On Sept. 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi went to Costco to shop for an American flag to display at the gas station he owned in Mesa, Ariz. On his way out, he donated $75 to a fund for families affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center. Just hours later, he was shot dead at his gas station. His assailant later admitted that he shot Sodhi “because he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.” In the emotionally charged post-9/11 atmosphere, when images of Osama bin Laden were broadcast repeatedly on television, turbaned Sikh men were mistakenly associated with the perpetrators of the attacks and many have since become victims of hate crimes.
According to an FBI report, hate crimes against Muslims and those of Middle Eastern and South Asian ethnicities surged dramatically in the weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In California, the attorney general’s records show a spike of 2,261 reported hate incidents in 2001. Since then there has been a decline, but at a recent hearing in San Jose with Assemblywoman Judy Chu, witnesses testified that the scape-goating of Sikh Americans continues. Every time there are news reports of American fatalities in Iraq, or videos of beheadings on the Internet, there is a spate of incidents against Sikhs.
Last year, Neilinder Ranu, a law student at UC Berkeley, who has the customary Sikh beard and turban, was walking along Bancroft Way just outside the university campus when a passerby called him Osama and beat him up in broad daylight. In August, The Argus newspaper of Fremont reported that college counselor Upinder Gupta’s home had been vandalized on several occasions by juveniles. They threw paint balls on her home and scratched the family’s two cars.
The harassment of Sikh children in schools has become a serious issue. Gupta’s son is called names in school because he wears a turban. Also, hatred of Muslims is rampant on talk radio and gaining acceptance even in living-room conversations. This bigotry is creating divisions between Americans that does not bode well for our nation.
Fortunately, Sikh and Muslim community advocates are working with schools, law enforcement, and elected leaders to find solutions. But the burden of rebuilding trust, respect, and unity between Americans should not be only upon Sikh and Muslim Americans. The onus is on all of us.
For over a century, Sikhs have made a contribution to America through hard work and public service. Yet, today their allegiance is doubted by a few misguided “patriots.” No American should have to prove his patriotism simply because he looks different.