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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. Joey

    Pretty nice to hear that the Sikh community in Oak Creek was also praying for the gunman's family. Our country should learn from this.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  2. Manoj

    Hey Cnn,
    You guys missed that Sikh are the guys who took part in World war 2 and fight with british army. in very large number. History is full of their bravery. US recently [10 years] back got the test of Islamic terrrorism however sikh's have resisted it since their inception[read centuries]. It is so sorry to hear that they are considered as muslim that means ppl have not idea about world & history. Also they are so much respected in India that they are always called as Sardarji [Respected leader] I salute sikhs the elder brothers and my heart and prayers goes with them this day and every day.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  3. Believer

    Another very sad day in America!

    August 5, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • atheists

      We've party like we did after Tucson and Aurora. And...we had a blast!

      August 6, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • A Theist

      It was indeed another sad day in America and it's even sadder that heartless people like the other commenter(s) here still exist(s).

      My heart goes out to the family of the victims. May God give them comfort.

      August 6, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Godless is synonymous to Heartless

      NUFF SAID!

      August 6, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  4. Sikhs are NOT HINDUS OR MUSLIMS

    A terrible tragedy has occured but this is not any reason for anti-gun people, hindus, or muslims to condone their views about guns or religion. As a Sikh, I believe this tragedy occured because of three reasons: the crazy gunman, the sikhs not having their own country or support from the country from which they orginiate, and thirdly, the muslims. The muslims fail to speak out against mass terror caused by their own people and other ppl are suffering because of it. Sikhs don't want to take over American, Sikhism is not a prostelyzing religion unlike Islam. If this happened to muslims, the word islamaphobe or victim card would be thrown every where, but Sikhs don't and won't do that. Muslim terrorism is the reason for all of this. Hindus: Sikhs are NOT Hindu.Muslims: Don't take this tragedy as chance to use to defend your complete failure to speak against the terror caused by your jihadis. Lastly, my dear thanks and prayers to the police officer(s) injured defending innocent lives.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Singh

      Hmm.... Strange because here in India I, my friends, almost all the people I met (including Sikhs) do not make a difference between Sikhs and Hindus. I go to Gurudwaras without any eye on me while many of my Sikh friends take part and organize events such as Jagaran. Of course that does not mean that Sikhs are Hindus but many of our religious thoughts and preaching are on the same line.

      August 6, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  5. Blake.

    Sikhism never claims to be superior than other religions. It has a history of protectiong other religions and innocents and respect all religion. Still it has it's own unique ideology in religious field.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Every religion claims superiority over other religions, with the possible exception of non-theistic Buddhism.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  6. Rajesh

    Hell ya. I was born in India – lived amongst people of 5-6 religions. There was always hatred – but loonies like this won't get a gun. As the United States proudly celebrates its gun culture, the fabric changes, diversity gets killed and the world hopefully does not learn from the US.

    The fact remains one. China kills all religions – United States gives freedom to one. I wish sensible citizens of the US wake up, teach their kids to keep religion in their underwear.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  7. An American

    The SIKHS look like TALIBAN because of their long beards !! But the similarity ends there. They are regarded as the defenders of INDIA and HINDUS against ISLAMIC invasion from the NORTH WEST (read AFGHANISTAN). They are highly respected in INDIA and are known for their bravery and honesty. SIKHISM IS AN OFFSHOOT OF HINDUISM AND STANDS FOR PEACE, EQUALITY, HONESTY AND VALOR. The Shooter saw only appearances of the SIKH men and killed them without understanding that they support AMERICA and are against the TALIBAN and ISLAMIC TERRORISM. It is a sorry case of killing your own ALLY America!!

    August 5, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  8. Carolina

    Unfortunately the "FEAR" of the Unknown is what makes some individuals not understand or to refuse to understand what they don't know and thus resulting in unfortunate situations like this which happens much more than it should. The press and even government both at the national and local level have sare very good to instill "fear" in to American society which does us no good in the long run. Look at how many Americans reacted when they first heard about "OBAMA" because they thought it was like "OSAMA" and the fear of not knowing who "OBAMA" really was. If he was called "John" or "Bill" or some other western anglo name, this would not be the case. Remember after 911' governments effort to scaring people half to death with the "orange, yellow" airport warnings. Seriously this country has been taugh to be afraid of the unknown so therefore just get rid of it mentality... It comes down to "EDUCATION" on the tolerance of difference is what should be taught more prevalently but as much as we tolerate, we only tolerate what we understand. If we don't understand or refuse to understand those differences, there's a danger of ignorance, prejudice, and missunderstanding out of mear "FEAR". Its a freaking shame and its our worst enemy!

    August 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  9. SeeBee

    Just a FYI. One of the great misconception in the western world is that Hinduism believes in multiple Gods. There is nothing wrong in being polyesthic but Hinduism believes in a single God who is called the 'Paramatma' or 'The ultimate soul'. The 'Paramatma' comes in various forms which the Hindus worship as dieties which are closest to the 'angels' of Christianity, and therein lies the confusion. Infact according to Hindu philosophy, every living and non living thing has some 'part' of the Paramatma and that is why in Hinduism everything that we see and hear has a part of God in it including animals, plants and humans. That is why in Hinduism you greet people by folding your hands, that is a sign of paying respect to the soul within the person who is being greeted. When everything that exists in the universe combines it forms the Paramatma and the magnitude of Paramatma is said to be infinite.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Ting

      it's amazing how much more sense that makes than christianity. all is one.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  10. NinjaofWater

    People shouldn't be killing anyone who looks or is Muslim in the first place. Period.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • nathan

      mass shooting....Arab you are label terrorist, black you are a thug, white person they are mentally ill........................................

      August 5, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  11. Jim Weix

    There is no excuse for this type of hate crime. The members of the Sikh faith have done nothing to the United States.

    August 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  12. neto

    no reg heads

    August 5, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • sinastis

      What is a reg head? Obviously you're just a dumb, ignorant person.

      August 5, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • larryb

      which is exactly why this happened...ignorant americans who hate everything and make zero effort to understand anything.
      sikhs are not muslim and indians are not arabs...only thing for real is americans are scared of their own shadows so thank goodness it is ok to carry machine guns in the land of the free AND IGNORANT

      August 5, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Bruce

      Larryb I fail to see how your comments help anyone, please explain. Thanks.

      August 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  13. liverishta

    I want to thanks CNN for posting such a GREAT ARTICLE!

    August 5, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  14. mork

    Im more afraid of american christians than any sikh or muslim

    August 5, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  15. Dinesh

    In fact, SIKH Religion was founded by GURU NANAK to Fight MUSLIM TERRORISM in India in 15th Century which came on a Point of a Sword and Killed Millions of Indians. Every Elder Son from HINDU Family has to become SIKH and their Religious duties was to Protect HINDUS, SIKHS, COWS and WOMENS. Unfortunately by their Religious look many in US Misunderstand them as TALIBANS !!!!!

    August 5, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • fredd

      I am a hindu who was born in the US and even though I am not truly sikh I go to the gurdwara. Why can't people stop shooting each other? I t doesn't matter if you are of any ideals or religion why can't you just debate.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  16. S Singh

    I am an American Sikh and I live in pacific northwest. I would add here that Sikhs love America and even if the gunman in this case had hate against the Sikh community, the Sikh community will not retaliate or anything, that's not taught to us. Instead, I would request all reading that if you don't know anything about Sikhism, please visit a Sikh temple in the aftermath of this tragic incident and have a vegetarian meal, which is cooked every Sunday. Please come to your local Sikh temple.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
    • Rajesh

      🙂 – Simple and one strong message. I hope basic americans read your message.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  17. Tarek A Ibrahim

    I sure despise this behavior and the wasting of life over differences of faith. If you respect your own freedom you would respect others' too.My heart felt condolences to the families of the victims .It worth noting that the killer thought they are muslims .... . as if it is ok to kill muslims

    August 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Really? that is a scary thought that the killer was targeting our Muslim brothers and sisters I hope they catch the killer soon and find out the motive behind this crime when are they going to end all this hatred we are the most gullible demographic

      August 5, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • JT

      FYI, the gunman was shot and killed by police. We will probably never know the motive of this tragic shooting.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • obsthetimes

      I doubt the killer did not know the difference between muslims and sikhs. That might have been the case 10 years ago. I believe he knew he was targeting sikhs in a gurudwara (sikh church)

      August 5, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • deadatheist

      @Tallulah13

      FYI..the shooter is dead.

      Care to read the article before you start punching those dusty keyboard and humiliate yourself on the worldwideweb.

      August 6, 2012 at 12:36 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    August 5, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Karl

      not it does not, dont be stupid.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Karl

      no*

      August 5, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Blog Me Blog You

      Who are the SIkhS are a bunch of LUNATICS not different from muslim , they ve only been quiet for a while , but they are the same L00nies.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • db

      I am not a sikh. I have been to worship places for every religion and I find equal peace whether I visit a church, mosque, temple, gurudwara, synagogue, .... Having said that, I have certainly witnessed the practice of no discrimination of any sorts in gurudwaras.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!#.

      August 6, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  19. atheismiscrap

    Another atheist's craftmanship.

    August 5, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I'm not sure if you realize this, but your statement made no sense, whatsoever. It wasn't even a complete sentence.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • atheismiscrap

      Just like the one in Tucson and in Aurora.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • merridee

      I seriously doubt the shooter was an atheist.

      August 6, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • Jared Lee Loughner

      That's what you can do if you "Don't Trust in God".

      August 6, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • atrociATHEIST

      Nobody does like atheist.

      August 6, 2012 at 12:43 am |
  20. bahhb66

    If Jesus truly exists(which I personally doubt) I believe he is/was the SATAN you christians are always worried about.You have been duped by the devil to believe he is/was a god.Otherwise all the hate and murder in your gods name makes no sense

    August 5, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • militantatheists

      Your ignorance about Jesus and of the New Testament is overwhelming and you're doing an awesome job in advertising it on this blog.

      August 5, 2012 at 6:52 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.