New federal rules that give airport screeners more discretion to inspect turbans worn by some Sikh men are stirring anger in a California community that has felt unfairly targeted by security measures following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Now Sikhs are gathering signatures to urge members of Congress to get the new security rules changed.
Screeners previously were allowed to inspect turbans only if a metal detector went off.
But new rules that took effect Aug. 4 give screeners broader discretion to examine turbans, even if the metal detector doesn’t go off. It partially reverses a compromise that had been adopted after the Sikh community complained.
Harry Gill, a Sikh community leader from Caruthers, worries that screeners will be more apt to touch the turban under the new rules.
“This is a religious thing. Taking off or touching the turban is like a slap on the face,” he said.
Gill said Sikhs in the San Joaquin Valley began circulating petitions about three weeks ago to seek a change in the regulations. The petitions are expected to be dropped off next week in the offices of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
“We don’t want that law put against the Sikh people. That’s our religious symbol,” Gill said.
Greg Soule, a spokesman for the federal Transportation Security Administration, said federal officials wanted to improve screening for explosives. The new rules, he said, apply to all head coverings, not just Sikh turbans.
“The greatest threat is explosives. While there is no specific threat to head coverings, it is an area we feel needs additional security measures.”
Travelers who don’t want their turban patted down and want to remove the turban can request to use a private screening area, according to the TSA.
Soule said the administration has worked with the Sikh community in the past and plans to listen to their concerns.
Balbir Singh Dhillon, president of the Sacramento Sikh Temple — representing 1,500 families and about 5,000 people — said members also have signed petitions opposing the indiscriminate searching of turbans by airport screeners.
“Sikhs have been in this country since the early 1900s, and we’ve never had this problem,” Dhillon said. “We’ve been faithful to this country and haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t think there’s a single case where anybody’s been hiding anything in or under their turban.”
Darshan Singh Mundy, a temple member, said Sikhs serve in all branches of law enforcement and the armed forces “and have sacrificed their lives in the U.S. Army in Baghdad, and Sikhs have nothing to do with 9/11.”
In Fresno County, home to about 35,000 Sikhs, opinions in the Sikh community are divided.
Satinder Kaur, a cashier at India Sweets and Spices in northwest Fresno, said she doesn’t believe someone loses respect by taking off the turban. Kaur’s husband doesn’t wear a turban.
“I think it’s better. There’s a lot of people on the airplane. … If he gets checked, it’s for safety,” Kaur said.
Others, like 52-year-old Balwinder Singh, a Fresno taxi driver, said they had no qualms about the new rules provided Sikhs don’t have to remove the turban in public.
“That is not good if you have to take it off in public. If it’s a private room, it’s better,” he said.
But Parminder Singh of Kingsburg said the new rules amount to unnecessary scrutiny for Sikhs. Sikhs had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in the United States, yet they are being asked to make compromises.
“We think it’s disgraceful,” Singh said.
For some Sikhs, the new rules pose practical problems, as well.
Marjinder Gill, who emigrated from India to Fresno about 20 years ago, said he doesn’t like to remove his turban.
“It’s hard to place it back on again. It’s not a cap. … It takes 5 to 10 minutes” to replace it, Gill said.
Sikhs became targets of hate crimes in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. One of the Valley’s Sikh temples was vandalized in 2004 by graffiti that told congregants: “Rags Go Home” and “It’s Not Your Country.” Sikhs responded by launching an effort to educate the public about their religion.
Mundy said seven Sikh Americans have lost their lives in hate crimes throughout the United States since 9/11 because of being misidentified as Muslims.
In Sikhism, long, unshorn hair is a symbol of spiritualism and the turban a symbol of royalty and dignity.
The religion, founded by Guru Nanak in 1469, is an offshoot of Hinduism. The turban is mandatory for baptized Sikh men, and optional — though uncommon — for women who tend to wear head scarves, at least inside the temple.
The turban and the unshorn hair underneath together are considered sacred, said Gurinder Singh Mann, professor of Sikh studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mann said the turban also is seen as a cultural symbol.
He said touching the turban can be viewed as an insult, akin to challenging someone’s religion, he said.
Sikhs have been willing to compromise in the past on some religious symbols, such as the kirpan, a ceremonial knife often worn by men after baptism.
Some of them agreed to place the knife in the checked baggage, while others wear a small symbol of it around the neck, Mann said. The kirpan is considered a symbol of divine justice.
Mann said Sikhs bear some responsibility for educating the general public.
“The issue is the mainstream has to understand who they are and they have to explain who they are. It’s a mutual obligation,” Mann said.
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