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ALEX HEADSHOT
ALEX HEADSHOT
Alex DiBlasi is an educator and advocate for the Sikh Coalition.

In the aftermath of the terrifying events in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the American Sikh community is grieving the loss of six lives. They are also awaiting answers.

Why would such a heinous act be perpetrated, committed within their own house of worship? Although the investigations concerning the motives of the killer are ongoing from local, state and federal authorities, there has been an unfortunate history of violence against Sikhs since the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Most devout Sikh males do not cut their hair, which they cover with turbans. The turbans and their uncut beards are frequently, and inaccurately, associated with images of terrorism and violence. Many times, attacks against Sikhs are cases of mistaken identity, with the perpetrators thinking the Sikhs are Muslims.

If the perpetrator of this horrendous attack was driven by a fear or hatred of Islam and Muslims, it must be stressed that the Sikh Coalition is vehemently opposed to all acts of religious bigotry. Sikhism is a religion of love, strongly advocating a peaceful coexistence with other faiths.

The fifth-largest religion in the world, Sikhism was founded in the late 15th Century in the Punjab region of present-day India by a succession of 10 gurus, or spiritual leaders. The first, Guru Nanak, was strongly opposed to the Hindu belief in castes — a class system — which in turn dictated one’s career, social standing and even who they were allowed to marry. Another fundamental belief for Sikhs was the promotion of equality among men and women. Sikhism is also a monotheistic faith, meaning they only believe in one god, who they call Waheguru. Their image of Waheguru is gender neutral, further promoting their concept of gender equality.

The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, laid out several rules of conduct for Sikhs, the most obvious being unshorn hair. Another rule was the adoption of a shared last name, Singh, which means “lion,” for men, and Kaur, or “princess,” for women. Sikhs worship at temples called gurdwaras, where all are welcome, even non-followers. After the worship service, the gurdwara offers a free community meal called langar.

Sikhs first came to the United States in the late 19th century. The U.S. has the fourth-largest Sikh population in the world, behind only India, the United Kingdom and Canada. Despite facing adversities such as bullying, job discrimination and racial profiling, Sikhs are a proud part of our cultural landscape, working in all professions and contributing to their communities. Queens boasts the largest Sikh population in New York City and is home to several gurdwaras.

What happened in Wisconsin was the latest in a dreadful saga of violence against Sikh Americans. What makes this the most upsetting is that this occurred at a house of worship. Attacks at any house of worship — church, synagogue, temple, mosque, or gurdwara — must be condemned, as these institutions are regarded as places of peace. Crimes like this strike at the heart of religious freedom, a core principle that is central to Sikhism and the United States alike.

Alex DiBlasi is an educator and advocate for the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights group in the United States. He lives in Long Island City.

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