Five years on, what has changed?

Five years on from the tragic Oak Creek Gurdwara massacre, journalist Dawinderpal Singh asks why there are still so many unanswered questions about America’s view of Sikhs.

On a Sunday morning five years ago, while worshippers at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin USA, were preparing Langar (communal food) and Sunday school was in session, a white American man opened fire on the congregation, shooting six people dead.

A further four were wounded before the assailant killed himself. The mass shooting was considered a hate crime. The shooter had ties to white supremacist organisations. He believed that, due to the skin colour and appearance of the Sikhs, they posed a threat.

Five years later, and despite many attempts by Sikhs in the United States to raise awareness of who they are and what the Sikh identity stands for, little has changed. Sikhs are still living in fear of hate crime from Americans.

The issue first came to light in September 2001, after the 9/11 attack. Some Americans began seeking retribution for the Islamic terrorist attack, and the first victim they claimed was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona. He was shot and killed outside his gas station.

It was the first of many attacks on Sikhs in the US (see Box-Out). Following Sodhi’s murder, a Sikh lady was killed by two men on a motorcycle who said: “This is what you get for what you’ve done to us,”; three teens burned down a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in New York, and a Sikh man was beaten with metal poles by two men in LA, all within the following three months.

Thereafter, the shocking attacks continued at a steady pace; a Sikh man was stabbed in the neck in front of his home; a 15-year-old student’s hair forcibly cut by an older student in New York; a Sikh US Navy veteran who was approached by a police officer outside his own home in Illinois for an expired vehicle registration tag, is assaulted with pepper spray by the officer who shouted anti-immigrant expletives.

From graffitti and vandalism, to assaults and murder, Sikhs are being consistently targeted.

In just March this year, a Sikh man working on his car in his driveway in a Seattle suburb was approached by a man wearing a mask over his face, who told him to “go back to your own country”, before shooting him and fleeing the scene.

Sikhs in the United States have banded together to deliver a “National Sikh Awareness Campaign”, drafting in former President Obama’s election campaign team to manage the project. It had little impact. Instead, the American media has been caught using images of Sikhs in reports about Islamic terrorism. USA Today and Cosmopolitan both used images of Sikhs in reports about terrorism, despite no instances of terrorism ever being suffered at the hands of Sikhs in the country.

Has anything changed since the Oak Creek massacre? Seemingly, most would say no. An online poll of 151 by the Sikh Press Association showed 51% felt nothing had changed, whilst 17% felt the situation had actually gotten worse for Sikhs.

Although there is not anywhere near the same number of incidents – or at least violent incidents – suffered by Sikhs outside of the US, the issue is still prevalent in nations like the UK, Australia and Canada. The Sikh Network’s Sikh Survey, which over 4500 Sikhs participated in (which according to some figures could be approximately 1% of the population of UK Sikhs) showed over one in five had experienced a hate crime.

Yet, it is nothing like the US, where the violence “has become all too common” according to Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the memorial service held in Oak Creek five years ago.

“In the recent past, too many Sikhs have been targeted and victimised simply because of who they are, how they look, and what they believe.

“This is wrong.  It is unacceptable.  And it will not be tolerated.  We must ask necessary questions of ourselves: what kind of nation do we truly want to have?  Will we muster the courage to demand more of those who lead us and, just as importantly, of ourselves?  What will we do to prevent that which has brought us here today from occurring in the future?

Sikhs worldwide urge America to find the answers to those questions, five years on from when they were originally asked.

You can read more from Dawinderpal Singh here – http://dawinderpal.com/.

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