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Sikhs plan Bay Area vigils

  • August 8, 2012

By Matthai Kuruvila
Chronicle Staff Writer

Bay Area Sikhs are encouraging the public to attend candlelight vigils around the region Wednesday night in memory of their six brethren killed Sunday in a Wisconsin temple.

In at least three cities, San Jose, Fremont and Hayward, secular and religious leaders will gather at temples and, in Fremont, at Lake Elizabeth, to speak about the tragedy and about their little-known faith.

Beyond the public events, however, is an anxious debate about how the killings in their sacred space challenged core tenets of their religion.

When a self-avowed white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday and gunned down six worshipers, Sikhs suspected their faith had made them targets.

The turbans worn by observant men are testaments of faith and pride, yet some people assume the turbans are symbols of something sinister.

Sikh temples, known as gurdwaras, are always open on four sides - a recognition that the monotheistic religion, founded in 15th century India, is inclusive to all, regardless of caste, race or creed. This week, the doors were also open for a man the FBI calls a domestic terrorist.

The paradoxes of faith in the face of tragedy remain front and center for Bay Area Sikhs. Yet many are resolute that it won't change the way they worship.

"It won't make us an exclusive community," said Harjeet Singh, 35, president of the Fremont gurdwara, which has 5,000 members. He said tenets of the religion require that "we can't challenge someone because of how they look. ... Cases like these, no matter how much security you have, they're tough to contain."

Gurdwaras will remain open all day and night, following tradition, he said. Sunday meals - open to anyone as another act of inclusion - will continue. And many Bay Area Sikhs are calling for renewed efforts to educate neighbors about who they are, starting with Wednesday's candlelight vigils.

"Because we're a non-proselytizing religion, we do a terrible job of explaining ourselves to others," said Mandeep Dhillon, 42, who attends the San Jose gurdwara, the nation's largest. "We don't need to shut our doors. We need to open them more."

The pain of otherness is particularly striking when it involves Sikhs, because they have been in California since the 19th century, said Jaideep Singh, a professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay who studies the Sikh diaspora.

Sikhs helped build California railroads, and many settled in the state's Central Valley, though large populations are also in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. A third of the nation's estimated 750,000 Sikhs live in California, Singh said.

During international incidents - such as the tensions with Iran in the late 1970s - many Sikhs have been miscast as enemies due to their turbans. But it was after the Sept. 11 terror attacks that anti-Sikh hate crimes surged. The Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group, reported 700 incidents over the following nine years. The FBI doesn't track anti-Sikh hate crimes.

Gurdwaras remain the dominant social, cultural and religious center for Sikhs. But 9/11 prompted a growth in a variety of Sikh organizations, which have come to the fore in recent days, helping to explain the faith. Singh believes that Islamphobia is the reason for the post-9/11 attacks on Sikhs.

Throughout U.S. history, whenever violence has been directed at a particular group, other racial and ethnic minorities often feel the effects.

For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 later formed the groundwork for racist laws against Sikhs, Japanese and others, Singh said.

"We've been here for 125 years and people still don't know who we are."

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