As a Sikh American, I am dumbfounded by the irresponsible Islamophobic discourse that took place on two recent Fox News national broadcasts, The O'Reilly Factor and Fox and Friends, in which Robert Bergdahl was criticized for his appearance, namely his beard. Specifically, it was insinuated that his beard was somehow "suspicious," "Islamic" and then, without just reason or cause, connected to the Taliban. This entire discourse was based upon nothing but accusations, and based upon no evidence that Bergdahl's beard was somehow religiously connected, or that billions of people practice the Muslim faith with absolutely no connection to the Taliban or any form of extremism. And it once again sent the message that beards are somehow associated with a dangerous "other" and a threat to American security and identity.
"But it is Robert Bergdahl, the father, who is also engendering some controversy. He has learned to speak Pashto, the language of the Taliban, and looks like a Muslim," Bill O'Reilly said on his show, The O'Reilly Factor.
Meanwhile, Fox and Friends host Brian Kilmeade took O'Reilly's message even further, stating "Really? I mean, he says he was growing his beard because his son was in captivity. Well, your son's out now. So if you really don't -- no longer look like a member of the Taliban, you don't have to look like a member of the Taliban. Are you out of razors?"
These comments -- for a national television audience -- demonize not just the Sikh American community -- a visible minority that is easily identified by their articles of faith, turbans and beards -- but also Muslims, Hindus, and other communities in our nation. They run counter to the ideas of religious freedom, pluralism, and freedom of expression. But, beyond a training in cultural sensitivity, Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. Kilmeade should recognize that Mr. Bergdahl -- who is keeping a beard as a means to express solidarity with his kidnapped son -- is free to maintain a beard in our country just as those who maintain one for religious purposes are allowed to do so under the U.S. Constitution. After all, there is no "Muslim" look (some Muslims may maintain beards while many do not) and beards are in fact kept by many Americans including Orthodox Jews, the Amish, Sikh Americans, or culturally by men of all ages.
Even worse, O'Reilly and Kilmeade's words promote the idea that those who are different from the mainstream should be treated suspiciously and feared. SALDEF, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, recently conducted a study, Turban Myths, with Stanford University, regarding the public perception of Sikh Americans in a post-9/11 America. Turban Myths found that people fear a turban and beard -- essential articles of the Sikh faith -- and this fear is enhanced by media discourse, including statements made by national media figures like O'Reilly and Kilmeade. By vilifying the beard, they legitimize a culture of discrimination, hate and violence against those who maintain beards, regardless of faith or background. We have seen this time and again, but most recently with the hate crime against physician and Columbia University assistant professor, Prabhjot Singh, who was attacked and called racial slurs while on a walk last September. The study further found that 20 percent of people expressed open anger and apprehension against the turban and beard while another 30 percent expressed a different negative reaction and fear of people with these articles of faith.
As a Sikh American who deals with the consequences of these portrayals on a daily basis, I am disappointed that these national broadcasters' irresponsible and inaccurate statements. They have fostered a climate of fear and hostility, which has threatened the safety and liberty of millions of Americans -- Sikh, Muslim and otherwise. We must stand up, not just as Sikh Americans, but as Americans, to defend tolerance and acceptance. The beard is not a threat. It is our right.