Sunday’s shooting attack in Wisconsin has sent a wave of fear rippling through some in Fort Wayne’s Sikh community, which has been trying since the 9/11 attack to teach the public who they are – and who they are not.
But others say they believe the Wisconsin gunman, who news reports say was a white supremacist discharged from the military for a pattern of misconduct, knew exactly whom he was attacking.
“I’ve received several calls since yesterday from people wanting to know if it is safe to go to the Gurdwara,” or the Sikh temple, said Kirshan Kumar, a Sikh and local business owner.
“There is fear in our community,” Kumar said. “We were all scared.”
“No one knows 100 percent what happened over there,” said Kamail Singh, also a Sikh and local business owner. “Why he did this? Maybe he misidentified us. Maybe he thought we were Muslims.”
But Kumar asks, “Why would he even kill Muslims?”
Kumar, for his part, doesn’t believe this was a case of misidentification.
“I’m sure he knew they were Sikhs,” said Kumar. “I’m pretty sure it was someone who didn’t care who they were. He considered them foreigners.”
The small Sikh community in Fort Wayne – it has about 40 families – has been trying to educate the public for more than a decade now. After the 9/11 attack, it experienced some harassment from people who assumed they are Muslim because of the beards and turbans some of them wear.
Many were asked why their people attacked the United States.
Sikhs, though, are not Muslim or Arab or Persian or Saudis.
They originated in Punjab, an area in northern India. The religion believes in one supreme god but also in equality and that anyone should be able to practice any religion he or she chooses.
In modern times, Sikhs became known as the bearded, turbaned soldiers who fought on the side of the British during World War II. They also stand guard at Buckingham Palace.
The word hasn’t gotten out to everyone, though.
Some people, said Ravi Singh, who works at the Marathon station at Taylor Street and Brooklyn Avenue, “automatically think I’m Muslim. You tell them nicely who you are, and they’ll change the topic.”
Singh, who doesn’t cut his hair, a Sikh tradition, said he came to the U.S. when he was 5 and went to school here, and says he “had to stand up for myself.”
“Most people see me and think I don’t speak English,” he said.
Singh, like some other Sikhs, is concerned about what happened in Wisconsin.
“Oh yeah,” Singh said, there is worry that the same thing could happen here, particularly because the Sikhs are building a bigger church that could attract more people.
Kumar, who used to cut his hair but now lets it grow and wears a turban, continues to try to educate the public. He gives out booklets explaining the Sikh faith to those who ask about his religion.
“A lot of people know who we are and what we stand for,” Kumar said.
And people now understand that his headgear is a turban.
But not everyone.
Kumar said he was at a local pizza restaurant for his daughter’s birthday, and a man sitting nearby was loudly asking, “Why are we in Afghanistan? Osama bin Laden is right here.”
“Stupid people do that,” Kumar said. “The guy was drunk.”