It is fairly common for the average American to misidentify a turbaned Sikh man as a Muslim person. And ever since the tragedy of 9/11, negative stereotypes have perpetuated throughout the United States about people from South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. This is a topic that I was eager to do my project on because I am a Sikh myself and it disheartens me to hear about Sikhs being killed and harassed or any religious hate crimes in general.
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Sikhs and Muslims have been the target of countless racist jokes and comments which are not funny at all. For this project I reached out to an organization called the Sikh Coalition which works to spread awareness about the difference between Muslims and Sikhs and provides support for victims of religious and racist hate crimes. In this essay, I will discuss what the Sikh Coalition is all about, the work they are doing, The Sikh religion, and how they incorporate its values in their work. The Sikh Coalition was founded as a volunteer organization in response to 9/11 as hate violence swept the country.
The first deadly hate crime in the aftermath happened to a turbaned Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was killed outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona on September 15, 2001. Mr. Sodhi was a kind hearted man and a devout Sikh who would distribute free candies and drinks to children who came to his gas station. And if people were not able to pay at the moment, he would often tell them it was okay to come back and pay tomorrow. He was even planning to donate blood to the victims of 9/11. The murder of this innocent and kind hearted man was the event that triggered the founding of the Sikh Coalition. Ever since, they have diligently worked to help victims and prevent hate crimes. Although they are the Sikh Coalition, their efforts are not just for the benefits of Sikhs. They work to create safer schools for every child, fight employment discrimination, prevent hate crimes and discrimination, fight legal battles for those who are unable to afford legal fees, empower the Sikh community, and spread awareness about issues they handle in order to prevent them. Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, followed by more than 25 million people worldwide. For centuries before the religion of Sikhism was established, the turban was common in many south Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. Sikhs believe in one God, and that all religions are equal. As long as one follows and worships God no matter what religion either Muslim, Sikh or Christian etc. that is good. We believe that people’s religions are just different methods of worshiping the same God, any method is permissible as long as one believes in a single Almighty God. When the Sikh faith was developing from the 15th through 18th centuries in South Asia, the turban was worn only by the higher classes and elites of society. The reasoning behind Sikhs wearing turbans is to signify the equality among all of our faith’s followers.
In addition, in South Asian culture, it is a sign of respectfulness to keep your head covered which is another reason why Sikhs wear turbans. Turbans were also very practical for Indian’s because they provide a sort of protection for the wearer’s head as is it extremely hot in India. To further emphasize equality, all male Sikhs share the last name (or middle same) Singh which means lion, and all female Sikhs share the last name Kaur, which means princess. The leaders who compiled the Sikh holy text also believed in equality for men and women. Women were allowed to keep the Kaur name on marriage, and religious leaders did not allow followers to participate in female infanticide that was practiced in India and said women captured in battle were not to be kept as property. In the United States, there has been a growth in cultural events related to Sikhism. The states of New Jersey and Delaware have announced April as a Sikh Awareness and Appreciation Month, and Canada has its Sikh Awareness Week at the end of March. These are the results of the efforts made by organizations such as the Sikh Coalition. I arranged an interview over the phone alongside two other AMS students with a representative of the Sikh Coalition, Inderpreet Kaur, to talk about the issues of racism and misidentification. In addition, we also discussed personal experiences and asked for her opinion on certain matters.
Here are some questions and answers from the interview we conducted: Q: Have you ever been misidentified for the way you look? A: I have personally only been misidentified few times during my life here in America. I do know friends and family who have been misidentified numerous times. Q: Have you ever been stopped at a airport by the TSA? A: I was stopped one time on a flight from San Francisco to New York for a random check. Other than that I have not been stopped as much. Q: Have you ever been called a Muslim or terrorist? A: Numerous times. I have been called a muslim or a terrorist by passersby in their cars and such. Q: What does the Sikh Coalition do? A: The Sikh Coalition is committed to fighting hate crime and profiling. Our goal is to create a social climate in which Sikh Americans can live with dignity without being targeted for violence or discrimination. Q: What action do you take against hate crimes? A: The Sikh Coalition’s direct legal work effectively combats bias-motivated violence across the country. We have also consistently led efforts to strengthen data collection to track hate crimes and TSA profiling. When Sikh Americans are targeted because of their appearance, we will not allow policymakers or perpetrators to plead ignorance and evade accountability. Q: What are your feeling toward the hate crimes? A: All people deserve to live in a world without hate and discrimination no matter what race they are or what their religious beliefs are.
Q: Do you believe TSA racial profiling exists? A: In the years after 9/11, Sikh Americans were subjected to profiling on the basis of their actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity and national origin. The problem was particularly acute for Sikh travelers, who experienced discriminatory TSA screening at American airports. Profiling not only stigmatizes its victims but also makes our nation less safe because it redirects law enforcement resources away from detecting and preventing actual criminal behavior. Sadly, there is currently little that victims can do to hold the government accountable for profiling. Q: What is the solution to ending TSA racial profiling? A: The Sikh Coalition continues to support passage of the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA). This model legislation would prohibit invidious profiling throughout the United States. In the interim, we are using technology to hold TSA accountable. Our free Fly Rights mobile phone app allows travelers to file official complaints of mistreatment and discrimination against TSA from the convenience of their iPhones and Androids. These official complaints are transmitted directly to TSA and help policymakers address problems before they spiral out of control. Islamophobia and anti-Sikh sentiment are prominent throughout the United States, which has manifested itself in a number of cases of discrimination on public transportation and elsewhere.
In a particular case, Sikh activist Simranjeet Singh posted a series of Snapchat photos taken by a person on a plane, captioned to make it appear as though a Sikh man wearing a turban was a terrorist planning to take down the plane. In another case, a focus group consisting of random people were surveyed about their experiences with harassment. The researchers found that two specific incidents were were the most common among religious minorities: being followed by a security guard or salesperson in a store, or being purposefully pushed or shoved on a subway platform. Approximately 23 percent of both Sikhs and Muslim people reported being followed by store staff members in stores. Sixteen percent of the survey’s Muslim participants said they’d been intentionally shoved on a subway platform. And 27 percent of Muslim Arab women wearing a hijab reported being intentionally pushed because of their religious beliefs and appearance.
Over the course of this project, I visited the San Jose Temple a few times, where the Sikh Coalition aims to spread awareness about itself as an organization that Sikhs can turn to if they are in need of help. I went there and spoke with other volunteers there as we informed people about the Sikh Coalition and what they do and helped fundraise for the Coalition. In addition we served food and cleaned the temple. We also went out and picked up trash in Eastside San Jose where the temple is located. The volunteers of the Sikh Coalition are proud of the community they live in and do what they can to better it. Racial or religious discrimination and harassment is hateful and uncalled for. Even the lightest terrorist joke can offend a large group of people. It is time we stopped grouping and profiling people of different religious and race backgrounds. Discrimination and harassment should not be a part of the American culture. America is a melting pot and our country was founded on the principle of equality and welcoming people of all backgrounds with open arms. I will continue to work with the Sikh Coalition for the duration of this project and support their mission.
Zatat, Narjas. “How Sikhs Face Discrimination, Get Mistaken for Muslims.” Indy100, Independent, 3 May 2018, www.indy100.com/article/sikhs-face-discrimination-get-mistaken-for-muslims-hardayal-singh-united-sikhs-8332796. McLeod, W. H. Who Is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity. Edited by Daljeet Singh, Oxford University Press, 2005, globalsikhstudies.net/pdf/review/WHO%20IS%20A%20SIKH.PDF. Kuruvilla, Carol. “New York City’s Muslims, Sikhs Experience High Levels Of Verbal Harassment, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 22 June 2018, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/some-muslim-women-in-hijab-get-pushed-on-subway-platforms-in-new-york-study-finds_us_5b2bde39e4b0321a01cf15cb. LEILA PITCHFORD-ENGLISH. “Facets of Faith: Sikhs Often Confused for Muslims.” The Advocate, 17 Mar. 2018, www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/entertainment_life/faith/article_64f2c77a-2741-11e8-bfac-83dabe6d5aaf.html. Anwar, Liyna, and Cameron Jenkins. “’People Saw Only A Turban And A Beard’: Reflecting On A Post-Sept. 11 Death.” NPR, Morning Edition, 14 Sept. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/09/14/647426417/people-saw-only-a-turban-and-a-beard-reflecting-on-a-post-sept-11-death.
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