Sikhs, Mistaken for Muslims, Are Targets of Anger in U.S.

“I Am a Patriot,” Says Suspect in Shooting

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ROME, SEPT. 20, 2001 ( U.S. Sikhs mistaken for Muslims are in the cross-fire of Americans´ anger following the Sept. 11 attacks.

In Mesa, Arizona, the Sikh proprietor of a gasoline station was shot dead, apparently by someone who mistook him for a Muslim.

U.S. government officials believe that Muslims led by Osama bin Laden are to blame for the horrific attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Earlier this week FBI Director Robert Mueller said the government had opened 40 hate-crime investigations in the days since the plane attacks. “Vigilante attacks and threats against Arab-Americans will not be tolerated,” he said.

But in the absence of a clearly identifiable public enemy, some Americans are venting their anger on anyone who appears to be a Muslim.

Stunned by the wave of violence unleashed against them, Sikhs are trying hard to explain that, despite the turbans and beards, their religion is not the same as Islam. Although they number fewer than 1 million in the United States, they have attracted a disproportionate amount of hatred after last week´s attacks.

Last Saturday a gunman drove up to a gas station in Mesa and shot the Sikh proprietor. The gunman then shot a Lebanese accountant in a nearby gasoline station, and finally fired shots into the home of an Afghan family.

“I am a patriot” were Frank S. Roque´s words when he was arrested.

Since the terrorist attacks, people from the Middle East and South Asia have been the object of harassment, threats and assaults. The FBI is investigating two additional deaths, which seem to be crimes committed as reprisals.

Egyptian Christian Adel Karas, owner of a grocery store in San Gabriel, California, was killed in his store on Saturday. That same day, Pakistani Muslim Waqar Hasan was found shot dead in his store in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas, Texas.

The Sikhs, however, are particularly vulnerable. Many of them look like the pictures of turbaned, bearded bin Laden.

By Tuesday, more than 200 Sikhs reported incidents to a Sikh anti-defamation group.

U.S. newspapers have reported that Sikh temples in Cleveland, Ohio, and West Sacramento, California, have been destroyed, and that a firebomb was thrown through the window of a home in San Mateo, California, hitting a 3-year-old child on the head. The bomb did not explode.

A Californian woman, 54, was arrested Saturday near Eugene, Oregon, for trying to remove the turban of a Sikh in a highway restaurant.

“The people of our community are terrified,” attorney Mandeep Dhillon Singh told the New York Times. Singh is the spokesman of the Sikh Media Watch and Resource Task Force.

“We have not recovered from the shock of the attack against our own country, and now we are being attacked,” he said.

In a telephone conversation with President George W. Bush on Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee expressed concern for the safety of Sikhs in the United States.

Sikhism, a monotheist faith, was founded at the end of the 15th century by Hindu guru Nanak. It has become the fifth largest religion, after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Sikhs reject the caste system. To emphasize this, the men adopt the name “Singh,” and the women the name “Kaur,” to denote the equality of all believers.

The greater part of the 18 million Sikhs in the world live in the Punjab region of northern India, but there are important Sikhs groups in England, Canada and the United States.

Because of the wave of attacks, some Muslims and Hindus are giving serious thought to changing their traditional attire. The Sikhs, however, say their religion obliges them to have long hair, and to cover it with a turban or bow, called “patka.”

Balbir Singh Sodhi arrived in Mesa to open a gas station. Authorities say the only reason his attacker gave for killing him was his turban and dark skin.

Lakhwinder Singh, the victim´s brother, said that Sikhs around Mesa began to receive threats the day of the terrorist attacks.

“My brother and I and other Sikhs, store owners, thought we would go to the media to explain that we are not Muslims,” he said. “We know that the Sikhs are little known in this country.”

U.S. Sikhs are now discussing how they can distinguish themselves from Muslims — though they don´t approve of attacks on the latter.

“It would be incompatible with our religion to hand out pamphlets saying ´We are not Muslims,´” said Inderpreet Singh of Boston, Massachusetts. “It is incomprehensible that people are now the object of hate because they are confused with Muslims. But we must be careful not to do the same.”

Inderjit Singh, a Chicago taxi driver, has placed information on his religion on the panel that separates him from his passengers.

Attackers have not been making distinctions, it seems. In San Francisco, Sean Fernandes, 26, an Indian Catholic, said he was walking with an Australian friend last Saturday, when a man came up to him and called him a “dirty Arab,” and attacked him and his friend. His friend was badly injured in the ensuing scuffle and is hospitalized in critical condition.

“I have lived in this country for eight years, and I feel at home, but this is making me rethink things,” said Fernandes, a software engineer. “I am totally overwhelmed. I always thought people here were tolerant, but I suspect that hard times show our true colors.”

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