“This gave us a very good feeling,” Bedi, an engineer and longtime Burke resident, said Monday. “What happened was a terrible tragedy, but we feel very safe.”
As grim details continued to emerge Monday about a gunman’s rampage that left six worshipers dead at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, Sikh leaders across the Washington area — as well as in other states — expressed sadness and horror. But they also had a surprisingly uniform sense of confidence that they were accepted by their own communities and well served by local law enforcement.
The Maryland and Virginia suburbs are home to several thousand Sikh families, mostly middle-class professionals of Indian descent. In the past 25 years, they have built more than 20 temples, known as gurdwaras, some with elaborate, highly visible features such as gold domes.
Many can recount insults or rude comments directed their way over the years, especially after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Some people who were angry and frightened took out their hostility on anyone with a beard or wearing a turban. Both are required signs of devotion among adult men of the Sikh faith, which is based on the values of pacifism, charity and self-discipline.
“I was working at Dulles Airport right after 9/11, and someone shouted at me, ‘Taliban, go back to Afghanistan,’ ” said Pritpal Singh, 38, who runs a convenience store in Virginia.
“Hate hurts,” he said. “Most Americans know that we are from a peaceful faith, but some people are still ignorant. They confuse us with Muslims or terrorists.”
The New York-based Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, has reported more than 700 cases of attacks or discrimination against Sikhs in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, ranging from workplace harassment to street beatings and the torching of gurdwaras. Between 2001 and 2011, at least six Sikhs were fatally shot in what appeared to be hate crimes, the group found.
Yet Sikhs in the Washington area said harassment and hostility have diminished greatly in the past several years, as they have become a more familiar and respected presence. Many are U.S. citizens and active in civic groups or at their children’s schools, and many gurdwara leaders have worked closely with church and mosque leaders through interfaith groups.
“We have been trying hard to let people reach out and know who we are, that we are peaceful, patriotic and hard-working,” said Surjeet Sidhu, a bank administrator for the federal government and a board member at the Fairfax Station temple. “It has been a challenge, but we have never felt not welcome.