Ten years after 9/11, Sikhs, Muslims appeal for understanding
MESA – Four days after Sept. 11, 2001, Rana Singh Sodhi’s brother, Balbir, was so affected by the terrorist attacks that he deposited all of the money in his pockets, $74, into a donation jar to help the victims.
But he also worried about his safety as well as his family’s. As Sikhs from India, men in their family wear turbans, and Balbir wondered whether they would be mistaken for Muslims.
“He believed I shouldn’t go to work because I’m wearing a turban, and I’m telling him, ‘You’re also wearing a turban,’” said Rana, who owns a restaurant in Mesa.
In their last phone conversation, Balbir told his brother he planned to buy an American flag to display in the gas station he owned to make his patriotism clear.
The next day, a man bent on avenging the attacks shot and killed Balbir outside the gas station. The outcry over his murder prompted President George W. Bush to meet with Sikh leaders and call for tolerance.
Ten years later, Rana Singh Sodhi honors his brother’s memory by promoting cultural understanding and talking with others about his faith. The lesson is the same whether he’s at a state dinner with President Barack Obama or engaging a stranger who asks why he wears a turban.
“I’m just bringing his message to protect the innocent people and educate all people,” Sodhi said.
In 2006, Arizona once again was the focus of post-9/11 tensions when Dr. Omar Shahin and five other Muslim imams from Arizona and California were handcuffed and removed from a US Airways jet heading to Phoenix because passengers feared they were terrorists.
Today, Shahin, a Phoenix resident and board member of the North American Imams Federation, said he hopes that incident has served to promote understanding of the Islamic faith. He visits schools, churches, synagogues and other forums to explain Islam and address incorrect assumptions.
“We need to learn. We need to educate each other,” Shahin said in a phone interview. “We need to have compassion.”
Although he thinks many people still need to learn about religious tolerance, Shahin said his goal has largely been met in the past decade.
“This is the only good thing that has come out of Sept. 11,” Shahin said.
Usama Shami, an engineer and president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said something positive came out of the tragedy of 9/11 because those of his faith became more visible in the community.
“I think the silver lining in all of this is that Muslims … in this country became more proactive,” Shami said in a phone interview.
Dr. Jaswant Sachdev, a neurologist and Sikh community leader, said Sikhs honor Balbir Singh Sodhi’s memory by engaging the broader community.
“We try to find an opportunity where we become visible as much as we could so that people understand that this is a country … where people have a right to live the way they want to live,” Sachdev said in a phone interview.
Each year on the anniversary of the murder, Rana Singh Sodhi and others gather at the gas station, where a large marble monument explains what happened to Balbir Singh Sodhi and honors the victims of 9/11 as well as revenge attacks that followed.
Balbir’s killer, Frank Roque, is serving a life prison term. His death sentence was commuted in 2006 because the Arizona Supreme Court determined he was mentally ill at the time of the murder.
Rana Singh Sodhi said he hopes Roque is using the opportunity to teach about tolerance, something he and other Sikhs do as often as they can.
“I think this is bringing the community… closer, to understand each other,” he said. “I think it’s very, very positive.”