In the film “Divided We Fall,” Valarie Kaur looks at the issue of religious intolerance and religious violence in the US post 9/11 and explores the ways in which raising awareness of diverse religious traditions can reduce religious tensions. Because of events such as the 9/11 Attacks and the subsequent start of the War on Terrorism, Muslim-Americans and Sikh-Americans are often viewed with suspicion and their loyalty to the US is often called into question. Consequently, members of both religious communities witnessed high levels of discrimination and multiple instances of violence. Much of this violence is linked to a lack of religious tolerance and a fear of unfamiliar traditions and cultures. The violence in the Sikh community culminated with the murder of Balbir Singh, a Sikh gas station owner from Mesa, Arizona several days after 9/11. In response to such events, Kaur takes a journey across the US to gain a clearer understanding of the forces that divide Americans and increase religious intolerance. While on her journey, Kaur documents the experiences of many Sikhs and Muslims and finds stories of fear, loss, resilience, and hope. She highlights the fact that both communities, as well as other communities composed of recent immigrants, are the targets of stereotyping and violence. Kaur hopes that by highlighting the experiences of others, she can combat ignorance and encourage higher levels of religious tolerance in the face of increasing societal pressures.
Valarie Kaur was born into a Sikh family that originally came to the US in 1913 and settled in Clovis, a small farming community in California. At the time in which Kaur’s family immigrated to the US, they were the only Indian family in the area and were respected by the other members of their community. Kaur’s community developed over the past few decades and this development has resulted in increased divisions between members of the community. For example, Kaur mentions that she was pressured to convert to Christianity by her teachers and fellow students. In response, Kaur began to look towards her religious traditions from her grandfather and learned of the core traditions and beliefs of Sikhism. Kaur’s childhood experiences also served as a way encourage her to study religion and the root causes of religious violence. In the aftermath of the 9/11 Attacks, Kaur began to hear reports of violence against Sikh-Americans. She began to question why such events were taking place in a time in which the American people professed unity and acceptance for all individuals regardless of religious backgrounds. Kaur felt that she had an obligation to answer such a question and set out on a trip to 14 American cities to find out why such events were occurring.
Valarie Kaur looks at several different ways in which both Sikhs and Muslims are “otherized” and stereotyped as potential terrorists. One way in which Sikhs are stereotyped is due to their appearance. Sikhs often wear visible attire such as turbans for religious purposes. Because of their attire and the fact that Sikhism is not a well-known religious tradition, people often associate Sikhs instead with the terrorist groups that carried out attacks such as 9/11. The targeting of Sikhs due to their appearance is examined several times in Kaur’s interviews. For example, Amirak Singh Chawla described the fact that he was harassed and chased down by a group of people who called him a terrorist and ordered him to remove his turban. Navinderdeep Nijher, a Sikh-American surgeon who was one of the first-responders to the World Trade Center, mentions that people were yelling at him to leave the US and return to his homeland due to his appearance. Kaur interviews Attar Singh Bhatia, an elderly Sikh who was attacked by a group of people several hours after the 9/11 Attacks. Kaur next interviews Sher Singh, a Sikh accused of being a terrorist based his appearance because he was wearing a turban and other traditional Sikh attire. Even though he was ultimately released and cleared of any charges, the arrest of Singh added to the impression that Sikhs are different than typical Americans and that they are potential terrorists.
Another way in which Sikhs and Muslims are further stereotyped is through the media and the entertainment industry. Because Sher Singh’s arrest was widely publicized in the press, he was stereotyped as a potential terrorist and his character was called into question. Singh’s release was not as high-profile as his initial arrest; therefore, he was unable to recover his reputation fully after the incident. Further, others who may have seen his arrest and not his release had their initial perceptions of what “terrorists look like “reinforced and in a sense validated. Moreover, the stereotype and media perception called into doubt the character and reputation of other Sikh-Americans and allowed no outlet for them to clarify their traditions to a wider audience.
The media continues to promote this stereotype and false interpretation of people of other religious faiths. Reporters often promote the idea that a terrorist attack is imminent and ask when the next attack will ultimately occur. This creates and encourages fear in people and makes them question the motives of individuals who have different religious backgrounds. This xenophobic reinforcement leads to feelings of intolerance and heightened anxiety. The increased anxiety makes people much more defensive and thus encourages violent acts against people of other faiths. People commit violence against other religious groups in the hopes that this represents justice and they feel that they are defending their interest in a nationalistic and patriotic way. The media justifies these attacks whenever they present a new stereotypical face and when they exaggerate the overall level of threat posed by terrorist groups. In the hope to gain ratings, the media presents the most sensationalist new stories about the threat of terrorism further adding to the cycle of fear and distrust of other religious groups.
A lack of education and understanding of other religious faiths is another factor contributing to the demonization of both Sikhs and Muslims. Throughout the documentary, passerby’s interviewed by Valarie Kaur observed incorrect symbols of both religions and promoted inaccurate and bigoted views. One person confidently tells Kaur that Sikhs “must be Muslims because they wear turbans” and equates the word “Sikh” with “666,” implying that Sikhism is a demonic faith. The statements of public officials and public policy decisions also encourage the promotion of false views about Sikhs and Muslim and contribute to the ways that members of both religious communities are “otherized.” One example of a public official that made a statement adding to this feeling is when Republican Congressman John Cooksey made fun of the appearance of Sikhs and Muslims in a radio interview several days after 9/11. His comments further created an atmosphere of distrust geared towards people of other religious faiths. The practice of racial profiling by the government to prevent terrorist attacks contributes to the stereotyping of both Sikhs and Muslims and indirectly creates a message that people have the right to look suspiciously at members of both faiths as a way to promote safety and security.
Kaur is correct that meeting people who are different than us and learning about their experiences can help combat ignorance and stem the rising tide of social violence and prejudice. The main reason why she is correct in her approach is that personal stories serve to inform people about the diverse traditions and experiences of others. Having an understanding of other religious traditions allows people to realize that diversity and tolerance helps to bind people together and breaks down the barriers that prevent open-mindedness and encourage violence. Additionally, highlighting the religious experiences of others connects people together on a personal level and helps us to understand that despite differences in traditions and practices, all religions follow the same core principles and seek to promote the same ideas such as compassion, tolerance, respect for others, and open-mindedness for the beliefs and practices of other religious traditions. On the other hand, a potential flaw with Kaur’s approach is that ignores the fact that even with the overwhelming evidence presented before them, people will continue to harbor bigoted views towards other religions and continue to believe in the same stereotypes that are promoted throughout society.
“Divided We Fall” also reveals several different aspects of contemporary American society and the role of religion. The lack of education about other faiths is shown several times throughout the film. For example, Valarie Kaur describes the people that she knew in her community as lacking an awareness about Sikhism and she had to rely on people such as her grandfather to learn about her religious heritage. The lack of religious literacy is a result of two distinct reasons. The first reason is that Christianity and its various sects remain the dominant religion throughout most of the US. The dominance of Christianity often prevents people from gaining an accurate understanding an in-depth education of other religious faiths. The second factor is that the public educational system does not educate individuals on the overall core beliefs and structures of the main world religions. Because of both factors, religious literacy in the US remains minimal, and people rely on inaccurate stereotypes to inform their views regarding other religious faiths.
A key factor that allows people to understand other religions is the use of inter-religious dialogue between diverse religious faiths. The use of interfaith dialogue allows people of different faiths to cooperate in a positive manner to resolve religious tensions and work together to address pressing issues impacting members of various religious communities. Additionally, interfaith dialogue also allows people to gain a more accurate understanding of other faiths and helps break down the barriers that divide religions and create religious conflict. An example of interfaith dialogue shown in “Divided We Fall” is shown through the memorial service for Balbir Singh. His memorial service was officiated by members of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities in Mesa, Arizona. The religious officials at his funeral all spoke of the importance of interfaith dialogue in the fight against religious intolerance and violence and pledged to call out such actions whenever they occur.
The interviews by Valarie Kaur reveal several things about Sikhism. Sikhism is a religious faith that believes in monotheism, the equality of all people regardless of their religious backgrounds, gender, or ethnicity, emphasizes the necessity for a moral and ethical lifestyle, and religious pluralism. Sikhism is also revealed as a diverse faith regarding the practices of its members. For example, some Sikhs such as Kaur’s father choose not to wear traditional religious attire, whereas her grandfather wore traditional Sikh attire and followed Sikh traditions with a higher level of devotion. Sikhism is also a religious tradition in which its members held onto their core beliefs in the face of increased persecution and pressures from society overall. For example, the Sikhs that were victims of discrimination and violence held true to their core principles of inclusion and tolerance and sought to forgive those who committed such actions against them.
Valarie Kaur’s story mirrors the historical experiences of the Sikh community. Sikhs have historically been a relatively small religious community worldwide. The fact that the Sikh community is small when compared to other religions adds to the fact that its main traditions are not well-known and often misinterpreted. The Sikh community has faced numerous examples of persecution and injustices in the past. For example, the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the migration of some two million Sikhs living in what was now Pakistan to India under extreme conditions and hardships. Moreover, the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards resulted in the retribution killings of several thousand Sikhs in India. As a result, many Sikhs left India and emigrated to countries such as the US, Canada, and Great Britain to gain religious freedom. Despite the overwhelming pressures both historically and in recent years, the Sikh community has stood up to these forces of intolerance and have sought to preserve and strengthen their religious practices and values that they hold.
In conclusion, Valarie Kaur explores the ideas of religious intolerance and religious violence in the wake of 9/11 in the film “Divided We Fall.” Religious violence and bigotry towards other faiths has increased exponentially over the past few years and is caused by factors such as a lack of religious literacy, statements and actions by governmental officials, and fear of the unknown. Much of the religious bigotry is targeted towards the Sikh and Muslim communities. To answer the question of why such feelings are on the rise and what can be done to encourage higher levels of tolerance, Kaur sets out to interview members of both the Sikh and Muslim communities to document their experiences in the face of such challenges. By interviewing individuals of other faiths and highlighting their experiences, Kaur hopes to break down the barriers that serve to divide individuals and increase tolerance and understanding for other religions.