San Francisco Chronicle
Spurred by 9/11 bigotry, U.S. Sikhs got organized
Taranjit Singh wraps his turban at his home in Fremont. There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S.
Nirvair Singh jolted awake on Sept. 11, 2001, to his radio alarm clock blaring the news about two planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings. He instantly felt grief in his haze, but it wasn’t until his wife asked him to stay home from work that it dawned on the Santa Clara resident how the horrific tragedy could affect Sikh Americans.
“After work that day, where I was greeted with a few prolonged stares, a bunch of my friends and I got on a phone call to talk about the atmosphere we suddenly found ourselves in,” Singh recalled.
“And we realized the Sikh community was totally unprepared for what was to come.”
Days after the attack, Taranjit Singh was riding his bike in Fremont, on his way to BART for work. Two young men in their 20s started trailing behind him and taunts of “Osama bin Laden” soon followed, he said.
Kavneet Singh, a senior at UC Berkeley at the time, started organizing walking parties with other student groups in an effort to keep Sikh and Arab students, or anyone who looked like them, safe while going home from campus.
Stories like the Singhs’, who are unrelated, are common post 9/11. Sikh Americans, who are not Muslim but commonly wear turbans and headscarves, found themselves swept up in the hateful tide of Islamophobia after the attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives. But the date also proved a watershed moment that inspired the Sikh community to organize and show solidarity with — rather than distance itself from — Muslim Americans.
“Here is the kind of generational linchpin point where you get to decide how you want to engage, and which side of history you might be on,” said Kavneet, 42, a former UC Berkeley student who now chairs the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in the mid-1990s. “We were saying, ‘You’re not attacking us because you think we are Muslim, you’re targeting us for precisely who we are.’ ”
Founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that emphasizes equality among people and a commitment to social service. Observant Sikh men, and some women, practice Kesh: allowing one’s hair to grow naturally by never cutting it and using turbans to manage it, which signify their devotion.
Despite there being 30 million followers worldwide and an estimated 500,000 in the U.S., lingering ignorance about the religion coupled with television news portrayals of turbaned men as terrorists after 9/11 contributed to what happened next, advocates say.
The Sikh Coalition says it recorded more than 300 incidents of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans in just the first month after the twin towers fell.
One of the first recorded hate crimes in the country after 9/11 was perpetrated against a Sikh man. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz., was fatally shot four days after the attacks by a white supremacist who allegedly said he was “going out to shoot some towel heads.”
“There’s a real lack of education, awareness and religious literacy about the Sikh community despite it being the fifth largest religion in the world,” said Pritpal Kaur, the education director at the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization. “There was a lot of conflation between the civic identity and images that were being displayed in the media of terrorists (after the attacks). And unfortunately that lack of religious literacy is what led to some very terrible hate crimes.”
Other attacks continued through the next decade, like the unsolved murders of two elderly Sikh men out on a walk in Sacramento in 2011 and the deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., that killed six in 2012.
This year in San Jose, two Sikh men have been victims of attacks where the motives are still being investigated. In April, a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority worker was shot in the back with an arrow, one month after another Sikh man was among the nine VTA employees killed in a mass shooting.
The Department of Justice didn’t start asking law enforcement agencies to collect hate crime data involving Sikh victims until 2015.
But hate crime data is a notoriously poor barometer, said Sim Singh, an attorney and policy advocate at the Sikh Coalition. Law enforcement agencies can misclassify hate crimes, which members of targeted communities may hesitate reporting due to a fear of police, he said.
A lack of visibility is one of the reasons the community galvanized to advocate for itself.
Bay Area Sikhs began meeting soon after 9/11 to strategize a response to the bigotry headed their way. A group of volunteers formed the Sikh Coalition on the night of the attacks to advocate for the religious community. It has a West Coast office in Fremont.
Throughout the years, Nirvair, Taranjit and Kavneet kept wearing their articles of faith. Kavneet, who was born in Michigan, raised in Lancaster (Los Angeles County) and now resides in Danville, said bullying and harassment were regular experiences for him at school, and for his family in general. 9/11 intensified those experiences, he said.
For friends Nirvair, 57, and Taranjit, 48, the days and years following the attacks have led them on a civil rights journey, volunteering their time and effort in educating as many people as they can about their faith.
Taranjit, who was accosted by the two young men calling him “Osama Bin Laden,” invited them into dialogue. They ended up riding BART together and, at the end of the trip, he said the young men left better informed and apologized for their behavior. He’s since led educational efforts at schools in Fremont, including a turban-tying day at his now college-attending son’s high school.
Nirvair says he hasn’t used an alarm clock to wake up since that morning 20 years ago. His daughter Mehtab Kaur, now 23, has grown up in the shadows of 9/11.
“To this day, when I’m out with my dad who is turbaned, there’s this sense of hypervigilance. Of looking around to see if there’s some kind of danger lurking,” she said. “I wish I didn’t have to do that.”
Twenty years after the events of 9/11 changed what it meant to navigate America as a follower of the Sikh faith, the community is also continuing to stand with other movements. A younger cohort of Sikh activists runs the Bay Area Kisaan (farmer) Movement, which highlights the plight of farmers in India who are protesting for fair prices against their government.
“The community has always been a able to gather around issues that are important to us,” Kavneet said. “We will continue to see unity like this going forward.”