Growing Wave of Hostility Is Targeting Sikhs in America

Manbir Singh, left, and Taran Kaur watch their son Balmeet Singh, center, tie a turban called “Dastar” on April 14, 2017 in Bakersfield, Calif. The turban is an article of Sikh faith. Balmeet Singh was the victim of a hate crime just before presidential elections in Bakersfield. A man poured a drink on him and said “So youre going to blow up this country. Youre trying to blow up this country?” and “I should kill you right now.” (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Balmeet Singh stepped outside a burger shop in a strip mall to wish his 13-year-old cousin a happy birthday when the stranger squared up against him.

“So, you’re going to blow up this country?” the man said. “You’re trying to blow up this country?”

He threw a drink in Singh’s face, his long beard and burgundy turban the intended target. Then the man threatened to kill him.

A dozen people sat in the nearby patio. Singh scanned their faces. No one said anything. Singh had never felt so alone.

The September attack left the 31-year-old real estate agent among the swelling ranks of Sikhs targeted, in many cases, after being mistaken for Muslim — a phenomenon that gained momentum after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sikh community leaders say they’ve seen another uptick since the 2016 presidential election and the Trump administration’s proposed immigration and travel bans. Those proposals, they argue, are fueling an intensified xenophobia.

Sikhism, which has roots in the Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan, is the world’s fifth-largest religion.

The FBI began collecting data on anti-Sikh, anti-Arab and anti-Hindu hate crimes for the first time in 2015, though the Sikh community has struggled for years to accurately track those crimes. Only six of the incidents in the most recent FBI report were anti-Sikh hate crimes, but the bureau has said it takes years to get an accurate accounting.

Sikh advocacy groups say such incidents are underreported and do not include other hate-filled attacks, such as discrimination or hate speech — a concern buoyed by law enforcement data. Many cities either did not report hate crimes or reported zero hate crimes, according to the FBI report.

“The overwhelming motivation for these attacks or intimidation incidents are part and parcel of a growing wave of hostility based on perception that Sikhs are Muslim,” said Suman Raghunathan, executive director of the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together.

Advocacy groups use statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes to help determine whether Sikhs are at higher risk, said Rajdeep Singh Jolly, interim managing director of programs at the Sikh Coalition. “At the moment, the risk of anti-Sikh hate crime is high,” Jolly said. “Any time there is a flare-up in anti-immigrant rhetoric, we see an uptick in even an apprehension about hate crimes.”

Though some of the violence against Sikhs stems from misconceptions about their background — attackers assume they are Muslim or Middle Eastern — experts say much of it is fueled by a prejudiced response to their darker skin, beards or turbans.

This year, two Sikhs and two other Indian men were shot in attacks in Kansas, Washington and South Carolina. In two of the incidents, authorities said the shooters expressed a variation of the same sentiment: Go back to your country.

“It’s very similar to how I felt after 9/11,” Singh said. “It’s not enough to simply be who you are and exist. You have to go out of your way to prove you’re not a threat.”

Community members are working to strike a balance in its efforts to educate the public about Sikhism — aiming to differentiate themselves through awareness campaigns and local outreach without appearing to condone attacks on Muslims and other minorities.

“Sikhs began migrating in large numbers with my parents’ generation,” Jolly said. “They just didn’t have the time or resources or the know-how of how to do lobbying. To some extent, we’re catching up.”

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Source: Los Angeles Times / Sarah Parvini