Intersections: Misdirected fear led to Sikh temple shooting

“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.

“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.

The attack on innocent civilians in a house of worship has a bigger, overarching theme that stretches far beyond Sikhs, however. This attack is about intolerance and ignorance in America, a country founded and built by immigrants, who once welcomed the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

This is about fear of “the other,” the ones you don't understand, the ones you stereotype, the ones you lump into a homogenous labeled mass, the ones you teach your kids — whether you mean to or not — to discriminate against and belittle.

This is about a Northridge woman who helped her daughter vandalize homes with anti-Semitic messages, leaving toilet paper and human feces on the front porch of a Holocaust survivor last year.

This is about a Nebraska woman who told police she was attacked by three masked men in her home, who carved homophobic slurs into her skin, and an Ohio landlord who put up a “Whites Only” sign at an apartment complex and then defended her actions by saying it was a “historical sign.”

This is about the racist comments you see on the website of this newspaper made toward Latino and Armenian communities who probably cringe every time they hear a crime report, hoping that the last names involved don't belong to them so they don't have to endure vile commentary about how the actions of a few represent all.

Intolerance is dangerous. It is bred by fear and fueled by hate. It puts walls between people, breaks up community and in unfortunate cases, leads to the deaths of a peace-loving people in Milwaukee who were targeted in a place where they prayed and forged relationships.

How and when will we stop trying to destroy each other? “We are each burdened with prejudice; against the poor or the rich, the smart or the slow, the gaunt or the obese,” goes an anonymous quote. “It is natural to develop prejudices. It is noble to rise above them.”


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

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