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Ten Years After 9/11, Little-Known Sikh Community Still Target of Violence and Harassment

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We continue our 9/11 anniversary coverage with a look at the Sikh-American community. The Sikh faith is the fifth-largest religion in the world, and there are as many as half a million members in the United States. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sikh Americans faced many of the same discriminatory conditions as Muslims and Arab Americans. Because of their distinct appearance, they were visible targets of violence and harassment. Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor filed this report, produced with Free Speech Radio News. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our 9/11 anniversary coverage by looking at the Sikh-American community. The Sikh faith, the fifth-largest religion in the world, there are as many as half a million Sikhs in the United States. Following the September 11th attacks, Sikh Americans faced many of the same discriminatory conditions as Muslims and Arab Americans. Because of their distinct appearance, they were visible targets of violence and harassment. For more, we go to Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor.

JAISAL NOOR: On September 11th, 2001, members of the Sikh-American community mourned the day’s tragic events. But they soon became concerned for their own safety. Sikhs wear turbans and have uncut beards, an appearance that some associate with terrorists. On that day, Sonny Singh was a 21-year-old college student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

SONNY SINGH: Honestly, before I even began to sort of really let what was happening sink in, really understand what was happening and the tragedy of what was happening, I already felt fear about backlash.

JAISAL NOOR: Singh says that while growing up in North Carolina, community members singled him out because of his appearance, but such incidents increased dramatically after the terrorist attacks.

SONNY SINGH: You know, after 9/11, the bigotry and the harassment really just became a lot more intense. It went from being something that I’d experience every once in a while to something that I’d experience every day.

JAISAL NOOR: Across the country, Sikhs, along with others identified as Muslim, Arab or South Asian, were targeted. Amardeep Singh, who co-founded the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights and advocacy group, said the attacks were immediate.

AMARDEEP SINGH: Once we received reports that members of the community in New York City were being physically attacked—in the cases of two members of the community, chased in the streets near the World Trade Center site the morning of 9/11—we issued a press release the night of 9/11 saying the Sikh organizations of New York call on police to protect our community from hate crimes and grieve with the rest of the country.

JAISAL NOOR: Just four days later in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh immigrant from India, was shot and killed on his front lawn in what authorities said was a hate crime. Amardeep Singh criticizes law enforcement for not keeping hate crime statistics for the Sikh community.

AMARDEEP SINGH: The federal government refuses, ’til this day, to specifically track hate crimes against Sikhs. So, for example, there were two Sikh gentlemen in Elk Grove, California, who were shot and killed in what prosecutors believe was a hate crime, and those two men do not even have the dignity of being a statistic. And if you’re not tracking a problem, how can you help solve it, if you don’t understand it?

JAISAL NOOR: Although physical attacks have since subsided, some Sikhs continue to face intimidation. According to surveys conducted by Sikh civil rights groups, 75 percent of Sikh youth in San Francisco experienced bullying. In New York, where one in two were bullied, 18-year-old Gurwinder Singh says he was often targeted at school.

GURWINDER SINGH: You would expect to be called a terrorist. They would affiliate you with bin Laden. It made my education miserable, and I wouldn’t focus on my education at all. I would just focus on like, you know, being safe and getting safe out of school and just get home.

JAISAL NOOR: In one incident, Singh said he was chased down and beaten by a classmate.

GURWINDER SINGH: He basically ended up hitting my head into a pole. It was a metal pole. And I fell down on the ground at that moment, because it really hurt. And I got a bump on my head at that time, I remember.

JAISAL NOOR: The media has neglected covering discrimination against Sikhs, Muslims and others following the September 11th attacks. Again, Amardeep Singh.

AMARDEEP SINGH: It’s been 10 years, and we are 110 percent convinced that the mainstream media has done a woeful job of covering the stories of our community post-9/11.

JAISAL NOOR: The Sikh Coalition has partnered with other civil rights groups to launch the website “Unheard Voices of 9/11.” Using video and photos, it features the personal stories of people attacked, harassed and discriminated against. Organizers say it’s a way to have their stories also remembered on September 11th.

Reporting for Democracy Now!, this is Jaisal Noor.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jaisal Noor joins us in studio now. Jaisal, you come from a Sikh family. Explain why you chose to focus on this.

JAISAL NOOR: Amy, the Sikh religion is 500 years old. It comes from the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan. And the Sikh vision of society is an egalitarian vision. They oppose the Hindu caste system. And the idea behind the Sikhs’ turban and uncut hair is to make them distinguishable, and that’s exactly why they were targeted after 9/11. And their stories have not been told, so I wanted to get their stories out. And that speaks to the importance of independent media, like Free Speech Radio News and Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much, Jaisal, for that very important and interesting report.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Jaisal Noor, Democracy Now!

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