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Sikhs Seen as 'Hate Crime' Targets in US

FBI Considers New Hate Crime Categories for Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs
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FBI Considers New Hate Crime Categories for Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs

One night several years ago, Amandeep Singh Sidhu, a Washington lawyer who wears a turban, went to a blues club with his wife and a few friends, expecting to have an enjoyable and relaxing evening listening to music.

"All of the sudden I felt someone grab the front of my turban from behind and start to pull it off of my head," he recalls.

He describes the assailant as a white male, a recent college graduate from a privileged background, who had been drinking. Wearing the turban is a key part of Sikh identity, but Sidhu says that when he swatted the man's arm away, suspicions first fell on him.

"It was interesting because I think the initial reaction of members of the audience and the crowd was that perhaps I had assaulted this individual."

But, he says, a policeman nearby understood what had happened and apprehended the man on suspicion of committing a hate crime.

Sikhs may be the world's fifth largest religion, but they are a tiny minority in America, numbering about half a million. Yet they have been disproportionately targeted since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, largely because of their distinctive turbans and beards.

On August 6, 2012, six Sikhs were gunned down while worshipping at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.

More than a hundred congressmen and an array of Sikh and non-Sikh advocacy groups have asked the FBI to include categories for Sikhs as well as Hindus and Arabs on its "Hate Crime Incident Report." The report is filed by more than 14,500 police departments across the country. It already has boxes for attacks that target Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims.

The FBI is expected to make a decision when its Advisory Policy Board meets on June 5-6 in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Sidhu works at a Washington law firm and was one of the founders of the Sikh Coalition, a legal rights group.

While many of the attacks against Sikhs are by people who mistake them for Muslims, Sidhu says "there's certainly an association of the turban with terrorism."

He says nearly all men who wear turbans in the U.S. are Sikhs.

"And so to ignore that reality, and not have some meaningful metrics, tracked by the FBI, tracked by local law enforcement, accounted for in the Department of Justice in terms of their reporting, and their diversion of resources, is just - it's unacceptable," Sidhu says.

Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the groups urging the FBI to add the new categories, says bias against Sikhs is rooted in perceived mystery.

"I think there is confusion over who are these people that are wearing turbans and beards, and they look different," he says, "and that unfortunately has been enough for some individuals to say: 'You look like Osama bin Laden.'"

Lieberman says the gunman in the Oak Creek massacre had actually gone to the Sikh temple, or gurdwara, previously and even accepted a free meal there.

"The individual who went that day in August went to kill Sikhs in their gurdwara. I don't think there's any doubt about that," he says.

The ADL lawyer says while his organization was founded to fight prejudice against Jews, other groups should be counted, too.

"It's not just about the numbers," he adds. "To even raise the possibility of having Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs will mean that a law enforcement official that is filling out this form will have to be trained" in awareness of what it means to belong to one of these groups, and what makes them stand out.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently endorsed the new categories, increasing the likelihood the FBI will adopt them.

As for Sidhu, he dropped charges after the assailant agreed to perform 100 hours of community service for the Sikh Coalition. He says he didn't want to him to end up with a conviction on his record just because he "did something stupid."