The other day, I was having coffee with a non-Sikh friend of mine who randomly mentioned that she was going to attend the Texas Muslim Capitol Day – a day for Muslims to visit the Texas State Capitol in Austin, meet with their elected officials, and learn about the political process and civic advocacy.
“I thought that was just for Muslims,” I said.
“The lobbying and programing is, but we’re going to serve as human shields to protect them against protestors.”
“Oh cool! That sounds fun! I’ll join you.”
“The training starts at 9 am.”
“Ya, it got violent a few years ago so now they’re trying to put in precautions.”
I found out that in 2015, apart from the classic “Go back to your country” slogans, threatening chants, and bigoted signs, a woman stormed the staged, grabbed the microphone and yelled, “Islam will not dominate the United States, and by the grace of God, it will not dominate Texas!” She was taken back to her spot with other protesters. “Muhammad is dead!” she and others chanted.
“In that case, I’ll have to think about it.” I responded to my friend.
“Don’t worry. My husband is a lawyer and he can bail us out if needed.” Seriously? I thought. This is a bail bond situation?
That night, a different non-Sikh friend of mine texted me asking if I wanted to join her as a human shield. I decided to chat about it with my husband.
“You always talk about how you wish you would have been alive in the 1960s to march with MLK,” he said. “Now’s your chance to be part of social justice history.”
“I’m scared,” I told him. I immediately heard how silly that sounded. In Sikhi, “fear” is something to be controlled. We’re not supposed to let it control us and yet, in that moment I was. We continued to talk about Sikh history and how we should be living our values. We talked about our martyrs and acting in the face of fear. We talked about the brave Sikh women who faced oppression and injustice head-on. We talked about living our Sikh values to the fullest, even when it’s challenging. At the end of our chat, I decided I would go.
“I’ll join you,” I texted my friend. She responded “Cool! If you start feeling unsafe, our safe word/phrase is ‘Let’s go get blueberry pancakes.’ ” Oh God! We have a safe word! This is not going to be good, I thought.
That morning I was pretty nervous. I kept reminding myself of Mai Bhago and how brave she must have been. Here I was going to a peaceful demonstration and peeing my pants, while she rushed head on into battle. I reminded myself of Guru Tegh Bahadur who gave his life for religious freedom and thought, I have to continue my Guru’s legacy, even if the scope of my actions pale in comparison.
I did a little ardas, asking Waheguru for strength and the cool-headed nature I would need when protestors yelled at me. Then, I set off.
My friends and I approached the state capitol and about 1,000 people had gathered. The human chain formed a barrier between the protestors and the capitol where the Muslim constituency was holding a press conference. Police officers were there, along with state troopers and private security guards.
We joined the human chain and stood. It was a beautiful sight of solidarity. But, we were directly in front of a protestor who was yelling the most disgusting things. “Don’t let Muslims take over the capitol! Sharia law has no place here! You’ll be the first ones they cut the heads off of! Allah and Mohamad are demons! You are protecting pedophiles! They will violate your rectum! Muslims mutilate little girls!” Hey yelled even more vile things. It was very tempting to engage him, but we were told not to respond.
While he was yelling, “Do you condone sex slavery like the Muslims do?” my initial, internal response was, “That guy is crazy and so mean!” But then, I attempted to try and see the Divine in him too. I thought, while what he is saying is disturbing, bigoted and ignorant, deep down inside, it is comes from a place of love. He cares about people who are sold into sex slavery. He thinks the oppression of women should be stopped. He thinks female genital mutilation is bad. But sadly, his love was perverted by intolerance. All of this love came out bastardized and tainted by hate and ego.
My thoughts were quickly interrupted by the outbreak of a protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” which was followed by “Give Peace a Chance.”
Our large, non-Muslim crown delighted the Muslim organizers:
“I am truly humbled and overwhelmed by your support. Thank you very much for being here,” said Shaykh Mohamed-Umer Esmail of the Nueces Mosque in Austin, who added that the turnout showed him that they “…have more supporters than haters.”
Chants of solidarity like, “We’ve got your back!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” filled the air and drowned out the protesters and hate.
The highlight for me was watching the chain break to allow Muslim families enter the capitol grounds. Families were escorted by volunteers safely to their destinations. Then, the human chain shifted from a circle to create a corridor. We created a path through which the Muslims could walk to get from one office to another. We all clapped and cheered as brave young children, men, women and the elderly exercised their civil liberties.
I was brought to tears. It was so touching. So many Muslims came up to us and said, “Thank you,” over and over again. It was beautiful. One Muslim woman started crying as she thanked us, which caused a volunteer to cry. The Muslim woman said, with a smile, “We both can’t be crying!”
“I have never in my life seen a sea of supporters like this,” said a Muslim leader. “I will never forget this day.”
I left feeling enlivened and filled with hope for our future. When surrounded by the hate and divisiveness that the US election has brought out, it was encouraging to see that there are people who will fight for justice and love. I felt honored and blessed to have the privileged and opportunity to live my Sikh values of serving the marginalized.
If you’re thinking about going to a protest or serving as a peaceful protector, I say, “Do it!” Take precautions, obviously, and be safe, but seriously consider being a part of the resistance.
I believe Sikhs must draw upon the spirit of Ik Onkar to oppose oppression. Our Gurus taught us to champion human rights, dignity, and seeing the Divine within everyone. Thus, we believe in striving for a just, fair, and compassionate society for all, regardless of social categories. So, fighting for what’s right is a spiritual duty; to stand in solidarity with all those who feel marginalized is an obligation.
By Lakhpreet Kaur
Main Photo by The Statesman.