US religious leaders recall bias killing of Sikhs in Arizona after 9/11
MESA, Arizona. – Sikh businessman Balbir Singh Sodhi was helping to plant a flower bed at his Arizona gas station when he was shot by a man seeking revenge September 11th. Moved for a Muslim Arab because of his turban and beard, Sodhi was the first person to die in a wave of bias crimes sparked by the attacks.
“Five shots rang out and Uncle Balbir fell and died on the spot, he bled to death without knowing who shot him or why,” Sikh activist Valarie Kaur told dozens of people gathered on Wednesday. evening at Chevron station for the 20th anniversary of Sodhi’s murder. “His killer, when he was arrested, said, ‘I am a patriot.'”
Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed in the days following September 11 and 20 years after his death members of the Sikh community have gathered to remember the man.
September 11 sparked a dangerous wave of white supremacy and Islamophobia which, two decades later, continues to manifest itself in attacks on members of various faith traditions. But religious leaders say 9/11 also broadened, diversified and solidified interfaith movements as more Muslims and members of other lesser-known groups were drawn.
“September 11 opened a tap for hatred and bigotry in the United States, but it also opened up a space for groups to come together and get to know each other better,” said Tony Kireopoulos, who oversees interfaith relations for the New York National Council of Churches. York, the largest Christian ecumenical organization in the United States
One example is his group’s continued efforts at dialogue with Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews, said Kireopoulos, a Greek Orthodox theologian and associate secretary general of the council.
The Council of Christian Denominations participated in the early efforts of the Shoulder to shoulder campaign, a national coalition formed a decade after 9/11 to counter anti-Muslim sentiment amid an outcry over efforts to build an Islamic center near zero.
Heightened anti-Islam rhetoric has also prompted the council to deepen its Islamic-Christian dialogue not only to create understanding, but also to help people of different faiths form true friendships, Kireopoulos said.
“We have always had contact with Muslim groups, but after September 11 it became more intentional,” he said. “When you meet frequently, you get to know each other, so you can respond as neighbors and friends.”
Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of religious initiatives at the Center for American Progress, a political institute in Washington, said that these types of interfaith efforts were widely praised by Muslims in the United States, who were being targeted more aggressively than ever before.
Hate crimes against Muslims fell from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001, according to FBI statistics. There was 176 hate crimes against Muslims and 49 against Sikhs in 2019. These crimes against Sikhs were not recorded as a separate category until 2015.
“It is sometimes hard to see the bright side, but there has been a lot of learning over the past 20 years,” said Siddiqi, who was trained as a Muslim chaplain.
Looking ahead to the 9/11 commemorative events this month, she noted, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt apologized to Muslims for his organization’s opposition ten years ago to the opening of an Islamic center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, calling it “false, pure and simple”. League opposition came years before Greenblatt joined the civil rights organization. The center was never built.
RELATED: Sikh community gathers in Mesa for vigil on 20th anniversary of murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi
Suspicion of Muslims did not start with September 11, but the terrorist attacks amplified the mistrust.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted before the 9/11 anniversary found that 53% of Americans have unfavorable opinions towards Islam, against 42% who have favorable ones. This contrasts with the overwhelmingly favorable views on Christianity and Judaism.
The Sikh Coalition was formed in the aftermath of September 11 to advocate for the rights of Sikh Americans and educate people about the faith, even working to include Sikh history in the standards of school curricula. He also documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans in the first few months after the attacks.
Such and other attacks against people of different faiths lead religious leaders to warn that tackling prejudice remains an urgent task.
“I still don’t think we’re in a good position,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, a Phoenix-based global center for learning and action rooted in Jewish teachings. “I really worry about minority groups in general and in particular Muslims, Sikhs and refugee asylum seekers.”
Yanklowitz was unable to join this year’s memorial in honor of Sodhi as it coincided with Yom Kippur, the holiest night in the Jewish calendar. But more than 100 people attended, including local and national politicians and Sikh, Christian and Muslim leaders.
There was hardly any mention of Frank Roque, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of September 15, 2001. He was also charged with driving in a car the same day at the home of a woman. Afghan family and in a Lebanese convenience store, although no one was injured in the attacks.
Rana Singh Sodhi has since forgiven the killer and works to preserve her brother’s legacy, sharing his story with school children, church groups and government officials.
“We are not only celebrating the life of my brother, but all the victims of 9/11 and all the victims of hate crimes,” Sodhi said from a scene outside gas pumps as cars sped past in the dark. “Showing unity and love for one another … this is the only way to fight hatred.”
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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