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Sikhs Try To Counter Prejudice Following Terrorist Attacks - 2001-09-28

In the flood of anger that has followed the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, some U.S. residents of Middle East or South Asian heritage have been the targets of harassment and violence. Members of the Sikh community, which has no connection to Islam or the Taleban, are feeling particularly threatened because their faith requires men to wear turbans and grow long beards. Sikhs in America are trying to counter the perception that they are suddenly suspicious characters.

What most Americans know about Sikhism, the world's fifth largest religion, is what they see. And what they see are bearded men with dark complexions and turbans. And some people assume that means Sikhs are associated with Osama bin Laden, the man accused of masterminding the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bakhshish Singh, president of the Gurnanick Association of America, a Sikh religious organization, says despite the fact that Sikhism originated in northern India, Sikhs are finding themselves associated with the Middle East and are the victims of a new kind of racial prejudice.

On September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks, Sher Singh was arrested on a train outside of the city of Boston. "Somebody possibly didn't like how I looked or thought I was suspicious. [They] told somebody and somehow the law enforcement people, they were, they boarded the train at Providence," he said. "And they apprehended me, pointed the handguns at me and just used profanity at me and just took me outside the train."

In a way, Sher Singh was lucky to be in police custody where he was questioned and later safely released. Other Sikhs in the United States have been threatened, abused and one Sikh man in Arizona was shot to death, the victim of an apparent hate crime.

In response, some organizations have bought ads in newspapers explaining that Sikhs are not terrorists.

Mr. Rajwant Singh, President of the Sikh Council, is one of many leaders in the Sikh community who have been reaching out to religious and human rights organizations. "My message is that it is time for us to come together and hold each other and love and respect because America has to be united if it has to go through these testing times," he said.

Rather than trying to separate Sikhs from Muslims, Rajwant Singh want to make clear that Sikhs join other Americans in condemning both terrorism and hate crimes. "America is a guiding light to human civilization with a promise, a firm commitment to just treatment to all," he said. "Any act of violence against any citizen of any background different than one's own is unconscionable and must not be tolerated."

While Sikhs may be different from Muslims and other religious faiths, Rajwant Singh wants the world to know that today in America they are united in their grief and their outrage.