You can learn a lot about people by disrespecting their holy sites. I was eighteen, traveling alone in Western India, when I visited Sikhism’s most sacred shrine, the Harmandir Sahib. I had gone there to squint at the marble and gold-plated temple, dazzling in the Punjabi sun, that sits in a vast “pool of nectar” where pilgrims bathe and tiny fish mouths intermittently gasp for air. I knew very little about Sikhs, except that the men sported long beards, colorful turbans and large swords that—fewer than twenty miles from a border between two countries poised to launch nukes at each other—seemed anachronistically quaint.
Ignorant of temple etiquette, I mimicked the pilgrims around me: I removed my shoes, washed my feet and donned a headscarf. It was mid-morning, but the temperature was already well over 100 degrees, and I was relieved to see people sitting at the edge of the pool, cooling off. I sat down and stretched my legs out, my bare feet pointing directly at the gilded inner temple across the water. I was unaware, until that point, that showing the soles of one’s feet is a grave insult in India. Through earnest, frenzied pantomimes, a few Sikh pilgrims swiftly corrected my error. Under the circumstances, their kindness was not obligatory, and I never forgot it.
Later, I became far more knowledgeable about Sikhism through my current work with political and religious asylum seekers in the United States. Sikhs form a numerical minority in India, albeit a highly conspicuous one, and they often encounter suspicion, discrimination and open hostility from other Indians. My Sikh clients speak to me of their desire for an independent homeland, Khalistan. They tell me that the Indian police fire on their peaceful demonstrations and detain their activists on spurious charges, torturing and even killing them in custody.
Media outlets have sought to clarify the distinctions between Sikhs, who surely don’t deserve this kind of treatment, and Muslims, who—it is implied—do. The message is not that, as a country, we ought to aim for better. We just ought to have better aim.
When I heard that a gunman had opened fire at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six people and wounding several more, I thought first of my clients. Their arrival at the law office where I work as a paralegal in San Francisco is typically the culmination of a dangerous journey through Dubai, Sao Paolo and Guatemala City, from where they travel overland through Mexico and illegally cross the U.S. border. The trip takes months, sometimes years, and the smugglers’ price necessitates considerable sacrifices from my clients and their farmer families. The Sikhs I know arrived in the United States expecting safe haven.
Since the Wisconsin shooting, commentators have noted that the incidence of hate crimes against Sikhs increased dramatically in the wake of September 11, when the angry and ignorant mistook them for Muslims. Media outlets, including CNN, have sought to clarify the distinctions between Sikhs, who surely don’t deserve this kind of treatment, and Muslims, who—it is implied—do. The message is not that, as a country, we ought to aim for better. We just ought to have better aim.
I’m something of an expert in identifying Muslims, since I’ve been married to one for nearly three years. My husband Pop prays five times a day and abstains from eating pork. As a child in his native Senegal, he spent his summers at a madrassa, where he learned to read the entire Koran in Arabic. He’s a professional chef, but every few weeks, he insists that I cook something, scrambled eggs, anything. I wouldn’t hesitate to label him a domestic terrorist. Would the bullets fired in Oak Creek have struck my husband more justly?
I was walking home late from work, not long ago, along Mission Street, when I came across an elderly woman. She was looking up at the darkened window of a second-floor apartment and yelling, again and again, the names of the people she hoped were inside. Her voice was feeble and the doorbell was broken, so I helped her yell for a while. Before I left to go home, I gave her my phone number. I had just reached my front door when my phone rang. “They’re not answering.” It was a windy night, and as I walked her to my apartment, I wrapped both arms around this tiny, sniffling stranger to keep her from flying away.
I’d like to say that this is the kind of thing I normally do, but it’s not. I helped this woman because I knew my husband would. On my two visits to Senegal, long before I’d met him, strangers had welcomed me with food and the insistence that I spend at least a few nights. They always said the same thing: “We’re Muslims, and it’s our duty.”
When Maria and I walked in, Pop needed little explanation. Within minutes, he had given her a seat, a glass of water, and a hot meal he’d just cooked. Soon, she told him that her son lived in Las Vegas, that her landlord had recently evicted her, and that she’d been released from the hospital just that morning after five days with a severe case of bronchitis. When she coughed, I heard the crackle of phlegm. My husband put clean pillows on our queen bed and, at its foot, inflated a twin air mattress for us. Still sitting at the kitchen table, I googled “bronchitis contagious?”
Before she climbed into our bed, Maria cooed to Pop that he reminded her of St. Martin de Porres. One begrudging Wikipedia search later, I learned that he is the “patron saint of mixed-race people” and is “noted for work on behalf of the poor.” I think she meant that my husband is one hell of a Muslim.
His first days in the U.S., Pop thought he was in hell. We fell in love in Barcelona, where Pop lived undocumented for four years. The Atlantic Ocean between us, we waited over a year for the visa that would allow him to join me in New Orleans, where I lived at the time. When his visa was finally approved, Pop was excited to move to a country where his wife lived, too; a country where he didn’t have to worry about police demanding to see his papers. He was excited to live in New Orleans, a city where people were black like him.
As we passed a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, one of them said, “Ooh, that’s where my daddy is buried.” “Me, too,” came another soft voice.
Now Pop was surrounded by black people, but something seemed off. His third day there, he watched a teenaged boy pass by him, on a major street in broad daylight, holding an AK-47. It seemed like every day at least one more black man was murdered. Sometimes their photographs would even make the paper, those young men with dreadlocks just like Pop’s. Most white readers would never have managed to distinguish my husband from those American men-turned-cadavers. Pop didn’t see any likeness at all.
But the food, I protested—the music, the quick footwork of men dancing on the porches of shotgun doubles—that was all West African, I said. I resented Pop’s fixation with violence in New Orleans, but I couldn’t deny the city’s murder rate. At the public school where I worked as a teacher, I had once chaperoned second graders on a field trip to the suburbs to see a movie. I shared a row of the school bus with three little boys. As we passed a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, one of them said, “Ooh, that’s where my daddy is buried.” “Me, too,” came another soft voice.
In the two months since Maria left, she’s called me three times. In her messages, she tells me that she’s feeling much better. Sometimes Pop asks me for her number, and though I keep meaning to give it to him, I don’t. It’s hard to explain why, each time she calls, I stare at my phone and let it ring. I guess I worry that she’ll say something that will make it impossible for me not to help her again. The problem with making connections is that they lead to responsibility, and responsibility impels us to do what we know is right. It’s often a lot easier to continue being wrong.
It was the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora (not the Wisconsin gurdwara attack, not the two hundred people murdered in New Orleans last year) that finally led many people to connect the loss of all those American lives to our highest political leaders’ refusal to talk about gun control.
The twelve people killed, and fifty-eight people wounded, in Aurora represented a cross-section of American society. The people there that night were a racially mixed group. Most of them were adults or teenagers, but some were children, and one victim was three months old. Their attacker, James Holmes, with his gas mask and dyed red hair, was the quintessential madman. What motive could explain gunning down so many Gothamites, whose only offense had been going out at midnight for a glimpse of the iconic bat signal?
Other communities have been throwing up distress signals for a while now. We see them, and we don’t come to their aid. The shootings in Aurora were atrocities: no one deserves to be killed “at random.” But dying at gunpoint because you’re a black man, or because you’re a Muslim—or because your turban sure makes you look like one—is no better. We’d all like to believe it goes without saying.