The killing of six innocent worshippers at Oak Creek Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is indeed sad and unfortunate, but violent expression of hate and prejudice that this kind of incident may represent, was not unexpected, at least to Sikh activists like me who have spent the last several years–especially since September 11–in trying to reach out to the mainstream to remove misconceptions about Sikhs and their mistaken identity.

Readers may recall an incident about defacing of a billboard that a Sikh group had put up on Route 78, close to Bethel, PA. The display carried a message of peace and amity and the image of a Sikh male with his characteristic symbol of religious observance – the unshorn facial hair and a turban covering the unshorn hair on his head. The defacing graffiti was a message of hate against Muslims, obviously confusing Sikhs to be a part of that faith group.

Of course Sikhs are not Muslims, but Sikhs may not distance themselves from anybody just so as to ensure their own safety or for fear of being subjected to hate crimes because of mistaken identity. That is un-Sikh. A Sikh would much rather stand shoulder to shoulder on the side of what is right and be one with those who work for peace and societal harmony.

Nonetheless, Sikhs in the United States are not many and are dispersed. They do not make waves and so do not hit the headlines. They have had a history of over a hundred years in this great country and have been productive citizens involved in its corporate social and political life. In fact the first-ever Asian U.S. Congressman was a Sikh: Duleep Singh Saund in the late 1950s. The first Sikh Gurdwara came up in Stockton, CA around one hundred years back. You meet Sikhs in all walks of life – some are well-to-do, some struggling, but none begging or committing antisocial activities, at least in the U.S.

Why then should Sikhs be the victims of the highest incidence of hate crimes? There seems only one plausible explanation. To a lay American, the visible identity of Sikhs may seem very similar to the images of Islamist terrorists, so often used in the media, more so to give a face to the perpetrators of the abominable 9/11 attacks.  

Now this is an unfortunate coincidence. Those who actually committed the 9/11 attacks did not look like Sikhs – they made themselves look more like average young Americans. If Sikhs had anything to hide why would they choose to stand out in the crowd? Significantly the Sikh turban is intended as a statement of religious observance. The religion encourages that the followers try and make a difference to the society by working for the good of one and all and to treat none as inimical or the other! 

I had pleaded when the billboard incident was discussed in these columns, and I offer my humble plea again. Hard as Sikhs may try, they cannot remove the misgivings that the mistaken identity images have unintentionally, yet so firmly, implanted in American minds. The U.S. administration at the time also turned a blind eye to the possibility of consequences of this stereotype for Sikhs, in spite of feeble Sikh voices that spoke up.

Sikhs can’t do it alone. We will continue to do what we can but we need help of the media and others who have the ability to reach out to the mainstream America to remove any misconceptions that continue to persist!

*Nirmal Singh lives in New Cumberland though presently he is in on a longish visit to India. He is an incorporator of the Sikh Society of Harrisburg and has been involved for several years in interfaith and multi cultural activities in Central PA. He can be reached by email at


Praising the brave and timely action taken by the Police Officer who risked his/her life to defend Sikhs in a shoot out at Wisconsin Sikh Temple, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) a US based human rights advocacy group, announced a $10,000/- gallantry award for the officer — Emphasizing the need for special program to create awareness about religious minorities, attorney Gurpatwant Singh Pannun who practices civil rights in the United States and is legal advisor to advocacy group SFJ, stated that the attack on Sikhs in the United States is not due to mistaken identity as commonly portrayed but rather Sikhs are targeted for being Sikhs, a religious minority.

As of now 6 Sikhs are confirmed dead:  1 Kathavachak (spiritual discourse giver), 2 sewadars (helpers) at the Gurdwara (place of worship), one woman, one old gentleman, and the identity of another is unknown. The single gunman is also confirmed dead. United Sikhs

The Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was founded in 1997 and had over 400 peaceful worshipers that worked and lived in the greater Milwaukee area. The Gurdwara, known as being a wonderful neighbor, had come to represent the valued contributions of the Sikh faith in a community where Sikhism was understood to be another contributing fabric in the cloth of American plurality. Sikh Coalition

Congregation president Satwant Kaleka was shot and wounded when he attempted to tackle the gunman, his son, Amardeep Kaleka told WTMJ. His mother — who hid in a closet during the violence — was too distraught to talk, he said.Read more:

Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since the Sept. 11 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.

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