Sikhs live in fear of the hate-filled and the ignorant

AFTER shootings in America people tell each other in sad and shocked tones that the victims should have been safe where they were killed.

And the people are always right. The victims of Sunday's shooting were praying in a temple, preparing for their weekly shared meal. They should have been safe. The 12 killed in Colorado should have been safe sitting with family and friends to enjoy a movie.

Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her staff and constituents should have been safe at a public meeting outside a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, but six of them died, and Ms Giffords will probably not fully recover. The 17 people wounded in a bar last month in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when an angry man opened fire on them with an assault rifle should have been safe, too.

Everyone who has been shot in their homes, in bars and schools, colleges, universities, workplaces, even in the streets of the capital, Washington, DC, should have felt safe, should have been safe.

Even as police searched for a suspected second assailant in the Milwaukee temple on Sunday morning (it turned out there was only one), even before the death toll was known, it was clear that America's Sikh community did not feel safe and has not since September 11, 2001.

"I request all everyone who know #sikhs & tweet or have access to media. Talk now. The world is listening. Tomorrow they won't," tweeted Gagan Singh just after midday, long before the police operation had ended.

Minutes later his Twitter account was suspended, but he was happy to speak to a journalist over the phone. He explained that hate groups had targeted Sikhs across the US since the attacks on September 11, probably because - unlike most Muslims - Sikhs wear turbans.

"A lot of the population does not know that these turban-wearing people are Sikh, they expect us to be associated with al-Qaeda," said Mr Singh, a community activist with a blog called Urbanturbanguy.com.

"A lot of Sikhs live [in America] with fear in their hearts." (He stresses that no one, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, should be subjected to abuse for his or her beliefs or background.)

Even as he spoke, Sikh community leaders were on air on the cable networks trying to get the same message out, to explain who they were while they fleetingly held the nation's attention.

The first post-September 11 attack on a Sikh came just four days later, when Balbir Singh Sodh, a petrol station owner in Arizona, was shot dead by a man called Frank Roque. Roque had reportedly told friends and a waitress that he was ''going to go out and shoot some towel-heads''. He is serving a life term in prison.

On Monday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a brief compendium of hate crimes against Sikhs over the past couple of years, including the story of a Virginian family who received death threats last March by someone calling them "the Turban family" and accusing them of links to the Taliban.

Also that month two friends - Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwai, 78 - were shot dead while taking an afternoon walk. The Southern Poverty Law Centre has suggested that assailants who mistook the men for Muslims committed the killings, the Journal Sentinel reported.

It now seems clear that Wade Michael Page, who was killed by police on Sunday morning after he is thought to have murdered six worshippers, was a member of more than one white supremacist organisation.

It is not known whether he mistook the Sikhs he shot for Muslims or whether he just hated anyone who did not look like him. Doubtless that will be discovered in the continuing investigation, and it is doubtless useful information.

But it is unlikely to be much comfort to America's Sikh community, nor to its Muslims.

The story Sikhs live in fear of the hate-filled and the ignorant first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop