We Must Do More to Lift Up America's Rich Cultural and Religious Diversity

Last week, Sikh American Inderjit Singh Mukker was viciously attacked in his Chicago suburb after the assailant yelled, "Terrorist, go back to your country, Bin Laden!" The assailant reached into his car and repeatedly punched him in the face, knocking him out. Mukker bled profusely and suffered a fractured cheekbone.

Unfortunately, Mukker's story is not unique. Following the horrific and unthinkable attacks on September 11, 2001, Sikhs and Muslims were the victims in nearly five percent of all hate crimes reported that year--a seventeen-fold increase over the prior year. Fourteen years later, Sikhs Americans continue to face violent attacks just because of their appearance.

In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, Americans grew stronger as "United We Stand" was splashed on the front page of newspapers and car bumpers nationwide. But in some communities, wearing the American flag became a safety measure, handed out in Sikh temples, known as gurdwaras, and mosques. As Americans grappled with fear of another terrorist attack, Sikhs and Muslims found ourselves in two worlds. As Americans, we mourned. But as individuals who looked like the images that the media showed of the terrorists--turbans, beards, brown skin, and unfamiliar names--we were on alert.

A religion distinct from Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion and requires observant Sikhs to keep unshorn hair and wear a turban. While 99 percent of turban wearers in the United States are Sikhs from India, the misconceptions portrayed by the media following 9/11 formed an atmosphere of hate towards anyone who looked remotely like Al Qaeda.

As the country preached unity, I witnessed classmates with these characteristics become victims of harassment and bullying. I watched as fear of "the other" sparked hate crimes and discrimination against communities like mine nationwide. Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first fatality in the 9/11 backlash, was a proud Sikh American. He was shot while arranging American flags in front of his gas station in the name of unity. His murderer said he wanted to "kill a Muslim" in retaliation for the terrorist attacks.

Moments after two planes hit the twin towers, Amrik Singh Chawla found himself running from men chasing him, yelling for him to take off his turban. When he stepped off the subway in Brooklyn, he removed his turban for his safety. Meanwhile, in Queens, Attar Singh was attacked by six teenagers with baseball bats studded with nails. He died three months later.

In the month after 9/11, there were 300 attacks against Sikh Americans. Hundreds have occurredsince.

People of color will become the new majority by 2050. Asian American Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing immigrant community, including a growing South Asian population, which grew 81 percent between 2000 and 2010. Many of these individuals are Sikhs, but a large knowledge gap of these shifting demographics continues to exist.

Worse, nearly every aspect of Sikh Americans' lives have been increasingly vulnerable to discrimination, profiling, bullying, and detention. Sikhs are subject to secondary screening by T.S.A. officials 100 percent of the time, while 69 percent of turban-wearing Sikh students report being bullied in school. Turban-wearing Sikhs are repeatedly placed in jobs where they won't be seen, fired for looking too different, and unable to obtain driver's licenses with articles of faith intact.

Sikh values are American values. Just as America's founders abolished titles of nobility, Sikhism's founders abolished the caste system. The Sikh gurus promoted racial, gender, and religious equality, all of which are important American values. Sikhs serve in Congress, protect our communities as members of police forces, and have fought for the U.S. Army in every war since World War I, even while facing barriers to practicing their faith by wearing turbans. And yet, only 1 in 10 Americans, after viewing images of Sikh Americans, offered the response that Sikhs "are human beings just like me and they deserve respect."

Sikh Americans continue to live in a state of constant vigilance, defending our values, our articles of faith, our patriotism, and our right to live without fear of being accosted or physically attacked for our faith. As these communities grow, we must do more to lift up America's rich cultural and religious diversity and recognize we are stronger when we are truly united.