Area Sikhs stunned by Wisconsin temple rampage

Mourners take part in a candlelight vigil Sunday in Milwaukee for the victims of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting. An unidentified gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple and was fatally shot by a cop. Associated Press
Mourners take part in a candlelight vigil Sunday in Milwaukee for the victims of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin shooting. An unidentified gunman killed six people at a Sikh temple and was fatally shot by a cop. Associated Press
Posted: August 07, 2012

If it's an act of "domestic terrorism," as Wisconsin authorities say, why would a gunman target Sikhs, of all people?

That's what Narinder Singh Budwal, secretary of the Philadelphia Sikh Society, wanted to know Sunday following news that a gunman had killed six people inside a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.

"We are peaceful, hardworking," Budwal said. He couldn't help but wonder if the shooting was a case of "mistaken identity" in which Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims.

Budwal said that the problem had become more severe after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Sikh rights groups have reported a rise in bias attacks since 2001. The Washington-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents in the U.S. since 9/?11, which advocates blame on anti-Islamic sentiment.

Sikhs don't practice the same religion as Muslims, but their long beards and turbans often cause them to be mistaken for Muslims, advocates say.

Budwal spoke after the shooting rampage that left terrified congregants hiding in closets and others texting friends outside for help. The suspect was killed outside the temple in a shootout with police officers.

Police called the attack an act of domestic terrorism, but did not provide any details about the gunman or suggest a possible motive.

During a chaotic few hours after the first shots were fired, police in tactical gear and carrying assault rifles surrounded the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin with armored vehicles and ambulances. Witnesses struggled with unrealized fears that several shooters were holding women and children hostage inside.

One of the first officers to respond to frantic 9-1-1 calls seeking help was shot several times as he tended to a wounded victim, and was in critical condition along with two other victims Sunday night, authorities said.

Sikhs at the shooting scene were in shock. "We never thought this could happen to our community," said Devendar Nagra, 48, of Mount Pleasant, Wis., whose sister escaped injury by hiding as the gunman fired in the temple's kitchen. "We never did anything wrong to anyone."

It appeared that the investigation had moved beyond the temple, as police and federal agents swarmed a neighborhood in nearby Cudahy, evacuating several homes and roping off four blocks around a house where their attention seemed to be focused. Milwaukee County sheriff's spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin said that the department's bomb squad was on the scene, though she had no details about why the unit had been called.

"It's a very sad story, what happened there, and we give our condolences to the people who died or were hurt," Budwal said. "America should know more about us. So many people don't know who Sikhs are, that's the problem."

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded more than 500 years ago in South Asia. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their heads with turbans — which are considered sacred — and refrain from shaving their beards. There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., according to estimates.

"Sometimes, it happens. They think you're a terrorist when they see the beard," said Paramjit Singh, a member of the Philadelphia Sikh Society, which is actually located in Millbourne, a small Sikh enclave just over the West Philly border in Delaware County.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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