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Featured Article: The Association of a Sikh Turban to the 9/11 Terrorists

By Prabhpreet Sangha

The world was shaken by the acts of a few terrorists on September 11, and still continues to impact the lives of many individuals around the world. Since 9/11, the Sikh Coalition has received thousands of reports from the Sikh community about hate crimes, workplace discrimination, school bullying, and racial and religious profiling.1 One might wonder why Sikhs have become targets after the terrorists’ attacks on the United States of America.

After the tragic events on 9/11, many innocent Sikhs have been targeted based on the irrational belief that a Sikh’s physical appearance is similar to that of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 events.2 The media has created an identity of the 9/11 terrorists as anyone wearing a turban being associated with the terrorist culture,3 even though the person may not have such an affiliation. Sikh’s distinct identity from that of an American has propagated a culture of fear and otherness, which has led to the identification of a Sikh as a terrorist.

9/11 A Day In America’s History

September 11, 2001, today still impacts the daily lives of many individuals. On the morning of September 11, 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four airlines and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States.4 The 19 terrorists’ smuggled box-cutters and knives through security at three East Coast airports and boarded four flights bound for California.5 Four planes were involved: two planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon, and the fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.6 This tragic event is often referred to as 9/11, the attacks resulted in a great deal of death and destruction scarring the lives of many innocent individuals.7 The statistics conclude that the total number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks was approximately 2,996.8 The casualties included 2 paramedics, 23 police officers, 37 port authority police officers, 343 firefighters, and 1,762 residents of New York.9

The attackers were classified as Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations.10 Reportedly financed by Saudi fugitive Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, the terrorists were allegedly acting in retaliation for America’s support of Israel, its involvement in the Persian Gulf War and its continued military presence in the Middle East.11

After takeoff, the terrorists commandeered the four planes and took control, transforming ordinary commuter jets into guided missiles.12 One passenger, Thomas Burnett, told his wife over the phone that “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”13 Shortly after, the plane flipped over and sped toward the ground at 500 miles per hour, crashing in a rural field in Western Pennsylvania.14 All 45 people aboard were killed.15 Its intended target is unknown, but theories include the White House, U.S. Capitol, Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland or one of the nuclear power plants along the Eastern seaboard.16

President George W. Bush, had spent the day being shuttled around the country because of security concerns.17 Later, he delivered a televised address from the Oval Office, declaring, “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”18 In a reference to the eventual U.S. military response he declared, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”19

On October 7, Operation Enduring Freedom was initiated, the American-led international effort to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network.20 Within two months, U.S. forces had effectively removed the Taliban from operational power, but the war continued, as U.S. and coalition forces attempted to defeat a Taliban insurgency campaign based in neighboring Pakistan.21 Osama Bin Laden, the instigator behind the September 11th attacks, remained until May 2, 2011, when he was tracked down and killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan.22 In June 2011, President Barack Obama, announced the troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, with a final withdrawal of U.S. forces scheduled for 2014.23 The men behind the death of thousands of innocent Americans, were Muslims, but why is it that Sikhs became targets after the 9/11 incidents?

Terrorist Association with a Turban

The post 9/11 death count continues to increase as Sikhs are killed for being classified as terrorists because they share a similar physical identity.24 Sikhs based on their physical appearance have been associated as being a terrorist, because they wear a turban, have a beard, and share a similar skin tone to the 9/11 terrorists.25 Therefore, uninformed Americans of various ethnicities have been targeting South Asians, Muslims, and especially Sikhs based on physical similarities in misguided attempts at revenge.26 Why is it that Americans do not realize that all individuals from these ethnic backgrounds are not terrorists?

The reason is that Americans have conflated the identity of Sikhs with that of the Al Qaeda terrorists, and therefore many Sikhs have been victims of targeted discrimination.27 It seems as though, Americans have focused on the physical identity of the involved terrorists and grouped any person sharing those traits as a terrorist. These cultures all share similarities which are not prevalent within the white American culture, because they all wear turbans.

Devout Sikhs wear a peaked turban that covers their long hair, and do not cut their beard.29 Muslims also wear a turban which is wrapped around a spherical or conical cap, and Afghan men wear longer turbans which are two twinned together with one end hanging loose over the shoulder. Arab Muslims also cover their head with a rectangular piece of cloth, folded diagonally and then draped over the head.30 The fact that both Sikh and Muslim men cover their head with a turban are erroneously placed in one group by the ignorant society, categorizing turban men as terrorists.31 The distinct identity of a Sikh from that of an American has propagated a culture of fear and otherness, which in return has led to the death of many innocent individuals.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 5.17.06 PM

Sikh                    Arab                    Afghan                       Muslim

The Aftermath of 9/11

After 9/11, Sikhs, have been misidentified as Muslims because they wear turbans which are associated to the terrorist’s images.32 Not much after 9/11, on September 15, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside his gas station in Arizona, by Frank Roque.33 Mr. Roque’s motive was that he wanted to “kill a muslim” in retaliation for the terrorists attacks on September 11.34 He selected Mr. Sodhi simply because he had a beard and wore a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith.35 Mr. Roque shot at Mr. Sodhi three times, then shot at another service station owned by a Lebanese American, and finally shot at a home of a family of Afghan descent; fortunately, no one else was injured.36

This incident is just one of the many, in which the motive behind the hate crime is clear, and continues to be the same reason today. Another incident in which members of a Sikh family were beaten outside of their home by drunk individuals yelling, “Go back to your country, Bin Laden.”37 This again shows, that this was another hate crime, to attack another Sikh who was perceived to be a terrorist and an enemy of the United States of America. The misconception that Sikhs are terrorist because they share some similarities to the 9/11 terrorists, is not enough to generalize that a man with a turban is no different than Bin Laden and his followers.

In fact, Sikhism does not encourage such practices of harming innocent individuals.38 Sikhs are devoted to their religion, and their religious identity is based upon the principle of men and women being recognisable with uncut hair, including a beard for men, and a Turban.39 While unshorn hair is one of the 5 K’s – religious items that Sikhs wear at all times-the Turban is considered a crown and respected as a symbol of pride and independence for a faith that has faced many struggles to survive.40 The prescription was given by the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, in the late 17th Century to ensure Sikhs always stood out in a crowd.41 Sikhs follow the teachings of the Sikh Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib.42 “The teachings in the Guru Granth Sahib, direct Sikhs to believe in universal brotherhood and the oneness of humanity, and to work for the welfare of everyone regardless of race, religion, nationality, or social position.”43 Therefore, the fact that a Sikh wears a turban and shares an appearance similar to the terrorists, is not a responsible assumption for an American to generalize that a Sikh therefore has the intention to harm his nation. The Sikh religion and faith educates Sikhs to be humble and caring. From a young age we are told not to judge a book by its cover. 44

Hate Crimes

Unfortunately, Sikhs were and continue to be victims of hate crime in retaliation to 9/11, when the perpetrators were not Sikhs. Statistics conclude that in the first month after the 9/11, the Sikh Coalition documented over 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans throughout the United States.45 The FBI recorded over 9,000 hate crimes nationwide in 2008, 10 percent of Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area reported being the target of hate crimes during the same period according to Sikh Coalition survey of over 1,000 Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area.46 Some of the most recent egregious hate attacks include: The murders of Gurmej Singh Atwal and Surinder Singh on a stroll in Elk Grove, CA in March 201147; the vandalism of the Sikh Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) in Sterling Heights, MI in February 201248; and open firing by a gunman in a Gurdwara during Sikh prayer services, killing six, Wis in August 2012.49

School Bullying

Furthermore, young children have been victimized in schools because there is a wrongful assumption that any person that resembles the 9/11 terrorists is an enemy of the United States. A 2010 Sikh Coalition survey revealed that 69% of turban-wearing Sikh students in the Bay Area of San Francisco have suffered bullying and harassment because of their religion and that 30% of them had been hit or involuntarily touched because of their turbans.50 These attacks occur because the Sikh article of faith – the turban – is associated with terrorism and 9/11.51 Some of the most egregious attacks on Sikh children have included: Jaskirat Singh’s turban set on fire by a fellow student in Hightstown, New Jersey in 2008, Harpal Singh Vacher’s hair being forcibly cut by a fellow student in New York City in 2007, and an assault on Gurwinder Singh by fellow students in New York City.52 This further supports the fact that Sikhs are targeted because they share a physical identity with the terrorist image.

Workplace Discrimination

Sikhs have also faced workplace discrimination as a result of the assumption that all Sikhs share a culture similar to that of the involved terrorists.53 12% of Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area have reported suffering employment discrimination, which makes clear that Sikhs are exponentially more likely to suffer employment discrimination than the general population.54 Most recently, Frank Singh was called a terrorist and fired by an AutoZone store because he refused to remove his turban in Boston.55 Gurpreet Singh was refused a job because he would not shave his religiously mandated beard at a Lexus dealership in New Jersey.56 These incidents provide evidence that Sikhs because of their physical identity are associated with the terrorists.

Why Is There A Cross Culture Conflict Between Americans and Sikhs? 

The post 9/11 struggles faced by Sikhs can be concluded as a struggle between the American and Sikh culture, and the creation of fear based on the fact that a Sikh resembles a terrorist. After 9/11, Americans have placed any individual wearing a turban in the same group as a terrorist, fearing that a man wearing a turban is a Muslim, and therefore a terrorist.57 Recent surveys have suggested an increase in anti-Muslim bigotry in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks; but this does not fully explain why Sikh Americans are subjected to hate crimes.58 Even if Sikhs clarify their religious affiliation and create national awareness about the Sikh religion, extremists still target Sikh Americans because of racism, religious exclusivity, and xenophobia.59 The fact that Sikhs are mistaken for Muslims is based on cultural similarities based primarily on the physical appearance.60 The question arises, why is it that perpetrators of hate crime do not realize that all men in a turban are not part of the terrorist culture?

Culture is defined as a collective and patterned way of thinking of a group of people, based on some values or hidden rules, followed over a period of time; and thinking is shaped by the group an individual belongs to.61 Culture is further defined through a group of people that share race, cultural attire, traditional food, values, beliefs, and much more.62 Therefore, there is the delusion that Sikhs wearing a turban share the same culture as the Muslim terrorists based on the physical similarities; for that reason there is a misconception that Sikhs are part of the terrorist culture and share the same values.63 Therefore, this becomes a struggle between individual fears of Americans against a group that they see as a collective group of terrorists that are assumed to be anti-Americans. Essentially, people use their own “cultural yardstick to define ‘the other’.”64 “Othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we “other” another group, we point out their perceived weaknesses to make ourselves look stronger or better. It implies a hierarchy, and it serves to keep power where it already lies.”65 It is through the use of a yardstick that a man in a turban is perceived as the “other,” making it more likely for a Sikh to be perceived as connected to the terrorist culture, and thus viewed as an enemy.

The post 9/11 conflicts can be analyzed through a conflict between individualism and collectivism.66 According to the view of individualism, fundamental attributes of the individual do no vary much over his or her lifetime, whereas, according to the view of the interdependent self (collectivism), the individual is much more malleable and can change and improve through individual effort.67 The Americans that view Sikhs as enemies are likely to view them as the “other,” because in the Western society people are more independent and individualist, and not as malleable as other cultures.68 The othering effect creates an ethnic construction producing power dynamics that allow the mainstream white American to remain comfortably invisible while people of color are forcibly foregrounded and constrained within ethnic identities.69

Whereas, Sikhs that come from India, which is so diverse and enriched in culture, are less likely to view other people as the “other.” The reason is that life in small towns and in dense communities reinforces social control and collectivism.70 Therefore, some individualist may find it difficult to invite the “others” and not perceive them as an outcast. The Sikh victims through this analysis seem to have been viewed as the “other,” and for that reason perceived as being capable of harm. Therefore, Americans involved in the death of many Sikhs may have internalized a fear that someone that falls in the “other” category, are likely to lash out like Bin Laden and the other terrorists. As a result of propagated fear by the post 9/11 incident, Americans have internalized a fear that an individual sharing a physical identity to the terrorists is likely to share the same cultural values and beliefs to harm the United States.

Conclusion

The fact is that death of innocent Sikhs and discrimination continues to be an issue, and society needs to work towards alleviating continued post 9/11 misconceptions. If people of all ages can be educated about the difference between the involved terrorists and Sikhs, there may be a shift away from hate crimes. Therefore, I feel that the same media that advertised the pictures of the terrorists with a turban and long beard, can do society justice by creating awareness about the cultural distinctions and not to fear the “other.” There should be an opportunity for uninformed individuals to become aware that every man wearing a turban is not a terrorist whether they are Muslim or Sikh. Ethnic minorities should not be living in a constant fear that they might be targeted, and for that reason cannot enjoy a walk, school or their daily jobs.

The conflict discussed in this paper made me aware that how strong of an impact culture has on those that are insiders, and outsiders. From class discussions and lectures, I have come to know how much biases we as individual carry about one and other’s culture and the global impact it has on people. The unfortunate truth is that there are wars, conflicts, deaths and hatred created as a result of how we perceive another person’s culture and personal identity. I feel that through mediation and negotiation, it gives people the opportunity to explore those misconceptions, biases, but only if we all open up our minds.71

I have learned that before initiating a mediation or negotiation to resolve a conflict it is important to understand why a certain person has a certain viewpoint. It is important to understand the other person’s culture, by putting aside any viewpoints or biases that I may have formulated. I have also learned that there is a mental hierarchy that we tend to create, in which it is easy to perceive yourself as superior and the other as inferior. I feel that people need to put aside biases and ask the question “why,” it is through opening our minds that we can remove the impact of the othering mentality.


1 THE SIKHCOALIATION THE VOICE OF A PEOPLE, Fact Sheet on Post 9/11 Discrimination and Violence against Sikh American. http://www.sikhcoalition.org/images/documents/fact%20sheet%20on%20hate%20against%20sikhs %20in%20america%20post%209-11%201.pdf.

2 Jessica Falcone, Diaspora, Seeking Recognition: Patriotism, Power and Politics in Sikh American Discourse in the Immediate Aftermath of 9/11. (2006).

3 Muninder K. Ahluwalia & Laura Pellettiere, Asian American Journal of Psychology, Sikh Men Post-9/11: Misidentification, Discrimination, and Coping. Vol.1, No. 4, 303-314 (2010).

4 A&E Television Networks, HISTORY, 9/11, http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks, (2015).

5-6 Id.

7 STATISTIC BRAIN, 9/11 Death Statistics, http://www.statisticbrain.com/911-death-statistics/.

8-9 Id.

10 A&E Television Networks, HISTORY, 9/11, http://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks, (2015).

11-23 Id.

24 Jessica Falcone, Diaspora, Seeking Recognition: Patriotism, Power and Politics in Sikh American Discourse in the Immediate Aftermath of 9/11. (2006).

25-27 Id.

28 SIKH vs MUSLIM HEADGEAR: Understand the differences, http://www.barenakedislam.com/2013/02/28/sikh-vs-muslim-headgear-understand-the-differences/.

29-30 Id.

31 Jessica Falcone, Diaspora, Seeking Recognition: Patriotism, Power and Politics in Sikh American Discourse in the Immediate Aftermath of 9/11. (2006).

32Ahluwalia, M. K., & Zaman, N. Counseling Muslims and Sikhs in a post-9/11 world. In J. G. Ponterotto, M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (3rd ed., pp. 467-478). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. (2009).

33 SALDEF, The First 9/11 ‘Backlash’ Fatality: The Murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, http://saldef.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Balbir_Singh_Sodhi_First_Backlash_Murder.pdf.

34-35 Id.

36 Tamar Lewin , “Sikh Owner Of Gas Station Is Fatally Shot In Rampage”, New York Times,

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/17/us/sikh-owner-of-gas-station-is-fatally-shot-in-rampage.html.

37 Soni Sangha & Richard Weir, Drunks Beat Sikh Family Anti-Arab slurs in Queens, http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/drunks-beat-sikh-family-anti-arab-slurs-queens-article-1.520834.

38 Jessica Falcone, Diaspora, Seeking Recognition: Patriotism, Power and Politics in Sikh American Discourse in the Immediate Aftermath of 9/11. (2006).

39 Jay Singh Sohal, SIKHNET, Sikhs are sometimes mistaken for Muslims and targeted by anti-Islam activists, http://www.sikhnet.com/news/did-milwaukee-gunman-mistakenly-target-sikhs.

40-41 Id.

42 Muninder K. Ahluwalia & Laura Pellettiere, Asian American Journal of Psychology, Sikh Men Post-9/11: Misidentification, Discrimination, and Coping. Vol.1, No. 4, 303-314 (2010).

43 Chilana, R. S. (2005). Sikhism: Building a basic collection on Sikh religion and culture. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 45, 11–21.

44 Singh Lecture on Generalizing.

45 THE SIKHCOALIATION THE VOICE OF A PEOPLE, Fact Sheet on Post 9/11 Discrimination and Violence against Sikh American. http://www.sikhcoalition.org/images./documents/fact%20sheet%20on%20hate%20against%20sikhs%20in%20america%20post%209-11%201.pdf.

46 Id.

47 Lee, Romney, LOS ANGELES TIMES, Southern California—THIS JUST IN, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2011/04/second-sikh-shooting-victim-in-sacramento-area-suburb-dies.html.

48 SALDEF, Sikh Gurdwara Vandalized; SALDEF Calls for Hate Crime Investigation, http://saldef.org/news/mi-gurdwara-vandalized/#.VRIDBvnF_XU.

49 Brendan O’Brien, HUFFINGTONPOST, Wisconsin Shooting: 7 People Killed At Sikh Temple, Including Shooter., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/05/wisconsin-shooting-sikh temple_n_1744256.html?utm_hp_r ef=religion&ir=Religion.

50-51 Id.

52 THE SIKHCOALIATION THE VOICE OF A PEOPLE, Fact Sheet on Post 9/11 Discrimination and Violence against Sikh American. http://www.sikhcoalition.org/images

53-56 Id.

57 Muninder K. Ahluwalia & Laura Pellettiere, Asian American Journal of Psychology, Sikh Men Post-9/11: Misidentification, Discrimination, and Coping. Vol.1, No. 4, 303-314 (2010).

58 SALDEF, Hate Crimes, http://saldef.org/archive/legal-defense-advocacy/hate-crimes/#.VRL51_nF_XW.

59Id.

60 Muninder K. Ahluwalia & Laura Pellettiere, Asian American Journal of Psychology, Sikh Men Post-9/11: Misidentification, Discrimination, and Coping. Vol.1, No. 4, 303-314 (2010).

61-62 Singh, Lecture on Culture.

63 Simran Jeet Singh, The media and politicians still lump together people from different parts of the world who practice entirely different religions. The result? Hate crimes, http://www.sikhnet.com/news/we-should-know-better-911-era-ignorance-islam-infecting-age-isis.

64 Bee Chen Goh, et. al., As We See It, in Educating Negotiators for a Connected World: Volume 4 in the Rethinking Teaching Series, DRI Press 2012.

65 Sara Rismyhr Engelund, Introductory Essay: “The Other” and “Othering,” https://newnarratives. wordpress.com /issue -2-the-other/other-and-othering-2/.

66-67 Id.

68 Nekane Basabe, Cultural dimensions and social behaviour correlates: individualism-Collectivism and Power Distance, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2005.

69 Jessica Falcone, Diaspora, Seeking Recognition: Patriotism, Power and Politics in Sikh American Discourse in the Immediate Aftermath of 9/11. (2006).

70 Triandis, H.C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Boulder: Westview Press.

71 Singh, Lecture On Culture, Perception, and Biases.

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2.   By Sunny Grewal on Mar 3, 2016 | Reply

    Great article. The information was covered well and did a great job of describing the situation that Sikhs face in the United States. Thanks.

  3.   By Monica L on Mar 4, 2016 | Reply

    Well done! I liked your description of the “other” and the use of the “cultural yardstick” to fall into a pattern of ignorance and generalization as an excuse for our actions as people and a society. Very poignant stuff!

  4.   By google mail login gmail account welcome to gmail on Mar 13, 2016 | Reply

    Terrific post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.
    Thanks!

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