Candlelight vigil on Sunday evening in Milwaukee's Cathedral Square. Photo posted on Facebook by Overpass Light Brigade.
As members of the US Sikh community mourn the deaths of six people killed in a shooting at a temple in Wisconsin, the incident has recalled past crimes in post-9/11 America in which victims were targeted because they had been mistaken for Muslims. While some Sikhs have dwelled on this point, our Observer warns against focusing more on the crime’s target than on the crime itself.
Tragedy struck in Oak Creek, a suburb just outside of Milwaukee, on Sunday after Wade Michael Page opened fire using a 9-millimetre, semi-automatic handgun at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, killing six people and seriously injuring three others before he was shot dead by police. A US military veteran, Page, 40, is thought to have been deeply involved with white supremacist groups and played in a racist band that was monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a US-based civil rights organisation.
Some members of the Sikh community in the United States have long dreaded the prospect of an incident like Sunday’s shooting. In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Sikhs, who traditionally wear full beards and turbans, suddenly became a target of the anger and hostility some Americans were feeling against Muslims. Just four days after the attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead outside of the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona, after he was mistaken for being a Muslim, becoming the first victim of a 9/11 revenge killing.
According to the FBI’s hate crimes data from 2001, the number of reported “anti-Islamic” crimes in the United States surged by 1,600 percent that year. “Since the [Bureau] does not collect statistics on anti-Arab or anti-Sikh hate crimes, we can only assume that this dramatic increase … reflects the backlash in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks,” a report summary stated.
Although the motive behind the attack in Oak Creek remains unclear, it seems evident that the victims were singled out because of their presence at a Sikh temple – a fact that some can’t help but associate with past violence targeting their community.
“There have been multiple hate crime shootings within the Sikh community in recent years and the natural impulse of our community is to, unfortunately, assume the same in this case,” Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the US-based Sikh Coalition, said in a statement published after the attack. “Let’s let law enforcement investigate the case, and as new facts emerge the dialogue can change.”
Following the Sikh Temple shooting, numerous vigils, memorial services, prayers and gatherings have been planned everywhere from Wisconsin to India’s capital New Delhi.
Candlelight vigil on Sunday evening in Milwaukee's Cathedral Square. Photo posted on Facebook by Overpass Light Brigade.
Vigil at the Plainview Gurdwara (a "gurdwara" is a Sikh temple) on Monday evening in Long Island, New York. Photo posted on Facebook by Supreet Singh Bedi.
Candlelight vigil held Monday evening in San Francisco's Dolores Park. Photo posted on Facebook by Made by KG.

"We shouldn't be giving voice to the sentiment that ‘we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this’"

Amardeep Singh, 38, is Sikh. He currently works as an associate English professor at Lehigh University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After 9/11 there was an image of the Taliban that circulated in the American media that showed men wearing turbans and beards, and that image was extended to Sikhs. One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the US since then is how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims.
Although I was never violently attacked, I did feel the intensity of that hostility. On numerous occasions, in both New York where I grew up and in Philadelphia where I now live, I was approached by strangers on the street who would address me as Osama bin Laden. They would actually walk up to me, smiling, and say, ‘Hello bin Laden’.
The change in people’s attitudes towards me and the many others who were presumed to be Muslim was disorienting. If you are from South Asia and you grew up in the US, you work really hard to acquire all the norms. To have that suddenly taken out from under your feet, to be made to feel as though you are no longer an American, was difficult.
The Sikh community had to find a way to address mounting hostilities in the US after 9/11. There’s definitely been a movement to assert who we are and to inform the public about our beliefs, but it is tricky to do so without seeming to validate religious-based hostilities against any other group. Saying, ‘Don't hate me, I'm not a Muslim’ is not a response. A number of Sikh advocacy groups formed shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.
We don’t know what the shooter’s motive was yet, but as I’ve kept up with the community's reaction to the incident I've been seeing a lot of friends and family reminding everyone not to dwell on the shooter's likely ‘misrecognition’ (Manpreet Singh Badal, founder-president of the People's Party of Punjab, told the AFP news agency on Monday that he believed the shooting was the result of "mistaken identity", noting that "Sikhs are often mistaken to be from the Middle East."). The sentiment that ‘we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this’ is actually not one we should be giving voice to, even if it might be understandable after such a ghastly attack.