This time last year, I reflected on the circumstances in which I heard the news of the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan:
As the evening progressed, we watched the images of people gathering in Washington, D.C., and at Ground Zero in New York, waving American flags, singing the national anthem, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The outpouring of patriotism, in the manner of what might resemble a frat party, caused me some apprehension. It was only a few days ago that we were reminded of the killing of Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona in the days after 9/11, by a man who, to justify his murder of an innocent American Sikh man as revenge for the acts of Islamic terrorists, exclaimed “I am a patriot!”
I began to feel uneasy about the days and weeks ahead.
Further, I noted that my feelings at that time were reflected by other American Sikhs who, while expressing relief at the justice achieved, also shared my sense of uneasiness about what that emotional moment might imply in the days following for Sikhs, Muslims and other South Asian groups.
Sikhs have experienced hate crimes since the killing of bin Laden last year, and in at least one instance, a Sikh man was attacked after being accused of an association with bin Laden. Just this year, a Sikh family was harassed and accused of being members of the Taliban. While we are fortunate that there wasn’t a more severe backlash, I don’t believe that our concerns were unfounded.
When I heard the news of bin Laden’s death, I was in California’s Bay Area, in the midst of a multi-day workshop run by the Sikh Coalition to train volunteers on giving presentations to educate the public about Sikhs. Many of us shared experiences in which we or our children were confused for Muslims or accused of being terrorists simply based on our appearance. For the general public, as in the video above (recorded in April 2012 at a university in west Texas), when they see a man in a turban and beard, they often relate these to terrorism, Islam or the Middle East. Yet, most of the people they will encounter in this country who wear these articles are Sikhs who have nothing to do with terrorism, are not Muslim, and are not from the Middle East.
The source of the confusion isn’t hard to explain. Pictures of bearded and turbaned terrorists flash so often on our screens that many have been led to associate these physical features with extremism and terrorism. All turban and bearded individuals have been implicated in the minds of many, and today, it is almost ingrained in American culture. Take, for example, an exchange depicted in very recent episode of the nationally-airing television show Desperate Housewives, in which a woman associates facial hair with terrorists:
Carlos: Hey babe, I’m in the middle of something.
Gaby: Obviously not shaving or putting on deodorant. You look like a terrorist.
The association of the turban and beard with terrorism, even when mistaken as Islamic articles, is unjustified. The number of terrorist attacks by radical Islamic extremists on US soil is actually much lower than the media and certain politicians would have us believe. Only 6% of terror attacks on US soil (from 1980 to 2005) are related to Islamic extremism. But, our culture has been conditioned to believe otherwise, and those who are Muslim, or who are mistaken to be Muslim, are unfairly demonized even though they are predominantly peace-loving and law-abiding American citizens.
Over the course of the past year, I and many of the participants of the workshop I attended have been engaging within communities, schools and organizations to raise awareness and reduce ignorance to counter the discrimination and harassment that Sikhs and other South Asian groups have experienced before and after 9/11 (recently, some of my colleagues from the workshop were involved a recent education awareness event in Turlock, California) – whether in the form of school bullying, workplace discrimination, hate crimes or racial profiling. For me, personally, these presentations are always a great experience, and the audiences have been very welcoming. However, it is clear that we need to make greater efforts.
So, one year later, I’m relieved that the response to killing of bin Laden directed towards Sikhs and Muslims was not as severe as I feared. However, I know that we still have an uphill road to climb in eliminating culturally-reinforced prejudices that still plague our communities.