An American Sikh advocacy group launched a $1.3 million ad campaign Friday in an effort to spread awareness about their religion and curb hate-driven crimes toward their community.
The National Sikh Campaign created the commercials, which are scheduled to run during select times nationally on CNN and Fox News, as well as TV channels in Fresno, California, home to one of the largest populations of Sikhs in the U.S. and a hotbed of hate crimes.
The group said the “We Are Sikhs” ad campaign aims to tackle misconceptions about the religion and its followers.
“We’re the least understood major faith in the United States,” said Gurwin Singh Ahuja, executive director of the National Sikh Campaign and former Obama administration staffer. “And that leads to a whole host of issues.”
“Kids get bullied. Mothers have to be extra cautious to make sure their kids aren’t being harassed,” he continued. “There’s significant employment discrimination. And in some cases, people have even been killed.”
There’s been a surge of violence and discrimination toward Sikh Americans in the last 15 years. In the first month after 9/11, Sikhs were the victims of at least 300 hate crimes across the U.S., and many Sikh Americans say they don’t feel any safer today.
Americans who follow Sikhism are thousands of times more likely to be the victim of a hate crime than their average American counterparts, according to the Sikh Coalition.
Just last month, a 39-year-old Sikh man was shot in the arm while working on his car in the driveway of his home in Seattle, Washington. Deep Rai told police his white attacker yelled “Get out of our country!” before shooting him.
We want to showcase to our neighbors how quintessential our immigrant story is to the American dream. Shawn Singh Ghuman, National Sikh Campaign
Ahuja said Sikhs are commonly perceived as religious extremists or terrorists simply because of their turbans and beards, which Sikhism followers often keep unshorn for religious reasons.
The ads explain the basic tenets of the religion, founded in India over 500 years ago. It is the fifth largest religion in world and the third biggest monotheistic faith, after Islam and Christianity. Sikhism’s more than 25 million followers embrace progressive values including gender equality, religious tolerance, social justice and community service.
The first Sikhs settled in the U.S. over 100 years ago and the Sikh Coalition estimates there are now 500,000 Sikhism followers living in the U.S. This legacy forms an important part of the ad campaign, according to Shawn Singh Ghuman, communications director for the National Sikh Campaign.
“We want to showcase to our neighbors how quintessential our immigrant story is to the American dream,” he said. “It’s fundamental to our religion that we work hard and put in effort to better ourselves and our generations and our communities.”
The commercials also remind viewers that many Sikhs share common interests with their fellow Americans.
“I’ve seen every episode of ‘Spongebob’ because that’s what my daughters like to watch,” a proud father says moments later.
Ghuman said the impetus for the ad campaign was the 2012 massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, where a white supremacist shot and killed six worshippers. All of the male victims were wearing turbans.
Nearly 99 percent of Americans who wear turbans are Sikh, yet 60 percent of Americans say they know nothing about the religion, according to surveys the group has conducted.
This lack of awareness has devastating effects on Sikh children. A 2014 report that the Sikh Coalition issued found 67 percent of turbaned Sikh children were bullied in school ― over twice the rate for an average 12- to 18-year-old student.
“The turban is the biggest article of faith that’s misunderstood in this country,” Ghuman said. “This severe lack of knowledge around the faith and the turban has caused a lot of the discrimination and hate violence that we’ve seen.”
FBI data shows the U.S. experienced a 7 percent jump in hates crimes from 2014 to 2015, driven largely by a 67 percent increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims. This uptick also has dangerous consequences for Sikh Americans, who are often mistakenly identified as Muslims.
Of the 1,000 bias incidents that the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked in the month following the 2016 presidential election, 37 percent involved the perpetrator invoking President Donald Trump, his campaign slogans or his remarks about sexual assault.
Still, Ahuja stressed that the campaign is a bipartisan effort and is in no way a direct response to Trump’s ascent to power.
“This campaign would have happened whether it was Hillary Clinton in office or Donald Trump,” Ghuman said. “We as a community knew that we had to do something of this kind of nature ... The need for this campaign has been heightened for years.”
Some religious communities have taken on similar grassroots initiatives to spread awareness, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. But Ahuja said the “We Are Sikhs” campaign is the first of its kind for the Sikh community.
The National Sikh Campaign plans to measure the effectiveness of the campaign by polling public awareness in specific areas of the country before and after the four-week campaign.
“Informing our neighbors of our values and who we are is going to be a tremendous opportunity to explain our faith,” Ghuman said. “We have been here for a long time and we really are a part of this country’s fabric.”