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October 24, 2014

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Las Vegans reflect on discrimination, resilience at interfaith vigils for Sikh victims

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Christopher DeVargas

A candlelight vigil is held at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in memory of those killed in the Aug. 5th 2012, shooting at a temple in Wisconson.

Sikh Memorial Service

Hundreds of people from different religious backgrounds arrived at the Sikh temple, Baba Deep Singh Ji, in northwest Las Vegas, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, to honor those killed in an Aug. 5, 2012, shooting at a Sikh temple of Wisconsin. Launch slideshow »

Sikh Temple Honors Shooting Victims

The Guru Nanak Gurdwara opened it's doors to the public, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in memory of those killed in the Aug. 5th 2012, shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconson. Launch slideshow »

As storm clouds encroach on the eastern valley, a handful of residents lingering outside the Guru Nanak Gurdwara take shelter inside the humble Sikh temple. Beneath its low ceilings, several dozen people, mostly Sikh worshippers, make small talk as they wait for Thursday evening’s 6:30 p.m. prayer service to begin.

Like the night before at a Gurdwara in northwest Las Vegas, Guru Nanak Gurdwara is holding an interfaith community vigil to honor the six victims of Sunday’s shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

The crowd is far smaller and less diverse than the 400 or so residents and city officials who came out on Wednesday, but the spirit of solidarity and resilience is just as strong, less about strength in numbers than about intimacy.

Inside, the scene is a far cry from the solemn, sacrosanct space that might come to mind when imagining a house of worship, and instead more like the living room of a large family: In the langar, or dining hall, outside the main prayer room, worshippers sip Diet Cokes and fan themselves; a young girl giggles on her cellphone while adjusting her emerald headscarf. On the wall behind her, framed portraits of long-bearded sikhs gaze, perhaps skeptically, over a folding table crammed with trays of steaming basmati rice, rich curries and bags of Lays potato chips.

The atmosphere may have been lighthearted, but as attendees file into the diwan, or main prayer room, they are reminded of why they’re gathered this evening.

“My heart broke. I felt tremendous pain,” says Barbera Battson, a member of the interfaith Center for Spiritual Living of Greater Las Vegas, of her reaction to Sunday’s massacre. “Sikhs are such kind, gentle people and to think that somebody would just go do that — it hurts my heart.”

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emphasizes universal equality. Founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan, it is the world’s fifth-largest organized religion, with about 27 million observers worldwide.

Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair, with men often covering their heads with a turban and growing out their beards; however, those who choose not to follow this tradition are still welcome in the Sikh community. Close to 800,000 people identify as Sikh in the United States, with about 2,000 Sikh worshippers across the valley.

As with the previous night’s vigil, interfaith community members offered words of strength and condolences to those impacted by the shooting. Speakers particularly emphasized unity and acceptance of others, not simply tolerance, to combat hatred.

"Tolerance means your arms are crossed. You tolerate a dog barking in your neighbor's backyard," said Teji Malik, a Sikh who serves on the board of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada. "Acceptance means being open to embrace other people."

Though the vast majority of those who wear turbans in the U.S. are Sikh, their head coverings and long beards have caused many to be the inadvertent victims of anti-Islamic or anti-Arab sentiment in the wake of 9/11.

According to the New York-based Sikh Coalition, a non-profit civil rights group founded after the Sept. 11 attacks, there have been over 700 hate crimes against Sikhs in the U.S. since 9/11; the Coalition has also handled thousands of complaints from Sikhs about racial profiling and workplace discrimination.

The conflation of the two faiths did not go unmentioned at Thursday's vigil. Dr. Aslam Abdullah, director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, reflected on the suggestion that the Milwaukee gunman was ignorant of the Sikh faith and had intended to kill Muslims. He stressed that ignorance must not be used as an excuse for the gunman's actions.

"You don't have to know a Sikh in order to respect life. You don't have to know a Muslim in order to say no to violence. You don't have to know a Christian or a Jew in order to say that life is sacred," he said. "That man was not ignorant of Sikhism but filled with hatred. Hatred does not come from ignorance, but a sense of superiority that one develops of one's culture, one's race, one's religion over others."

Dr. Bashir Chowdhry, chairman of the Islamic Society of Southern Nevada’s board of trustees, echoed that sentiment.

“There is no place for such senseless killing in civilized society. We as the Muslim community stand by you, and we join you in the fight to claim our rights,” he said.

For Chowdhry, those words hit close to home. In February, the nearly completed $1.5 million Islamic funeral home he and his family helped establish for the Las Vegas community was burned to the ground in a suspected hate crime.

Malik's 17-year-old son Trimaan says he too has experienced discrimination in the past. He cites middle school as a difficult period for him, as classmates teased him about his turban and called him “a terrorist.”

"I would tell myself, I would tell my parents, 'It doesn't affect me, it doesn't affect me,' but at some point in time, it will affect you. You'll feel, ok, this isn't cool," he says.

Today, however, he's looking forward to entering his senior year at Advanced Technologies Academy, where he says his friends and classmates see past superficial differences. But it's not just about others, he says, explaining that it's also up to him to rise above the hate, which he attributes to a lack of knowledge about his faith. These days, instead of getting angry, he'll laugh off an off-color remark, or, if he's feeling cheeky, think of a witty comeback.

Though he's still coming to terms with Sunday's shooting, he says it's important to use that same mentality of resilience and optimism to move forward.

“It’s sad and upsetting, but hopefully all of this can bring a different light on other issues, like gun control and our religion. But on the other hand, in order to get the public aware of our religion at the cost of other lives — that’s never something good.”

Like his son, Malik remains optimistic in the wake of tragedy. He says the outpouring of support from city officials, religious leaders, the media and average citizens from across the valley at this week’s Gurdwara vigils has been “truly heartwarming.”

“It shows togetherness in all of us. Especially in Las Vegas, where hardly anyone has roots here,” he says. “In Milwaukee, where people are born and bred going back generations, it’s a different story. But here we’re all thrown together from different roots -- we’re all outsiders in a sense. So I think coming together the way we have here has more significance than in other places.”

Malik was particularly moved at Wednesday’s vigil, when the Gurdwara was so packed, hundreds of supporters remained outside in the heat just to listen in, and was moved again to see several non-Sikhs return for Thursday’s service. He says such acts of solidarity have only reaffirmed strength within and beyond the local Sikh community to move past last weekend’s act of hatred.

“We don’t live in fear. Our religion is created to fight for injustice,” he says. “I have nothing but a sense of gratitude that the Las Vegas community was so interested in knowing about us. We are about acceptance, and our arms remain open.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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