Wade Page, the White supremacist who stands accused of killing six people in a shooting rampage two weeks ago at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and apparently did his murderous deeds at a Sikh religious institution because of a common error.
He thought the Sikhs were Muslims.
Sikh men and many devout Muslim men sport beards and head coverings – turbans in the case of Sikhs; various items, including knitted white skullcaps, in the case of Muslims.
To the uninitiated, it’s easy to mistake a member of one faith for a follower of the other, often with fatal results, self-appointed vigilantes assuming that any Muslim is a potential terrorist and taking the law into their own hands.
It’s happened a lot in this country, particularly since 9/11. “People don’t understand who we are. It’s a misidentity,” a retired Sikh taxi driver who lives in Queens was quoted as saying last week by the thenews.com.pk website. “They think we’re Muslim or the Taliban. We’re not.”
Sikhism, the fifth-largest religion in the world, is an independent, monotheistic faith that was founded 500 years ago in South Asia.
“Mistaken for Muslims … Sikhs have repeatedly emerged as a target of bigots intent for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” an essay in the Washington Post stated last week.
My own – more benign – run-in with such religious ignorance and intolerance happened several years ago in Buffalo, my hometown.
One warm fall afternoon, I was running on the road of Delaware Park, the city’s mecca for joggers and bikers and other health enthusiasts that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th-Century American landscape designer best-known for planning Manhattan’s Central Park.
It was erev Shabbos. A small, brown knit kipa was atop my head. After I started my route, a car of college kids drive by. Apparently drunk, obviously dumb, they started shouting “Hare Rame, Hare Rame” at me as they passed.
Not theologically enlightened, they chose the Hare Krishna mantra as their epithet de jure.
I was more confused than scared. They made no effort to threaten me. They simply wanted to make clear their disapproval of someone whose garb identified him as a member of a minority religion. “Hare Rame” was the only verse at their disposal.
At the end of my second 1.8-mile loop of the park, I saw their car parked alongside the road. I decided to confront them.
“Why did you yell at me?” I asked. They seemed surprised but harmless. It was a joke, they explained. Some joke. I told them I am an Orthodox Jew, and that I keep my head covered as a sign of respect for God.
I didn’t broach the subject of their religious faux pas.
They understood, they said. They apologized. We shook hands before I drove home for Shabbat.
Religious misunderstandings are common. They can lead to mutual understanding, if the transgressors are not malicious, simply juvenile, as the college kids in the park that day were. Or intolerance born of ignorance can have deadly consequences.
Just ask the next Sikh you meet.