THE BLOG
04/28/2013 11:30 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2013

Turbans Do Not Equal Terrorism: Sikhs Promoting Awareness in a Post-9/11 America

AP

The trip had been magical in many ways. Indu Singh, her husband and her three children had been sightseeing in Rome, Venice and Florence on a winter vacation. They wandered around the ruins of Rome's Old City and received an invitation from a nun to a New Year's Mass.

Magical, that is, until they reached the security line of the Frankfurt, Germany airport for the final leg of their trip back to their home in Philadelphia.

"Stop and remove your turbans," the security officer roughly told Indu's sons, then 7 and 12. "We need to see what's underneath."

The boys, practicing Sikhs, wore turbans over their uncut hair as part of their faith. Sikhs believe in letting their hair grow naturally out of respect for God's creation.

Though Singh tried to explain this, the officer and a colleague ushered the boys "rudely and roughly" into separate isolation rooms, she said, and made them undo their turbans and take down their hair.

Five years have passed since that day, but Indu's voice still rises indignantly when she tells the story. "They felt so picked on."

It's a feeling Sikhs living in the United States say has become all too familiar in the dozen years since 9/11. Though Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion -- larger, even, than Judaism, which is the sixth largest -- only 500,000 of the Sikhism's 23 million worldwide adherents live in the United States. Thus, many Americans are unfamiliar with the faith. As a result, Sikhs say, they're often victims of racial profiling, possibly because they're mistaken for Arab Muslims, a group widely targeted in the years following the attacks.

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The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, estimates that 700 hate crimes have been committed against Sikhs since 9/11 -- a number which, averaged out, totals more than one a week.

In Sept. 2012, in a case of online harassment, a Reddit user posted a photo of a female Sikh Ohio State University student who has facial hair, snidely captioning it: "I'm not sure what to conclude from this."

That incident, at least, had a happy outcome: After the student, Balpreet Kaur, posted a calm, friendly explanation: "Yes, I realize ... I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body," the original poster apologized.

"I made that post for stupid Internet points and I was ignorant," he wrote back.

But not all incidents end so happily. For instance:

  • In August 2012, a gunman, later identified as a member of a white-supremacist group, opened fire in a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wisc., leaving six Sikhs dead.
  • On March 6, 2011, two elderly Sikh men in traditional dress were shot and killed while on their daily walk in Elk Grove, Calif.
  • In August 2008, a 62-year old Sikh man was shot and killed while working at a 7-Eleven in Phoenix, Ariz.

Consequently, some Sikhs have made difficult decisions.

A Sikh man from New Jersey who asked that his name not be used said he stopped wearing his turban and shaved his beard after 9/11 because commuters on the train home harassed him with jeers of "towelhead," "Osama," and "Go back to your country."

In late 2001, he felt he had to make a choice: "cut my hair or get a new job."

By opting for the former, he was no longer an outsider on the train. But he felt like an outsider in a different setting -- in his own community.

"Every Sunday I go to the gurdwara and think I should grow my hair back," he said, though so far he has not done so.

In hopes of cultivating more understanding of their religion, the Sikh Coalition has launched a variety of initiatives, including a mobile application called FlyRights, via which travelers can report perceived airport discrimination directly to the Transportation Security Administration.

The Sikh Coalition and other Sikh activist groups also give presentations on Sikhism to everyone from kindergarteners to police officers to airport workers.

Manbeena Kaur, education director of the Sikh Coalition, both trains presenters and conducts presentations herself. She was not always this open. Growing up, "I didn't want to expose people to my faith and culture because I was scared of the reaction I would get," she said. She now knows how awareness can change minds.

When Savraj Singh, of Lawrenceville, N.J., was invited to speak to students about Sikhism, handouts announcing the talk invoked student comments about "a terrorist coming," said teachers Gigi Shupp and Debbi Shriner. After his presentation, they said those same students realized Savraj was "an all-American boy who wears a turban."

Indu Singh, the mother of the two Sikh boys who endured the incident in the Frankfurt airport, said as her sons have gotten older, they've adjusted to any attention they get from their turbans -- so much so that today their treatment in airport security has become a bit of a family joke.

Her son has a shirt showing major cities designated by airplanes. "I was randomly searched at all these airports," it reads.

Indu hopes her sons will continue wearing the turban and beard into adulthood.

"Where is the joy if every country, every human race doesn't have identity?" she asked.

Balpreet Kaur, the woman who posted the response on Reddit, said it's unusual for Sikh women to wear turbans and have facial hair. Her decision, she said, makes her "a minority within a minority."

But sometimes choices are made "because that's what your heart is telling you to do," she said.

She is optimistic about the future of Sikh awareness in America. "This year has been big for Sikhs. There was a Sikh on American Idol [Gupreet Singh Sarin], a 100-year-old Sikh marathon runner, Fauja Singh."

"People are becoming conscious of us as a community," she said. "We can only move forward."