There is an issue that should concern every turban-wearing man, their families, and their communities—a terror faced by American Sikhs. It is not a terror caused by urgent fear or lack of security, but by a combination of ignorance and ideological extremism that leads to violent acts against innocent people of the Sikh community. This warrants my attention because I consider myself a member of this community, yet all Americans believing in a more prosperous America should acknowledge this fear. The Sikh community has faced this fear since 9/11, and is now under constant attack by American domestic terrorists and their ignorant ideology.
In cities across the world Sikhs live among others, yet in America suffer extreme abuse. Sikhs make up the world's fifth-largest religion and yet Sikhs are still misunderstood. This fear of being a visible Sikh in public is closely associated with the possibility of becoming a victim. Even as violence against Sikhs is trending, many victims go unseen and unheard, and the media is unable to display the reality of some of the gruesome content.
Perhaps the most publicized attack against Sikhs was in August 2012, when 6 were fatally shot by a gunman who opened fire at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, in Wisconsin. It happens here, too. Taken from a much longer list published online, the following hate crimes and bias incidents since 9/11 show the outrageous violence against Sikhs in New York:
- 18, 2001 -- Palermo, N.Y.: Three teens burn down Gobind Sadan, a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in New York, because they thought it was named for Osama bin Laden.
- 5, 2003 -- Queens, N.Y.: Members of a Sikh family are beaten outside of their home by drunk individuals yelling, "Go back to your country, Bin Laden."
- July 12, 2004 -- New York, N.Y.: Rajinder Singh Khalsa and Gurcharan Singh, cousins on their way to dinner at a restaurant, are beaten by two drunken white men in their twenties. The attackers describe Gurcharan’s turban as a “curtain.” When Rajinder tries to intervene, saying that Sikhs are peaceful, he is beaten unconscious and suffers a fractured eye socket, among other injuries.
- May 24, 2007 -- Queens, N.Y.: A 15-year-old student has his hair forcibly cut by an older student at his high school. The scissor-wielding 17-year-old showed the Sikh a ring inscribed with Arabic, saying, “This ring is Allah. If you don't let me cut your hair, I will punch you with this ring.” Afterward, he cuts the younger boy’s hair. A main pillar of the Sikh faith compels followers to keep their hair uncut.
- 14, 2008 -- New Hyde Park, N.Y.: A 63-year-old Sikh, Baljeet Singh, has his jaw and nose broken when attacked outside his temple by a man who lived next-door. David Wood, the attacker, had apparently disturbed members of the gurdwara in the past.
- June 5, 2008 -- Queens, N.Y.: A ninth grade Sikh is attacked by another student, who tried to remove his patka, or under-turban, and had a history of bullying the boy.
- 30, 2009 -- Queens, N.Y.: Three men attack Jasmir Singh outside of a grocery store. Racial slurs are heard. A broken glass bottle is used. Singh loses vision in his left eye.
- May 30, 2011 -- New York, N.Y.: Jiwan Singh, an MTA worker and the father of Jasmir Singh, who was assaulted in early 2009 in Queens, is attacked on the A train and accused of being related to Osama bin Laden.
Many incidents are reported and many more unreported. Recently a Sikh man in Ozone Park was run over by a man in a pickup truck who had been shouting slurs from his vehicle. As reported by Huffington Post, “the victim engaged the aggressive driver in a conversation, saying, ‘I'm not a terrorist,’ and stood in front of the truck to detain the man while he called the police. The man in the pickup truck began driving, however, hitting Singh and dragging him with his vehicle for several feet before driving off. Singh said that he was ‘attacked because I am a Sikh and because I look like a Sikh.’”
The hate against Sikhs is caused in part by their superficial visual similarity to some Muslims. The fear and terror of ISIS should enrage Americans but to attack your local gas station attendant, the guy crossing the street, the people praying at the gurdwara because they look like “terrorists” or look “Muslim”?
I went on Google and searched for the following: “why are Sikhs targeted?” to get a basic idea. 1,960,000 results appeared within 0.36 seconds. Articles regarding the Wisconsin atrocity appeared and articles warning the Bay Area Sikh community to be aware after the shooting that occurred in San Bernardino on Dec. 2nd. As I scrolled down the page, there were articles written in the U.K. that were geared towards the Sikh community there and how they must be careful since they are were and may be targets for future crimes.
Sikhs are mistakenly associated with a stereotype of Islamic terrorists. This image is of a terrorist in brown skin, wearing foreign clothing, beard, and a turban. But the image that people often associate with terrorists is the same image of members of the congregation that I see on Sunday at the gurdwara.
Sikhism is a lot older than 9/11 or Islamic extremism and therefore the outfit and the image is not one of a modern day Islamic extremist or terrorist but rather of an ordinary, Sikh man. This image of the turbaned-wearing man is often falsely associated with radicalism or extremism as a result of the mass media portrayals of terrorists as men dressed in such a way.
As a turban wearing man, I see other men in turbans on the street but I can tell whether one is a Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, or some other devotee or a fan of turbans. But even if one is not a member of the Sikh community, it is hard to mistake the 7/11 guy for a terrorist. Since 9/11 many have blamed their turbans for their attacks and this has resulted in some Sikh men to deciding to cut their hair so as to avoid attacks fueled by ignorance and hate.
This ignorance was seen in the case of Vishavjit Singh, a New York based cartoonist who received, according to Antonia Blumberg of Huffington Post, “a barrage of hateful, racist and verbally abusive comments, following the December 2 release Facebook Tips video he appeared in.” His friend, Simran Jeet Singh, a New York-based Sikh activist, said "hatred like this is a reality in our society' which cannot be written off as simple ignorance." About the unrest surrounding Black Lives Matter and the concern many have about racism, Vishavjit Singh offered this: "The sheer amount of bigoted comments on [the video] thread, as well as the immense number of bias-related crimes in this country, demonstrate that we have a real problem on our hands. Until we accept this problem and recognize its urgency, bigotry and xenophobia will continue to divide America."
I agree. People should be able to see people rather than their beards or turbans. The fear that is propelling the Sikh community shouldn’t cause us to focus on differentiating Sikhs from Muslims but rather towards an understanding. An activist and voice of the younger Sikh community, Kanwer Singh, puts my view best in a twitter post on Dec. 7th: “The problem isn’t that you’re mistaking me for someone of Islamic faith. The problem is that you think there’s something wrong with that."
That Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims is a result of ignorance, nothing more. Sikhs are political figures, businessmen, doctors, and are in eminent positions of society. The media shouldn’t be blaming mistaken identity but should start the conversation about the fear of wearing a turban that is developing in the Sikh community, the degenerates that attack Sikhs, and the Islamophobia behind all of it.
It’s been fourteen years since 9/11 and yet random acts of violence against Sikhs continue. How long will the ignorance linger for? The best way to rid this fear is education but then again that is the choice we must make. Arthur Chu wrote in March 2015, “Racism is deeply woven into our culture, and it quite literally does not matter what the intellectual justification for a given prejudice is—set it loose in the wild and it will become another manifestation of racism, lashing out wildly and viciously at anyone who looks different and 'wrong' to white people’s eyes.”
And still, ignorance continues. It was reported recently that several Sikh football fans said they initially were not allowed into Qualcomm Stadium to watch the San Diego Chargers game against the Denver Broncos in December because some of them were wearing turbans. Former NCAA basketball player Darsh Singh’s photo was shared on social media with a caption "Nobody wants to guard Muhammad, he's too explosive." A friend of his replied, "do the world a favor and educate yourself" — which got tens of thousands of likes." A lot of people act out of fear or ignorance," said Singh. "I don't know who started it, but whoever they are, I forgive them." I agree with Darsh Singh that people act out of fear or ignorance.
Social media can be used to address this fear of being a turbaned, bearded, Sikh in America and Sikh social media activists and socialites have spoken up, bringing awareness to this issue of ignorance. The Sikh communities that are being targeted are mainly in states where there is large majorities of Sikhs and therefore these bigots are aware of us Sikhs with our beards and turbans. I believe that the most we can do is to continue to educate those around us of our religion. The violence this ignorance causes is unnecessary and preventable. The immediate problem is the fear that Sikh communities are facing but the underlying issue is racism and ignorance should no longer be the plea.