August 10, 2015 | By Anisha Singh
Three years ago on August 5, 2012, a gunman with ties to white supremacist organizations entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, while Sikh Americans were praying and opened fire. Six innocent members of the Sikh faith were fatally shot, with many others wounded, and an entire faith community was terrorized. At the time, the massacre was deemed the largest act of violence on a faith community since the 1963 church bombings in Birmingham, Alabama.
I remember that day very clearly: Sitting in my parent’s living room watching the breaking news, I felt as though the wind was knocked out of me. My family and I had been going to our local South Florida Sikh temple my entire life, and we never thought that our house of worship could be attacked while we prayed. Despite the fear of another attack, perhaps at our Sikh temple this time, we went to worship that night, surrounded by police officers for security. Everyone was solemn, and many were in tears. As we prayed for the victims, it was very clear that our community had been shattered.
Yet the Sikh community grew stronger from that event. In an effort to combat these senseless acts of violence, Sikh Americans have spoken out. Pardeep Kaleka, the son of one of the victims of the Oak Creek shooting, has teamed with a former white supremacist to speak to youth about battling all forms of hate. Harpreet Saini, whose mother also lost her life in the Oak Creek temple, became the first Sikh in U.S. history to testify before Congress in a historic Senate hearing on the shooting.
With 70 percent of Americans misidentifying turban-wearing Sikhs as Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, it is important to take time, particularly on this day, to spread love and learn about the beauty of Sikhism—the world’s fifth-largest religion. Today, three years since the Oak Creek shooting, Sikh Americans across the country are marking this tragic anniversary by conducting seva, a central tenet of Sikhism requiring selfless service to those in need, visible through the hashtags #RememberOakCreek and #DayofSeva2015. Through seva, Sikhs honor those whose lives were senselessly taken in the mass shooting by giving back to the community through service. So far, 20 service projects across 16 cities have honored the lives lost in Oak Creek through seva. To me, this day highlights the spirit in which Sikh community members and loved ones will be remembered, but it also underscores the true nature of what it means to be Sikh. Humility, service, charity, and love are the pillars on which Sikhism rests—qualities that also align with American values.
Yet misconceptions about Sikhism abound. This misunderstanding grew sharply after the events of September 11, 2001, and has resulted in countless hate crimes and deaths in the Sikh community. It is difficult to quantify the exact number of hate crimes against Sikhs because Sikh-specific data is unavailable. Up until 2014, law enforcement did not track hate crimes targeted specifically at Sikhs. However, in the first six years after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI investigated more than 800 bias incidents and crimes committed against Sikhs, Muslims, South Asian Americans, and those perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent. This does not include the many crimes that have gone unreported and those that occurred since 2007. Additionally, the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh advocacy group, has compiled and reviewed more than 140 anti-Sikh hate crimes from 2001 to 2012. Many other Sikh advocacy groups have received additional hate crime reports, including United Sikhs, where I previously served as a policy attorney. These incidents range in severity, from being called Osama bin Laden while walking down the street to the shooting that killed six Sikhs in Oak Creek.
A survey of Sikh Americans published by Harvard University in 2006 revealed that 83 percent of respondents either personally experienced or knew someone who had experienced a hate crime or incident on account of their religion. Some of these incidents resulted in death. Just after 9/11 in 2001, a Sikh man was murdered in Arizona, and his killer proudly proclaimed that he was a “patriot and an American” as police moved in to arrest him. In 2008, a Sikh high school student in New Jersey had his turban set on fire as a cruel prank. He is among the 69 percent of Sikh students who are bullied, 40 percent of whom are physically attacked. In 2014, a Sikh man in New York City was called a “terrorist” before his assailant intentionally ran him over with his truck and dragged him 30 feet, severely injuring him. These numbers highlight only the most disturbing attacks and do not even begin to explore the daily bias faced by Sikhs, from name-calling to extra scrutiny at airports.
As we all remember the victims of the Oak Creek tragedy, let’s also focus on how the Sikh community has come together to spread the message of forgiveness and egalitarianism—while also successfully advocating for policy change to accurately track hate crimes against Sikhs. It was particularly telling that after the horrific attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Sikh communities from across the country mourned the victims, and some Sikhs who were affected by the Oak Creek shooting even traveled to Charleston to show support. The tragedies in Charleston and Oak Creek exemplify some of the worst that humanity has to offer, but in the aftermath of both mass shootings, some beautiful displays of solidarity have emerged to combat racism and systemic injustice.
Today in Oak Creek, due to a senseless act of hate, there are children who no longer have a mother to cook them warm meals, widows mourning the loss of husbands, and an entire community that is still recovering from an act of domestic terrorism. Today, America remembers the victims of the Oak Creek shooting: Satwant Singh Kaleka, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh Khattra, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, and Sita Singh. At the same time, we continue to focus on the beauty of the Sikh community. And today—and every day—I am proud to be a Sikh American.
* Anisha Singh is the Campaign Manager for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.