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Intersections: Misdirected fear led to Sikh temple shooting

August 08, 2012

“Foe and stranger there is none, I am at peace with every one.”

These are the words of Guru Arjan Devi Ji, the fifth of 10 spiritual teachers that gave way to Sikhism, a 15th century religion founded in India's Punjab region on the ideals of equality, selfless service, compassion and love.

On Sunday morning, members of Milwaukee’s Sikh community were violently attacked in their place of worship by a gunman whose tattoos and background led the FBI to treat the attack as a potential act of domestic terrorism. Seven people were dead when the carnage was over, and a community left in grief and bewilderment.

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“What did we do wrong?” some wondered out loud during television broadcasts from outside the tense scene as the country watched.

The shooting spree that sent shock waves from America to India was the latest and deadliest attack on Sikhs in America, who have endured more than a decade of discrimination and hate-crime-related incidents, stemming from post-9/11 Islamophobic violence.

The first incident came on Sept. 15, 2001, when Mesa, Ariz. gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and murdered in an act of retaliation. Last year, a 56-year-old Sikh man was stabbed in an airport in Fresno, while in Elk Grove, Calif., two Sikh seniors were shot and killed while walking.

Earlier this year, a Sikh school in Canada was vandalized with swastikas and “KKK” scribblings on the walls.

The Sikh community has been lumbered with the unfortunate consequences of Islamophobia. Their physical appearance, “brown skin, turban, beard — correlates with the stereotypical images of terrorists projected in Western media,” Simran Jeet Singh wrote in a column on the Huffington Post one month ago.

They are easy, obvious targets.

While the FBI has kept hate crime statistics since 1992, there is no specific data on violence against Sikhs, even though Sikh-related hate crimes are reported. According to the most recent hate crime statistics for 2010, of the 6,624 incidents reported, 47% were motivated by racial bias, and 20% by religious bias.

This year, 92 members of the House of Representatives had urged the Department of Justice to track hate crimes against the Sikh community.

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