More than a decade after 9/11, Americans who come across a turban-wearing Sikh are still prone to mistaking him for a Muslim, according to a study released Monday.
Sixty percent of Americans who participated in the study by the non-profit National Sikh Campaign admitted to knowing nothing about the Sikhs who live, study and work in their midst. When shown a photo of a smiling older Sikh male in a red turban, 28 percent of respondents thought he was Middle Eastern and 20 percent believed he was Muslim.
Thirty-five percent thought he might be from India, or of Indian descent. Only 11 percent correctly identified him as Sikh.
Shown a fashionable young woman with knee-length hair – the Sikh faith discourages haircutting for either sex – 20 percent described her as Middle Eastern. No one thought she was Sikh.
“We have been very much part of the American fabric, and yet we are not well known, and often misunderstood,” said Rajwant Singh, co-founder and senior adviser of the National Sikh Campaign. “Frankly speaking, we are just tired of being the target and we want to be understood.”
The first Sikhs emigrated to the United States from what was then British-ruled India a century ago. Today, the Sikh American community numbers between 200,000 and 500,000. Estimates vary because the US Census Bureau collects no data on religious affiliation.
But in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Sikhs have found themselves targeted – with sometimes bloody results – by Americans who presume anyone in a turban must be a Muslim. “I feel there is still a lot of ignorance,” said Arizona businessman Rana Singh Sodhi, who lost two brothers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
One of the brothers, Arizona gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi, was slain four days after 9/11 by a white American who reportedly bragged that he wanted to go out and “shoot some towelheads” to avenge the attacks. The gunman, Frank Silva Roque, got a death sentence for his actions that was later reduced to life imprisonment. A second brother, Sukhpal Sodhi, died in 2012 after he was hit, apparently by a stray bullet from a gang fight, in his San Francisco taxi cab.
In August 2012, a white supremacist and US army veteran fatally shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin before taking his own life.
It was the worst attack on a place of worship in the United States since the 1963 bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama that left four dead and 22 injured.
Jaswant Singh Sachdev, a prominent member of the Sikh community in Arizona, said he remembered a time when Sikhs were viewed as “nobility” in American society. The mood changed, he said, during the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis when supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was cast as a villain in US media.
Sikhs wear their turbans in a peaked style; Iranian clergy wrap theirs in a flat, circular fashion, but many Americans failed to notice a difference. “When they see it, even the children, it is always the turban that causes suspicion and fear in those who see it for the first time,” he said.
The National Sikh Campaign commissioned its study, based on interviews with more than 1,100 Americans, as a starting point to raise public awareness of the Sikh community at the national and local levels.
One encouraging finding: Americans aged 16 through 34, including Millennials, are more inclined than other subgroups to hold positive feelings about Sikhs. “What tragic is that we hold incredibly progressive values,” said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, also a co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign, whose report appears online at sikhcampaign.org.
“Sikhs believe that men and women are equal and that all faiths have the right to practice (their faith),” he said. “We have to do a better job of communicating those things.”