Sikhs: Religious minority target of hate crimes

Updated 11:56 PM EST, Tue March 7, 2017
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(CNN) —  

The victim of a possible hate crime in Washington state Friday would not be the first Sikh to be targeted.

Since 9/11, Sikh-American groups say members of their religion have faced discrimination and abuse because their long beards and turbans make them more visible than other minority groups.

According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes in the US surged 67% last year, to levels not seen since 2001.

Highly visible

In a statement, the Sikh Coalition, America’s largest Sikh civil rights group, said that Sikhs are often targeted for hate crimes in part “due to the Sikh articles of faith, including a turban and beard, which represent the Sikh religious commitment to justice, tolerance and equality.”

In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh commanded all Sikhs to wear the “Five Ks” in order to identify themselves as a member of the Khalsa Panth, an army of the devout.

Young Indian Sikhs participate in a turban tying competition in 2014.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Young Indian Sikhs participate in a turban tying competition in 2014.

The “Five Ks” are: Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bangle), Kanga (a wooden comb), Kaccha (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (a steel sword).

Devout Sikh men don’t cut their hair or shave because they believe you must maintain your body in the way that God created you. Turbans are worn as a way to keep heads covered out of respect when in public and in religious spaces.

Sikh women often cover their heads with a long scarf called a chunni or dupatta.

Hate crime

In the first month following 9/11, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in the US.

Last year, multiple Sikhs told CNN that they felt no safer, 15 years after the terrorist attacks.

“The threat of hate and racism has become a part of our daily lives,” lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur said.

In 2012 a gunman walked into a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, in Wisconsin and killed six people.

Sikhs have also been subject to racial profiling outside the US. Last year, designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia spoke out after he was prevented from boarding an airplane in Mexico by local security agents after he refused to remove his turban during a security screening.

Ahluwalia said Aeromexico staff and security screeners told him to buy a ticket for a different carrier after he refused to remove his turban.

“I was upset, I had anxiety, I was shaking, I did not speak. And then I realized, clearly, they have not been trained properly. I knew yelling will not do anything. It is about education and the policy,” Ahluwalia told CNN at the time.

05:05 - Source: CNN
Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia: 'This is about education'

Climate of fear

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crime, there has been an uptick of incidents targeting Muslims and other religious minority groups since the election of President Donald Trump.

While the White House condemned the recent shooting of two Indian men as “an act of racially motivated hatred,” some commentators have blamed Trump for not doing enough.

During his first address to Congress last week, Trump said the violence was a reminder that “while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its very ugly forms.”

But it’s not enough for some.

“A few words of condemnation cannot erase months of President Trump’s own divisive rhetoric and his administration’s policies targeting and stigmatizing the very communities most vulnerable to hate violence,” civil rights lawyer Deepa Iyer wrote last week for CNN Opinion.

Sikh-American leaders have called on the President to address the attack in Washington, while others have warned that his words may lead to violence.

“What (Trump) says goes short of being defined as hate, but in the hearts and minds of the lay person is translated as hate,” Mejindarpal Kaur, international legal director of global advocacy organization United Sikhs, told CNN.

“They’ve targeted their hate toward anyone who looks Middle Eastern.”