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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. jas

    Dear Ken,
    Do you feel that you are the owner of USA?
    Just like someone in your family came to US generations back, we all came to usa the same way. I bet you never see things in this light ever? If you did you'll be compassionate toward the vistims and their families. They are already suffering, and comments like yours just add to their pain. So if you have nothing sensible to say, then keep quiet.

    To all of my Sikh friends, my heartfelt condolences for your loss.

    LOVE THIS...Nobody knows where they came from...

    August 10, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  2. AGuest9

    Social Inbreeding is the problem, not only in the US, but in other countries, as well. When people mingle with others of other belief systems, the extremists within each of those groups soften a bit. When you start seeing the world through others' eyes, you begin to understand. Get out of your closed-minded cliches and learn from – and about – others.

    August 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  3. George

    USA is a country made up off emigrents. We all came to this country to make good living and live in peace. And, I believe that is the motive of white, black, christians, Hidnus, Musilms, Jews, and you name it. If someone feel all of a sudden superior to everyone, and that will defeat the purpose on which this country is built. All the Muslim brothers living this country are peace loving people and want to live upto the meaning of Muslim (peace). If they were not they would have stayed in their own country where people are killing each other in the name of relegion. Let us hope this tragedy will force everyone to do a self evaluation and strive to keep the pride up of our Mother America. MY heart felt condolonce goes to the familes suffered due to this crime. Let us remeber them through our action to maintain the brotherhood in USA

    August 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  4. Gurjot Singh

    Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh! (The Pious ones (Khalsa) belong to God, Victory Belongs to God)

    I just wanted to say that as a Sikh, (I'm not a baptised Sikh) it is our duty to at least say that I don't appreciate it when people start attacking other people's religions including Islam. Honestly, it bothers me just as much as when people attack Islam as when they attack Sikhism. And another thing, if people anyone does not know how to argue properly or have nothing morally good to say please don't say it all because then that just reflects your ignorance and uneducated primitive thinking. Thank you! May Jehova/God/Allah/Waheguru/Ram etc grant you Peace.

    August 8, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Tatiana

      I just want to say... That I couldn't have said it any better than you. I am a complete mix of EVERYTHING, including culture, heritage, and religion. My family is comprised from all parts of the world, from the most Northern tips of India, to South America, and even all the way to Denmark. Everyone is equal in my eyes. How I wish that some people (who will remain nameless in order to NOT offend anyone on this thread) would pick up a book, read an article, do SOMETHING to educate themselves further. Even if you are an educated person, such a tragic and senseless act of hate like last week's incident is never warranted. Americans hurting Americans (be it Muslim-Americans, Sikh-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc.) needs to come to an end. There's enough tragedy all over this world for us to be killing each other.

      August 9, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  5. dmiller3

    Shows how ignorant Americans are. And yes I am a white American. Doesn't even know who he's shooting at. Sikhs are Indians and are not Muslim dumba$$. Not that shooting at any random Muslim is correct but he is such an idiot doesn'y even know who he is shooting at.

    August 7, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  6. Ram Govind

    One of the things I know about Sikhism is that the religion came into existence to stop the growth of Islam in India, around 1500AD not to reject Hinduism, rather to protect it. Some ideas were rejected, while some taken. Some ideas from Islam were also incorported to make the new religious followers comfortable.

    History:

    1500-1800AD New Sikhs Warriors and Martyres fought the (terrorizing) Islamic forces ~Mugal rule. Hindus and Budhists owe them a lot!!

    1980... Backlash of Sikhs around 1980-84 when Sikh terrorists bombed an India airliner and killed all on board, Sikhs literally killed thousands (and got killed in thousands) within India, ofcourse I do not blame them entirely for what they found an extreme way to fight political attrocities (did anyone mention "foreign hand" ?). A lot of them were given political assylum in the US during that period, while many considered them as terror groups in India. (cold war period)... But in general their religion was made to fight extremes.

    Post cold war :
    Now a Sikh is actualy the Primeminister of India.. things have changed,

    Sikhs in general are great warriors and I have all due respect for them!! I like them !! They are also great businessmen and economists. (unlike the taxi driver impression they usually pose). I remember people used to prefer to travel only by the Taxi driven by a Sardar (a male Sikh) rather than anyone else because they felt safe with them as drivers !! That was/is their raport.
    The word "Sardar" is still a very respectable and one that strikes as awesome.
    Today Sikh culture is in a decline with many offsprings not willing to retain long hair and turbans for fear of resembling the very people their ancestors fought 😦
    Sikh pride should be preserved!!

    August 7, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • Ram Govind

      Here are some unfortunate happenings in history !!
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalistan_movement

      August 7, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Baljit Singh

      I would recommend you read "soft target". It will clear a few misconceptions. The plane that was bombed was the handiwork of Indian intelligence agents called RAW. A simple political movement for autonomy was turned around by Indira Gandhi into a religious and separatist issue so she could get elected again. Please note the same family has ruled India since independence. Corruption is rampant, lawlessness is flourishing, not a single gold medal at th olympics.......I can go on and on. Had India followed the path carved by the Gurus, it would have been at par with the US if not ahead since the awakening came thru the Gurus two hundred years ahead of the west.

      August 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  7. ArthurP

    So where was God?

    Oh yes. that's right he was looking after good God fearing Christians, his chosen people.

    Let the heathens look after themselves.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Thor

      God surely showed up in Aurora, Colorado two weeks prior to that, didn't he? Idiot

      August 8, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • afewacresofsnow

      He was there, he sent the temple president and the preist armed with a dagger, he sent the police, it was because of him this tragedy didn't get worse.

      August 8, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • George

      God was absent from the heart of the Killer.

      August 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  8. Take my wife...please

    Man, all this violence just makes me sikh to my stomach.

    August 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  9. JustKenAgain

    First off, I am Canadian. I find what has happened to these people, reprehensible. I do not condone violence to anyone. Second of all, I was born, here, on Canadian soil. How I arrived here does not matter, ancestry be damned. I have stayed on the soil I was born on. My opinion of the Sikhs here locally is based on experiences interacting with them. Here locally, they are closed-rank, no-assimilation, immigrants. They earned the reputation, it was not handed out just because. So there.

    August 7, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • extinct_republican_party

      Your views are just that ...yours and contrary to most others

      August 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  10. ASingh

    "Sikh women are less identifiable than men, identifiable by their beards and turbans."
    Most Sikh men in the US do not wear a turban or have beards. Only Orthodox Sikhs choose to do that.

    August 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Tej

      Not sure about your personal experience but I believe you are misinformed. I know many turbaned Sikhs and non. Those that are not turbaned, most are that way because of discrimination that often leads them to an expedient path of assimlination, that is not necessarily "choice" as you explain it. The Orthodox Sikhs you refer too are "Amritdhari". They choose to be baptised as was the "Khalsa" initiated by Guru Gobind Singh.

      August 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  11. Michael Ganesan

    I have a lot of friends who are Sikhs and this religion seeks peace. If you watch the video you will notice that all partake in breaking bread at the end of their prayers. Regardless of your social status or religion, everyone is welcome. Sikhs are wonderful and loving individuals. This killing was senseless. I pray for God's peace and grace for all of the families affected. "How do you battle reckless hatred!" To all of my Sikh friends, my heartfelt condolences for your loss. God bless all of you. You will be in my prayers.

    August 7, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  12. Paul Wilson

    Good that the police killed him and sent him to HELL! before he caused any more havoc & horror. Killing a madman BEFORE he completes his Satanic mission of murder, is better than having him end it by killing himself .

    August 7, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • John

      You definitely need to watch the Maher video below.

      August 7, 2012 at 10:08 am |

    • [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAvDtPz33w0&w=640&h=360]

      August 7, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  13. TheBob

    I knew a Sikh once. His name was Darth Maul. "Community" wasn't exactly his thing. Kind of a badass.

    August 7, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Paul Wilson

      Darth Maul was a Sith, not a Sikh. A SITH ! They were a heretic offshoot of the Jedi Knights and only one and an apprentice -successor could exist at any time.

      The Sikhs were founded in the 15th century by Nanak,their first Guru. Of him, many startling tales were told. The office of Guru lapsed in the late 18th century,and a council now oversees Sikh affairs.

      August 7, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Seriously?

      @PaulWilson – Clearly, Paul, you are a frequent practioner of humor. I want to party with you.

      August 7, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Blog me blog you

      MWA hahahahahahahahahahahahahahha
      Hahhaahhahahahahahajajajajjajajajajajajaj
      Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahha

      August 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • LMAO

      @seriously – Thanks, was in need of a good laugh. Indeed, Paul Wilson is well versed in the comedic arts.

      August 8, 2012 at 2:37 am |
  14. I must say

    Truly a sad day not just for the Sikh Community but for America. Seems like the only way America is making headlines around the world is when a deranged individual has to go on a shooting spree!

    August 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  15. Just Ken

    Awesome people. Get together, praise God, love, fellowship harmony and togetherness. Share a meal. Sure wish these great folks would pack it up, jump on a ship and head home to India to do this. I'll never, ever trust them. Had too many dealing with, and encounters with these guys to buy what is being put out in this story. They'd cheat you out of your eyeteeth.

    August 6, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Just Steve

      Stereotype much, Ken? YOU are what is wrong with this country, not those who come here seeking a better life.

      August 6, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Just Stop Racism

      Seriously dude.. thought you were pretty cool until the "pack it up" part. People like you might try to bring us Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and others down, but one day we will win your hearts. Whether its in your life time or your kids or your kids kids one day we will trust one another and will unite with one another to stop ignorant racism. 🙂 #DeathToRacism .. oh yeah and if you want to discuss what countries your and which countries ours .. i this an't your country either, it belongs to the Natives or Aboriginal people. 🙂

      August 7, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • JustKensMama

      Just Ken needs to put cooling creaming on his backside as he is burning with envy at the success of these Indians.
      JustKen, got a message for you : You can never match these guys, the only chance you will ever have is, if you ambush them with a 9mm while they are praying and they are unarmed.

      Now burn loser, hahahahaha, burn.

      August 7, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • open door

      Ken, have you ever been out of the US, or better yet, how far have you been educated in your life?

      August 7, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Simran Singh

      Dear Ken,
      Do you feel that you are the owner of USA?
      Just like someone in your family came to US generations back, we all came to usa the same way. I bet you never see things in this light ever? If you did you'll be compassionate toward the vistims and their families. They are already suffering, and comments like yours just add to their pain. So if you have nothing sensible to say, then keep quiet.

      To all of my Sikh friends, my heartfelt condolences for your loss.

      August 7, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Harnarinder Singh

      JustKen,
      May God(or whoever you believe in, if you do) bless you with good thinking, so that you can think straight and try to make this world better with your presence. Being a sikh, I would like to share a little thing from my religion, Sikhs whenever they finish their prayer they as for "Sarbat da bhala" means well being of all the universe. I am a Sikh, and proud to be one. May God bless you.

      August 7, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • Just Ken Daddy

      Justken you are the reason why racism in the states will never come to an end. You can't bare to see success out of someone that isn't the norm in America. If i were to look up the def of (hater) in the dictionary, I would find a picture of you!

      August 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  16. tinku

    We should pray for the officer Mr. Murphy who risked his life for others. He is a true American and can I say he is also a true Sikh for he put himself before others. American values interestingly are similar to Sikhism.

    August 6, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
    • open door

      Tinku, I am not Sikh, however know many Sikhs in the US. They are awesome people, kind, generous, open and giving. If only these other people were so lucky to know any Sikhs.

      August 7, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  17. Mormon dude

    I have eaten that meal with Sikhs in their temple. SO DELICIOUS! They are really awesome people.

    August 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • tinku

      Thanks for ur kind words Mormon dude.

      August 6, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • tinku

      you are always welcome and do bring along friends. World with diversity is a beautiful garden

      August 6, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Major Tom

      I don't blame you. Compared to Mormon food, ANYTHING is "SO DELICIOUS".

      August 7, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  18. srikant

    something is wrong with this human race . now this has become a regular feature . some lunatic from some where hates man kind . don't know whether there is a solution . don't know when and where the next one will explode. i think those of us who are alive are just lucky .

    Sad, sad, sad day ...my heartfelt sympathy to families of the victims. what else can a bystander like me offer

    August 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Timetraveler

      Are we generalizing a little here? If all 4 or 5 of these recent incidents had been perpetrated by members of any one minority group, I'm pretty sure your comments would not have involved "human race". They would have contained [insert minority group here] instead. But since each and every one has been a white guy, suddenly it's the "human race" that has something wrong with it. What hypocrite.

      August 7, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  19. Mindy

    How could someone hate someone for caring about everyone? This is such a tragedy that this right-wing nut would kill innocent people of this faith if anything it has opened my eyes to the religion and I find it very appealing. I'm so sorry that this has happened and I will be praying for comfort for the families of the fallen.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Paul Wilson

      At least we erased the right-wing nut before he did any more damage. Apparently he was going funny in the brain while in the army !The army has no place for men like him ! His subsequent behaivor showed he was a deranged man. Well, he's certainly NOT going to get a grave in Arlington Cemetary !

      August 7, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  20. HearTheTruth

    http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    August 6, 2012 at 1:43 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.