Members of the Sikh faith are staging outreach events at temples around the country over the next few months as part of a national campaign to dispel American misconceptions that their turbans and beards symbolize a radical or anti-American agenda.
In fact, explains Rajwant Singh, it is just the opposite: "The intent of the turban was to declare that this is the person that will be the most helpful person. If you are in trouble or you need help or you need assistance, you can always count on the person who is wearing the turban."
Singh, co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign the group that is organizing the nationwide awareness effort said that across Southeast Asia, the image of Sikhs is that "turban-wearing people are the person you can rely on and always depend on and they will protect you. That is completely flipped around in America. People see a turban and they think 'Oh my God, he's got some bomb in his head!' "
Sikhism is a non-proselytizing faith that does not seek converts and teaches that all faiths that worship God are basically different paths to the same God.
Singh's temple called a gurdwara in Rockville, Md., is holding an open house Sunday, the kickoff event for the national effort. The campaign has also launched a series of television ads to introduce the faith to more Americans.
Sikh temples are always open to outsiders, and every service includes a free meal for all attendees. But Singh said that for the open houses, gurdwaras are planning demonstrations of turban tying, explanations of Sikh principles and truncated prayer services. They will also invite local elected officials, law enforcement officers and other community leaders to participate in the events.
Violence against Sikhs spiked after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have risen again recently, according to several Sikh activists. A Sikh man wearing a turban was shot in Seattle in March by a gunman who told him to "go back to your country." Last month, a Sikh doctor in Monroe, Ind., said he received a death threat by text message, and a cab driver in New York was assaulted and the assailants ripped off his turban.
Prabhjjot Singh, a doctor from New York, testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on religious hate crimes Tuesday that his jaw was broken in a 2013 beating and that his assailants called him a "terrorist." He said it was the third time he had ben attacked since 9/11. Sikh men generally take the last name Singh, which means "lion"; Sikh women take the last name Kaur, which means "princess."
"While it is clear that Sikh Americans are not alone in experiencing a rise in hate crimes, the experience of our community is important to understand how dangerous this current era of inflammatory rhetoric promises to be if action is not taken," he said. "I am particularly concerned about the staggering rise in anti-Muslim hate violence and anti-immigrant rhetoric, which increasingly appears to be tolerated even celebrated in our political discourse," he said.
"Religious hate crimes are on the rise," Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at the hearing, noting that hate crimes against Muslims rose 67% between 2014 and 2015. "Fear for practicing ones religion should never happen in this country," he said.
Anjleen Kaur Gumer of Phoenix says she has become a "Sikh awareness advocate" because "I don't want my kids to grow up in a world where they are being bullied." Gumer says "two out of three turbaned Sikh kids get bullied in school" and her son Anaik is about to begin kindergarten. She does presentations about Sikhism for her kids' classes, and other parents have told her "my son or my daughter came home and told me about the bracelet that Anaik wears or why Anaik doesn't cut this hair
the kids were going home and teaching the parents and then the parents would come and talk to me or go look up on their own about the religion."
There are about a half-million Sikhs in the United States, and Rajwant Singh said 99% of people wearing turbans in America are Sikhs. The Census Bureau does not count Sikhs as a separate category, but several advocacy groups are asking for a separate tally of Sikhs in the 2020 census.