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.
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.