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August 5th, 2012
04:00 PM ET

10 years after Sikh murder over 9/11, community continues to blend in and stand out

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story ran in 2011, around the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

By Jose G. Santos, CNN

Fairfax Station, Virginia (CNN)– Ten years ago, Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down, apparently because he looked Muslim or Arab.

He was neither.

Sodhi was a Sikh. Members of the religious tradition say he was the first person to be murdered in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.

That claim has been backed up by the Justice Department.

"The first person killed in post-9/11 violence, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was a Sikh, shot while pumping gas at his gas station in Arizona four days after 9/11," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez in congressional testimony earlier this year.

For American Sikhs, Sunday's deadly attack on worshippers at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee dredged up memories of other recent attacks against their community.

At least seven people, including a gunman shot by a police officer, were killed in Sunday's attack.

In the case of the post 9/11 attack on in Arizona, a 45-year-old aircraft mechanic named Frank Roque gunned down a bearded, turban-wearing Indian immigrant outside a Mesa gas station. Roque drove up to the station, fired a handgun  at Balbir Singh Sodhi - who owned the station - five times, then fled.

Roque would go on to shoot at a Lebanese-American gas station clerk and fire into the home of an Afghan-American family later that same day.

In 2003, Roque was sentenced to death for Sodhi's murder. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to life in prison.

Blending in, standing out

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, which provoked a wave of organizing among Sikhs worried about being mistakenly targeted in retaliatory attacks, adherents of the religion remain both visible and enigmatic.

"Most of the challenges we face can be traced to people not knowing who we are," said Jasjit Singh, assistant executive director at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an interview last year. "I don't feel there is a specifically anti-Sikh bias, because people don't know what Sikhs are."

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Singh's group estimates that there are about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, nearly all of Indian origin.

Sikh women are less identifiable than men, identifiable by their beards and turbans. Many American Sikh women dress like other Westerners or wear the salwar kameez, a traditional north Indian garment of a long shirt and loose-fitting pants.

A woman prays during a Sikh service.

Sikhism emerged more than 500 years ago in Punjab, in what is now India.

Adherents of the monotheistic faith believe in "devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings, social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals," according to the website of the Sikh Coalition, a U.S.-based group.

"The ultimate goal in Sikhism is to merge into the divine love we know is God," said Navdeep Singh, a policy adviser to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an interview last year.

"We believe in the cycle of reincarnation," he said. "That you will be judged by your deeds, and come back, and each time you come back you move one step closer to the divine."

There are 25 million Sikhs around the world, according to the Sikh Coalition, which was formed after the September 11 attacks.

Congregants meet inside a Sikh temple in Virginia.

Inside the temple

A Sikh temple is called a gurdwara, which means door to the guru, or teacher.

Gurdwara refers to both a place and a practice, encompassing temple, teachings and ceremony.

Gurdwaras around the world variously incorporate clinics, schools, guest quarters and community centers, which Sikhs say is a sign of the religion's values of service and equality.

Explainer: Who are Sikhs and what do they believe?

"Sikhism was founded in an area and in a time in which inequality was rampant," said Navdeep Singh. "If you were a woman, you were less than a man. If you were poor you were less than a rich person. Based on what caste you were, that defined your entire life. Sikhism was a rejection of those ideas."

At the gurdwara known as the Sikh Foundation of Virginia,  the muffled trills of a harmonium blended with birdsong on a recent Sunday morning.

The golden dome of the Sikh Foundation of Virginia.

The temple's  golden dome shimmers among the rustling dark green woods like a crown atop a velvet cushion.

As worshipers enter, shoeless and with heads covered, they approach the Guru Granth Sahib, a book elaborately enthroned beneath a canopy at the head of the building's main hall.

Obeisance is made, and a gift, usually of money, is placed on the dais. Music, song, prayer, readings from the Guru Granth Sahib and sermons comprise most of the ceremony. Everyone sits on the floor, men on one side, women on the other, children wherever suits them.

Congregants meet for prayer and study in Virginia.

"The beginning of our Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikh philosophy is really encapsulated in the first phrase: 'Ik Onkar,' which means 'there is one God,' " said Navdeep Singh.

More than a book of scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib is considered to be a living teacher, or guru.

After the service congregants share a communal meal.

After the worship service, called Diwan, comes Langar, a simple meal eaten while sitting on the floor, which Sikhs say reinforces the ethic of egalitarianism.

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"Langar is based on this idea of equality, and making sure that no one goes away hungry," said Navdeep Singh. "Because as Sikhs, we're kind of like Italians. We view everyone as one family. And if you're part of that family, you can't go away hungry. You have to have a meal together."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 9/11 • Sikh • United States • Virginia

soundoff (422 Responses)
  1. Anthony

    i just wanted to say how america needs to open its arms and minds to at least tolerance of peoples differences, this is a great article and i wish there was more like it. the world we know has taught us to look at people for their differences and not their likenesses. theres extremists of all kinds whether theistic or atheistic and we shouldn't allow those people to control our views of others.

    September 15, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • doodlydond

      Real eye-opener. Actually Sikhism is a branch-out of Hinduism.All Buddism,Hindusm,sikhism are non-monoethic religion teach tolerance , that is why they are there since very days of civilsations.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • Wzrd1

      Doodlydond, you should re-read the article. Of interest is: "The beginning of our Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikh philosophy is really encapsulated in the first phrase: 'Ik Onkar,' which means 'there is one God,' " said Navdeep Singh.
      That sounds monotheistic.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Big Ted E. Berr

      Group hug everyone!

      ((((((everyone)))))))

      September 15, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • gorge

      Sikhism believes in One God not thousands of God like in Hinduism. Hinduism itself is not any religion. There is no word Hindu in any of the scriptures that's why Hindus don't know what they are following so they follow everything...

      September 16, 2011 at 12:11 am |
    • chstrig

      In response to gorge's claim that Hindus don't know what they are following and hence follow everything all I'd like to state is that what you said about the term Hinduism and Hindu is true. But that is just about where the truth of your statement ends. When you begin to speculate your ignorance begins to shine through. Now that is not meant to be a general attack on you but the ignorance is tied to the notion that the word "Hindu" probably did not exist when the scriptures were composed and later when they were written, but the word does exist now. Even then, prior to 'Hindu', the scriptures maintain a many-fold path to the same truth. That also goes to answer your other ignorant belief that Hindus have thousands of gods. Although that is not an entirely incorrect statement, what it does is it tries to oversimplify and in doing so, it wastes the idea of how these gods came be unified under a higher concept. Respect yourself, gorge, before you blatantly expose yourself as an ignoramus.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:24 am |
  2. Gomez the Gipsy Guy

    Sikhs are awesome! Hindus are awesome! Rednecks SUCK!!!

    September 15, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Nord

      Since rednecks aren't a religious group, howza bout we ship em all to mexico? or we could just shoot em. theyd like that.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  3. Greg

    Thank you for reminding the world how horrible and intolerant American's are CNN. Nevermind the 99.999999999999999999% of us who didn't participate in retaliatory killings...and who actually kept the Muslim Friends they'd had before 9/11...but please, put this story out there to perpetuate the myth that all Americans are one "wrong skin color" or "yur dressed funny" away from opening fire.

    September 15, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Corvus1

      Oh, quit whining.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Bart

      Thank you CNN. We need to be reminded of this. Hopefully such hatred filled acts will not occur in the future.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  4. Sandy

    Community Kitchen or Langar is unique to Sikhism. No where you'll find a community so passionate about feeding people irrespective of religion, color, social status...

    Every Sikh Temple has FOUR doors.. meaning everyone is Welcome!!

    September 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  5. nofoldems

    Ignorance is rampant among posters today. Are you a sample of the American general population, or just the inbreds?

    September 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
  6. erich2112x

    Sikh=Akal Security

    September 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  7. webspy

    I cant help reading this artical with an accent, I know the human brain frail to kill someone for looks or speech, but the human brain is also strong to indure all sorts of F up logic, buddy gave up the right to life when he killed, damit i forgot I'm liberal, ok life in summercamp ok 2!

    September 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • webspy

      On second thought Sodhi was a Sikh... Give him the punishment the Sikh would get for the same CRIME,,,ah pretty good thinking, where I live there was a big production that a Sikh cop couldn't wear his turban,,,it came down that he was allowed...One day I was down town and I saw him peeking around the corner of a house and walked over and congratulated him for his victory...He said in a hushed voice ""shhh I'm watching the guy with the skateboard""
      I said in a hushed voice pardon me who are you SIKHING!

      September 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • webspy

      You know this is true you can't just make this chit up 2 elaborate

      September 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • *frank*

      Stop eating teflon flakes.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  8. SikhByBlood

    A great article ..We Sikhs always stand for country where we are born rather be India, england , canada or america ..
    we will live or die for our Mothernation

    September 15, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  9. when

    Sikh the Lord thy God with all your heart.

    September 15, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  10. shroooom

    Maybe the Sikh's could lend the Amish some orange. The Amish seem to have a shortage.

    September 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  11. Second Idiot

    .

    September 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Pavincito

      I see that, Chief.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
  12. Normon

    "Adherents of the monotheistic faith believe in 'devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings, social justice, while emphatically denouncing supersti.tions and blind rituals,' "

    Just curious, but aren't Sikh's the ones that have a very specific way of wrapping their uncut hair up in that turban and carry a ceremonial knife on their person at all times? How is that not blind ritual?

    September 15, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I could be wrong but I think the whole superst'ition and ritual denunciation was in response to Muslim and Hindu traditions so you have to look at it from that perspective. As far as the turban and ceremonial knife (among other things).. that's entirely optional and serves more as a way to distinguish a sikh person from any other type of religious person.

      Ironically, the dude who killed the sikh man mentioned in this article didn't recognize the distinguished sikh turban from that of arabs.

      September 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Also, sikhism is not free from hypocrisy just like every other religion on this planet. lol.

      September 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Sandy

      It isn't blind ritual and its not optional for Sikhs. Hair and Sword are integral to the tenets of Sikhism. Throughout history hair has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength – Remember any picture of Jesus with short hair?.

      It is a highly visible symbol of membership of the group. Remember Sikhism as a religion was born at a time when Muslim Rulers were converting Hindus to Islam at an alarming rate. Both the distinct appearance and Sword helped them to survive thru those turbulent times.

      Also something that you would definitely care about – Sikhs were the only people who could conquer and rule Afghanistan for more than 20 years.

      September 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Be realistic. There are way more sikh males who do not wear the turban than those who do. It is entirely optional. The religion says of course, keep the turban if you can but it's not some sort of sin if you don't. Same thing goes for the sword and such. The doctrines in sikhism are much more pliable than you're making it out to be. The hypocrisy exists also as far as "rituals" go. You know it.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • Sandy

      @ Awkward Situations- There is no concept of "sin" in Sikhism. Sikh is a student for life and follows Guru's teaching "blindly" . For a Sikh the manifestation of God is his own self not any external deity or person and the way to that state is the GURU!!

      Regarding your claim regarding people who don't where turbans outnumbering Sikh who were them. By definition they could be anyone Hindu, Muslim but not Sikhs.

      Looks like you are not a Sikh but am sure who will claim the contrary!! 🙂

      September 15, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Singh

      @ Awkward Situations- There is no concept of "sin" in Sikhism. Sikh is a student for life and follows Guru's teaching "blindly" . For a Sikh the manifestation of God is his own self not any external deity or person and the way to that state is the GURU!!

      Regarding your claim regarding people who don't where turbans outnumbering Sikh who were them. By definition they could be anyone Hindu, Muslim but not Sikhs.

      Looks like you are not a Sikh but am sure who will claim the contrary!! 🙂

      September 15, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @Sandy,Singh: I shouldn't have used the word "sin", you're right that's a bit confusing since the sikh god is not anthropomorphic.

      I'll stand by my statement with the turban wearing among sikh males is by far less (OUTSIDE of India). Meaning, there are more sikh males in the Americas and Europe that do not wear the turban than those who do.

      I'm an atheist. Formerly a sikh (not by choice, just born into it).

      September 15, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • gorge

      @Awkward Situations
      The Sikhism is free from all rituals but people are bringing rituals in because they follow their own mind more than that of Guru.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:15 am |
  13. William Demuth

    "Because as Sikhs, we're kind of like Italians. We view everyone as one family. And if you're part of that family, you can't go away hungry. You have to have a meal together."

    The Italians usually add a bullet in the back of the head after "Family Meals"

    September 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Merle, Canada

      IDIOT!

      September 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  14. hippypoet

    people are generally dumb, either by choice or upbringing... and hate crimes are sign of ignorance, which are most often the result of a jaded upbringing... plus the added climate of the u.s. at the time – its understandable that the killer was mad, but having no power to deal with his anger properly is a commentary on this generation of u.s. citizens... they are reactive instead or proactive – one helps the world while the other hides untill there hate and anger boils over... we need better parents, then we will have better kids, then we will have better people who make the choices that afftect us all. IT ALL STARTS AT HOME, ..... teach your children well!

    September 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Amen!

      September 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • warmesTghosT

      And what generation might that be, hippy? How old was this killer again? It seems the angriest and most ignorant are the older folks, not the younger generations. I'm 26, and so far as I see we're a whole lot more tolerant of LGBT, different religions/ideologies and socio-economic happenstance.

      The only people I can't stand are fundamentalist religionists. F#*@ those people with a rusty spork.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  15. Uncouth Swain

    Ignorance isn't limited to the violent idiots out there. There is a radio show (Johnboy ans Billy) that has a video-of-the-day. Now normally the videos are funny but they had one about the east coast earthquake where this reporter was talking about initial reports about ppl fearing a terror attack. Just then a man comes by the background. The video implies he is a muslim because of his headgear and the funny timing when he showed up in the video. But truth be told, I believe the man was a Sikh and not Muslim. Like I said, ignorance can be found anywhere.

    September 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  16. Geekalot

    I remeber that unfortunate incident. I remember thinking at the time what a completely hateful moron the killer must be. I mean, he was too stupid to even direct his hate crime at the correct ethnic group. Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating hate crimes, quite the opposite. I was just pointing out my thoughts at the time. I have met many sikhs and they have all been warm hearted and friendly to me.

    September 15, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      I may completely blow my cover here. But I live in the same state as the person who was murdered in this article. In fact, my family knew him through the sikh community. It was a big shock and really sad for the community.

      September 15, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Attn : Consac, we have location of high value target

      JSOC :[[ Dossier on Awkward Situations has been updated.}}]

      Dispatch Team Four. Terminate with extreme predudice.

      September 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      William Demuth, you sir, are silly. lol.

      September 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Awkward
      Sorry I missed you earlier, I've been–and unfortunately for today will remain for the most part–away from my computer. I "cracked the code" of your email, but I think you had deleted it by then. I will try emailing you again at the same address at 9pm Pacific Time this evening (In case the current email cannot be reclaimed, I will also try the same address with the addition of "511" to the end–the 5th of November!).
      Cheers,
      A Theist

      September 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @A Theist: Check back at the other thread. 😀

      September 15, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
    • A Theist

      @Awkward

      Delivered. You may free yourself from the temporary email, now that you may address mine :D.
      I'll be out for the rest of the day, but you should receive an email from me from an address that includes my name, and a numeric system that sheds light to one particular Equinox :D.
      May it find you well!

      September 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @A Theist: Got it. 😉

      September 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  17. Awkward Situations

    Are there any other former sikh turned atheist on this forum? 😀

    September 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Geekalot

      Well, I ama form Baha'i turned atheist. Is that close enough? 🙂

      September 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Geekalot

      er....I meant to type "I am a former..." Curse my overly quick fingers! 😛

      September 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      Yes that'll do! I have a feeling there are less people from eastern religion background turned atheist for some reason. Nice to know you. Cheerio.

      September 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Former

      Here. I was born in a sikh family. Soon after 1984 riots, I stopped beveling. Neither in GOD, nor in the world's most funded terrorist group called RELIGION.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
    • Awkward Situations

      @Former: Hey, thanks for posting. Yes, religion is the most well funded terrorist organization.. terrorizing the minds of the masses with fear and threats of torture. Good for you for breaking away. Life is sweet without the supernatural.

      September 15, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  18. GSA

    Nice article, coming from a Sikh it is great to see that they are showing what the majority of Sikhs are like instead of pushing the falsities that many who are ignorant on the subject choose to believe.

    September 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  19. *frank*

    sikhond!

    September 15, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Squire L

      That's just sikh.

      September 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  20. Anton LaVey

    First

    September 15, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Second Idiot

      "

      September 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.