Shooting at Sikh Temple in Wisconsin - updated

Sheila Musaji

Posted Aug 5, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Shooting at Sikh Temple in Wisconsin

by Sheila Musaji

At this point, the news reports are very unclear and contradictory.  All that is known for certain is that one or more gunmen entered the Sikh Gurdwara (Temple) in a suburb called Oak Creek near Milwaukee and began shooting people.  Law enforcement and medical personnel were on the scene right away.  Initial reports were that it was possible that one or more gunmen were still inside and holding people hostage.  One shooter attempted to escape the building and was shot and killed.  That gunman was described as a white male.  Three shooting victims are now in the hospital in critical condition, one of them is a police officer. 

It has been announced that seven people are dead, including the shooter, and that three people are in intensive care.  It has also been announced that the FBI will take the lead on the investigation which is being considered an act of domestic terrorism.

CNN aired an interview with Rajwant Singh, Chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, a national Sikh organization.  The reporter asked him if he had any idea as to why such a thing might have happened, and he answered that the feeling in the Sikh community is that this was probably an outcome of the misunderstandings and prejudice toward Muslims since 9/11, and that due to ignorance, Sikhs are often confused with Muslims.  He also mentioned that Balbir Singh Sohdi was the first victim of anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 due to this confusion, and he was a Sikh.  The CNN reporter was taken aback by this and kept attempting to cut him off, saying that now was not the time for any discussion of possible motives.

The Sikh Siyasat news in India has a report on the incident which includes this statement:  US media is tight-lipped regarding the apparent nature of attack. Media is using the simple term of “shooters” and avoiding the term “terrorist” for the people who fired bullets on innocent worshippers. Meanwhile, the worldwide Sikh community is praying for the safety of people caught up in the crisis.

The Huffington Post is posting regular updates here.

NBC News reports that

Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents in the U.S. since 9/11, which advocates blame on anti-Islamic sentiment. Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that was founded in South Asia more than 500 years ago. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their heads with turbans—which are considered sacred—and refrain from shaving their beards. They are neither Muslim nor Hindu.

There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., according to estimates. The majority worldwide live in India.

It has also been reported that violence against Sikhs has happened before in the Milwaukee area

In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, at least four acts of violence against Sikhs occurred in the Milwaukee area, , said Swarnjit S. Arora, a founder of the local Sikh Religious Society said in 2002. Two taxis owned by Sikh drivers were vandalized, and two Sikh men were assaulted, said Arora. The crimes were not widely reported by the news media because they were overshadowed by dramatic events across the nation, he said.

About 3,000 Sikh families live in southeastern Wisconsin. A tight-knit community, they meet for religious services and to share meals at the Religious Society in Brookfield and the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, in Oak Creek, which opened in 2007. Sikh temples are called gurdwaras, or the gateway to the guru.

The Oak Creek scene was similar to the situation in 2005, when a gunman killed seven people and himself at a church meeting in a Brookfield hotel.  Terry Ratzmann, 44, opened fire March 12, 2005, during a worship service of the Living Church of God at the Sheraton hotel in Brookfield.

Last month, Simran Jeet Singh (an American Sikh) wrote a prescient article Islamophobia, Sikhophobia and Media Profiling in which he discussed the spread of Islamophobia as well as other forms of bigotry, and said

Strikingly, Muslims have not been the only targets of Islamophobic violence. A number of different American communities have been impacted by Islamophobia, and practitioners of the Sikh religion make up one of the most adversely affected minority groups. The distinctive physical appearance of typical Sikh males in particular—brown skin, turban, beard—correlates with the stereotypical images of terrorists projected in western media. Scholars have recently described this perceived relationship as a racialization of religious identity. This process has led to a conflation of Sikhs and Muslims, and therefore, has produced a corollary to Islamophobia—Sikhophobia.

In fact, the first casualty of a hate crime in post-9/11 America was a Sikh-American named Balbir Singh Sodhi. According to official reports, his murderer said he killed Sodhi because “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”  In other words, Sodhi fit the profile of “the Islamic other.”

With law enforcement and news media fanning the flames, the increasing sense of Islamophobia has led Sikh-Americans to be publicly profiled as suspicious and threatening. For instance, the day after the 9/11 attacks, a turbaned Sikh male named Sher Singh was traveling from Boston to New York on an Amtrak train when it stopped in Providence, R.I. The FBI had sent federal agents, local police and bomb-sniffing dogs to arrest him. Officers rushed to the platform, pointed rifles at Singh and shouted “Get your f—- hands up.” The officers removed him from the train at gunpoint and handcuffed him. According to a report by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, bystanders gathered around Sher Singh during the time of his arrest and began shouting obscenities and hate-speech, such as: “Kill him!” “Burn in Hell!” and “You killed my brother!” Strikingly, Sher Singh reported that one of the arresting officers joined in the vitriol by asking, “How’s Osama bin Laden?”

Neha Singh Gohil and Dawinder S. Sidhu have pointed out that the arrest of this Sikh-American male, as well as its widespread publicization, wrought major damage to the image of Sikhs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

“News stations replayed the video of his arrest in connection with its coverage of the attacks, thus associating Singh and other turbaned Sikhs with the planners of the attacks. ... Thus any connection between terrorists and a turbaned male with a long flowing beard was further embedded in the hearts and minds of emotional Americans. On the contrary, no media coverage followed news of Sher Singh’s release, just three hours later. There was no reason—beyond the turban and long beard—for the public or law enforcement personnel to be concerned about his presence on a train. In other words, he did nothing to arouse suspicion, aside from looking the way he did in a public space.”

Despite his innocence and relatively quick release, news stations continued to replay the arrest and detention of Sher Singh for the next three days, and this continuous loop helped shape and perpetuate basic stereotypes of “the Islamic other.” Moreover, the mutually reinforcing actions of racial profiling by the federal government and news media offered the general public with a sort of sanctioning of Islamophobia and Sikhophobia.

The consequences of these attitudes have been severe and costly. Since 9/11, tens of thousands of Americans have been alienated and victimized. The overly simplistic profile of “the Islamic other” has done more harm than good, and it has negatively affected Muslims and non-Muslims alike. From job discrimination and school bullying to racial profiling and police surveillance, the various manifestations of Islamophobia continue to divide the nation and increase tensions.

It’s time to leave behind our Islamophobic, Sikhophobic and other-phobic tendencies and look at one another as fellow human beings.

And, a few months ago, another American Sikh, Sonny Singh wrote We Are All Muslims: A Sikh Response to Islamophobia in the NYPD and Beyond in which he said

Many talk about the prevalence of anti-Sikh attacks as a case of “mistaken identity.” Sikhs mistaken for Muslims. Indeed, we are by and large attacked because of anti-Muslim bigotry. The Michigan gurdwara was targeted for that reason, and most of us who experience racist harassment as Sikhs in the U.S. experience it through the vilification of Muslims and/or Arabs.

Ironically, many Sikhs themselves vilify Muslims or at least distance themselves from the Muslim community at every possible opportunity. I remember in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, the first thing out of the mouths of many Sikhs when talking to the press, to politicians or even to their neighbors was, “We are not Muslims.” While this is of course a fact, the implication of the statement if it stops there is: You’re attacking the wrong community. Don’t come after us, go after the Muslims! Sikhs believe in equality and freedom and love our country and our government. But Muslims? We don’t like them either.

The roots of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Sikh community run deep in South Asia, from the days of the tyranny of Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb in the 17th century to the bloodshed in 1947 when our homeland of Punjab was sliced into two separate nation-states. Despite these historical realities, Sikhism has always been clear that neither Muslims as a people nor Islam as a religion were ever the enemy. Tyranny was the enemy. Oppression was the enemy. Sectarianism was the enemy. In fact, the Guru Granth Sahib, our scriptures that are the center of Sikh philosophy and devotion, contains the writings of Muslim (Sufi) saints alongside those of our own Sikh Gurus. Nevertheless, historical memory breeds misguided hostility and mistrust of Muslims, especially in the contemporary global context of ever-increasing, mainstream Islamophobia.

What is it going to take for Sikhs and Muslims to join together in solidarity against the common enemies of racist harassment and violence, racial and religious profiling, and Islamophobic bigotry? Perhaps the recently exposed NYPD spying program (along with the “education” officers have received about Islam) will serve as a wake up call to my community (and other communities for that matter) about how bad things have really gotten. While we Sikhs confront bigotry on a daily basis from our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, employers and strangers on the street, our Muslim American counterparts are systematically targeted by our own government. (I should note that, of course, Sikhs too are profiled by law enforcement in less repressive, though still troubling, ways, especially at airport security).

Sikhism was born hundreds of years ago in part to stand up for the most oppressed and fight for the freedom and liberation of all people. If this isn’t reason enough for us to make the cause of rooting out Islamophobia from the NYPD and other law enforcement and government agencies our own, we only have to return to the bleak reality we Sikhs in the U.S. still face right now in 2012. A time when gurdwaras are still vandalized with anti-Muslim statements, Sikh kids are still being bullied and tormented at school every day, and I am called Osama bin Laden while walking down a Manhattan street for the 258th time (no I’m not counting).

“We are not Muslims” hasn’t been so effective for our community, has it? Even if we do so in a positive way that does not condone attacks on Muslims, simply educating the public about the fact that we are a distinct community and that we in fact “are not Muslim” will not get to the root of the problem. As long as we live in a country (and world) where an entire community (in this case, Muslims) is targeted, spied on and vilified, we will not be safe, we will not be free.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

I hope the NYPD’s blatant assault on the civil rights of our Muslim sisters and brothers propels us Sikhs as well as all people of conscience to action. Perhaps “We are not Muslims” will become “We are all Muslims,” as we come together to eradicate Islamophobic bigotry in all its forms.

It has also been reported that:

The Indian Minorities Advocacy Network and Muslim Peace Coalition USA condemned the heinous attack and urged the Muslims to hold special prayer services in this holy month of Ramadan for the victims.

Shaik Ubaid, a founding member of ImanNet, urged mosques and temples to ask for extra police protection and to put security measures in place.  “The campaign of hatemongering against the religious minorities and immigrants that is being supported by some mainstream politicians has endangered all Americans,” he said.

Shaik Sayeed, the Wisconsin spokesman for ImanNet and a member of Executive Board of the Islamic Center in Milwaukee appealed to all religious groups and political parties to monitor their members and counter hatemongering and extremism.

This will be updated as more information is available.  For now, all that we can do is to pray for the victims, and for their families and loved ones.  Whoever did this, and for whatever inhuman motivation, or whatever false justification, it is a tragedy for the Sikh community, and a tragedy for all Americans.   This is a crime against humanity.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon — From God we came and to God we return

All of us must unite against those who spread divisiveness and fear of others who are different from ourselves.  Sonny Singh’s important question is one for all of us to answer, what is it going to take for us to come together and say:

We are all Muslims - We are all Sikhs - We are all Jews - We are all Christians - We are all Americans - We are all fellow human beings - We are all our brothers and sisters keepers!


CAIR has issued a statement saying that American Muslims “stand with their Sikh brothers and sisters” following the deadly shooting attack targeting a house of worship of that faith this morning in Wisconsin.

The statement said “While details of the attack and the motivation of the attacker are still emerging, American Muslims stand with their Sikh brothers and sisters in this time of crisis and loss. We condemn this senseless act of violence, pray for those who were killed or injured and offer sincere condolences to their loved ones.  CAIR officials are in contact with the Milwaukee Muslim community as it offers support to its Sikh neighbors.

MPAC has also released a statement expressing their condolences.  “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and loved ones of the victims,” said MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati. “This is a horrific crime, and we hope the police and FBI will be able to bring this case to a close.  MPAC has reached out to its partners at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and The Sikh Coalition in Washington, DC, and New York to offer our sympathies and assistance. We stand united with our brothers and sister of faith.”

Imam Aslam Abdullah from Las Vegas, Nevada has just sent a notice that: “Members of the Las Vegas Muslim community will stand in solidarity with the Sikh community on Wednesday at 7:30 PM at the Gurduwara in Las Vegas. I will break my fast there and I request community members to be there to remind ourselves that people of faith are all together to pray for the victims of violence. The address is:
Gurdwara Baba Deep Singh Ji,  6341 W. Lone Mountain Rd,  Las Vegas, NV 89130.”

The Islamic Shura Council issued a statement:

The ISC grieves with the Sikh community for the senseless killing of innocent worshippers at their Milwaukee temple. “We stand in solidarity with the Sikh community and pray for them at this time of pain and sadness. May peace and goodness prevail here and all over the world.” said Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, Chairman of the Islamic Shura Council.

Earlier, the Executive Director of the Islamic Shura Council also called on the local and the national Sikh leadership to record Muslims’ solidarity and support for the Sikh community. In response, Dr. Gurpreet Singh Ahuja, a Los Angeles based Sikh community leader replied, “thank you for your kind wishes. We appreciate your prayers. As you might imagine, it is a challenging time for the Sikh community in the US.” Also, Amardeep Singh of the New York based Sikh Coalition thanked Shura Council for its moral support.

As people of faith and conscience we urge all people in America to work together and put an end to hate and bigotry. Shura Council asks the community to stand together in solidarity with the Sikh community and take action today.

1. Call or send flowers as a tribute to the fallen at any of the local Gurdwaras. Click here for a list of SoCal Gurdwaras.
2. We strongly urge you to take a minute and send your support and solidarity email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). We will compile all emails and forward them to the Sikh leadership. 
3. Click here to Stand Strong Against Hate.

ISNA issued a statement

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is deeply saddened by news of a shooting yesterday at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who lost their lives and to those who are suffering from critical injuries.  Reports indicate that the gunman took the lives of 6 people and injured three others before being shot himself.  ISNA is grateful for the heroic police officers who risked their lives to put an end to the shooting, and prays for the swift recovery of the officer who was shot multiple times in the process.

ISNA Vice President Azhar Azeez said this morning, “On behalf of ISNA, I offer my deepest condolences for those who lost their lives yesterday in the tragic attack.  We stand in solidarity with the Sikh community during this difficult time and pray that such a tragedy is never repeated again.”

While the attacker’s motives are still unknown, Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards referred to the incident as an act of domestic terrorism, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is investigating.

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, ISNA National Director for Interfaith and Community Alliances, personally conveyed ISNA’s condolences to leaders from the Sikh community.  For the past several years, ISNA has worked very closely with them to promote respect and understanding toward minority communities in our country.

Numerous Sikhs have faced discrimination and violence since the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Swarnjit S. Arora of the local Sikh Religious Society told the Journal Sentinel that at least four acts of violence against Sikhs have occurred in the Milwaukee area alone.

In April, 90 members of Congress signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, asking them to record and track hate crimes directed at members of the Sikh community.  In recent years, the Department of Justice has worked to monitor and reduce hate crimes against American Muslims, and ISNA fully supports any efforts to track hate crimes that specifically target members of the Sikh faith.  ISNA is part of an ongoing dialogue with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to reduce hate crimes against South Asians, Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Ahmed Bedier of United Voices posted this:  Four Words to the Sikh community around the world in response to tragic terrorist attack in Wisconsin today: AMERICA STANDS WITH YOU! 

Photo: Four Words to the Sikh community around the world in response to tragic terrorist attack in Wisconsin today: AMERICA STANDS WITH YOU! On behalf of United Voices and Ahmed Bedier to United Sikhs, The Sikh Coalition and to Sikhs worldwide.

UPDATE 8/6/2012

The identity of the shooter is now known.  He was Wade Michael Page, who was a former soldier in the U.S. Army.  According to CBS News, he was last stationed at the Fort Bragg Army installation in North Carolina, and attached to the psychological operations unit (PSYOP).  He had recently broken up with his girlfriend, and is said to have had a 9/11 tattoo on his arm.  Note:  The Dictionary of Military Terms says that PSYOPS are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.

The Sikh Coalition, a National Sikh organization says that it has reported more than 700 incidents of violence and prejudice towards Sikhs in the U.S. since 9/11, and they believe most were due to anti-Muslim sentiment, even though Sikhs don’t practice the same religion as Muslims.


Sikh Coalition
Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund SALDEF
Strengthening South Asian Communities in America SAALT
United Sikhs