Sikh Temple Shooting Stuns Congregation, Country

The shooting that left six congregants dead at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin has sparked concerns among Sikhs and other South Asian Americans. Host Michel Martin talks about who Sikhs are and how they're reacting to the tragedy. She's joined by Rajdeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition and Deepa Iyer of South Asian Americans Leading Together.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Obama administration has just issued the guidelines on how the new program to help children brought here as undocumented immigrants will actually work. We'll hear more about that from a member of a group trying to get the word out and help young people through the process. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about the terrible shooting at a Sikh temple on Sunday. A gunman opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin yesterday, killing six members of the congregation before he was shot dead by police. A police officer and two more people were wounded. Here's Simran Kaleka. Her entire family was at the temple during the shooting, including her uncle who was among the six who were killed.

SIMRAN KALEKA: It's so scary to know that just like that, someone - everyone could be gone. You know? My brother - I rushed home when I heard, just hoping that my little brother was just sleeping. He went. Everyone was there.

MARTIN: The shooter has been identified as 40 year old military veteran Wade Michael Page and local authorities describe the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism. Even as the details of this case are emerging, though, one thing is clear - that this attack has made its mark on American Sikhs and South Asian-Americans far beyond the community where this occurred.

We wanted to talk more about how the community is reacting to all this, so earlier we spoke with Rajdeep Singh. He is the director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition. Deepa Iyer is also with us. She's the executive director of the group South Asian-Americans Leading Together, or SALT. That's a civil rights group. She's previously been a guest in our Beauty Shop roundtable and they were both with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us, and I'm sorry to be speaking with you about these terrible events, but thank you for coming.

DEEPA IYER: Thank you.

RAJDEEP SINGH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Rajdeep, as we mentioned, authorities are still sorting out the motivation for this shooting and specific details about what seemed to have motivated the man who has now been identified as Wade Michael Page. But in the midst of all this, it seems to be that there seems to have been some confusion about just who Sikhs are, you know, what their faith principles are. Could you just give us just a couple of details to get us started?

SINGH: Sure. Sikhs are followers of the fifth largest religion in the world. There are approximately 25 million Sikhs throughout the world. The Sikh religion was founded over five centuries ago in South Asia. And, in fact, most Sikhs live in India but there is a significant diaspora in Europe and North America. And essentially Sikhs believe in one god and that all human beings are created equal, regardless of their race, religion, and gender.

MARTIN: Now, one does not want to imply that it would've been acceptable for this person to have attacked Muslim-Americans, but it's being reported that perhaps one of the motivations is misidentification. But this is not the first time that Sikhs have been misidentified as being part of another group. In 1905, they were attacked for being Hindus in Washington state. During the Iranian hostage crisis, they're misidentified as Iranian.

There have been various points during the Gulf War people of Sikh heritage have been attacked under the mistaken belief that they were Muslim. And I wonder whether this is common in your personal experience and why you think this persists.

SINGH: Well, in the post-9/11 environment, members of many communities - the Sikh, Arab, Muslim and South Asian-American communities - have been targeted because of their attire, because of their national origin - actual or perceived - because of their skin color. And, unfortunately, this is just a reality that many Sikhs have to endure and deal with these days.

MARTIN: And part of the distinctive attire - if you don't mind my mentioning, you're also wearing it - is the turban that observant Sikh men wear. Why do they wear that, if you don't mind my asking?

SINGH: Sure. Sikh men are required to wear turbans. And the turban is a declaration of Sikh identity. It signifies a commitment to upholding Sikh values and Sikh principles. It's sort of a declaration to the world that we are committed to protecting liberty, equality, freedom for all people.

MARTIN: Deepa, I would like to turn to you now. Your organization represents Sikhs but the broader population of South Asian-Americans. I just wanted to ask how people are responding to this and what you're hearing from members of your organization whether they're Sikh or not.

IYER: Yeah, Michel. We've been hearing from members of the community for the past day - Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, South Asians, Arab-Americans - and, you know, everyone is shaken up. Everyone is really shocked at the fact that this happened yesterday. Everyone is sending their condolences and sympathies to the families of the victims. And I think that there has also been a little bit of an emotional trigger to what happened in the days following September 11.

And as Rajdeep mentioned, our communities endured an unprecedented level of backlash in the form of hate crimes, discrimination, profiling.

MARTIN: Well, give us an example of that, if you would. If you have some hard numbers, I'd be interested to hear them.

IYER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Or give some specific examples.

IYER: Sure. Well, in just the week following 9/11, and we're going back 11 years obviously here, our organization found that there were 645 incidences of bias that were reported in our community. And this ranged in terms of, as I mentioned, hate crimes. In fact, the first victim of a post-9/11 hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a sick man.

There were Muslims, Indians also, who were murdered after 9/11. And then as we kind of moved on through the past 10 years, we saw that the types of discrimination would move into employment and workplace discrimination, school-based bullying, for example, profiling at the airports. And, sadly, we've also seen members of the political realm engage in xenophobic or racist rhetoric against our communities.

And it's really been an environment, a broad environment, where people in our communities have felt that they are targeted, that they are singled out because of this perceived connection to terrorism.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about yesterday's tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in southern Wisconsin. Our guests are Deepa Iyer of South Asian-Americans Leading Together, or SALT. That's a civil rights group aimed at the particular concerns of South Asian-Americans.

Also with us, Rajdeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition. Rajdeep Singh, I understand that part of the reason it's hard to pin down the number of specific attacks against Sikhs which authorities believe are based on their identity because the numbers aren't actually collected that way.

SINGH: That's right. The FBI is required to collect hate crime statistics from around the country. But, unfortunately, they do not keep track of hate crimes against Sikhs. And the Sikh Coalition made a request of the Justice Department and the FBI last year that they do so. Unfortunately, they did not. And earlier this year, Congressman Joe Crowley from New York and more than 90 members of Congress made the same request of the FBI. And we're hoping that in the fullness of time they will begin to document hate crimes against Sikhs. After all...

MARTIN: More broadly there, how are they described, though? They're not unrecorded, but are they described more broadly as attacks against people based on religion or...

SINGH: They're presumptively documented as anti-Muslim hate crimes.

MARTIN: Anti-Muslim hate crimes.

SINGH: Right. And although it is the case that many Sikhs are targeted because of anti-Muslim bias, they may be targeted because they are Sikhs. And in any case, we believe that you can't address a problem unless it's being measured. You can't allocate resources to address a problem unless you know where those resources should go. And so, we believe that the FBI has the capacity but also the obligation to take a nuanced approach to hate crime data collection.

MARTIN: All right. I wanted to ask you this, and I'm going to ask each of you this for the couple of minutes that we have left, is that, you know, the idea that Sikhs might be targeted because they are confused with being Muslims is wrong on any number of levels. I mean, so I don't mean to imply with this question that it's acceptable to target Muslims or anyone else, but I did want to ask if there is some discussion about how to clarify one's beliefs. I'm just wondering if that conversation is going on and how do you even address that question.

SINGH: Right. I think it's perfectly OK for people to explain who they are but it's unacceptable to try to explain who they are not. You know what I mean? I mean, we are Sikhs. We are happy to share information about our religion and be a part of the community. But at the same time, we have a solidarity with the Muslim community. They have endured a lot of violence and discrimination. And this is true also of the Arab-American and South Asian-American communities. And as far as I'm concerned, we are all one community.

MARTIN: Deepa, what about you, given in particular that your group is intentionally a coalition of people of different national origins and heritages and, you know, religious preferences and so forth, how do you address this question?

IYER: We also have seen members of our organization and our community, whether they're Sikh or Muslim or not, come together and be united and feel that we have, together as a community, endured the same type of discrimination, the same type of racism over the last decade. And so there have been a lot of bridges that have been built over the past 10 years, and I think that Rajdeep is right - there is a sense of solidarity that people feel. And it is really more important for us to talk about what kind of country that we want to live in when we have a country that is full of people of diverse religious backgrounds and national origins.

How can we create a country where people feel safe in their place of worship, in their schools and in their workplaces? And that's really what we hope is going to be part of the conversation that we have as a result of this tragic incident yesterday.

MARTIN: Rajdeep, is there anything else that you would want to leave people with, given, of course, that one would have to be feeling all the emotions that anyone would feel at a time like this of feeling vulnerable?

SINGH: Yes. I mean...

MARTIN: And the sense of pain at the specific, you know, losses that have been suffered. But is there anything else that you'd want people to know at a time like this?

SINGH: Yeah. I mean apart from offering our thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims, I just want to make two points. One is that this isn't just an incident. This wasn't just an attack on the Sikh community. There was an officer who was injured in the line of duty who was not a part of the Sikh community, who was attempting to protect them and who may have averted an even bigger tragedy. And so that needs to be noted and appreciated.

The other thing I'd like to leave you with is that although it is good to be vigilant, we shouldn't allow fear to govern our lives. All of us have to move on and continue to hold our heads up high and be proud of who we are and be proud to be a part of this country and this community.

MARTIN: Rajdeep Singh is the director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Deepa Iyer, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

IYER: Thank you.

SINGH: Thank you.

MARTIN: This is a developing story, so please click on NPR.org and stay tuned to your NPR station for the latest developments.

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