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When Hatred Strikes Close to Home

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I were driving our daughter to sleepaway camp when I received a voice message from a high school friend. Knowing that I go offline on Sundays, she wanted to be sure that I knew about the shootings that had happened at a Wisconsin Sikh temple a few hours before--shootings that directly affected the life and family of one of our other friends, N.

N (with whom I just got to spend a lot of wonderful time at our high school reunion last weekend) is married to a Sikh man. They live in a suburb of Milwaukee, and are friendly with other people in the Sikh community there. Apparently when N's mother-in-law comes for extended visits, the Oak Creek temple is the one she regularly attends.

N's husband was working at the hospital yesterday when the shooting went down. Thank God for that. But they already know that someone they know is among the dead, and N is waiting for the rest of the victims' names to be released this morning.

It is a ghastly time. It is surreal.

N is trying to fight through anger and fear to find things to be grateful for. She texted me last night that if the shooter had arrived a little later it would have been much worse, with more people present overall, and women and children standing right outside the sanctuary area where the shootings occurred.

But the fear won't subside immediately for my friends even after the CNN crews have packed away their equipment and America's attention has been diverted elsewhere. Since Sikh men wear turbans and many ignorant people mistake them for Muslims, some of the 700+ hate crimes committed against Sikhs in America since 2001 have been the result of misdirected rage about terrorism, including the fatal shooting of an Arizona Sikh man shortly after 9/11, and the murders of two elderly Sikh men who were out for a walk in California in March.

Now the name of the gunman has been released, and news coverage will shift to trying to ascertain a motive for this tragedy.

But religious hatred does not need a motive, and it happens all too often. As Stephen Prothero pointed out in his book Religious Literacy, most Americans know shockingly little about their own religions, let alone the traditions and beliefs of others. And that has got to change. Prothero advocates a mandatory world religions course in public high schools, and I am coming around to his point of view.

Ignorance breeds hatred. Hatred gives rise to violence. Although education in religious pluralism cannot entirely eradicate hatred, it can certainly make a difference.


The Sikh ceremonial photo is used with permission of


Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Christian - Catholic, Christian - Orthodox, Christian - Protestant, Hinduism, Islam, Mormon, Sikh
Tags: august 5 sikh temple shootings, flunking sainthood, jana riess, milwaukee, wi sikh community, oak creek sikh temple shootings, sikhism, stephen prothero religious literacy, violence against sikhs


  1. It seems that too often text books get it wrong on such matters though.

    But then maybe that was just my ignorance of my own religion speaking when I’d correct something about my religion that I thought was being taught incorrectly.

  2. Speaking as a publisher for a moment, textbooks are an easy fix—especially now, when digital publishing means that corrections and changes can be made quickly and cheaply. The harder question would be, which textbooks? And who gets to decide?

  3. Rather than “ignorance breeds hatred,” I’d say that ignorance provides a fertile breeding ground for hatred.  It’s really like anaerobic soil, devoid of the oxygen and nutrients that promote healthy growth, providing sustenance only for toxic bacteria.  If we want a healthy society, combatting ignorance, really educating ourselves and broadening our understanding of others is the only way to go.

  4. Which brings us to the fact that so many in our culture are currently advocating for policies that work against ignorance. They suggest less money be spent on public education, that we promote “Christian” values in our schools - as if the values we Christians hold dear are unique to us rather than the basis for most of the great world religions - that we adhere to an attitude of American exceptionalism that really is nothing more than promotion of the idea that America and Americans are better than everyone else - it is clearly hubristic. Arghh - I guess I thought by this point in American history we would have grown up and opened ourselves to living harmoniously in this world, but….

  5. When I was at Brigham Young University several years ago I took a World Religions class.  The professor wanted us to experience as much first hand information as possible about each religion, rather than learn everything from a textbook written by Mormon authors.  He invited a Sikh student to speak to us and share his personal beliefs.  It was a powerful experience for me.  I was surprised at how much our religions had in common, both in belief and practice.  Without that education, I would have never guessed that I shared so much with someone who appeared to be so different from me. 

    I think you are right to say that ignorance creates a climate for hatred.  Education helps us to connect, and humanize other cultures.  It helps us to focus on similarities rather than only seeing differences.  It may not be the only answer, but I think it’s an important part of the solution.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post. However, I think you meant to say there have been 700+ crimes committed against Sikhs since 2001, not since 2011.

  7. Kim McCall made an important point that ignorance does not necessarily BREED hatred, but can provide fertile ground for it to grow in. Teaching religion in school to reduce the ignorance quotient makes sense, but will only be effective if Secularism-As-Religion is included. Adherents of traditional religions need to understand where their non-religious brethren are coming from, and secularists need to grasp that their belief-system addresses the same life-issues as traditional religions. Not only that, but it can lead to the same kind of ignorance-based hatred that creates the climate for hate crimes.

  8. Jana - I just wanted you and Cincinnati locals to know that the Cincinnaty Sikh community is hosting an Interfaith Prayer and Memorial Service as a response to the shooting. It is being held at the local Gurdwara, Guru Nanak Society in West Chester, on August 19th.  I believe that many Sikh communities are hosting such gatherings throughout the country.  This seems to be one little antidote to this tragic event, and a good way to start to get to know each other. Perhaps one small act of peace-making.

  9. Kim made a great analogy with the anaerobic soil. I like that image very much.

    Andrea, I’m glad to hear that such an event is happening, though unfortunately I will be out of town that day. I’m sorry to miss it.

  10. in a culture where violence is the ultimate reaction to things not understood or feared, nothing will make for a more humane and peaceful nation/world that a deep sweeping of cultural values. violence is glorified. there is something terribly wrong about that. warfare is celebrated. there is something terribly wrong about that. overcoming an enemy by violent means is triumphal. there is something terribly wrong about that, especially when we are our own worst enemy (i mean really, would we have as many enemies if we took the time and energy to get to know other people different from ourselves…or, if we took seriously the teaching to “love our neighbors and enemies!”). the character of a culture will color the character of the person, unless the person can withstand as a counter-cultural model for others to follow (i.e. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr.).

  11. Catholic children are confirmed at 13; Jewish children are bar mitzvahed at 13. I always think age 14 should be about studying religions other than your own for a cultural and religious experience. Shortly after 9/11 Jane Friedman and HarperCollins hosted an evening with Bruce Feiler talking about how Abraham was a pivotal figure in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. It was a very interesting and uplifting evening where I learned a lot. The spirit of sharing and understanding that evening is one I still have with me.

  12. Great idea, Carol. Claudia, thank you for catching my error—I just fixed it.

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