Reena and I have been the best of friends since the moment we talked 23 years ago. While she is Sikh and I am a Muslim, we both share a Punjabi ancestory. I consider Reena the sister that I never had. We are about the same height and size, and with rhyming names—Reena/Sheena—many confuse us for sisters.
Both of our families were affected by the largest mass migration in human history that occurred in August of 1947 (65 years this week). As children, our parents had to leave everything behind and to relocate with their families. As both of our grandparents and great-grandparents were big parts of their religious communities, we grew up in traditionally conservative religious households. However, through the experiences of our families we were both taught to be open-minded and thoughtful with religion.
We both grew up in United States and consider ourselves Sikh/Muslim Americans. Our communities have both suffered immensely with the hatred coming from our ‘fellow’ Americans, as we both live in New Jersey, and 9/11 was a reality that directly affected us, our friends and our families.
In addition, at times, such incidents also tend to expose latent hostilities between the two communities that have remained since 1947. After 9/11 some Sikhs have been the targets of hate and violence. I have heard some say, “But we aren’t Muslim, why target us?” While I understand that hurt, the implication seems to be that it would be ok if Muslims were targeted. No one should be targeted in such a way. Reena has helped me understand, that the sentiment is result of other horrors their community suffered in the 80s/90s and not at all how many Muslims take the statement.
When I think of Reena and her family, I think of them as my own and all the similarities we have. I have felt at home with her family from the start—in some part due to shared Punjabi ethnicity and cultural norms. She and her family have been part of my Nikah, duas events and other family events. Likewise, my family and I have shared religious and familial celebrations with her. When my mother died, her mother became like my mother and still treats me as her daughter. When my brother decided to go find my father’s old village in India, Reena’s family, without knowing him, took him in and cared for him—despite having suffered themselves through the religious and ethnic clashes in India from the time of Partition on.
The events over last weeks in Aurora, the Oak Creek Gurdwara, the Joplin Mosque, the Chicago Mosque shootings and vandalism in California Mosques, make us both very scared for ourselves and families as Americans. Hatred is eating away at our country. We are Americans, We are Sikhs, We are Muslims, We are Proud and we are sisters. Let’s not forget that!
Sheena is my best friend, though I am an American of Sikh faith and Sheena is an American of Muslim faith. We met in college at Rutgers and have been like sisters ever since. Despite our religious differences, we share enough in common to feel like family. Our families and ancestors shared a lot of similar experiences, as well, yet with opposite perspectives. Both our families were displaced from their homes during the India/Pakistan partition in 1947. My parents had to move to India as refugees and Sheena’s parents had to cross the new border to settle in Pakistan. Each side went through a lot of pain since they lost family and friends during the killings that went on during Partition. This experience, for many in India, became a reason for people to hate those of the other religion. Many Hindus and Sikhs in India do not like Muslims and vice versa because of the memories of these incidents in history.
However, Sheena and I have both grown up in America, the land of the free and the melting pot of various immigrants. So even though we know of all the past differences between the people of our communities, we grew up with a fresh start. Our culture and religion was very important to both of us growing up, and shaped some of our interests, but we were removed enough from cultural conflicts. We could see each other as decent, caring human beings who shared the same second language (since our families are from the Punjab region), ate similar food, and enjoyed Bollywood movies and music. Above all, we were American. But because we both came from relatively conservative upbringings we both grew up feeling a bit different from our friends. I was the longhaired Sikh girl whose brother and father wore a turban and Sheena was the Muslim girl who had to fast every year and only wore modest clothing. Our similarities brought us together and our shared experiences kept us close.
After 9/11, many people in our country let fear and ignorance bring out their worst. They started judging and attacking innocent people based on the horrid actions of the terrorists. The people who were affected the most were Muslims and Sikhs. The Muslims were attacked based on being the same religion as those terrorists and the Sikhs were targeted because they wore turbans similar to images of Bin Laden and his group. Most Muslims were upset at the bias crimes against them because they did not share any of the beliefs of those extremists who twisted Islam and committed terrorist acts. The Sikhs were also very frustrated because they were being attacked also based on the actions of extremists who they shared nothing in common with—not religion or beliefs.
This failure of American ideals was demonstrated in the recent shootings in a Sikh temple (Gurdwara) in Oak Creek, WI and the arson of the Mosque in Joplin, MO. These were hate crimes against our communities and were perpetrated in places of religious worship. These places are supposed to be sanctuaries even in times of war. What makes it so scary is that even though the media and government want to describe each as an isolated incident by a disturbed person, they are not isolated. The shooter at the Sikh temple was a known member of a white supremacist hate group. Wade Michael Page may have done the shootings on his own but it seems he was connected to groups of people who share the same beliefs. It is ironic that the thing these people fear and hate (terrorists) is what they are becoming like.
This is why my friendship with Sheena is so precious. We have been there for each other through broken relationships, job losses and the death of her mom. We have also stood by each other during our weddings, gone on trips together and shared good times. There were times when we fought or got upset with each other but none of this ever related to our differences in religion. We accepted that all religions are trying to teach us morality and honest living and how to be closer to God. They may have different teaching styles or rituals but the meanings are similar. No one should be hated for their religion, much less shot!
Shaheena Arshad-Trijillo works at Comcast Cable as an Engineering Operations Director in New Jersey. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Rutgers University.
Reena Virdee is a mother of two and writes a blog called ReenasRamble.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in Economics.