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After Shooting, Sikhs Assess Their Place In America

Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin react at a news conference at Oak Creek Centennial church in Oak Creek, Wis. on Monday.
Jeffrey Phelps
Members of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin react at a news conference at Oak Creek Centennial church in Oak Creek, Wis. on Monday.

As the Sikh community reels from Sunday's shooting in Wisconsin, evidence is emerging about the alleged shooter's ties to white supremacist groups. The possibility that the shooting may have been a hate crime has added to deepening sense of loss and frustration among the close-knit Sikh American community. It is prompting reflection and a renewed conversation among Sikhs about their safety and place in American society.

Writing on, filmmaker and Sikh-American activist Valerie Kaur describes how the news of the shooting is "reverberating through every Sikh American home.' In her words, "we saw our own Gurdwara on the television screen; we imagined our own aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, caught in the gunfire. And we shared an all-too-familiar sense of helplessness, grief and the sadness of a community that has long struggled to live, work and worship peacefully in this country."

While several of the victims were older, new generations of hyphenated Sikh-Americans who were born and raised in the U.S. are writing today about how to balance their faith with the danger of being racially-profiled and attacked. Blogger Amaradeep Singh, who is also a literature professor at Lehigh University, described the way he's coped with the racial profiling that confronted turbaned Sikh-Americans like himself in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th.

"I heard a lot of ugly taunts and insults, and had a couple of encounters that might have been dangerous if I hadn't decided to walk away very quickly. I was kind of spooked, and like a lot of Sikhs that fall I put a bumper sticker on my car with a U.S. flag, announcing myself as a 'Sikh American,' crossed my fingers, and tried to stick to stay focused on teaching literature," he wrote.

Amardeep Singh explains how organizations like the Sikh Coalition were formed in light of those fears to help educate and inform Americans about Sikhism and the community's commitment to peace. But today Singh asks whether visible markers of difference may have played a role in making Sikhs the victims of yesterday's shooting:

"...Many of my friends online are also suggesting we renew our efforts as a community to educate Americans about who we are. These are well-meaning and valuable efforts, and I myself will try and support them if I can.

"But here's the thing: I don't know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear — or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred.

"As I have experienced it, the turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that hostility. But I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don't depend on accurate recognition."

News of the shooting has also drawn immense attention in the international press, especially in India and in the U.K., which is home to a large Sikh immigrant community.

The British newspaper the Guardian launched a live blog with details of the shooting as soon as information began to trickle in about the attacks on Sunday afternoon. Writing in the Comment section of the Guardian today, British Sikh writer Sunny Hundal underscored the tension the Sikh community has faced since 9/11 in distancing itself from Muslims. As he writes, while some members of the community have hoped to openly assert that 'Sikhs are not Muslims,' "others have distanced themselves from that implication that hate crimes against Muslims were OK."

According to Hundal that dilemma has left a community which prides itself on its beliefs in peace and equality among faiths, struggling on how to distance itself from Muslims without also ostracizing and perpetuating negative stereotypes in the process.

As Gurdwaras around the country host memorial services for the victims, a group of Sikh Americans is planning an inter-faith vigil in front of the White House on Wednesday evening. And in the words of Sikh-American filmmaker Valarie Kaur, "...every candle, every prayer, will be felt by Sikh Americans across the country. Together, we can all be Sikhs; we can all be Americans – and know what that means."

(Bilal Qureshi is an assistant producer for All Things Considered.)

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