After 9/11, Sikhs face misplaced racism

When Sikh student Irwinpreet Bagri was in grade school, prejudice to him meant coming home every day in tears. It meant being called a girl for wearing his traditional top-knot turban as he was pushed into the girls’ bathroom by other students. Now, Bagri is 21-years-old, far removed from schoolyard bullying, but the prejudice has grown along with him.

“Since 9/11, Sikhs have been the main target of hate crimes, even though we have no link with Al-Qaeda,” said Bagri, senior in Business.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Bagri said much of the American public has mistakenly made the connection between Sikhs and radical Muslim terrorists mostly because of the turbans and unshorn hair that individuals of both faiths may don.

Bagri added that it is ironic that people misidentify Sikhs as Muslims because of the persecution Sikhs have faced in the past when others, such as the Mughal emperors in the 1700s, wanted to convert the monotheistic Sikhs to Islam. It didn’t take long after 9/11 for these misconceptions to become rampant and grip the nation — only four days after Sept. 11, a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was murdered in Arizona. The event was marked by many as the first hate crime to follow 9/11.

So while many were shocked by the shooting in Wisconsin this August at a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, Bagri said that because he closely follows news about the Sikh community, he knows these crimes are a societal reality. He said as long as there is a lack of understanding of minority cultures, appearances will always set apart Sikhs and other groups and cause rifts.

“The reason (Aug. 5 shooter) Wade Michael Page went into that temple — it’s not because they were Sikh, and it’s probably not even because he thought they were Muslim — it was because they were different,” Bagri said. “At the end of the day, he would have attacked anyone that was different from him.”

Jasjit Singh is the executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the nation’s oldest Sikh American advocacy groups, and a 2004 alumnus of the University of Illinois’ Business school. Singh was at a conference in Las Vegas when he heard the news about the shooting.

“When the news reports came in, my phone just went on overload with text messages and emails,” Singh said.

Singh was supposed to fly overseas the next day, but after hearing the news, he quickly changed his flight and made it to Oak Creek, Wis., by the next night.

He remained there for 10 days following the incident to support the community by assisting in coordinating bilingual therapists, planning funeral services, arranging spokespeople for the families and reporting the crime to all the appropriate authorities.

“That was a very intense period, but the community was just inspirational in how they handled it,” he said. “The way you respond to a tragedy like this is what defines your character.”

Despite similarities in physical appearance, Sikhs and Muslims have different reasons for dressing the way they do.

Whereas wearing a turban is more of a cultural and sometimes religious decision for Muslims, the turban, or Dastar in Punjabi, is mandatory for Sikhs as part of the Five Articles of Faith, their holy guidelines.

Included in that article is the requirement that Sikh followers never cut their hair.

“While some people might view these articles of faith as an obstacle or road block of some sort, Sikhs don’t view them as such — they view them as gifts and as sources of empowerment and energy,” Singh said.

Bagri said he has been the target of racist remarks because of his turban; sometimes, he said, he will be walking on the street and hear people murmur racist slurs under their breath or scream, “Terrorist!” out their car window before driving past.

Bagri said that traveling has also become troublesome for Sikh people because of the racial profiling that occurs during random searches.

Both Bagri and Amarjit Singh, vice president of the Wheaton, Ill.-based Illinois Sikh Community Center, said they have faced issues with airport security.

Singh said recently, the Transportation Security Administration has become more understanding about turbans and the privacy that Sikhs hope for when being told to remove their turban during a security check.

“It’s coming,” Singh said. “It’s a long way, but we have achieved quite a bit. Prejudice will remain no matter how hard it is, but it will become less and less hopefully.”

Bagri said he attributes these problems to a lack of awareness, citing the example of when Mitt Romney accidently mixed up the word “Sikh” with “Sheikh” when offering his condolences during a fundraiser this August.

“I don’t think there’s education,” Bagri said. “People aren’t educated about us even though we’re the fifth-largest religion in the world, and we’ve been in the United States of America since 1890.”

The source of the problem, he speculated, is the overly simplistic representations of Sikhs, Muslims and terrorists in the media.

“When someone sees a Sikh person, they just automatically think Taliban because that’s what the media has been portraying since 2001,” Bagri said.

Bagri said he understands that it is difficult to tell the difference, just as it would be for him to tell apart someone who is Serbian versus Croatian.

“It’s really hard to know that,” Bagri said. “But just because you don’t know what they are shouldn’t mean that you can disrespect them or hate them because they are different from you. I don’t care if people don’t know I’m Sikh but don’t attack me, don’t call me a terrorist, don’t accuse me of something I never did.”

Jasjit Singh was on campus on Sept. 11, and woke up that morning, rolled out of bed and went to class, like the typical college student.

“Even before I got the news, while I was headed back to my dorm, there was a sort of strange energy that I felt as people looked at me and noticed me in a slightly different way than they previously had,” he said. “Having a turban and beard, you kind of stand out, so you’re used to those looks. But after the attack, the looks that were inquisitive, looks that were curious changed to looks that were more suspicious, looks that even reflected fear.”

Back in 2000, Singh founded the Sikh Student Association at the University in order to unify Sikh students and spread awareness.

“The sentiment around the country really put our community in a spotlight in a way that we weren’t used to, so there was a lot more education that was necessary,” he said. “Sikhs faced challenges before 9/11, but they have been exacerbated since 9/11.”

At the University, David Price, head of the religion department, said no classes are currently offered on Sikhism, though it is touched on in other courses.

“We do not have a specialist in Sikhism in the Department of Religion,” Price said in an email. “We are planning to increase our curriculum in South Asian studies in the very near future. Sikhism is covered in our World Religions course, but not extensively enough.”

Even though there is still room to grow, Bagri said he feels comfortable on campus.

“I feel pretty safe because I think we have a really educated campus,” he said.

Bagri, now in his third year as president of the Sikh Student Association, said he is optimistic for the future of Sikhism, as it is a peaceful religion, and for his own family’s future.

“I hope my kids won’t have to go through the same experience I had to go through in elementary school,” he said. “That’s it. I just want my kids to live normally.”

Jasjit Singh added that he hopes individuality among Americans brings the country together.

“While there are differences among us, frankly, that’s the only commonality we all have — how different we all are.”

Taylor can be reached at [email protected]