September 20th, 2012
04:42 PM ET
By Stacey Samuel, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Forty-five days after a deadly shooting at Wisconsin Sikh temple, hundreds of Sikhs and their supporters lined the halls of Congress on Wednesday for a Capitol Hill hearing on hate crimes and the growing threat of domestic terrorism.
“The recent shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was a tragic hate crime that played out on TV around the country,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who chaired the hearing for a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
“It was not the first tragedy based on hate, and, sadly, it won’t be the last,” Durbin said of the shooting, which left six dead and four wounded in addition to the gunman, who took his own life. “But it should cause all of us to redouble our efforts to combat the threat of domestic terrorism.”
Sikh communities across the country say they have experienced increased attacks since September 11, 2001. Sikh men wear turbans that some people mistakenly associate with Islam.
Many Sikhs have lobbied the federal government to track hate crimes that are committed specifically against them.
“I have filmed, chronicled, combated hate crimes against this community for 11 years,” Valerie Kaur, a Sikh filmmaker and community activist, said in testimony at the hearing.
“In the aftermath of Oak Creek, reporters came up to me and asked me, 'How many hate crimes have there been? How many hate murders have there been?' " Kaur said. "And I couldn’t tell them … because the government currently does not track hate crimes against Sikhs at all."
Harpreet Singh Saini, whose mother, Paramjit Kaur Singh, died in the Wisconsin shooting, told the subcommittee, "I came here today to ask government to give my mother the dignity of being a statistic.
“She was an American," said Saini, an 18-year-old college student who's majoring in law enforcement. "And this was not our American dream."
More than 400 people from across the country filled the Senate gallery, and a second room for overflow, to watch the hearing.
“I have a son who is 13 years old, and I thought, imagine that was my son telling a story about how his mother wasn’t going to be there for his graduation, his wedding," Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York said after Saini's testimony. "It just connects to you as a human, as a parent. I forgot that I was Muslim.”
According to the Justice Department, 6,600 hate crime incidents were reported to the FBI in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Nearly half were motivated by racial prejudice, including those against people of Asian descent, though the agency does not track anti-Asian crime specifically.
Nearly 13% of hate crimes in 2010 were directed specifically against Arabs and Middle Easterners, with a recent rise in crimes directed at Muslims.
“The FBI has a hate crime incident report form, and it only has an anti-Muslim category. I think that category is a catch-all category, and it really reflects this very flawed logic of mistaken identity,” said Kaur, who has been documenting the progress of the Sikh community in Oak Creek since the August massacre.
Some at the hearing said there are not enough federal analysts and agents monitoring hate groups and people like white supremacist Wade Mitchell Page, the suspect in the Oak Creek temple shootings.
A Department of Justice report presented at the hearing said that that the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act has strengthened the department’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.
A coalition of civil rights, civic, faith and community groups is calling on President Obama to host a summit of religious tolerance, saying in a Thursday letter that "Religious bigotry has reached a crisis point in America."
"It is time for President Obama to ensure that this climate of hate and bigotry does not continue to spiral out of control,” said the letter, signed by about 100 groups.
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