A Unified Approach to Hate Crimes

14 May 2013

After the savage beating of an 82-year-old Sikh man on May 5, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer told members of his community that the attack was an isolated incident.

If only that were true.

The fact is that the assault on 82-year-old Piara Singh – who suffered head wounds, broken ribs and lung lacerations after being beaten with a steel rod – was one of many incidents of religiously-motivated violence in general, and violence against Sikhs in particular, to have taken place in the United States during the last two years. 

In its random, senseless cruelty, the attack in Fresno echoed the shooting of two elderly Sikh men in Elk Grove, California in 2011, as well as the murder of six people by a white supremacist gunman outside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

A November 2010 survey of Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 10 percent had experienced some form of hate crime, with the majority reporting physical attacks.

These are not isolated incidents.  We must take care to ensure they do not become isolating incidents.  Hate crimes are particularly insidious because they tend to reinforce the point of view of the perpetrator: that the victims are part of an isolated group existing outside of the mainstream, that religion, culture and ethnicity are insurmountable barriers to community.

Interfaith organizations, like the United Religions Initiative (URI), take a different approach.  We don’t ignore the differences between people and perspectives; rather, we find strength in diversity, and believe that many problems are best addressed by a variety of people with multiple points of view.

In Pakistan, Christian, Hindu and Muslim members of URI led a rally for peace following the destruction of 178 homes in a Christian suburb of Lahore. In Jerusalem, the Christian, Druze, Jewish and Muslim members of the Abrahamic Reunion – a URI Cooperation Circle – engaged with a rabbi who had made offensive comments about Muslims, not with a bitter protest, but through a respectful dialogue at the rabbi’s home. 

And a new URI campaign, “Talking Back to Hate,” is bringing together people of many religions and spiritual traditions throughout the world to tell the story of how they were able to transform an incident of hate speech or discrimination into an opportunity to deepen understanding of difference and to create a more mutually respectful community. 

Even our best efforts may never be able to end the threat of random violence.  But by working together to build communities where diversity is celebrated and discrimination of any kind is unacceptable, we can help to create a world in which assaults based on one’s culture or beliefs truly are isolated incidents.