Sikhism in America: A guide to the targeted religion

The U.S. has had a sizable Sikh population for decades, yet we still have a poor understanding of the peace-oriented religion that originated in India

A man sits on a rock as police investigate a shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wis., that left six people, plus the gunman, dead on Sunday. Sikhism has long had roots in
(Image credit: AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

On Sunday morning, a 40-year-old white gunman walked up to a Sikh priest at a temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and shot him dead, then walked inside and killed at least five other Sikhs before the police killed him, according to witnesses. The FBI is taking a lead in the investigation, treating it as a possible case of domestic terrorism. "Everyone here is thinking this is a hate crime for sure," Manjit Singh, who attends a different temple in the region, tells The New York Times. "People think we are Muslims." But Sikhs are totally separate from Islam, despite some vaguely similar aesthetic practices. So just what is Sikhism, what do Sikhs believe, where does the religion come from, and what's its place in America today?

Briefly, what is Sikhism?

A monotheistic religion founded in the 1400s in the Punjab region of India, based on the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev and his nine immediate successors. Sikh comes from the Sanskrit for "disciple" or "instruction." Sikhism is now the fifth largest religion in the world, with more than 27 million members, most of them living in Punjab. There are only about 314,000 Sikhs in the U.S., and some 3,000 Sikh families in southeastern Wisconsin, where the shooting took place.

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What do Sikhs believe?

Sikhism preaches equality of all humankind, peaceful coexistence, a universal brotherhood of man, and one supreme God. Sikhs are encouraged to do good deeds in the world, and observant Sikh males typically don't cut their hair or beards, and cover their heads with colorful turbans; women often wear scarves to cover their heads. Sikhs tend to be vegetarians, and baptized males carry a small ceremonial sword (or Kirpan) on their person. Most Sikh men have "Singh" (lion) in their last name, while most women have "Kaur" (princess) as their surname.

What's Sikhism relationship to Islam?

None. They are distinct religions, founded in different parts of the world and based on significantly different philosophies. Americans sometimes appear to conflate Sikhs and Muslims or Arabs because of the turbans and other superficial similarities. In fact, Sikhs have a fraught relationship with Islam — several of the 10 founding Gurus were martyred for refusing to convert to Islam or to protect Sikhs from forcible conversion.

What's the story of Sikhs in America?

Sikhs started migrating to the U.S. in significant numbers after World War II, largely for economic reasons. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, violence against Sikhs has seen a troubling rise, often accompanied by the attacker accusing the victims of belonging to al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist groups. In a handful of cases, the Sikhs died in the attacks. "Every Sikh American today is hurting, grieving and afraid," Sikh filmmaker Valarie Kaur tells the Associated Press. "That turban has tragically marked us as automatically suspect, perpetually foreign and potentially terrorists." On the other hand, there are also clear signs Sikhs are assimilating — South Carolinians recently elected the daughter of Sikh immigrants, Nikki Haley (R), as their governor. And Americans' response to the Wisconsin shooting "gives me hope," says Valarie Kaur. "Any expressions of solidarity, messages, prayers, will be felt not only by Sikhs in Milwaukee but all over the country."

Sources: The Associated Press, Business Insider, The Guardian, The New York Times, SikhiWiki, Wikipedia, Voice of America

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