3 years since Wisconsin shooting, U.S. Sikhs live in fear

If it weren’t for the bullet hole in the doorway to the main prayer area and the police officer posted at the entrance of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, one might never know what happened.

Nirmal Kaur had just pulled into the parking lot with her husband and children when the first shots rang out. That day in 2012, a white supremacist killed six members of Oak Creek’s Sikh community, left another in an ongoing coma, and shot a police officer 15 times before killing himself. “I was so scared, and my children were crying,” Ms. Kaur said.

Xenophobic attacks

The attack — arguably one of the most violent acts ever committed against American Sikhs — drew a national spotlight onto the religious community that is often the victim of xenophobic harassment or attacks, many times due to the traditional beards and turbans worn by some Sikh men.

Today, a small inscription below the inconspicuous bullet hole at the gurdwara reads, “we are one.” Ms. Kaur and most in Oak Creek’s Sikh community are quick to laud the outpouring of love and support they received from their fellow citizens of all faiths in the years following the attack, but many still say they feel unsafe, and that the climate of hate is only getting worse.

American Sikhs continue to report harassment, violence, and vandalism — particularly as backlash after terrorist attacks like that in San Bernardino, California.

“I don’t know if I feel any more safe,” Mandeep Kaur, a leader and activist in Oak Creek’s Sikh community, said of the gurdwara’s updated security procedures. “Your fear is not just within these four doors. What about when you step out of these four doors?” “[Places of worship] are the places you should feel safe more than anywhere,” she added. “If you need a security guard, then I don’t know.” It’s outside those walls where many instances of harassment or assault against American Sikhs do occur. Hundreds of hate crimes against Sikhs have been reported in recent years — more than 300 alone in the months following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“I have definitely seen a spike in hate crimes and violent incidents, particularly since the San Bernardino shooting,” said Harsimran Kaur, the legal director of the Sikh Coalition, a national group that advocates for the civil rights of American Sikhs.

Following the shooting, a gurdwara in Buena Park, California was vandalised with anti-IS and anti-Islam graffiti. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Sikh gas station clerk was shot in the face after the gunman reportedly said “I used to kill people like you in Iraq with no problem.”

In Bakersfield, California, a 77-year-old Sikh man said someone threw an apple at his head so hard that it broke to pieces. Three Sikh men in San Diego, California, were harassed when they tried to enter a football stadium.

Just days after the San Bernardino shooting, Prabhjot Singh and his two-year-old son were walking in midtown Manhattan when someone yelled “fucking terrorist” from a car, he said.

Five lakh U.S. followers

A monotheistic religion, Sikhs believe in the oneness of God and live in accordance to a philosophy that says all people are equal and must be respected. With at least 25 million followers worldwide — including an estimated 500,000 in the U.S. — it is the fifth largest religion in the world. Believers follow the teachings of the ten Sikh gurus — the belief of one creator god, selfless service, and social justice amongst others.

But most Americans don’t know that, even though Sikhs have been a visible part of American life for more than a century. A 2015 study by The National Sikh Campaign found that 60 per cent of Americans report knowing nothing at all about the Sikh faith. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2015