Groups call for ‘hate crime’ investigation into graffiti at Sikh gurdwara

By: Cortney Casey | Online Only | Published February 7, 2012

Organizations representing Sikhs and Muslims are asking authorities to launch a “hate crime” investigation into graffiti found scrawled on a Sikh gurdwara on Sterling Heights’ southwest side.

Both the Washington, D.C.-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Michigan Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Southfield, are pushing for an in-depth inquiry in light of the graffiti’s content.

Photos posted on SALDEF’s website of the vandalism — which reportedly occurred between the evening of Feb. 5 and morning of Feb. 6 — show the word “Mohmed,” apparently a misspelled reference to the Islamic prophet, scrawled in black paint on the gurdwara’s white exterior wall.

Nearby, there’s a cross, misspelled expletives, the letters “R” and “A,” a sketch of a gun shooting a bullet, and some unintelligible phrases. SALDEF also reported references to the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks amid the graffiti.

“Attacks and vandalism against any of the nation’s houses of worship must be condemned by all Americans,” SALDEF Associate Executive Director Jasjit Singh said in a prepared statement. “We call upon local and federal law enforcement agencies to rightfully classify this incident as a hate crime and bring the perpetrators to justice to show that hate and violence are not tolerable in our society.”

In a prepared statement, CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid likewise urged law enforcement officials to “use their full resources to apprehend the perpetrators of this hate crime,” and indicated that there have been numerous hate crimes since Sept. 11, 2001, in which Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims.

According to United Sikhs — a nonprofit, humanitarian relief, human development and advocacy organization — there are about 24 million Sikhs worldwide. Devotees, who believe “in one God and the universality of mankind,” follow the teachings of 10 gurus who lived between 1469 and 1708 and a philosophy spelled out in a collection of holy scriptures known as Guru Granth Sahib.

Sikh males traditionally wear turbans, apparently prompting some to misidentify them as Muslims.

Regardless of which religious group the vandals think they’re targeting, it shouldn’t be happening, said Surinderjit Singh, a member of the local Sikh community who at one time served as lead coordinator on the gurdwara project.

“It’s sad, you know?” he said. “It should not happen that way. It should not happen to anybody. I don’t think any religion teaches you this kind thing.”

Lt. Luke Riley of the Sterling Heights Police Department said on the afternoon of Feb. 7 that he was awaiting receipt of the report to review what, exactly, had been written on the building and whether it meets the criteria of ethnic intimidation.

“It’s not a statute that we use … a great deal,” he said.

According to Riley, ethnic intimidation — typically applied to incidents involving the singling out of individuals or families — entails physical contact or damage, destruction of defacing of real or personal property that stems from the perpetrator’s malicious intent to intimidate or harass someone based on race, color, national origin, etc.

Ethnic intimidation is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison and/or fines of up to $5,000, he said, and can be pursued on top of traditional malicious destruction of property charges, which are graduated in penalty based on the monetary amount of the damage.

If the graffiti is indeed deemed as targeting a specific religion, “I’m assuming you could charge them with this, even though it’s a building … it’s not privately owned, other than being owned by the congregation,” said Riley.

“We will investigate it, but I’m not going to say some other state or federal agency might not get involved in it,” he added. “That would be something where we would either work in conjunction with them, or they could come in and take over the investigation.”

The Sikh Society of Michigan broke ground on the Sterling Heights gurdwara in October 2008, celebrating with an elaborate ceremony attended by hundreds of metro Detroit Sikhs and city and state officials. The goal is to relocate from an existing site in Madison Heights, where operations have outgrown facilities.

Back in 2008, Jasvir Singh with the Sikh Society of Michigan noted that vandals had thrown items at the Madison Heights temple in the past. While he said that discrimination had not been “that bad” in Detroit, it has risen even to levels of violent attacks elsewhere in the country.

Surinderjit Singh said this is the second time the Sterling Heights facility has fallen prey to vandals.

“The first time was when we just started our work. … At that time, somebody did do some kind of graffiti, too, at that time, and we made a police complaint at that time,” he said.

Surinderjit Singh said there was a temporary fence surrounding the site for a while, but it was moved a few months ago to accommodate work on the parking lot.

“Everything was going fine,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, somebody comes back.”

Of the incident’s possible classification as a hate crime, “that’s what we’re hoping for, because this is the second time it’s happened,” he added. “We do feel … kind of unsafe.”

While the temple originally was slated for completion in 2010, Surinderjit Singh said members now hope to have the facility functioning by mid-2012, ideally, but definitely no later than the end of the year.

Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call the Sterling Heights Police Department at (586) 446-2800. Tips also can be submitted anonymously by texting the information, with “shpolice” as the first line, to tip411 (847411).