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Hate-crime Charges Filed in California Against Sikh Man's Alleged Attackers

Two men who allegedly attacked a turbaned Sikh man in September in California will face hate-crime charges, the Contra Costa County district attorney's office said Friday.

Chase Little and Colton Leblanc were among five or six men in a pickup truck who reportedly threw beer cans at Maan Singh Khalsa, who was driving home from work in his car, the Richmond Police Department said. The two men are accused of attacking him through his open car window, knocking off his turban, hitting him in the face and cutting his religiously mandated long hair with a pocketknife, police said.

Khalsa sustained a swollen black eye and damage to numerous teeth. He will have his pinky finger amputated at the first knuckle after developing an infection from being cut with a knife, according to a statement from Simon O'Connell, the prosecutor in charge.

Devout male Sikhs are required to keep their hair long and wear turbans as a commitment to their faith.

"The savage cutting of Mr. Khalsa's unshorn hair, a sacred article of his faith, constitutes a hate crime under the law," the statement read.

Followers of the Sikh faith, a monotheistic religion that originated in northern India, are often confused with Muslims.

Perceived as Muslim

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, men who look like Muslims have been the targets of discrimination and violence in the United States, and the number of incidents of anti-Muslim violence has risen dramatically in the past year.

Anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric, however, affect others besides actual Muslims. Studies, including a report released by Georgetown University, use "anti-Muslim" to refer to anyone perceived as a Muslim, including non-Muslim South Asians such as Sikhs.

The district attorney in Khalsa's case noted that religion was a substantial factor in his vicious assault, whether "actual or perceived."

In 2015, 174 incidents of anti-Muslim violence were reported nationwide, according to When Islamophobia Turns Violent, the report by Georgetown's Bridge Initiative.

The report notes that anti-Muslim attacks tripled in December 2015, shortly after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called for shutting down American mosques following the San Bernardino, California, shootings.

Attacks against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims occurred every day in the month of December, totaling 53 incidents of threats, physical assaults, and vandalism of mosques as well as Sikh temples.

"These numbers line up with my own personal experiences over the past few months," Sikh Coalition Senior Religion Fellow Simran Jeet Singh said at a "Faith Not Fear" rally in New York earlier this year.

"As a Sikh man with a turban and beard, I'm struck by how much more often people have made racist remarks to me. I believe that the hateful rhetoric of our politicians has emboldened people to speak and act more openly about their xenophobic or discriminatory outlooks," Singh said.

'Can't paint with a broad brush'

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report earlier this year linking a dramatic rise in hate groups to the presidential campaigns that began in March 2015.

"Donald Trump's demonizing statements about Latinos and Muslims have electrified the radical right, leading to glowing endorsements from white nationalist leaders," the report said.

The report cited a rise in the number of Klu Klux Klan chapters — from 72 in 2014 to 190 in 2015 — as an example of extremist groups that have increased drastically in the past year.

Sikhs are fighting for more awareness and education in an effort to keep their members from being incorrectly indentified as Muslims, but their leaders and organization have said no group or religion should be victims of hate crimes.

"Our community ... the civil rights leadership has always said it's not enough to say, 'Hey, we're not Muslim; leave us alone.' It's to say, 'No one should be treated poorly,' " Ameek Sodhi, senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and a turbaned Sikh, told VOA. "You can't paint with a broad brush on any community."

As reports of violent incidents such as Khalsa's become more frequent, the state of California in particular is taking measures to combat hateful rhetoric.

The state passed the Safe Place to Learn Act last week that will provide resources to teachers and school administrators to combat bullying against Muslim and Sikh children.

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