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OPINION

Sikhs attacked by terrorists, not just ‘criminals’

By DAWINDER “DAVE” S. SIDHU | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: April 7, 2020

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As the civilized world battles the coronavirus, Islamic State continues to wage war against humanity, persisting in its mission to eradicate all humans who deign to think or believe differently.

On March 25, over 150 Sikhs assembled in their place of worship in Kabul, Afghanistan, to pray specifically for God’s support during the pandemic. In the middle of services, a group of ISIS fighters stormed the temple, lobbed grenades, fired on worshippers, and held around 80 hostages for about six hours. After the siege, 25 Sikhs, women and children among them, were dead.

The very next day, at the funeral for those lost, a bomb exploded directly outside of the crematorium. The blast violently interrupted the solemn services and unleashed a fresh round of terror on the survivors and the Afghan Sikh community.

Outside of the Sikh diaspora, these attacks barely registered with political leaders, the mainstream media or the general public. In light of the almost existential, worldwide danger posed by the coronavirus, the Kabul incident may seem unworthy of any attention or a considered response.

This perspective would be consistent with the long-standing view that, in a time of crisis, government and public energies must be directed toward the crisis and the crisis alone. Cicero once observed that, in times of war, the laws fall silent. In more recent times, judges and others have claimed that a rule of necessity trumps the rule of law, with the Japanese and Muslims in America bearing the brunt of that trade-off. By ignoring the deaths of the Sikhs in Kabul, the otherwise civilized world unwittingly seems to agree that a crisis matters and, frankly, little else does.

In ordinary circumstances, the killing of the Sikhs in Afghanistan would matter. The mass shooting of innocent worshippers — as with the massacre of nine at a church in Charleston, S.C., 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and 51 in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — has drawn widespread condemnation, generous outpourings of support for the targeted community, and impassioned calls to bring those responsible to justice.

These incidents moved politicians, pundits and the public alike because they challenged the shared values that bind the civilized community together and that are an essential part of our constitutional heritage, including the freedom to worship. It is these identical values — not just the lives of Sikhs in Afghanistan — that were endangered last month. For this reason, the Kabul attack objectively matters.

To think otherwise would be to permit circumstances to limit the scope of our sacred freedoms. To think otherwise would also be to send a message to ISIS and other antisocial actors that, during a crisis, religious freedom is unattended and religious minorities are free game. Silence is tantamount to indifference, at best, and a license to kill, at worst.

That said, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan did respond on Twitter — and perhaps should have stayed silent. The Embassy called ISIS “fanatics & criminals,” instead of terrorists. The terrorism label fits because ISIS indiscriminately killed a large number of innocents. The label is important because it helps people properly make sense of what happened. The Embassy added, “Peace will only come when people resolve their differences through words, not guns,” guidance more suited to grade school children than to committed terrorists. In other words, the embassy’s tweet was both conceptually sloppy and effectively empty.

To simultaneously address a life-threatening crisis and safeguard essential values is not just a theoretical possibility or aspiration. President George W. Bush’s visit to a mosque just six days after 9/11 proves that government can promote and preserve broad values, thereby protecting religious minorities, even in the early moments of an unprecedented crisis.

Novel circumstances constitute a test that reveals the true character of a society and the seriousness of its commitment to its defining values. The failure to meaningfully acknowledge or respond to the killing of Afghan Sikhs was an unintentional misstep. We can correct course by, among other things, shedding light on this incident, resettling the remaining Afghan Sikhs, and putting all on notice that religious freedom will not be sacrificed in this uncertain time.

Dawinder “Dave” S. Sidhu is a lawyer, professor at the University of Maryland, former fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, and elected member in the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a Sikh American and serves on the Board of Trustees of a Sikh place of worship in Silver Spring, Md.

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