Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes toward Sikhs

On March 6, 2017, a Washington Sikh man was approached on his property by a man who, according to witnesses, demanded to know when he would “return to [his] country,” and when the argument escalated, the man shot the Sikh and fled the scene. Police later discovered that the Sikh man was attacked because he was believed to be Muslim (Moshtaghian, Wu, and Cullinane, 2017). With anti-Muslim hate crimes on the rise, anyone who falls into the Arab-Muslim stereotype faces such attacks, discrimination, and other harmful acts due to their race and religion. Another famous anti-muslim hate crime against a Sikh was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. While working at the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona, Sodhi was gunned down and murdered by Boeing aircraft mechanic Frank Roque (Lewin, 2001). This tragic incident brought to light not only the unfairness of anti-muslim hate crimes on Sikhs, but it also proved how out-of-hand these acts toward Muslims are becoming. It is crucial for Americans to understand what is Sikhism, this religion’s historical roots, and what has contributed to the terrorist, long-beard-and-turban-wearing stereotype that is, unfortunately, how many American view this minority group, in today’s society. By educating ourselves, we can help prevent hate crimes toward Sikhs and begin our progression toward Muslim tolerance.

Who are Sikhs? SikhNet describes Sikhism as a religion that is “monotheistic and stresses the equality of all men and women” (“Who Are Sikhs…” 2017). Members of this religion believe in meditation, earning an honest living, and “sharing the fruits of one’s labors with each other.” The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, emphasized on the concept of a universal god. This means that God is “not limited to any religion, nation, race, creed, color, or gender.” While Sikhs believe in only one God, they are accepting of the religions that are polytheistic. Guru Nanak believed in fighting for human rights and justice, and he reject any form of caste and class system. There are five articles of faith that help identify a Sikh: “unshorn hair as a gift of God and Guru and a mark of Sikh identity,” “a small comb for the hair,” “a steel bracelet symbolic of a Sikh’s commitment to the ideals of his faith,” “a sword indicative of resolve and commitment to justice,” and “knee-length breeches in keeping with the disciplined life-style of a Sikh” (“Who Are Sikhs…” 2017). Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, most prominent in Punjab, India, and about 700,000 Sikhs reside in the United States as of 2017.

The first record of Sikhs migrating to the United States was in the 1890s. They came to work in “the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest, in the farms of California, and to build the railroads that would connect America” (‘Who Are Sikh Americans,” 2017). Most Sikhs came from South Asia; thus, they faced many laws that not only tried to keep them out but also encouraged racism and discrimination toward them and other immigrants. The Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917 prohibited immigration of those from Asia, excluding the north. The Sikh American Defense and Education Fund explains that a large step in equality occurred in 1923, when “Bhagat Singh Thind, a World War I veteran, went to the Supreme Court to challenge laws that prevented Asians from becoming citizens” (“Who Are Sikh Americans,” 2017). Another major step was Dalip Singh Saund’s new position in congress, in 1957. He was the first Sikh American to serve. Progression toward tolerance was in sight, that is, until the 9/11 terrorist attacks and its birth of Islamophobia, the hatred and intolerance of Muslims.

Islamophobia breeds hate crimes. While there have always been prejudice and racism toward those from the Middle East and South Asia due to race and origin, 9/11 sparked the hate crime epidemic towards individuals who look similar to the terrorists who operated this tragic and historical event. To add to the stigma of Muslims, media has geared toward the sensationalism of reporting other Muslim attacks on the United States, casting the illusion that Muslims are the primary minority group for bombings and mass shootings. Certain tropes in films and literature have also contributed to the stereotyping of Muslims. Unfortunately, Sikhs are lumped into this. According to SikhNet, “99 percent of people wearing turbans in the U.S. are Sikhs” (“Who Are Sikhs…” 2017). With this characteristic and their long beards and skin color, many Sikhs are often confused with Arab-Muslims, who also sometimes wear headpieces (depending on the sect and individual’s belief), and are attacked because of this confusion. In 2012, “six worshippers were killed in an attack at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin” (“Who Are Sikh Americans,” 2017).

So, what needs to be done to prevent such hate crimes toward Sikhs (and ultimately toward Muslims)? How can we build bridges between tolerance and intolerance? The National Crime Prevention Council offers advice for adults and young people regarding these concerns. Adults can “organize forums to examine possible sources of bigotry and hate violence in the community and brainstorm preventive actions,” “work with schools, businesses, or community groups to sponsor poster or essay contests on ‘How Bias-related Crimes Hurt Our Community’,” and “offer support to a coworker or neighbor who has been a victim of a bias-motivated crime” (“Crime Prevention…” 2017). Furthermore, we need to convince law enforcement to record hate crime data so we have concrete statistics. As of 2017, it is unknown how many hate crimes toward Sikhs happen on average per year. Even without the numbers, though, these attacks happen more often than they should. Young people can help by recognizing and rejecting stereotypes, reaching out and talking to those who appear different, reporting bullying and hate crimes to teachers or other adults, and supporting classmates who are victims (“Crime Prevention…” 2017). And it may be beneficial to offer students classes, seminars, or after school programs that discuss the different races, religions, and ethnicities of the world.

There needs to be some level of “respect” we show toward others, regardless of race, religion, sex, and beliefs. More importantly, Americans need to educate themselves. Sikhs being confused with Muslims is a sign of ignorance. And in a world full of seven billion beliefs, values, and personalities, this can be dangerous. It is our responsibility as humans to fight for human rights, whether it be for ourselves or for our neighbors. By becoming aware of the Sikh community, as well as other communities affected by hate crimes, we can prevent cases like the fate of Balbir Singh Sodhi and others like him.

Work Cited

"Crime Prevention: Putting a Stop to Hate Crime." New York State Police. N.p., 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Lewin, Tamar. "Sikh Owner Of Gas Station Is Fatally Shot In Rampage." The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Sept. 2001. Web. 05 May 2017.

Moshtaghian, Artemis, Huizhong Wu, and Susannah Cullinane. "Sikh man's shooting in Washington investigated as hate crime." CNN. Cable News Network, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

"Who Are Sikh Americans." SALDEF. N.p., 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

"Who are Sikhs? What is Sikhism?" SikhNet. N.p., 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

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