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Sikhs reel after 'senseless' attack: We're not Taliban

Updated at 1:08 p.m. ET: As details emerged from the scene of a shooting at a Sikh temple in southern Wisconsin, Sikhs around the country mourned the loss of their fellow believers, saying they are misunderstood minority.

"We are pretty sure that this is a hate crime because there is so much ignorance and people mistake us either being Taliban, or being part of Bin Laden’s network, or al-Qaida because of our turbans and beards," Rajwa Singh of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, Md., told NBCWashington.com. The center held a special prayer Sunday for those killed in Wisconsin.

In New York, Sikhs gathered Sunday evening to mourn and try to make sense of the murderous attack.

"You cannot imagine how we loss, how we suffer," Gurdev Singh Kang, president of the Sikh Cultural Society in Richmond Hill, Queens, told NBCNewYork.com.

Kang said the uncle of the society's chairman was among those killed in Wisconsin, where a gunman opened fire Sunday morning at a temple outside Milwaukee, killing six people and wounding at least three others, including a police officer.

Alleged gunman, 'Jack Boot,' led neo-Nazi punk band

A police officer called to the scene killed the gunman before he could fire on even more worshipers.


The alleged gunman was identified Monday as Wade Michael Page, 40, a military veteran who served in the Army from April 1992 through October 1998. Page is the former leader of a neo-Nazi music group called End Apathy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Sikhism, which emerged in central India and the Punjab region of India in the 16th century, dubs itself a "progressive religion." The Sikhs stress the oneness of God, emphasize the full equality of women and reject distinctions of creed, race or sex. Community service is also an integral part of Sikhism. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, there are about 612,560 adherents in North America.

Male Sikhs grow thick beards and cover their heads with turbans. They are often misunderstood, labeled terrorists or mistaken for Muslims. Harassment against them has grown since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

Jeffrey Phelps / AP

A gunman opened fire Sunday morning at a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee, killing six people and wounding at least three others, including a police officer, before being shot to death, authorities said.

Shortly after 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was killed apparently because of his turban and his faith by an assailant who associated him with the terrorist attacks.

The Sikh Coalition, a community-based organization tackling discrimination, was founded in New York City on 9/11 as a response to the backlash violence experienced by Sikhs around the country. According to the organization’s website, an elderly Sikh and two teenagers were attacked in Queens that same night in “reprisal” attacks.

In a 2011 report to Congress on school bullying, the organization noted that "roughly half to over three-quarters of Sikh students" are targeted for bullying, harassment, or violence in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area.

New Jersey resident Prabhujeet Singh, a software programmer, said several children have called him "Osama," NJ.com reported, and a drunk man confronted him in a grocery store, calling him the same name and growing violent.

Photoblog: Sikhs at the Golden Temple, their holiest shrine

"That turban has tragically marked us as automatically suspect, perpetually foreign and potentially terrorists," Valarie Kaur, a filmmaker who has chronicled attacks on Sikhs in the 2006 documentary "Divided We Fall," told the AP.

"We are experiencing it as a hate crime," she added. "Every Sikh American today is hurting, grieving and afraid."

Authorities said they were investigating the Wisconsin temple assault as an act of domestic terrorism. Sikh leadership condemned the attack, adding that U.S.-based adherents should consider adopting increased security measures at their places of worship, called gurdwaras.

"It is a highly unfortunate incident which has taken place in America leaving six innocent devotees dead. This is a security lapse on the part of U.S. government," Giani Gurbachan Singh, the head priest of Akal Takht, the highest Sikh temporal seat, told The Times of India. A delegation was sent to the United States to investigate the attack, he added.

According to The Associated Press, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also a member of the Sikh faith, called the assault a "dastardly attack."

"That this senseless act of violence should be targeted at a place of religious worship is particularly painful," he said in a statement, according to the AP.

New York police said they would be deploying critical response vehicles as a precaution in addition to stepping up patrols at Sikh temples.

"That was miles and miles away," Gursharan Bharth said outside a temple in Flushing, Queens. "For a cop to come here and check on us to make sure we're okay, just kind of shows me that we live in New York and New York is a place where yes people rub shoulders and don't get along all the time, but we stand together still."

NBCWashington.com and NBCNewYork.com contributed to this report.

 

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