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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. dhcm

    Main article: History of Sikhism

    Guru Nanak (1469–1539), the founder of Sikhi, was born in the village of Rāi Bhōi dī Talwandī, now called Nankana Sahib (in present-day Pakistan).[22] His father, Mehta Kalu was a Patwari, an accountant of land revenue in the employment of Rai Bular Bhatti, the area landlord. Nanak's mother was Tripta Devi and he had one older sister, Nanaki. His parents were Khatri Hindus of the Bedi clan. As a boy, Nanak was fascinated by God and religion. He would not partake in religious rituals or customs and oddly meditated alone. His desire to explore the mysteries of life eventually led him to leave home and take missionary journeys.

    In his early teens, Nanak caught the attention of the local landlord Rai Bular Bhatti, who was moved by his amazing intellect and divine qualities. Rai Bular was witness to many incidents in which Nanak enchanted him and as a result Rai Bular and Nanak's sister Bibi Nanki, became the first persons to recognise the divine qualities in Nanak. Both of them then encouraged and supported Nanak to study and travel. Sikh tradition states that at the age of thirty, Nanak went missing and was presumed to have drowned after going for one of his morning baths to a local stream called the Kali Bein. On the day he arrived, he declared: "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim" (in Punjabi, "nā kōi hindū nā kōi musalmān"). It was from this moment that Nanak would begin to spread the teachings of what was then the beginning of Sikhi.[23] Although the exact account of his itinerary is disputed, he is widely acknowledged to have made five major journeys, spanning thousands of miles, the first tour being east towards Bengal and Assam, the second south towards Andhra and Tamil Nadu, the third north towards Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, and the fourth tour west towards Baghdad and Mecca.[24] In his last and final tour, he returned to the banks of the Ravi River to end his days.[25]

    Nanak was married to Sulakhni, the daughter of Moolchand Chona, a rice trader from the town of Batala. They had two sons. The elder son, Sri Chand, was an ascetic, and he came to have a considerable following of his own, known as the Udasis. The younger son, Lakshmi Das, on the other hand, was immersed in worldly life. To Nanak, who believed in the ideal of rāj maiṁ jōg (detachment in civic life), both his sons were unfit to carry on the Guruship.

    September 16, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  2. morbus gravis

    i like how CNN words this "the 1st revenge killing for 9/11" as if there were others. this is how peaceful Christians and others are in the united states. NOT ONE MUSLIM WAS KILLED IN RETALIATION BY ANYONE IN THE USA IN RETALIATION. that goes to show you the tolerance Americans have. yet the muslim agenda will try to have you believe the opposite. because we all know muslims are always the victims

    September 16, 2011 at 1:51 am |
    • Sione

      Are you an idiot or are you trolling? I seriously can't tell...

      September 16, 2011 at 2:00 am |
    • hokierule

      Are you stupid or ignorant? Cause the statment you have made is just blatantly factually incorrect.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:28 am |
    • Fawad

      Ya ya... couldn't agree with you more. Go back to rehab,

      September 16, 2011 at 2:29 am |
  3. IndyCis

    Suppose you took a poll across the globe: do you think americans are an intolerant, arrogant, interfering, obnoxious. Agree or disagree? Let's see how many of you can predict the result of the poll.

    September 16, 2011 at 1:47 am |
    • Fawad

      The people of America are awesome. Its your government trolling and policing and ruining it for you.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • RAWR

      I also agree that we are awesome, we don't put up with crap from other countries that are full of morons. Then we got to go and fix em.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:14 am |
  4. IndyCis

    India is the only country that allows complete religious freedom, and has done so historically. The problem with freedom is that like strong differences of opinions there are conflicts between ideas. Given that India has freedom to do what you want to say and what you want to do, nobody could be prevented from doing things that many would consider wrong, simply because what is wrong for one person may be right for another person. That puts the country of 1.2 billion in a mess. Of course, we do not expect the americans to understand this, because they are themselves among the most intolerant people on earth, and for them it is "my way or highway." How else would one explain a freedom loving contry propping up dictatorial regimes across the globe for their own self interest.

    September 16, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • D

      While I agree that India allows religious freedom, it also has seen quite a few communal/religion based riots. There are stupid people everywhere, in ever country/religion.

      I do NOT think Americans are intolerant – it is a very good country and majority of the people are tolerant/nice/welcoming to people of other faiths and nationalities. Again, there are a few bad apples everywhere – so why call ALL Americans intolerant?

      BTW – I am an Indian citizen living/working in America.

      Thanks,
      D

      September 16, 2011 at 1:56 am |
    • Fawad

      What did you smoke today?

      September 16, 2011 at 2:35 am |
    • Praveen

      Both India and US have their share of religious fanatic punks. And I am not talking any specific religion here, all of them preach a way of doing things and make people believe that other's ways of doing things is not the right way.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  5. omegarising

    So it looks like CNN is censoring any truthful facts about 9 1 1. That's fine CNN, we already know who you are in bed with...Hope they made you "shiver."

    September 16, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  6. omegarising

    This story may have some credibility if 911 wasn't an inside job. Nice try though CNN,LOL!

    September 16, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • cgarry

      shut you inside job business. Come outside and do some job.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:35 am |
  7. Leo

    Its Sad.. Actually Sikh religion was born to save india against muslim invaders. Sikhs have been fighting muslims for centuries and they get mistaken for muslims is down right wrong.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Resist710

      Read a book. Reputable researchers have indicated that the founder of the Sikh religion was in fact a Muslim. Sikhism was supposed to be a sect of Islam, but was transformed into a religion of its own after the 9th and last Guru made it so.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:02 am |
    • D

      @Resist710 – the founder of Sikhism was a Hindu by birth. Also your statement about Sikhism being a sect of Islam is plain wrong. Sikhism was an alternative to both Hunduism and Islam. Both Hindus and Muslims converted to Sikhism over time. Please re-check your facts.

      Thanks,
      D

      September 16, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • Vorpz

      As Resist said, that Sikh religion was not founded to do what you said at ALL. I can't believe how stupid some people can be. The founder of their religion has been confirmed by MANY, many historians to be a Muslim.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • Vorpz

      D, there is dispute by historians as to what the actual religion of the Sikh founder was. Muslims believe that he was a Muslim, and so comply by his teachings, and Sikhs believe that he was a Sikh, and nothing else.

      One thing that all parties agree upon, however, is that he wasn't a Hindu.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:34 am |
    • D

      @Vorpz – I agree that Leo's statement on 'why the Sikh religion' was formed in wrong. Sikhism was a peaceful religion (more a way of life than an organized religion at its birth). However, later on Sikh army was formed as a resistance force against the Mughal emperor, who wanted to convert all non-Muslims to Islam.

      I disagree with you on the religion-at-birth of the founder of Sikhism – the founder's name is Guru Nanak Dev and he was a Hindu at birth. However, I don't think his religion at birth matters at all...

      Thanks.
      D

      September 16, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • D

      Vorpz – here is a link on the founder: http://www.sikhs.org/guru1.htm

      And here is an excerpt from the web page: 'The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak was born on April 15, 1469 in the Western Punjab village of Talwandi. He was born to a simple Hindu family. His father Mehta Kalian Das was an accountant in the employment of the local Muslim authorities.'

      – D

      September 16, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • informed

      Actually, that's NOT how Sikhism started... Guru Nanak Dev Ji started it in response to inequality and blind adherence to ritualistic behavior which is characteristic of both Hinduism and Islam.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • Resist710

      D – you realize Nanak performed the Pilgrimmage in Mecca. He also married into a Muslim family during a time when inter-religious marriages were looked down upon categorically. These are only a few bits of evidence that indicate Nanak was in fact a Muslim. Nanak was fairly esoteric in his own writings and there are unanswered questions, but the argument that he was a Muslim carries some real weight.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:08 am |
    • D

      Resist – Yes, Nanak travelled to Meccca but not for pilgrimage as muslims do. Nanak was a tireless traveller and according to historians had also travelled to Tibet (and China) – I am sure that visit doesn't make Nanak a Buddhist.

      Also Nanak did not marry a muslim girl – his wife's name was Mata Sulakhni and she was also a Hindu.

      Finally, Nanak's or his wife's religion at birth do NOT matter at all – the truth is that Sikhism was neither a sect of Islam nor a sect of Hinduism. Sikhism was an alternative thought process – it did include some ideas from both BUT also rejected a lot of ideas/beliefs associated with these religions.

      Thanks,
      D

      September 16, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  8. CBruce

    Acting out of ignorance and fear. Stories like this make me ashamed of my fellow citizens. I was raised Baptist in a very conservative Christian family, but I believe in religious freedom and tolerance for all religions in the US.

    These people do not represent the majority of Americans. No matter what our news media would like the rest of the world to believe.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • A

      Of course this guy doesn't represent Americans. Who's crazy enough to think one murderer represents the views of an entire country? The only way you'd think so is if people said they condoned his crimes, or used weasel words to say the same thing... ie, "I don't condone violence, but I can understand how he was driven to it", or that sort of thing.

      September 16, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  9. kat

    Reminds me of those dumb white kids who beat down that Native American guy because they were "sick of illegals."
    Alanis Morrissette was playing in the background.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:44 am |
  10. nooneuknow

    On 09/11 Fox news repeatedly showed footage of an innocent Sikh, apprehended from a train in Rhode Island, by authorities who believed him to be a co conspirator to the hijackers simply because he was wearing a turban.

    They never apologized for their action, and are in my opinion a guilty party in this murder.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:31 am |
    • nooneuknow

      im sorry it was on 09/14 and the name of the innocent sikh arrested on his way home from work was Sher Singh. Fox news ran with the story and never bothered to retract it once his innocence had been established. The very next day Mr. Balbir Singh on the other side of the country in Arizona was shot down.

      Fox news shares the blame here

      September 16, 2011 at 12:42 am |
  11. when

    @ TPE No. I really haven't heard what the TP is saying but I have heard what ppl are saying about them. I've read articles about them enough to know I disagree with some of their p o litical views. But seriously, read some CNN blogs for a few days and perhaps you'll see what I'm talking about.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:18 am |
  12. Rod C. Venger

    It's a shame that the first guy to try to do right just got it wrong.

    September 16, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • saywaaat

      very well said my kind, loving and peaceful judeo christian friend.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  13. Jo

    India may have its flaws but it is the country of tolerance and secularism. No country has such a united traditions and great democracy/ India has rights for all religions. This secularism is due to tolerance by hindus who believe in karma, peace, meditation and yoga. I wish muslms learnt a thing or two from other religions that are progressive in thinking

    September 15, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • JLynn

      With all due respect, I believe any number of marginalized Indian Muslims would disagree with your statements. The destruction of Muslim areas in India is well-known and perpetrated by Hindus. I too love India (and have been several times) but India and its government have more than a few flaws. Hindus have far from cornered the market on tolerance and it is statements like yours that pit *all* Muslims against *all* Hindus. In addition, India may claim to have rights for all religions but beyond outward discrimination against Muslims, there is also a lack of rights provisions and enforcement for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes struggling to survive outside of the cities. I respect your defense of India, but it is misplaced.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:19 am |
    • saywaaat

      are you talking about the very same hindus who killed and burned more than 2000 moslems in one day,etc etc etc.buddy all religions are intolerant given the power and the opportunity.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:29 am |
    • Parvez Ikthihar

      In replying to JLynn – I am an INDIAN MUSLIM and a proud one. I have felt more secure and safe in INDIA than any other place. Of course India has her own problems but religious intolerance is NOT one of them.

      I do not understand what destruction of muslim areas you are talking about!!!, donot know which history book you read, get your facts right.

      A PROUD INDIAN MUSLIM.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Amanda

      Oh, yeah. India i so secular that the police watched idly when the Hindu are were burning pregnant Muslim women and children alive, dousing their homes with gasoline. And Hindus are so peaceful that those who burned and killed their own neighbor proudly claimed, "I am a Hindu and that's all I would say".

      September 16, 2011 at 12:56 am |
    • Parvez Ikthihar

      Saywaat I agree, he needs to talk about murder of both Hindus and Muslims alike by Pakistan for past 50 years, he needs to talk about thousands of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanisthan in the name of Allah. he needs to talk about mass murder of Kashmiri Hindus by foreign invaders from Pakistan.

      For killing 2000 people on 9/11 american (AND RIGHTLY SO) invaded 2 countries and killed terrorists, so you tell me was it wrong to kill people who killed100's of innocent innocent victims just sitting inside a train?, what will yuo do if i lock your family inside a train compartment and set it on fire from outside? what will you do if i start raping you own kith and kin in the broad daylight?, response to godhra incident was boiling out of anger for injustice, NOT a religious intolerence.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:57 am |
    • Resist710

      Just do some research on the Shiv Sena. It's obviously not representative of all Indians but there are many extremist and fundamentalist factions in the country.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • IndyCis

      India is about the only non-muslim country where muslims can reach any level literally. To cite isolate examples in a country of 1.2 billion and generalize to the entire population is to take KKK as an example and say that americans put burning crosses in front of black homes at night, and lynch them. India has huge problems in almost anything, but religious intolerance is ceartinly the least prevailing. Had there been religious intolerance towards muslims like in the US, India would have been completely gutted down, for it is not only a country of 1.2 billion people, but also the country with the second largest muslim population in the world.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • badcafe

      Religious strife among masses is hard to control, but the question is how equal are people legally? In India, there have been Muslim Presidents and Prime Ministers. When do you think the US will be ready for a non-Christian President? The few Indian immigrants in politics, Nicky Haley and Bobby Jindal, both converted to Christianity. Do you think they'd be senators otherwise? Yes, there are shameful acts of occasional intolerance in India much like elsewhere, but nonetheless Muslims have the same glass ceilings as any other religion in India, which isn't true elsewhere.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • MSensible

      Im an Indian Christian and we have lived beside Hindus,Muslims,Parsis,Buddhists,Jews all our lives.Yes we do have our issues but i dont remember religious intolerance growing up.I know people bring up the riots that happened 15 yrs ago....but that was a one off situation and we Indians protected each other.Thats like comparing the KKK with all Americans.As far as Shiv Sena is concerned,they are not an elected party and they never will be.

      September 16, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  14. I think the key word in this article is 'apparently' as in they don't even know if this is why the kid was killed. So CNN.

    they don't even know if this is why the kid was killed. So CNN.Its just NUTS that when we are remembering the unprovoked murder of nearly 3ooo people we must also do the obligatory self flogging for the religion of the left's weird conscience. '
    the 'first' revenge killing? c'mon. So that must mean there were many. What?? nonsense.

    September 15, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • joe public

      I'm sure that's just what Hitler would say. Ponce.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Karen

      He then went on to shoot 2 others that appeared to him to be Muslim and you don't think this had anything to do with 9/11? Was there another motive for the murder?

      September 16, 2011 at 12:03 am |
    • chstrig

      "Unprovoked"? Do you really believe that 911 was unprovoked? Also, do you not see that even if it was unprovoked, a single death is not worth more but certainly not any less than 3000 other deaths? The people who died, in the 911 attacks, and in retaliation are not to be evaluated in terms of numbers. When you begin measuring 1 vs 3000, that is precisely what you are doing and you must force yourself to not think in those terms. And by god, don't you ever believe the notion that 911 was unprovoked. Because for whatever reason you may choose to believe that there was no reason or no valid reason, it would be ignorant to claim them "unprovoked" simply based on your belief. Whether provoked or unprovoked, neither call into question the innocence of the people who died.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  15. laila

    Why should anyone be judged or get killed by the way he or she looks or dresses.....some people are beyond stupid and ignorant.

    September 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  16. Prakash

    Wzrd1, what they mean by 'ik onkar' (which means one God) is there is only one God no matter what religion you follow. There is one supreme power and follow His preaching without hatred towards any religion or race. That is what Hinduism and Buddhism (generally every religion originated from India) teaches as well.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
    • gorge

      somebody whispered Hindus has thousands of God...

      September 16, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • Amanda

      Only any religion originated from Indian teaches that? Really? Unbeliebvabaly stupid comment.

      September 16, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  17. BartBart

    That Navdeep SIngh will be president one day.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
  18. when

    @ khalsa Wow! Thanks for your posts. So sad what you have been through and seen. I wish there was a way to end hatred and bigotry in this country. Reading what people write agains the Tea Party just gives me chills. I'm not a Tea Partier but I fear for those people. Their enemies sound like Hitler. Hard to believe pure, violent hate is infiltrating our society.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Tea Party Enemy

      Really? The Tea Party Enemies scare you? Have you ever listened to anything any member of the Tea Party has ever said? I'm certainly not going to kill anybody, or use any sort of violence- but I can't necessarily say the same for the Tea Party. Jesus, they're the ULTIMATE Fringe Group, and they only exist because of the ignorance of the average American.

      September 15, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
  19. musings

    What kind of a country has people who take revenge on the wrong enemy-of-the-week? How can you be an enemy of someone you don't even know?

    September 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
  20. Mofo

    Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu or Christian...why would that madafooker kill innocent people. He should be hanged to death and chop his ding. He has terrorist genes in him. No one would dare to kill people.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:20 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.