World

Americans attack Sikhs because they think they're Muslims

Washington: The bearded man in the blue turban was attacked before dawn on Saturday morning, while waiting for a ride to work.

Two white males in their 20s pulled up and began to curse at Amrik Singh Bal, according to police in Fresno, California.

Members of the Sikh community gather for a news conference at the Sikh Association of Fresno Temple in California in ...
Members of the Sikh community gather for a news conference at the Sikh Association of Fresno Temple in California in 2012, in response to the shooting in Wisconsin at a Sikh temple when six people were killed by an unidentified gunman.  Photo: AP/File

Fearing for his safety, police said, the 68-year-old Sikh man attempted to cross the street – but "the subjects in the vehicle backed up and struck the victim with their rear bumper". The car stopped, and the two men "got out and assaulted the victim, striking him in the face and upper body".

During the assault, police said, one of the suspects yelled: "Why are you here?"

US Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who was recently granted a temporary religious accommodation that allows him to grow ...
US Army Captain Simratpal Singh, who was recently granted a temporary religious accommodation that allows him to grow his beard and wrap his hair in a turban, at home in Auburn, Washington, this month. Photo: NYT

Mr Bal fell to the ground, striking his head.

He also suffered a broken collarbone in the attack – the latest in a string of incidents targeting US Sikhs, who are frequently conflated with Muslims and often wind up absorbing the backlash against Islamist extremists.

This month, just days after a married Muslim couple opened fire at a social services centre in San Bernardino, California, a Sikh house of worship in nearby Orange County was vandalised with hateful graffiti, according to the Sikh Coalition. A truck parked outside the Gurdwara Singh Sabha was also vandalised, with graffiti that included the phrase "F--- ISIS," the coalition said. ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.

In September, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a father of two on his way to the grocery store, was savagely assaulted in a Chicago suburb after being called "bin Laden".

US Army Captain Simratpal Singh says his two worlds have finally come back together.
US Army Captain Simratpal Singh says his two worlds have finally come back together. Photo: NYT

History of xenophobia

There's nothing new about Sikhs being the targets of violence and intimidation in the United States: Followers of the monotheistic faith, which originated in Punjab in the 15th century, have been on the receiving end of xenophobic intolerance since they began arriving in the Pacific north-west to fill logging jobs in the early 20th century, according to Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United ...
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States. Photo: Bloomberg

"Pretty immediately after our arrival in this country, we became targets of xenophobia," Dr Singh said in a recent interview. "Hate violence has ebbed and flowed throughout our history in America, but being targets of racism is nothing new. It's part of our history here."

That intimidation intensified in the months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment washed over the country, leading some to confuse the long beards and turbans worn by many Sikh men as a representation of Islam. Others viewed it simply as an opportunity to attack individuals they perceived as being "un-American".

Sikh achievement: Harjit Singh Sajjan reacts after being sworn in as Canada's Defence Minister in Ottawa in November. ...
Sikh achievement: Harjit Singh Sajjan reacts after being sworn in as Canada's Defence Minister in Ottawa in November. Seated in the red turban is Navdeep Singh Bains, who was sworn in as Science and Innovation Minister on the same day. Photo: The Canadian Press via AP

According to the Sikh Coalition, there were more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against US Sikhs in the first month after the 2001 attacks.

The hatred peaked more than a decade later, when an army veteran and white supremacist named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire on a crowd of worshippers, killing six and wounding three before taking his own life.

A man reacts outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, where a shooting took place in August 2012.
A man reacts outside the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, where a shooting took place in August 2012.  Photo: AP/File

Renewed fears

Now, the United States is again grappling with fears of terrorism after recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, which have shaken Western governments and collectively resulted in about 150 deaths.

And again, Sikhs say, their community is bearing the brunt of those fears.

"Over the last few weeks, the level of intimidation is worse than it was after September 11th," Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition's legal director, told The Washington Post. "Then, people were angry at the terrorists and now they're angry at Muslims, anyone who is seen as Muslim, or anyone who is perceived as being 'other'.

"It's not just a case of mistaken identity. It's beyond that."

Although estimates vary because of a lack of census data, the coalition believes 500,000 to 750,000 Sikhs live in the United States, with about half of that population residing in California.

The 2014 US Religious Landscape Study, released by the Pew Research Centre, shows that less than three-tenths of a per cent of the US population identify as Sikhs. In a 2012 Q&A, Conrad Hackett, a demographer at Pew and an expert on international religious demography, put the number far lower, at about 200,000.

"This estimate is based on the assumption that the vast majority of Sikhs in the US are of Asian origin – an assumption supported by various studies, including Princeton University's New Immigrant Survey," he wrote. "However, given the difficulty of surveying both small religious groups and new immigrants, the 200,000 figure should be considered a rough estimate and more likely a floor than a ceiling."

Male followers of the Sikh faith frequently cover their heads with turbans – which are considered sacred – and forgo shaving their beards.

They are also highly misunderstood by a majority of Americans, according to a 2013 report called Turban Myths published by the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund and Stanford University.

According to the report's findings, half of the American public associates the turban with Islam and believes that Sikhism is a sect of the religion.

An even larger chunk of the public – 70 per cent – remains unable to identify a a Sikh when looking at a picture of one.

Dr Singh told The Post that portraying hate crimes against US Sikhs as mere cases of mistaken identity is problematic. Not only is an attacker's motivation often hard to discern, he said, but such categorisations have a way of legitimising the perceived original intent and diminishing the brutality of the crime.

The FBI began tracking hate crimes against Sikhs only last year, according to the coalition.

"For Sikh Americans, the unique markers of religious identity – the turban, the beard – these markers are associated with the markers of terrorism," Dr Singh told The Post's Sarah Kaplan in September, after Mr Mukker, was viciously beaten.

In other words: "People see a Sikh and construe them as the enemy."

Fuelled by politics

Ms Kaur said the backlash against people who are perceived as being non-American has been exacerbated by anti-Islamic statements made by Republican presidential candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Dr Carson has said that the United States should not elect a Muslim president, citing concerns about "different loyalties". Mr Trump has called for a "total and complete" ban on Muslims entering the United States.

"Trump's statements legitimise nativist impulses," Ms Kaur said. "It's why we're seeing more profiling and vandalism and intimidating incidents. We've been speaking to the family of an elderly man who was hit in the head with an apple a few days ago. These are the kind of things that you start to see as the political rhetoric escalates."

In his recent address from the Oval Office, US President Barack Obama urged Americans to "reject discrimination" and to avoid defining the US war against extremism as "a war between America and Islam".

"It's our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently," he said. "Because when we travel down that road, we lose.

"Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes, and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in the defence of our country," he added. "We have to remember that."

Long list of incidents

Sikhs have been the targets of several incidents since Mr Mukker was attacked in September.

According to the Associated Press, a Sikh woman said she was forced to show her breast pump before taking her seat on an airplane "because another passenger thought she might be an extremist".

A group of Sikh football fans said they were initially barred from entering Qualcomm Stadium to watch the San Diego Chargers play the Denver Broncos because they were wearing turbans, according to the news service. They were finally allowed inside, but Verinder Malhi told ABC affiliate KGTV that a security supervisor informed the group that if they ever returned to the stadium, they couldn't wear turbans.

"Three of my buddies, they had turbans on, and it was like, 'You guys got to take the turbans off'," Mr Malhi said. "It's bad, I mean, this is embarrassing for me, because we are Americans at the end of the day. And we are not supposed to be afraid of fellow Americans."

A Sikh store clerk in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was shot in the face during a robbery this month. The victim reported that the assailant called him a "terrorist", according to the Grand Rapids Press; before he was shot, the suspect told the clerk that he used to kill people like him in Iraq, the newspaper reported.

The robber also suggested that the 34-year-old clerk was a member of IS, Gurleen Kaur, a relative of the store's owner, told the Press.

"It could've happened to anyone that looks like us," she said. "We're Americans. We're trying to live normal lives, be Americans."

The backlash against Sikhs has resulted in several hopeful stories.

A photo of a former Trinity University basketball player spread across social media this month with the caption: "Nobody wants to guard Muhammad, he's too explosive." The photo was actually of Punjabi American Darsh Singh, the first turbaned Sikh to play in the NCAA.

Greg Worthington, a friend of Singh's, was outraged by the meme and penned a powerful rebuttal on Facebook that went viral.

"I know this guy and his name's not 'Muhammad'. He's not Arab, he's Punjabi. He's not even Muslim, he's a Sikh. His name is Darsh Singh and he's a US citizen, born and bred. That jersey he's wearing in this pic, it currently sits in a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, because he made US history as the NCAA's first turbaned Sikh American basketball player for Trinity University in my hometown of San Antonio. He was co-captain of that team when he played there. He's worked in US Intelligence with the National Security Agency in the past and currently manages financial portfolios and hedge funds for some of the most compassionate companies in the US. Above all those things, he's a really nice guy, very funny, and he's a great friend of my younger brother whom I was more than happy to befriend myself."

The story spawned a #BeLikeDarsh hashtag on Twitter, as well.

During an appearance on NBC News, Singh said he was inspired by the response.

"In the Sikh tradition, we believe that every individual has the potential to embody divine love," he said. "What this showed me was, I think, people are recognising there are no bystanders when you see hate violence.

"When you reach out to people and connect with them, it means something. Silence in the face of prejudice is an act of hate."

In a second victory for Sikh affirmation, the US Army this month announced that a 27-year-old Sikh captain who served in Afghanistan may keep his beard and turban when he reports for a new post.

The Hill and the New York Times reported that the exception to the army's strict grooming standards was only the fourth one issued in more than three decades. Now, the publication noted, the army has to determine whether the exception should permanently apply to others.

"My Sikh faith and military service are two core parts of who I am," Captain Simratpal Singh said in a statement.

"I am proud to serve my country as an officer and I look forward to being able to continue serving without having to give up my religious beliefs."

Washington Post

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