ANITA SNOW and NOREEN NASIR, Associated Press
Sikh entrepreneur Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed at his gas station in Arizona four days after the 9/11 attacks by a man who said he would “go out and shoot some towel heads” believing him to be an Arab Muslim.
Young Sikh Americans are still struggling a generation later with the discrimination 9/11 unleashed against their elders and them, from school bullying to racial profiling to hate crimes – especially against men who normally wear beards and turbans, to demonstrate their faith.
As the 20th anniversary of September 11 approaches, these younger Sikhs are saying that much more is needed to improve the prosecution of hate crimes against their community. The FBI only started prosecuting hate crimes specifically against Sikhs in 2015, and many local law enforcement agencies do not fully capture bias attacks.
“A community organization like ours has a responsibility to identify the problem and then build support” to ensure better reporting, said Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh coalition. The largest Sikh advocacy group in the United States, founded after September 11, documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans in the first few months.
Such attacks can be particularly harsh on young Sikhs who are bullied by classmates trying to pull off their turbans or ridiculing them as “Osama’s nephew” or “Saddam Hussein”. They often struggle with the Sikh philosophy of “Chardi Kala”, which calls for unshakable optimism in the face of oppression.
“Eternal optimism can help us with this, but sometimes we have to highlight the harsh realities,” said Tejpaul Bainiwal, 25, a graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, who studies the history of the Sikhs who first began arriving in the US at the end of the 19th
Bainiwal admits that in high school he had a lot of fist fights with other students who tugged at his headgear and mocked him. He said frightened Sikh families were discussing whether to continue showing outward signs of faith after the August 5, 2012 massacre in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin that ultimately killed seven believers.
Now, with Americans observing events in Afghanistan from afar, Bainiwal pondered how Sikhs have been misnamed and characterized throughout history.
“A hundred years ago we were called Hindus, then Saudi Arabians, and when Iran was in the eyes of Americans we were called ‘the Ayotollah’. “
Media images of Taliban leaders with turbans and beards, who recently regained control of Afghanistan with the withdrawal of US troops, made Sikh Americans nervous again when they warn each other that their turbans and beards are falsely symbols of extremism are. In the Sikh faith, long uncut hair is one of five articles of faith. Most men and some women traditionally wear a headdress over their long locks.
The FBI listed 67 anti-Sikh crimes for 2020, the highest annual number since the category was launched in 2015, said criminologist and civil rights attorney Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino.
He said the center recently produced a conflict advisory service that said the risk of targeted aggression against Sikhs and others in the US has been raised to near “severe” levels. Political and international events could sporadically increase these dangers even further over the next 18 months, according to the report.
Levin told the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Aug. 5 that domestic extremism often follows “catalytic events” that spark fear, such as the coronavirus outbreak that sparked anti-Asian violence; the January 6 uprising in the US Capitol; and the upcoming anniversary on September 11th.
After the 2001 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi was among the first Sikhs, Arab Muslims and others to fall victim to hate crimes.
Aircraft mechanic Frank Roque was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death on September 15, 2001 before commuting to life imprisonment. Roque was also accused of shooting at an Afghan family’s home and a Lebanese supermarket on the same day, although no one was injured in those attacks.
Rose Kaur Sodhi, the niece of Balbir Singh Sodhi, was a second grader preparing for a relative’s birthday party when her family learned of her uncle’s murder.
“We knew something was terribly wrong because my father came home crying. I had never seen it before, ”she said of her father and Balbir’s brother Rana Singh Sodhi, who became a well-known figure in the American Sikh community and taught her to tell the story of her family and work for peace.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said the younger Sodhi, now 27 and living in Los Angeles. “He was kind enough to always give all the kids candy from his shop.”
In the months that followed, children at her elementary school near Phoenix began harassing their then six-year-old brother, leading them to complain to the principal when they cursed him and tugged his topknot.
“The gas station where he was murdered is our ground zero,” said activist filmmaker Valarie Kaur, who describes Balbir Singh Sodhi, a family friend, as “uncle”. Local and national dignitaries were invited to commemorate Sodhi at a memorial service there on September 15.
Kaur was a student on September 11th watching the collapse of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center on the television in her parents’ bedroom in Clovis, California.
When images of a bearded man in a turban flashed repeatedly on the screen, “I realized that our nation’s new enemy looked like my family,” said Kaur, who now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young son.
After Sodhi’s death, Kaur traveled across the United States to investigate the subsequent explosion of hate crimes against Sikhs and Muslim Americans, as well as other people perceived as foreign or different.
The resulting documentary, Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, was used in classrooms and communities across the country to stimulate discussions about hate crimes. Kaur followed last year with his memoir “See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love”.
Now she’s worried about what her little son is going to have to face.
“My son was born during the 2016 election season … when hate crimes skyrocketed,” Kaur said. “Once again I had to expect that he would grow up in a more dangerous nation for him than for me.”
Kaur said the danger became most apparent in 2012 when a veteran of white army supremacy shot and killed six believers in Gurdwara or Sikh temples in Wisconsin before he committed suicide.
A seventh person, Baba Punjab Singh, a Sikh priest from India, was shot in the head and remained partially paralyzed. He died of his wounds on March 2, 2020.
For over seven years, the priest’s son, Raghuvinder Singh, divided his time between caring for his father in Oak Creek and working as an assistant priest in a gurdwara in Glen Rock, New Jersey.
When his father was still alive, he could communicate by blinking: once for “no” and twice for “yes”.
Singh, now 49, said the greatest lesson his father taught him was how to embody Chardi Kala.
“I would say, ‘Papa Ji, are you in Chardi Kala?’ And he blinked twice every time, ”said Singh. “If he can live in this state in Chardi Kala, why can’t we?”
Nasir reported from Oak Creek, Wisconsin and Lodi, New Jersey.