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"Mohammed Raghead" and Fighting the Anti-Turban Bias that Plagues Our Land of Liberty

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Glenn Greenwald's latest reporting has given us conclusive proof that the NSA has unfairly monitored Muslim Americans. As Sikh Americans, we were very pained to see leaders of civil rights organizations and academic institutions as well as a Muslim American who served the Navy as a JAG officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security unjustly surveiled. This revelation reminds us of Fred Korematsu and the Japanese American internment, which is, to this day, one of the darkest moments in our nation's history.

Furthermore, we learned that a 2005 training document used the name "Mohammed Raghead" when showing NSA employees how to "properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance." The use of the word "raghead" is deeply offensive to members of the Sikh faith. The dastar, the Sikh turban, is worn by Sikh men and women across the United States. This internal memo is conclusive proof that even government officials hold a patently false view that turbans are associated with a dangerous "other" and a threat to American security and identity. It is a direct attack on the Sikh appearance and ultimately, our values. Sikh Americans have a 120-year plus long history in the United States, and the reason why we have been able to thrive here is because Sikhism's core tenants are so deeply reflected in the American way of life. Sikhs believe in freedom of religion, the value of earning an honest living and giving to those not as fortunate as us, as well as equality amongst the genders, races, and all classes. No wonder the first Asian American to serve in Congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was a Sikh!

When SALDEF (the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) partnered with Stanford University to create its Turban Myths report in 2013, the first public perception assessment of Sikh Americans, we learned that while our community represents America's strongest values, our neighbors still may not know us. Seventy percent of respondents could not properly connect a Sikh man in a dastar (turban) to his religious affiliation. Worse, 20 percent of respondents said that when encounter a Sikh man wearing a turban they are more likely to become angry or apprehensive.

The study corroborates, through literary review and data analysis, the existence of a specific cultural bias and its impact on the real, daily lived experiences of the Sikh American community. Key findings of the research include that while the bias is unconscious, it was charged by emotion and reinforced by images. That is why this month until July 27, 2014, Comcast has donated one million dollars in airtime on its cable channels to air a PSA featuring Waris Ahluwalia, a Sikh American actor and designer, recognizing Sikh Americans as a vibrant part of America's cultural tapestry. Using a SALDEF- created script, the PSA demonstrates through words and images how Sikh Americans values are America's values, including a love of service, family, and community. The PSA is available for viewing here.

We look at this PSA as an opportunity to introduce our neighbors to Sikh Americans so we can address anti-turban bias head on. We recognize that while there are Sikh Americans contributing to their neighborhoods in a multitude of ways, not everyone has a chance to meet them. The PSA teaches the viewer that men and women who wear turbans are as American as apple pie -- whether it is Mr. Gurpreet Singh Sarin, who was a semi-finalist on American Idol in 2013 or Ms. Arpinder Kaur of Dallas, Texas, the first turbaned pilot hired by a commercial airline in the United States.

Our goal is to show conclusively that our dastars are to be celebrated, and not feared. The turbans you see your fellow Sikh Americans wear are more than a spiritual commitment. Wearing a turban teaches a Sikh to be part of a community in which everyone, regardless of economic class or background is equal, and that's something we know our fellow Americans can get behind.