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US Sikhs Mistakenly Viewed as Terrorists - 2001-09-22

In the days since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, some Muslims in the United States have been harassed or become victims of violence at the hands of other Americans. In a case of mistaken identity, members of the relatively small Sikh community in the United States have also been targeted.

On a Wednesday night at the Gurdwara Sahib, a Sikh temple on Chicago's Devon Avenue, about a dozen members have gathered for evening prayers and a vegetarian meal. The prayers urge followers not to worry, the Lord will take care of you. But newspapers in the temple entrance tell stories of Sikhs in the United States becoming victims of harassment and violence since the terrorist attacks.

In one of the most serious cases, a Sikh near Phoenix, Arizona, was shot and killed at the gas station where he worked. A local prosecutor says it appears the man was killed for no other reason than having dark skin and wearing a turban.

Shiva Singh Khalsa is a member of the Gurdwara Sahib in Chicago. "He might as well have been sitting right inside the World Trade Center on Tuesday, September 11 because he is just as much a victim of violence as all those other folks were as well," he says.

There are about 400,000 Sikhs in North America. They or their forefathers came mainly for the Punjab state of northern India. The Chicago area has a few thousand who attend one of four local temples. The Devon Avenue neighborhood is where many Sikhs live. Balvinder Singh owns a carpet store in the same building as the temple. He says his neighborhood has escaped trouble so far. "We did not have any problems on Devon Street. This is the main street for Indians and Pakistanis in Chicago," he says.

Sikh men wear turbans as part of their religious practice. Photographs of reputed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden show him wearing a different type of turban, but the similarity is apparently enough to make some Americans assume that Sikhs support him.

Throughout the country, more than 200 incidents of harassment and violence have been reported to a Sikh anti-defamation organization. Lakhwant Singh Komal of Chicago says this sort of mistaken identity has happened before. "In 1979, when there was the Iranian hostage situation, our big temple in Palatine (Illinois) had 13 windows smashed," he said. Here we are 21 years later, facing the same problem."

Walk along Devon Avenue, and just about every one of the dozens of Indian and Pakistani shops has an American flag hanging in the window. It appears to be a show of support for their adopted country, but could also serve as an insurance policy against angry Americans who might question the South Asians' loyalties.

Shiva Singh says the reports of harassment against Sikhs are especially distressing because Sikhs welcome and pray for everyone. They believe that all faiths have value and that all people are equal. "A turban and a beard in North America, you can count on it being a Sikh. You can count on that person being loyal, trustworthy, a peace-loving person and is really hard-working," he says.

Shiva Singh says while media reports in the United States have focused on problems experienced by Sikhs since the attacks, he'd like people to know that he has gotten mostly supportive telephone calls and comments from both Sikhs and non-Sikhs.