WASHINGTON -- Facing mounting discrimination since the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, a number of Sikh-American groups have begun a campaign to explain
their religion to the American public and to differentiate their beliefs from
those of Muslims.
There have been more than 600 reported instances of discrimination and violence
against Sikhs since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Sikh American Legal
Defense and Education Fund. Because Sikh men wear turbans in accordance with
their religious tradition, they often have been misidentified as Muslims and
Arabs, leading some people to believe they are allied with the al Qaeda
"My son and his friends were so badly harassed just because they [wear] the
turban," said Ladi Kaur, a Rockville, Md., woman who owns an auto-parts
wholesale firm and is a member of the Sikh community. "They are American
children with . . . a different faith."
A monotheistic religion founded 500 years ago in India, Sikhism is the world's
fifth-largest religion with 23 million followers. The Sikh population in the
U.S. is reaching the 500,000 mark, mainly divided between the East and West
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and his successors compiled the Sikh
scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This holy book, the name of which means
"supreme teacher," is considered the current and final guru.
"[The] guru shows you the path to meet God," said Amrit Pal Kaur Singh, a mother
of two and a postal worker from Silver Spring, Md. She teaches at the Saturday
school of her spiritual center, where classes in Sikh history, religion and the
Punjabi language are offered.
Sikh believers wear symbols of their commitment to their faith, including a
metal bracelet and a small ceremonial dagger, and have uncut hair, which men
keep covered with a turban.
Although the earliest Sikh immigration to America dates from the turn of the
20th century, Sikhs say they are often misunderstood by their fellow
To change the misconceptions, Sikhs have begun a campaign to explain their
religion to other Americans. Parents make school presentations about their
children's identity; films are produced to show who Sikhs are; Sikh
organizations are politically involved to voice their concerns with Congress
and the judicial system; a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on
Sikhism is also helping to make more people aware.
"Discrimination hasn't really decreased at all; it has just changed," said
Rajbir Datta, associate director of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education
Fund, an organization that provides pro-bono attorneys to Sikhs. "[Immediately
after 9-11] it was violence, murder, aggravated assaults; now [it is being]
kicked out of airplanes, out of security points in buildings."
Datta said only a fraction of discrimination incidents are reported. Besides
being profiled at security checkpoints, Sikhs also face discrimination at work,
at motor-vehicle departments that don't allow turbans to be worn in
drivers'-license pictures and in courtrooms that do not allow hats, including
"The Kirpan [small dagger] is asked to be taken off [at security checkpoints],"
said Dr. Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education.
"It's not a weapon; it's an article of faith."
Filmmaker Vinanti "Vina" Sarkar agrees. She produced a documentary profiling
Sikh Americans as a reaction to incidents of violence against Sikhs after Sept.
"To bring Americans to understand what it is like to wear a turban, I get Martha
Stewart to show how to wear it," Sarkar said. "[In the film] a man is tying a
turban on her head. It's really to educate and inform the American audience."
Sarkar said Sikh children are cutting off their hair to try to avoid
discrimination, even though cutting hair is prohibited in Sikhism. They are
scared, she said, and want to be like everybody else. Ahmed Rehab,
communication director for the Chicago chapter of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said many
non-Muslim Arabs suffer the same stereotyping as the Sikhs.
"We have changed our mission statement from defining our constituency as Muslims
to those who have Islam imputed upon them," Rehab said. "So if a Sikh comes to
me, he's been discriminated as Muslim, therefore I will help him."
The Sikh organization SALDEF has created a law-enforcement education program
that informs security agents about Sikhs and their religion. Since 1998, the
organization has trained 9,000 officials, including FBI, homeland security and
local law-enforcement officers, Datta said.
SALDEF invested close to $100,000 in its effort to lobby Capitol Hill for
passage of hate-crime legislation, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act and an
anti-bullying proposal, Datta said.
The Sikh Council on Religion and Education also lobbies Congress. Council
officials met with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and other politicians,
as part of the Sikh American Heritage Day in May to share their concerns about
discrimination against Sikhs. The following month, they met with senior
officials at the White House.