Investigators and the media quickly laid the responsibility at the door of Arab terrorists, primarily the followers of Osama bin Laden. In their anger many Americans, forgetting their own tradition of tolerance and the humanity common to us all, targeted Arabs and Muslims, Sikhs, and, in general, anyone who was brown-skinned or wore a turban.
In the week following the attacks, U.S. Sikhs saw their businesses and their places of worship (gurdwaras) vandalized, and ordinary Sikhs harassed on the streets. One Sikh was shot dead at his business; his assailant, at his arrest, shouted, "I am a patriot, a damn American all the way."
So what is this religion whose adherents have been mistaken for followers of Osama bin Laden's? Sikhism is a young religion that started in India only 500 years ago. From 1469, when its founder Guru Nanak was born, to 1708, ten gurus guided its development. Sikhism's core tenets include the belief that there is one God common to all creation, a God who can be discovered by service to humanity. Sikhism as a belief system seeks to be free of discrimination based on ethnicity, caste, race, or gender. The fifth largest religion in the world, it now has 22 million adherents; close to half a million Sikhs live in North America.
Sikhs have no connection to the belief or practice of Osama bin Laden. More importantly, to target any ethnic group or religion (Muslim or Sikh, Indian or Middle Eastern) for revenge is morally indefensible and reduces us to the level of the terrorist. Our common enemy is not a specific religion but intolerance, hatred and fanaticism.
I leave the question of why such terrorism occurs to theologians. My belief would be that God loves us so that he grants us the free will to make choices between good and evil, including behavior that is entirely, reprehensibly sinful.
But in the aftermath of that day there are lessons for living that are surely in God's will and should guide us. In the Sikh scripture, Guru Nanak counsels us to look at adversity and suffering as a cure and a panacea, and at a life of luxury as an affliction. He saw that comfort often inures us to the pain of others and to the lessons of life, while suffering may bind us to the humanity that is our common reality. The idea is not much different from Shakespeare's thought when he declaimed that "Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like a toad, ugly and venomous, yet bears a precious jewel in its head." Out of untold suffering can emerge a bond with humanity, a capacity to look beyond the self.
The crime of the terrorists was horrendous and people are anxious for justice--or revenge. What does Sikhism recommend?
All religions teach peace and forgiveness, and Sikhism is no exception. I say this though I fully recognize that revenge is a form of wild justice. Also, it is easy to preach forgiveness from a position of safety; the only person who has the right to do so is the one in the trenches, one who has suffered injustice. Until one has walked in those shoes, one has little right to pass judgment. Still, what do Sikh history and religion say about the concept of revenge? Should one turn the other cheek? If so, when and for how long?
We first need to examine the subtle difference between justice and revenge, and wrestle over the need for justice to be tempered with compassion and mercy.
To avenge an injustice is not the same thing as to take revenge. Revenge says, "You killed my son so your son must die." Justice says, "You killed my son so you must pay for your crime." Revenge, even though it is wild justice, shoots wildly; justice aims exactly and exactingly. Justice and avenging wrongs have a place in Sikh philosophy; pure revenge does not. Often the distinction gets lost in the heat of anger, but it remains crucial. In seeking justice it is important that retribution and terrorism do not set up a vicious cycle where they feed upon each other.