But by 3 p.m., the narrative of “mistaken identity” really took hold. Several media outlets, including MSNBC, CNN and the Associated Press argued repeatedly that many Americans confused Sikhs with Muslims because of their beards and turbans. Instead of simply stating that an act of racism and hatred was committed against a religious group in the country, the media put Sikhs on the defensive. It required Sikhs to explain not only the pillars of their faith but asked them to speculate on why this would happen to their community.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Sikh Coalition, there were at least 300 reported incidents of attacks against Sikhs in the first month after 9/11. Some Sikhs, like Satwant Singh Kaleka, the temple’s president who was one of the six slain in the attack, hung big American flags outside their window to show their patriotism. But in interviews on television and print, Sikhs had to continue to state they were not Muslim or members of the Taliban. The media pushed Sikhs into a binary of “terrorist/good citizen,” and used their sound bites over the past days to reinforce this narrative.
The media’s coverage ultimately raised more questions than it answered: When we have a tragedy when American lives are being lost, why do we spend the majority of our time trying to understand what Sikhs are? And if the shooter did want to kill Sikhs, and hadn’t mistaken them for Muslims, would Sikhs be responsible for explaining his motivations? Are we trying to decide whether or not they are “worthy” victims?
Many in the media missed an incredible opportunity to help re-frame how we see domestic terrorism — an act against Americans — even if the victims are brown and the perpetrator is a white Christian.
Rozina Ali is a researcher and blogger focused on the Middle East, Pakistan and Muslim identity in the United States.