Monday, August 06, 2012

Hard ways to learn lessons

An observant Sikh wearing the distinctive turban that sometimes becomes a target for haters.

One of the curiosities of insular U.S. culture is the fact it takes a disaster --- like the shooting deaths of seven at a Sikh temple in Oak Park, near Milwaukee, on Sunday --- to raise consciousness about each other. Even then, it's not clear who is paying attention.

I got up wondering how many Iowans realize that Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register writer and columnist self-styled conservatives love to hate, is Sikh --- although I have no idea about her level of observance.

Or that those men with beards wearing turbans we see here and there in Iowa are Sikh --- not Muslim --- and that Sikhism has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. That's important because in our wingnut post 9/11 incarnation some conclude Sikhs are Muslim and target them for discrimination or violence primarily because turbans make observant Sikh males distinctive.

Although it's not clear yet what the motive for Sundays rampage was, there are indications this morning that something of that sort might have been playing out in the addled brain of the shooter.

In the interests of fair disclosure, I should say that the only Sikh I've been even slightly acquainted with was a friend's neurologist.

On the other hand, I've known since the days of University religion courses that Sikhism arose on the Indian subcontinent and might have had a national identity in the Indian state of Punjab had it not been for the Christian soldiers of British colonialsm. A majority of Sikhs still live there, but diaspora has brought many to the United States --- more to Canada, where folks tend to be more civilized on all sorts of levels than we are.

I set out to look for statistics this morning --- a challenge facing the media, too, where knowledge about the subsets of people who form the U.S. population is somewhat limited.

I found an apparently reliable source that told me the U.S. Sikh population during 2007 was estimated at 250,000. No doubt that figure is higher now and I've seen estimates placing the total as high as 500,000.

I wanted to be able to rank Sikhism among the world's religions --- but that's problematic, too. There's no doubt the Christian and Islamic cults have command of the top rankings with Hindus and Buddhists trailing in third and fourth.

The media have been placing Sikhism fifth, but that's problematic. Do you count the non-religious and the non-believers as a faith group, too? And various experts take various approaches to grouping adherents of  faith traditions that are generally Asian but not Buddhist --- Confucianism and Taoism, for example.

In the end numbers aren't important, I suppose. Sikhs in general are a peaceful people, not inclined to the extremism and violence of some among their Christian or Muslim neighbors. This is a hard way to learn that lesson.

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