Hundreds of Americans of all walks of life attended a memorial service Friday for the six Sikhs killed in Oak Creek, Wis. The public gathering was a touching reminder of not only common grief for a violent attack on one faith, but also America’s commitment to the freedom of religion.
“An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads up the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Embracing that freedom remains a constant task in the United States and elsewhere. Last month, for example, a mosque in Joplin, Mo., was burned down in a “suspicious” fire. And a legal challenge continues against a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. American Muslims, far more than Sikhs, have had to be on guard against attacks since 9/11.
Oak Creek’s compassionate response surprised the local Sikh community. Yet it was needed to affirm a common bond between people of faith that is necessary for the concept of tolerance to be real.
It is likely that this tragedy will awaken a renewed spirit of hospitality among religious groups in the Milwaukee area. That can provide a shield of mutual respect, even love, that is a protection against hate and violence. The town’s mayor, for example, plans to help Sikhs become more involved in civic affairs and will encourage town officials to visit the temple.
The attacker, Wade Michael Page, may have simply taken offense at the head garb of male Sikhs. If so, such discrimination against the symbols of a religion needs to be addressed.
France, which has a history of resistance to a dominating religion, passed a law last year that bans a full-face veil, such as a niqab or burqa worn by conservative Muslim women. Hundreds of women have since been detained or fined.
On July 24, a riot broke out in the city of Marseille after police arrested a veiled woman. The incident is likely to keep the French debating the wisdom of singling out the practice of one religion for penalty. The law is controversial as many see it as a form of religious intolerance.
Belgium has a similar law, and the Dutch may approve one next year. This trend in Europe was rightly criticized last month in a US State Department report on religious freedom around the world. It found a “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’ ”
About a seventh of humanity lives under governments that systematically repress religious freedom, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “When it comes to this human right – this key feature of stable, secure and peaceful societies – the world is sliding backwards,” she said.
This global problem is why the public outpouring of empathy for the Sikhs in Wisconsin is so important. Religious freedom doesn’t come free. It must be anchored in each religion’s practice of love for humanity.