For Valley Sikhs, a painful anniversary is a call for ‘small acts of kindness’ and love

By: - September 16, 2021 4:01 pm

A woman prays at the memorial site of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was the first victim of a hate crime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Four days after the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was planting some flowers around the edge of the gas station he owned in Mesa when a man, incensed by anti-immigrant sentiments and allegedly looking for revenge for the attacks, shot and killed Sodhi. 

The man would later shoot at a Lebanese-American gas clerk, thankfully missing, before finally driving back to a local bar to brag about the murder.  

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

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

“It’s painful when you lose someone from hate,” Rana Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother, told the Arizona Mirror Wednesday afternoon as he was preparing for a memorial service that night to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Balbir’s murder. “We’re celebrating his legacy and all the hate crime victims and all the 9/11 victims, and it is a very painful moment.” 

A painting of Balbir Singh Sodhi on the stage at the memorial ceremony commemorating the 20 year anniversary of his death. Sodhi was the first victim of a hate crime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Rana Singh Sodhi, brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, speaks to the media about his brother.

Rana Singh Sodhi, brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi, speaks to the crowd who came to the memorial service commemorating the 20 year anniversary of his brother's death.

A group of Sikh men wearing shirts commemorating Balbir Singh Sodhi.

Candles lit that were placed on a memorial for Balbir Singh Sodhi who was murdered on Sept. 15 outside his gas station in a hate crime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Since 2001, Arizona has continued to be a hotbed for incidents of hate. 

There was a 26% increase in hate crimes in 2019, though the data is likely incomplete, as many agencies still don’t report to the FBI. Only 81 of the 125 law enforcement agencies in the state reported for 2020, per FBI data

Sodhi’s murder marked what would become the start of a new wave of Islamophobia and anti-Sikh hate across the country. Sodhi was not a Muslim, his killer hated him for appearing to be connected to the Muslim faith, a common theme in attacks on Sikhs. 

Sodhi had actually foreseen this. He was planting flowers in preparation for a press conference he was planning to hold the next day with the Sikh community in hopes of calming the nerves and educating people about his community and faith. 

Islamophobia is a term used to describe a fear, mistrust or hatred of those of Muslim faith. It has also become a multimillion dollar industry.

Arizona’s troubled history of Islamophobia

In the years since the death of Sodhi, Arizona has had it’s fair share of high profile incidents involving Islamophobia, most notably in 2015. 

It started with a man named Jon Ritzheimer. 

He earned notoriety for wearing a shirt that said “F*** Islam” while walking infront of a Phoenix mosque, ultimately leading in a protest in front of it. The protest included a contest to see who could draw the Prophet Mohammed the best, something that is deeply disrespectful to the Muslim faith. 

Ritzheimer would later go on to be involved in a litany of extremist activities, including being investigated for calling for the arrest of a Democratic senator and for his involvement in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge standoff which he was subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty to.   

The protest was also partially the brainchild of anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, a fringe player in Arizona politics for years and prominent Islamophobic. She was an ardent promoter of the racist conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya — a theory that was boosted by former President Donald Trump before his presidency and investigated by former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Mosques in Arizona have been the frequent target of attacks by extremist groups. 

In 2018, two women who were members of a local extremist group made national headlines for vandalizing and stealing from a Tempe mosque. 

Tahnee Gonzales and Elizabeth Dauenhauer livestreamed themselves taking their kids with them to the Islamic Community Center and ripping flyers from a bulletin board while encouraging their kids to use Islamophobic language. 

But Islamophobia in Arizona is more complicated than just the incidents of protests and hate crimes that are more obvious. 

In 2014, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which was led at the time by now Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery, hosted a training seminar by a man who had previously claimed that former CIA director John Brennan is secretly a Muslim

It later came out that Montgomery spent $40,000 to bring the speaker who had admitted to sexual encounters with a confidential informant while he was working with the FBI. 

Four years later, Arizona Republicans would refuse to condemn hosting a similar conspiracy theorist who claimed that Muslims want to take over the country. 

The city of Kingman in 2018 vowed to change after comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical Showtime series “Who Is America?” showed members of the town reacting poorly to a fictional proposed mosque in their town, with one man saying the mosque would foster “terrorism” and another saying black people aren’t welcome in the town during the segment. 

Islamophobia has led researchers to even look into how bias influenced the massive surveillance apparatuses that were created in the wake of 9/11, and how it has impacted Muslim ad Sikh communities. 

“I do think it’s bad in airports for Sikhs and brown people, generally, post-9/11,” one person interviewed for the study said. “Even my 70-year-old grandma gets sat down at the airport sometimes for questioning. She can’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 study in 2015 found that more than 60% of Americans did not know anything about Sikhism or Sikh Americans.  

Sodhi himself immigrated to the United states in 1984 due to anti-Sikh violence happening in India. Independent estimates suggest that between 8,000 to 17,000 Sikhs were killed during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and many people have still yet to be prosecuted for their crimes. 

“People need education,” Rana Singh Sodhi said, emphasizing compassion when speaking to the Mirror. “(Balbir) has become a beacon of awareness.” 

At the memorial Wednesday, Catholics, Muslims, Christians and more gathered to remember Balbir Singh Sodhi’s legacy. They replaced an American flag near where Sodhi had been planting flowers and recited the pledge of allegiance before lighting candles to place at a memorial. 

Although it was hate that took Sodhi from his family, friends and loved ones, the memorial ceremony was a call to action for understanding, a message that Sodhi’s family hopes will be the enduring impact of the night. 

Aashwin Sodhi, the granddaughter of Balbir Singh Sodhi who was not even born when her grandfather was murdered, told the crowd that people could do one simple thing to help. 

“Small acts of kindness,” she said, encouraging those in attendance to help others when and wherever they could — just like Balbir did.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.

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