Sikh leaders and local media reacted with shock and calls for justice as news of the fatal shooting at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee arrived in India. In a statement released on Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India’s first Sikh leader, said he was “shocked and saddened” by the attacks. He said the country “stands in solidarity with all the peace-loving Americans who have condemned this violence” and asked U.S. authorities to take steps to prevent further violence.
Shortly before 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, a white man reported to be an Army veteran in his 40s walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Park, Wis., and opened fire on worshippers, killing six and injuring three. The suspect, whose identity has not been disclosed, was later shot and killed by a police officer. Traumatized witnesses described a scene of “carnage” and “insanity” as members of the five-year-old temple, or gurdwara, fled and barricaded themselves in a bathroom and kitchen pantry. Satwant Kaleka, the temple leader, was among those killed in the attack, reportedly after trying to tackle the gunman to the floor.
“Going to a place of worship and shooting people who are worshipping God is a shock to the entire Sikh community,” an official in Shiromani Akali Dal, a Sikh political party, said on Monday. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, with about 25 million followers globally and half a million followers in the U.S. Sikh groups expressed concern that the violence was yet another deadly manifestation of the doubly misguided rage that Sikhs, whose followers wear turbans and are sometimes mistakenly identified as Muslims, have been grappling with since the Sept. 11 attacks unleashed a wave of Islamophobic sentiment.
Just four days after the attacks, a Sikh gas-station owner in Arizona was shot and killed after a man targeted him for being a Muslim. Since then, there have been intermittent incidents in which American Sikhs have been shot or beaten in similarly motivated incidents. “It is tragic and there is no right way to say it — Sikhs in Oak Creek were targeted because the gunman probably thought they were Muslims,” read an article on Firstpost.com, an Indian news site.
“After 9/11, there was a big spike in hate crimes,” says Amardeep Singh, program director of the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group for Sikh Americans. (The group recently launched a mobile app called FlyRights, which compiles complaints of racial profiling at airports.) He says violent crime has largely tapered off, but “what has persisted are softer forms of discrimination like school bullying and workplace discrimination.” Recent surveys of Sikh communities in New York City and the San Francisco area show that over 70% of Sikh kids across socioeconomic lines have reported some kind of name calling, and over 20% have experienced unwanted physical contact or hitting.
Was Sunday’s attack a hate crime? “If it was a hate crime, it should be called a hate crime,” says Singh of the Sikh Coalition. “It matters.” The FBI said on Sunday that “no motive has been determined at this time.” The incident is being looked into as an act of domestic terrorism, defined as the “unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.”