August 6, 2012 / 7:18 PM / 7 years ago

Britain's Sikhs reeling from Wisconsin attack

LONDON (Reuters) - Devastated by the massacre of their brethren across the Atlantic, Britain’s vast Sikh community blamed ignorance and racism for a rise in attacks on members of their religion since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Sikhs say they have been singled out increasingly for harassment around the world since September 11, with attackers believing incorrectly that they are Muslim extremists because of their turbans and beards.

In the paranoid environment just after the 2005 London suicide bombings, many Sikhs were spotted wearing badges and stickers saying ‘Don’t freak, I’m a Sikh’.

Sunday’s attack - in which a gunman killed six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin - has only confirmed their worst fears.

“It’s just devastating,” Ranjit Kaur, a Sikh mother of four, said as she reclined on the floor of one of Europe’s biggest Sikh temples, known as Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, located in the ethnically mixed suburb of Southall in west London.

“Since 9/11 there is just no awareness as to who we are. Somehow people categorize us as Muslims, or radical Muslims. (My neighbors) here are a bit confused. A lot of them would come up and ask: ‘Are you Muslim?’”

The confusion itself does not bother Kaur and other community members in Southall, where many spoke warmly about their Muslim neighbors and emphasized that a similar attack against a mosque would have been equally devastating.

But the Wisconsin massacre still sent a chill through the community where exactly a year ago a wave of violent riots in London prompted Sikh men to grab their ceremonial swords to protect their property and temples.

In Southall, one of Britain’s most densely populated Sikh areas, Sikhs have lived peacefully for generations alongside other South Asian diasporas, Muslim and Hindu.

Sikh cafes and sari parlors stand next to Muslim butchers and kebab shops.

The Sikh temple’s white and gold domes glitter in the sun above the bustling street, with white-bearded Sikh men in black turbans, women in pink and orange saris and Muslim men in flowing white robes rushing about on daily errands.


Indarjit Singh, a lawmaker in Britain’s House of Lords who was the first Sikh to wear a turban in the upper house, said it was ignorance about their religion that worried him most.

“What concerns Sikhs is that, because (Osama) bin Laden wore a turban where most Muslims don’t, people assume that Sikhs and Muslims are all the same,” said Singh.

He said the Sikh community - which numbers about 330,000 people in Britain - has felt much more vulnerable since September 11, adding that he and many others had been taunted by people, while temples have been defaced and people threatened.

Some Sikhs in Southall said they tried not to venture out outside their community because the reaction of other Londoners was more unpredictable.

“In Southall, yes, it’s all good, but in other places it’s different,” said Sukhraj Singh, a lanky teenager of 15, his head wrapped tightly in a black turban.

“Some friends of mine had a bad experience. In central London, if you walk with the turban, you might get discriminated, like, people would say something rude, young kids. But here it’s all fine, people get along.”

His mother, Binder Singh, standing next to him, looked worried as she listened to her son and shook her head. Asked about her view, she just said: “If it happened in America, it could happen in London.”

But many community members emphasized that the long-standing presence of Sikhs in Britain meant the average British person knew more about them.

Sikh bikers in turbans are exempted from wearing crash helmets in Britain. Sikhs, whose religion was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in Punjab in the 15th century, also fought alongside British troops in the Burma campaign of World War Two.

Those warm memories are still intact, and many Sikhs said a Wisconsin-style attack could not happen in Britain.

“Britain and Sikhs have a long history stretching back over 200 years, so there is a far better understanding of Sikhs in the UK, but when you go across to Europe confusion persists, while in the US it is the worst,” said Gurmel Singh, Secretary General of Sikh Council UK.

In Southall, the idea of unity among religions and ethnic groups runs deep among community members.

A giant colorful mural depicting communal scenes from mosques, Sikh temples, churches and libraries dominates one of the central streets, and members of various religious groups could be seen shopping in local stored together.

“There is freedom here. Sikhs, Muslims, Hindu, we are all fine,” said Adnan Sayed, who runs a Muslim halal meat shop. “After the night service at the mosque, people go home and there is never a problem. In this area there will never be a problem like that.”

(Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Peter Graff)

This story was refiled to correct the year of London bombings to 2005 in the third paragraph

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