Central Virginia has a very small number of Sikhs, the religious minority thrust into the national spotlight after Sunday’s mass shooting at a Wisconsin temple, but one of them is no stranger to public attention.
“I think it’s a senseless loss of life,” Charlottesville Mayor Satyendra Huja said when asked for his reaction to the tragedy in Wisconsin. “Especially in a place of worship where people come together to pray and share and care for each other.”
Though the Wisconsin shooter’s motive remains unclear, local Sikhs say misunderstanding about who they are is all too common.
“For example, some people think we are Muslims,” said Huja, 70. “First of all, we are not Muslims. But there’s nothing wrong with Muslims either.”
Sikhism, a monotheistic religion that stresses devotion to a universal God, equality of humankind and community service, originated in the 15th century in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. There are roughly 500,000 American Sikhs.
The temple shooting left six people dead in what authorities have described as an act of domestic terrorism. The shooter, who was killed by police at the scene, has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran who played in white supremacist metal bands, according to media reports.
“It must be somebody crazy or hateful to do something like that,” Huja said. “Unfortunately, the hate is not really uncommon.”
A longtime Charlottesville city planner who became mayor early this year, Huja, who wears a turban and beard, said he’s been the target of animosity four or five times during his time in Charlottesville. The most recent, he said, was an email he received Monday morning that referred to him as “the raghead mayor of Charlottesville.”
“He thought I was Muslim,” Huja said of the person who sent the message. “It was just a rambling email. Not very coherent.”
The Wisconsin shooting sparked widespread condemnation from public leaders, including former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
“A hallmark of our great nation is the freedom to worship,” Kaine said in a statement released Sunday night. “Today’s events have threatened that American tradition and we cannot allow that to stand.”
Dr. Narinder Arora, a Sikh who has worked in Central Virginia as a pulmonologist for more than 35 years, said that he too has experienced animosity due to his appearance as a Sikh, much of it coming just after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It happened a couple of times,” he said. “People opened up the windows of their trucks and threw stones and four-letter words and screaming because of the episode of 9/11.”
Arora said he doesn’t blame America for the events in Wisconsin and that violence can crop up in any part of the world.
“I have seen almost 99 percent good people around us,” he said.
Both Arora and Huja suggested the solution to hate and animosity lies in better understanding of different cultures.
“We should have a better discussion and dialogue to understand what different religions are and what they mean,” the mayor said. “We need to learn something from this experience and not repeat it.”
“I think this is high time to make the public aware again that we are part of them,” Arora said.