- Deseret News - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The 500,000 Sikhs who live in America are often misidentified as terrorists by fellow citizens who know little or nothing about the traditional faith, a new study revealed.

In response, the Sikh organization that sponsored the study hopes to raise between $3 million and $5 million for an educational campaign aimed at erasing prejudice.

“More than half of Sikh children are subjected to bullying in their schools, and the numbers are even worse for children who wear turbans,” a report from the National Sikh Campaign stated. “Since 9/11, there has been a dramatic increase in hate-based violence against Sikhs,” including a 2012 shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh congregation that left six people dead and four others wounded.

The survey reports that although Sikhs (pronounced “siks”) have lived and worked in the United States for more than 150 years, 60 percent of Americans “admit to knowing nothing” about their Sikh neighbors, according to the survey which was conducted by Hart Research Associates, a polling firm. An estimated 86 percent of Americans say they are familiar with Jewish Americans, while 76 percent say they know at least something about Muslim Americans and 62 percent report a similar level of familiarity with Hindu Americans, the survey said.

Sikhism, which claims 25 million adherents around the world, originated 500 years ago in northern India. The faith’s principal beliefs, the report said, are “meditation upon and devotion to the creator, truthful living and service to humanity.” The word “Sikh” means “seeker of truth,” the report stated.

Interaction lack blamed

The lack of familiarity with individual Sikhs is a main reason for the lack of understanding, the survey results reported.

“Only 11 percent of Americans say they have a close friend or acquaintance who is Sikh, while three times as many (31 persons) have never seen or interacted with a Sikh person at all,” according to the survey.

Gurwin Singh Ahuja, 25, a co-founder of the campaign, said Americans “don’t understand who we are or that we hold American values or value being a part of this country. Sikh values are very, very (much) in line with American values.”

Although Mr. Ahuja said his personal experience has not been as difficult as that of some Sikhs, adding “I know kids that got bullied pretty relentlessly to the point where they don’t have much confidence in themselves or have been afraid to go to work as an adult.”

Mr. Ahuja referenced the story of New York college student Gurwinder Singh, who wore the traditional long hair and turban of the Sikh faith in which he was raised. Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., orchestrated by a turban-wearing Osama bin Laden — a Muslim — Mr. Singh was beaten by classmates and, for a time, he cut his hair to try and fit into society. He eventually returned to his religious roots and told a 2011 White House conference on bullying of his struggles trying to live in a society that misunderstood his attire.

Mr. Ahuja, who said he helps mentor Mr. Singh, explained that a Sikh cutting his hair and abandoning traditional garb has deep significance to the Sikh and his or her family.

“These articles that we wear are reflections of commitment to equality and justice and respect for all humanity. We wear those commitments proudly,” Mr. Ahuja said.

Shawn Singh Ghuman, a spokesman for the Sikh Campaign, said the group’s desire is to use digital media and television campaigns to “show who we are and the contributions we make. We have to show that we are a part of the fabric of this community, and our values are so similar to the American values we were raised on in school and at home.”

The new study mirrors findings of earlier research commissioned by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 2013. According to SALDEF communications director Sona Simran Kaur, the earlier studied revealed “70 percent of Americans polled could not identify a Sikh American man in a beard and turban, and that 1 out of 5 of our neighbors had fear or apprehension when they saw a Sikh American stranger.”

Mr. Kaur said SALDEF is hoping to leverage a $2.5 million donation of cable airtime from Comcast to broadcast public service announcements explaining Sikh identity. The group also sponsored a first-ever Sikh American float in the 2015 Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California.

“More than 50 million Americans either read about the float in the news or saw it on live broadcast,” Mr. Kaur said. The new report “reiterates why the campaigns we have launched has been so successful. It really supports the work that we’ve been doing.”

Interfaith support

Several non-Sikh religious leaders who attended a Washington, D.C., news conference launching the Sikh Campaign study results Monday said they sympathized with the challenges faced by those wearing unique garb.

“Wearing a turban means you’re a terrorist any more than wearing a hoodie means you’re a criminal or out to do harm,” the Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune of Grace & Race Ministries told the Deseret News. “We have to call ourselves to a higher level of engagement with people who do not look like us.”

Jewish Americans can also identify with the obstacles Sikhs face, said Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“We are the quintessential immigrants, and we know what it’s like to be in the minority and to be misunderstood,” Ms. Laser said. “So we completely understand and support the idea that the Sikhs need to do a national educational campaign, in terms of being entirely unknown in the U.S., and being mistaken for terrorists and bad people.”

Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, which has for over a century worked to erase negative stereotypes of Jewish Americans, said the Sikh Campaign study “confirms that education and awareness are the keys to break down the fear that often comes with unfamiliarity.”

Mr. Ahuja said he was optimistic that once Sikhs are better understood, misconceptions will fade.

“It doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what political affiliation you have, the Sikhs have a good story to tell,” he said. “Our values are in line with American values.”

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