The Associated Press: Group is Seeking Understanding

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 terrorist network.

“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 coasts.

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 Americans.

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 turbans.

“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. 11.

“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.

copyright © 2005, The Associated Press