Blaming the Victims

Why is the U.S. media demanding that Sikhs defend their faith?


See more on who the Sikhs really are here.

This Sunday, Aug. 5, 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and massacred six worshippers. Page, a white Christian with links to an extremist group, committed an act of violence against a religious community in the United States. This, by the FBI’s definition, was an act of terrorism. But that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. That day NBC News qualified its story with "it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism." (By Tuesday, a Fox News analyst claimed that the Wisconsin shooting was not terrorism — because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims — in contrast with the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, which is terrorism because the shooter was protesting the policies of the United States government.)

When coverage started in earnest on Sunday, a Fox News anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of "anti-Semitism." A Fox local news report claimed that Sikhs were "based in northern Italy." And the host of CNN’s Newsroom Don Lemon struggled with the "murky detail" of whether Sikhs were Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer "could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs."


Why the insensitive media coverage? Part of the problem comes from American ignorance about Sikhs, who make up just 0.16 percent of the American population (there are approximately 27 million Sikhs worldwide). But the bigger problem is that too many American journalists (and Americans) equate terrorism with Muslims. So when an act of terrorism occurs that appears to have nothing to do with Islam, some media outlets struggle with how to frame the killings.

After realizing that Sikhism is its own religion (based in northern India, not northern Italy), both Fox and CNN explained that Sikhs were "unfairly" mistaken for Muslims. In other words, Sikhs were an unfortunate casualty in the war on terrorism — "unfairly" mistaken for a group expected to be involved in the violence. As Sunday unfolded, CNN decided it needed to clear Sikhs of any links to violent religious ideology, and to clarify that Sikhism, although it is not Christianity or Judaism, is peaceful. In a conversation between Surinder Singh, representative of the Guru Nanak Mission Society of Atlanta, a Sikh religious organization, and CNN’s Rob Marciano and Don Lemon, the news anchors seem more concerned about the tenets of Sikhism than the implications of an crime against, as the interviewee rightly puts it, mankind:

INTERVIEWEE: But whoever did this one is — I would say-a crime against humanity. It is not about Sikhs. It is not about Muslims. It’s not about Hindus. It’s about the human mankind.

LEMON: Very well said.

MARCIANO: An excellent point, Mr. Singh. And back to the religion specifics, now that we have you, and our viewers may be wondering or are uneducated in the theology on this, describe for us in brief what are the pillars of your faith?

To its credit, when CNN broke the news story, it cautiously used, a website maintained by Sikhs, to describe Sikhism as a religion that "developed about 500 years ago, and their main belief is to seek the truth."

But by 3 p.m., the narrative of "mistaken identity" really took hold. Several media outlets, including MSNBC, CNN, and the Associated Press argued repeatedly that many Americans confused Sikhs with Muslims because of their beards and turbans. Instead of simply stating that an act of racism and hatred was committed against a religious group in the country, the media put Sikhs on the defensive. It required Sikhs to explain not only the pillars of their faith but asked them to speculate on why this would happen to their community.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Sikh Coalition, there were at least 300 reported incidents of attacks against Sikhs in the first month after 9/11. Some Sikhs, like Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president who was one of the six slain in the attack, hung big American flags outside their window to show their patriotism. But in interviews on television and print, Sikhs had to continue to state they were not Muslim or members of the Taliban. The media pushed Sikhs into a binary of "terrorist/good citizen," and used their sound bites over the past two days to reinforce this narrative.

The media’s coverage ultimately raised more questions than it answered: When we have a tragedy when American lives are being lost, why do we spend the majority of our time trying to understand what Sikhs are? And if the shooter did want to kill Sikhs, and hadn’t mistaken them for Muslims, would Sikhs be responsible for explaining his motivations? Are we trying to decide whether or not they are "worthy" victims?

Many in the media missed an incredible opportunity on Sunday: to help re-frame how we see domestic terrorism — an act against Americans — even if the victims are brown and the perpetrator is a white Christian.

<p> Rozina Ali is a researcher and blogger focused on the Middle East, Pakistan, and Muslim identity in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter: @rozina_ali. </p>