Sikhs Face More Attacks Since Sept. 11 Tragedies

Sikh rights groups say that since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there has been a marked rise in hate crimes against Sikhs. To talk more about that and to learn about the religion, Steve Inskeep talks to Kavneet Singh, managing director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, as it should be clear by now, we do not know the motive of this shooter. We do know, though, that a religious site was targeted and we're going to talk more, this morning, about the Sikh religion with Kavneet Singh, he is the managing director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Welcome to the program, sir.

KAVNEET SINGH: Good morning. Thank you for your time.

INSKEEP: Would you just give me some basic facts first? How large is the Sikh American community and where is some of the places that people are concentrated?

SINGH: We have estimates of the Sikh American population being somewhere between half a million to three quarters of a million strong, with major populations on the coasts. But we have large populations really across the country and slightly smaller ones in the Midwest, like we see in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

INSKEEP: So hundreds of thousands of people. The origin of the religion is south Asia - India, Pakistan, what is now India and Pakistan, right?

SINGH: Correct, correct. Founded over 500 years ago in the state of Punjab in what is now a south Asian province between India and Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Do Sikhs get confused with Muslims a lot?

SINGH: Absolutely. I think Sikh Americans are confused with our brothers and sisters in the Muslim faith, as well as, really, sort of confused just in general with this mysterious other that many Americans don't know and fear. Sikh men, specifically, are easily identifiable by their identity of having a turban and beard.

INSKEEP: Now, let's stress again, we do not know the motivations of this attacker at this time. But have there been instances where Sikhs have been targeted as Muslims, since 9/11, in a violent way?

SINGH: Yes, absolutely. We've seen between various Sikh organizations documented over 1,000 incidences against Sikhs since the attacks of 9/11, ranging from simple, maybe shoving or pushing on the street to actual true physical violence of people being - and actually having Sikh Americans that have been killed as a result of simply the way that they look or what they believe in.

INSKEEP: Now, it's early yet, but what kind of responses have you heard, to this incident, across the country from people in the Sikh community in the last day or so?

SINGH: We've seen tremendous activity both in local vigils being set up on Sunday night, scheduled for Monday, scheduled for Tuesday night and Wednesday and throughout the week really. So, I think, remarkable efforts from the Sikh American community to really mobilize and make sure that our neighbors understand who Sikhs are so that we can prevent further attacks from happening, but also in a show of solidarity. And I think, really,we've seen the same reaction from non-Sikhs. And I think that really speaks to the fact that, while this could happen at a Sikh Gurdwara, it isn't just a Sikh tragedy. But this is really a national American tragedy.

INSKEEP: You know, you mentioned efforts in the Sikh community to make sure that neighbor know who you are. You're talking, now, to quite a few million of your neighbors. If there's one thing that you'd like to make sure that Americans know about this religion - what it stands for, how it fits into America - what would it be?

SINGH: I think I would share with your listeners, really, the three main principles of the Sikh faith, which are the first is the remembrance of God; the second, to earn an honest living and to make sure that you are not a burden on society; and then third, is while making an honest living to make sure that you give back to your community. And your community here is what I like to call Capital C.

Your community is everybody. It's not just the people in your town or the people in your faith, but really everybody that you come in contact with is your community. The Sikh faith was founded really on the principles of giving back and service. And I think, throughout our history, we have been very strong proponents of civil rights, of equality and religious freedom. And those ideals obviously are - should sound very similar to folks as they are among the founding principles of this country that we all live in and share.

INSKEEP: Kavneet Singh is managing director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Thanks for joining us.

SINGH: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: And for those just joining us, let's bring you up to date on what we know about the suspect. He's been named by authorities as Wade Michael Page. He had a military background although he left the service back in the 1990s. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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