Local Sikhs suspect ignorance about their religion is to blame for the actions of a 40-year-old Army veteran who police say gunned down six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Share story

Occasionally, a customer enters Satpal Singh Purewal’s taxi cab in the Seattle area and greets him with the words, “Assalamu alaikum.”

The greeting, which means “Peace be with you,” would be OK if Purewal were Muslim.

But he’s Sikh, and to him the gesture is evidence that widespread misunderstanding remains about his religion.

He and many other Sikhs across the Northwest attribute that same ignorance to the actions of a 40-year-old Army veteran whom police say walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday and opened fire, killing six people and critically wounding three others.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has ordered that flags at state buildings be lowered to half-staff until Friday in honor of the shooting victims. President Obama directed that the White House and other federal buildings do so for the same period.

Ever since Sikhs arrived in the U.S. as farmers and lumber-mill workers in the late 19th century, they have struggled with how little Americans knew about their faith. In 1907, a mob in Bellingham called Sikhs “the Hindus” and ran them out of town.

Over time, they established themselves in the U.S. with major temples from Boston to California, yet remained a small and often misunderstood community, readily identifiable by their turbans.

Today the Puget Sound region has an estimated 25,000 Sikhs, whose monotheistic religion originated in India more than 500 years ago.

On Monday many here were looking for ways to support the shooting victims and their families. A local candlelight vigil is being planned here for the weekend, and elsewhere across the country funds are being established.

Purewal and other Sikhs said that while violence against them has subsided since the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when Sikhs were mistakenly associated with Islamic extremists, it’s clear people still don’t know the distinctions.

Gurdev Singh, president of the Gurudwara Singh Sabha of Washington, a temple in Renton, said, “We want people to know we are not part of terrorism. We may look like some of the Taliban because we wear turbans,” he said. But he explained Sikhs wrap their hair because they don’t cut it.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporter Lornet Turnbull contributed to this report.