfriendly, and even violent attention?
Surely, educated adults can’t believe that turbans and other religious garb provide some kind of divine power. Our post-enlightenment maturity sees that ceremonial clothing is only ceremonial, and, thus, without any inherent, spiritual quality. Consequently, the rational, twenty first century response to the kind of persecution that meaningless ceremonial clothing attracts would be to stop dressing differently. And yet, Sikhs are not alone in their determination to dress their parts, in spite of the difficulties that their get-up engenders.
The yellow stars enjoined on Polish Jews after 1939 were an instrument of oppression. A rational twentieth-century response to the yellow star would be to stop being Jewish. No star, no oppression. But, for many rational, twentieth-century Jews, these stars became powerful, meaningful expressions of identity. The armbands and patches that carried the sign of Jewish heritage came to declare for many the determination to live (and die) as the authors of their lives. So, too, the yarmulke and other items of religious clothing that Jews choose to wear. In addition to their spiritual significance, these trappings contribute substantially to the Jewish individual’s claim on the right to exist as a Jew.
We can consider Islamic hijabs, Hindu janeus, and Christian crucifixes alongside Sikh turbans as similar claims on identity. Reason does not justify these apparently arbitrary expressions of religious devotion, which is exactly why these expressions are so effective. Neither reason, nor logic, nor convenience, nor propriety tells a person to wear a turban on his head, or a cross around his neck, or to get a tattoo on his forearm. We choose these things in spite of how troublesome they can be. They say for us, “I can be a Muslim”, or, “I can be a Hindu,” in a world that recommends that I be something else.
Some religions may, indeed, be exploitative and degrading, but where religion is a choice (and we might argue that real religion is always a choice), it is particularly good at freeing people from cultural conventions that tend to dehumanize the many for the sake of aggrandizing the few. Few things affirm as strongly a person’s humanity than choosing the path of greater resistance. A strange and eminently impractical look can be a declaration of independence. Surely, in this country, we can appreciate that.
The religious “look” that so many people adopt in so many different forms cannot fairly be reduced to irrational superstition or to mindless convention. The look not only expresses identity, but largely constitutes identity—both apart from society and as a part of a society.
Sikhs, here in the U.S. and in India, as well, are models of communal fortitude. They will survive this latest atrocity, just as they’ve overcome centuries of atrocities even more galling than this one, because Sikhism has discovered the great mystery of religions that have staying power. Being different is difficult, but liberating.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”