For Sikhs in the Valley, a Painful Birthday is a Call to “Little Acts of Kindness” and Love

Four days after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was planting flowers outside the gas station he owned in Mesa when a man, enraged by anti-immigrant sentiments and allegedly seeking revenge for the attacks , shot and killed Sodhi.

The man would later shoot a Lebanese-American gas clerk, thankfully missing, before eventually returning to a local bar to brag about the murder.

Sodhi was a member of the Sikh faith, and their traditional attire has often made them the target of those who harbor hatred of the Muslim faith and who see their traditional turbans as an indication of the Muslim faith. Many also harbor hatred towards Sikhs due to anti-immigrant and other racist beliefs.

Just under a year after the events in Mesa, a white supremacist in Wisconsin opened fire on a Sikh temple, killing six people. The temple has since installed bulletproof glass and has security guards on site.

“It is painful to lose someone because of hatred,” said Rana Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother. Arizona mirror Wednesday afternoon as he prepared for a memorial service that evening to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Balbir’s murder. “We are celebrating his legacy and all the victims of hate crimes and all the victims of September 11, and this is a very painful time.”

Since 2001, Arizona has continued to be a hotbed of hate incidents.
There was a 26% increase in hate crimes in 2019, although the data is likely incomplete as many agencies still do not report to the FBI. Only 81 of the state’s 125 law enforcement agencies reported for 2020, according to FBI data.
Sodhi’s murder marked what would become the start of a new wave of Islamophobia and anti-Sikh hatred across the country. Sodhi was not a Muslim, his killer hated him because he seemed to be linked to the Muslim faith, a common theme in the attacks on Sikhs.
Sodhi had actually planned this. He was planting flowers in preparation for a press conference he planned to hold the next day with the Sikh community in hopes of calming nerves and educating people about his community and faith.
Islamophobia is a term used to describe fear, mistrust or hatred towards Muslims. It has also become a multi-million dollar industry.

The troubled history of Islamophobia in Arizona

In the years since Sodhi’s death, Arizona has seen its fair share of high-profile incidents involving Islamophobia, most notably in 2015.
It all started with a man named Jon Ritzheimer.
He gained notoriety for wearing a shirt bearing the inscription “F *** Islam” while marching in front of a mosque in Phoenix, ultimately leading to a protest in front of it. The protest included a competition to see who could best draw the Prophet Muhammad, which is deeply disrespectful to the Muslim faith.
Ritzheimer would later be involved in a litany of extremist activity, including being investigated for calling for the arrest of a Democratic senator and for his involvement in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff for which he was subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty to.
The protest was also in part the brainchild of anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, a marginal player in Arizona politics for years and a leading Islamophobe. She was a strong proponent of the racist conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim – a theory that was reinforced by former President Donald Trump prior to his presidency and investigated by the former County Sheriff by Maricopa, Joe Arpaio.
Arizona mosques have been the frequent target of attacks by extremist groups.
In 2018, two women members of a local extremist group made national headlines for vandalism and theft at a mosque in Tempe.
Tahnee Gonzales and Elizabeth Dauenhauer broadcast live taking their children with them to the Islamic Community Center and tearing fliers from a bulletin board while encouraging their children to use Islamophobic language.
But Islamophobia in Arizona is more complicated than the more obvious incidents of protests and hate crimes.
In 2014, the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office, which was headed at the time by Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery, hosted a training seminar by a man who previously claimed the former CIA Director John Brennan was secretly Muslim.
It later emerged that Montgomery spent $ 40,000 to bring in the speaker who admitted to having sex with a confidential informant while working with the FBI.
Four years later, Arizona Republicans would refuse to condemn the hosting of a similar conspiracy theorist who claimed Muslims wanted to take over the country.
The City of Kingman in 2018 promised to change after comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s Showtime satirical series “Who Is America?” showed members of the town reacting badly to a proposed fictitious mosque in their town, one man saying the mosque would promote “terrorism” and another saying black people are not welcome in the town during the segment.
Islamophobia has led researchers to even examine how prejudice influenced the mass surveillance devices that were created in the aftermath of 9/11, and how they impacted Muslim and Sikh communities.
“I think it’s bad at airports for Sikhs and brunettes, in general, after 9/11,” one interviewee for the study said. “Even my 70-year-old grandmother sometimes sits at the airport to be questioned. She doesn’t speak English – I don’t really understand the logic of that.”

Responding to hate with compassion and kindness

Sikhs have been in the United States since the late 1800s and the first Asian American to ever serve in Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was a Sikh. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, but a 2015 study found that over 60% of Americans knew nothing about Sikhism or Sikh Americans.
Sodhi himself immigrated to the United States in 1984 due to anti-Sikh violence in India. Independent estimates suggest that between 8,000 and 17,000 Sikhs were killed in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and many people have still not been prosecuted for their crimes.
“People need education,” said Rana Singh Sodhi, emphasizing compassion when addressing the Mirror. “(Balbir) has become a beacon of awareness.”
At the memorial on Wednesday, Catholics, Muslims, Christians and more came together to remember the legacy of Balbir Singh Sodhi. They replaced an American flag near where Sodhi had planted flowers and recited the pledge of allegiance before lighting candles to be placed in a memorial.
Although it was hatred that took Sodhi away from his family, friends and loved ones, the memorial service was a call to action for understanding, a message that Sodhi’s family hope will be the lasting impact of the night. .
Aashwin Sodhi, Balbir Singh Sodhi’s granddaughter who was not even born when her grandfather was murdered, told the crowd that there is one simple thing people can do to help.
“Small acts of kindness,” she said, encouraging those in attendance to help others when and where they could – just like Balbir did.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news offices supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c (3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Jim Small with any questions: [email protected] Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.

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