Ever since an unprecedented wave of Islamophobia swept across the nation in the aftermath of 9/11 (and never truly subsided), the American Sikh Community has often found itself the target of all sorts of people who want to express their hatred of Islam through acts of violence and terror. It’s a prime example of the ways in which hatred of Muslims has morphed over the years from a prejudice or hatred of a entire religious community into a form of ethnic hatred against anyone perceived as being of South Asian origin, most notably members of the Sikh religious community. Bigots, be they white supremacists, demagogues of the evangelical Christian Right, or so-called New Atheists, are so consumed with hatred for the “other” that they can’t even distinguish between those they profess to hate and those whom they think “look like” the people they hate. And in the U.S., where being ill-informed about world affairs and different cultures is undoubtedly the norm, a 2013 Stanford University study “found that nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam“. This misconception stems in part from the fact that many male followers of Sikhism wear a turban around their heads for protection, and according to the Stanford study more than a third of Americans associate turban wearers with Osama bin Laden. Some “70 percent of turban wearers in the U.S. are misidentified as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto.”
In light of all this, it comes as little surprise that in a violent country such as this one, Sikh Americans have been consistently brutalized and even killed because of their faith and appearance. Just two weeks ago, a 53 year-old Sikh man named Inderjit Singh Mukker, whose been a U.S. citizen for nearly three decades, was driving on his way to the grocery store when he noticed a belligerent white youth in a truck trying to cut him off the road. As he swerved and drove recklessly on the road, he yelled at Mukker, “Terrorist, go back to your country, bin Laden!” When Mukker’s car came to a stop, the teen parked his vehicle and approached the Sikh man. Once he got to the car, he walked over to the driver’s side, reached through the window and proceeded to violently assault Mukker, leaving him beaten, bludgeoned and in such bad condition that he had to be hospitalized after he lost consciousness.
Inderjit Singh Mukker’s horrifying experience with a white youth targeting and discriminating against him for falling into the category of “otherness” – that is, not white, not Christian – echoes the experiences of Amardeep Singh, the director of the Sikh Coalition. As a youth, Singh recalls being bullied in a way that “evolved through the years in line with the political agenda of the United States.” For example, “During the Iran hostage crisis, I was told to go back to Iran, during the first Gulf War I was told to go back to Iraq, and after 9/11 I was called ‘bin Laden.'” Bullying of Sikh children in school is an all too common occurrence. It is a fact of life for every Sikh child that they are bullied at more than twice the national average, a number that grows to as high as 70% if they wear traditional Sikh religious attire, such as a turban. These children can expect to be called “terrorist”, “bin Laden”, and told to “go back where you came from” at some point in their young lives.
The past decade and a half has borne witness to some of the most horrific acts of terror carried out against Sikh communities and places of worship. The first death from a hate crime in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was of a turban-wearing Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona. In 2013 a respected Sikh professor at Columbia University was savagely beaten by as least 30 teenagers who ganged up on him in New York City. The intensification of anti-turban wearing hysteria culminated in the August 5, 2012 massacre of six worshipers at Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin by a white supremacist army veteran who walked in and opened fire on congregants.