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Sikhs No Stranger To Violence In Recent Years

Members of the Milwaukee-area Sikh community gather Monday in Oak Creek, Wis., to learn more information about a shooting spree that left six people dead. Sikhs have faced a number of attacks in the U.S. in recent years.
Scott Olson
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Members of the Milwaukee-area Sikh community gather Monday in Oak Creek, Wis., to learn more information about a shooting spree that left six people dead. Sikhs have faced a number of attacks in the U.S. in recent years.

As Sikhism spread far and wide in the past century, it has been no stranger to discrimination and violence.

Authorities have yet to determine a motive for Sunday's shooting in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek, in which an assailant entered a Sikh temple, known as a gurudwara, and gunned down six congregants and wounded three others before himself being killed by police. But many Sikh men keep their unshorn hair tightly wrapped by a turban, which gives them a distinct and recognizable appearance. As a result, increasingly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sikhs have been mistakenly identified – and occasionally targeted – as Muslims.

The New York-based Sikh Coalition was formed in the wake of such incidents, including one that occurred just days after the 2001 terrorist attacks in which the Sikh owner of a gas station in Mesa, Ariz., was shot and killed, reportedly because the assailant thought he was Muslim.

"It is important to note that this is only one of a growing number of incidents of violence that Sikhs have experienced in recent years," Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, said in a statement Monday, even as she said the organization was continuing "to be cautious about rushing to judgment."

"As we continue to struggle with what happened and support victims and their families, we hope America will be as outraged as we are and urge leaders to take steps to do more to prevent these crimes, promote tolerance and protect the rights of all people," Kaur said.

The coalition says that since 2001, it has received more than 700 requests for legal assistance from Sikhs asking for help with such cases as hate crimes, employment discrimination and school bullying.

The Roots Of Sikhism

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in India's northwestern Punjab region in the 15th century. It is based on the teachings of 10 gurus who lived between 1469 and 1708. The last living guru, Gobind Singh, mandated that baptized Sikhs keep five articles of the faith, including uncut hair, a small wooden comb, a metal bracelet, a special undergarment and a sword or dagger. Once baptized, Sikhs carry the same surname, Singh (meaning "lion"), originally as a sign of their equality in caste-bound India.

There are approximately 27 million Sikh adherents worldwide, including an estimated 300,000 in the United States and about 500,000 in Canada, says author Inderjit Singh, a professor emeritus at New York University and the author of several books on Sikhism. Migrant Sikhs have landed on the shores of Singapore, Malaysia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.

Throughout their history, Sikhs have frequently been forced to defend their faith against attacks, but despite their minority status even in India, where they represent less than 2 percent of the population, they have always maintained an outsized influence for their numbers.

"The current prime minister of India is a Sikh, the army chief is a Sikh, the head of the planning commission is a Sikh — so for a small minority, that's saying quite a lot," says S. Ravinder Singh Taneja, a contributing writer for the The Sikh Review.

Taneja says Sikhs have left Punjab in waves beginning about a century ago, but the exodus picked up steam when British India gained independence in 1947 and was split into India and Pakistan, an event that cleaved the region of Punjab in two and led to one of the largest and bloodiest transmigrations in human history.

In the U.S., there was a wave of migration in the 1960s, one in the mid-1980s, after an unsuccessful bid for Sikh independence and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and yet another in the 1990s.

"Sikhs have this wanderlust about them," Taneja says. "They do like to try out new places."

Living As A 'Cut Sikh'

But they haven't always chosen to be so visible. Taneja says after arriving in the U.S. in the 1970s, he decided to cut his hair and shave, become what some call a "cut Sikh," and lived that way for 20 years.

"In 1996, I went back to wearing the unshorn look," he says. It was, he says, a journey back into his religion.

Inderjit Singh, the professor and author, says perhaps half of all Sikhs in the U.S. have chosen to cut their hair, while the other half have kept the tradition – a distinction he prefers to call "recognizable and non-recognizable Sikhs."

Singh has always remained "recognizable." He arrived in the U.S. in the 1960s on a Guggenheim fellowship, when there were "very, very few" Sikhs at American universities and his appearance was more a curiosity than anything else.

But Inderjit Singh, who lives on Long Island but works in Manhattan, says he has had some interesting encounters.

In one instance, which occurred after 2001, a man he met near Penn Station struck up a conversation with him.

"He knew a little bit about Sikhs, so we were talking and I told him Sikhs have been here in this country for around 100 years," he recalls. "After a while, he asks, 'When you people came here a 100 years ago, tell me, why didn't they leave their religion back home?' I said, 'Your people came here maybe 200 years ago; tell me, why did they not leave their religion back home?' He was thoughtfully silent for a moment and then said, 'You know, you have a point. Let's go have a cup of coffee.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.