Kulwant Singh Dhaliwal a Sikh temple representative, speaks during a press… (Kamil Krzaczynski / European…)
OAK CREEK, Wis. -- Sikh leaders on Monday condemned the weekend shootings at their temple, the latest in a growing number of attacks against Sikhs since Islamic fundamentalists struck at the United States in 2001.
Sikhs are not Muslims but apparently have been targeted because the men wear turbans, advocates said.
“At this point, we’re not prepared to say whether this is a hate crime, or a random act of violence. That remains to be seen,” Bhupinder Saindi, a member of the temple congregation, said at a news conference Monday afternoon.
PHOTOS: Gunman opened fire at Sikh temple
“We’d like to view this tragedy as an opportunity to tell the world what Sikhs are. Sikhs believe in peace and harmony. As a tradition, Sikhs do not cut their beards, and they wear turbans. Just the fact that they wear turbans and do not cut their facial hair does not make them terrorists,” Saindi said.
On Sunday, a gunman, identified by authorities as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and white power advocate, killed six at the temple where he was shot to death by police. Three were injured in the attack.
Authorities were still looking for a motive for the attack, but Sikh leaders said Sunday’s shootings were just the latest in a string of violence that Sikhs in the United States have faced since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Amardeep Singh, co-founder of the New York-based Sikh Coaltion, who traveled to Oak Creek in the wake of the shootings, described a question he likes to pose to an audience of non-Sikhs. “When you see a turban and a beard, what is the first thing you think of? The answer is inevitably, ‘What? I think of a terrorist,’ ” Singh said. “So we’ve had 11 years of social programming where the turban is equated with terrorism.
“Is our community an intentional victim? No, we’re collateral damage. We’re collateral damage of a 24-hour news cycle that won’t do enough to educate about who we are,” he said.
Shiva Singh, a Sikh from Chicago who drove in to support the Oak Creek community, said Sikhs are part of the fabric of American life. "We're not the others," Singh said. “We’re the brothers and sisters who live down the street. We’re the doctor, we’re the engineer, we’re the cab driver, we’re the gas station guy.
“It broke my heart that this thing happened, especially just a few weeks after this Aurora thing," he added. "It just breaks my heart.”
Last month, a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., at the local premiere of the latest Batman movie. Twelve people died and 58 were wounded. James E. Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, is being held on charges including 24 counts of first-degree murder.
Because of the Colorado shootings, the national debate over gun control briefly resumed but is not expected to go anywhere on the national level, in part because it’s a presidential election year. As he did on Sunday, President Obama on Monday expressed his condolences.
Speaking to reporters at a bill signing in Washington, the president condemned an attack that may have been motivated by hate.
“If it turns out, as some early reports indicate, that it may have been motivated in some way by the ethnicity of those who were attending the temple, I think the American people immediately recoil against those kinds of attitudes, and I think it will be very important for us to reaffirm once again that, in this country, regardless of what we look like, where we come from, who we worship, we are all one people, and we look after one another and we respect one another,” he said.
Obama ordered flags be lowered to half-staff nationwide as a mark of respect for the victims. The flags will be lowered until sunset on Friday.