Sikhs talk about faith — and fear

Mistaken for Muslims, they often face harassment
The Detroit News, Mar. 30, 2003
By Janet Vandenabeele / The Detroit News

PLYMOUTH TOWNSHIP — As war with Iraq drew closer to reality, Wayne State University student Sojeet Kaur became concerned: Sept. 11 had taught her a lesson that even life as a foreign-born American hadn’t quite prepared her for.

Her people, mostly natives of northern India, were being blamed for the terrorist attacks, sometimes with fatal results. Kaur is a Sikh, and though her shiny, silken garb looks typically Indian, she fears for the men she knows, with their distinctive style of dress.

“I was scared, especially for my father,” said Kaur, a pre-pharmacy student who lives in Westland.

She isn’t alone. Sikh men in particular were singled out after the terrorist attacks for their turbans and long beards, both of which are required by their religious beliefs.

Jespal Kaur of Troy, who like many Sikh women uses the last name “Kaur,” and is not related to Sojeet, recalled how her husband was singled out for ridicule.

“People were calling him ‘bin Laden.’ We traveled after that to the Dominican Republic, and even there, people were pointing fingers and saying, ‘bin Laden, bin Laden,’ ” she said.

Sikhs come mostly from India’s Punjab region and follow a distinct belief system that, with 22 million followers, is the world’s fifth-largest major religion.

The word “Sikh” means “disciple” or “seeker.” Sikhs believe in one God, and many of their beliefs reinforce the notion that all men — and women — are equal.

But with the nation at war again in the Middle East, many local Sikhs are concerned, with good reason, that they will be mistaken for the things they are not: Arab, Muslim and, of the most concern, terrorist.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Arab and Muslim groups reported about 2,000 attacks on Arab and Muslim Americans nationwide, including those mistaken because of their skin color, accent or dress.

Several of the most notorious attacks were upon Sikhs, including the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, shot and killed while planting flowers at his Arizona gas station on Sept. 15, 2001, by a man who proclaimed the shooting as a patriotic act.

Since the Iraqi war began, there have been several incidents of attacks and harassment across the nation. The reports gathered to date by the Council on American-Islam Relations in Washington, D.C., have centered on Muslims, including an incident in Fraser where a man and his son say they were refused service at a Meijer store.

The most likely reason Sikhs are targeted, noted several Sikhs, is because their turbans, brown skin and long beards remind people of Osama bin Laden and his Taliban supporters.

Sojeet Kaur’s father, Sucha Singh Sohal, had never even heard of Osama bin Laden until after the attacks.

At first, he said, he wasn’t singled out for harassment, but then remembered people staring at him and yelling at him while driving.

But the criticism doesn’t bother him, or deter his faith in America. “We don’t care, or at least I don’t care,” he said.

“We found that the two most vulnerable groups were Muslim women wearing the hijab (head scarves) and Sikh men with their turbans and their beards,” said Amerdeep Singh of Human Rights Watch, who authored a 42-page report for the group about post-Sept. 11 hate crime attacks. Singh is also Sikh.

Sikh male turbans are worn to cover the hair, which — like the beard — is never cut to honor God’s creation.

Though Sikhs are easily distinguished by their dress, most Westerners still don’t know about them, which many local followers hope will change.

“We don’t go around preaching,” said Khushmeet Kaur, Sojeet’s sister.

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