Several reports out this morning indicate that Wade Michael Page, the army veteran who is suspected of killing six and injuring three at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, over the weekend, was a white supremacist and a “skinhead.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Page — who was killed in a firefight with police — even played in a white-power band that had ties to neo-Nazis.
Though police have not yet named a motive in the attack, all but one of those shot were Sikh adherents. The other was a police officer.
Should law enforcement confirm Page’s ties to white supremacy, and if that proves to be the motive of the attack, it will fit with a growing trend in this country. Hate groups — groups that expressly advocate against a religion, race, or sexual orientation — have been on the rise in the United States, rising steadily since 2000.
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And the targeting of Sikhs is not new either. Often, the hate crimes against Sikhs originate out of misdirected Islamophobia: Sikh men can most easily be identified by their long beards and turbans, which they wear according to religious doctrine. Assailants will mistake these men for Muslims. According to a report by Reuters, Sikh groups have seen huge spikes in hate crimes since September 11th, 2001, right at the same time when anti-Muslim sentiment in the country began to grow rapidly.
In April of this year, over 90 members of Congress signed onto a letter (PDF) asking Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller to closely monitor what they called a “growing concern” of hate crimes against Sikh people:
“Numerous reports have documented how those practicing the Sikh religion are often targeted for hate violence because of their religiously-mandated turbans — i.e. because of their Sikh identity, regardless of whether the attacker understands the victim to be Sikh or not,” the said lawmakers, led by U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat.
Though it is the fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism is a small religious minority in the United States — there are roughly 500,000 observers of the religion, which originated in the Punjab area of South Asia, in the US. There has only been one Sikh member of Congress — Dalip Singh Saund, who represented Southern California in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Update: In a press conference today, Oak Creek law enforcement confirmed that the gunman’s weapon, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, was obtained legally.