Dr. Prabhjot Singh is a husband, a father, and a professor of medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Just 33, he serves in prestigious positions, including director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health and vice chairman of medicine for population health at the Mount Sinai Health System. He co-founded the One Million Community Health Worker Campaign with the legendary Jeffrey Sachs, a leading force in the war on poverty. Singh was the founding technical advisor of Harlem-based City Health Works, which trains locally-hired healthcare coaches to improve the community’s health.
As a Sikh, Singh also wears a turban and sports a long beard. And in 2013, a group of about 20 men in Central Park saw Singh and his brother out for a walk and came to a single conclusion, which they shouted at the accomplished doctor and academic: “terrorist.”
They attacked Singh and fractured his jaw – all because they apparently thought he was Muslim. And while Muslims and Sikhs practice different religions and come from differing cultures, Singh is more concerned about what he sees as a frightening commonality of the two faiths: an increasingly emboldened hatred, fueled by fear of terrorism and ignorance about religious tenets.
“Whether someone thinks we’re Sikhs or Muslims is immaterial,” says Singh, who was a Columbia University professor at the time of the attack. “What is clear is that it’s a more hostile environment, more hostile than I remember in college after 9-11.” With a presidential campaign dominated by candidates who speak openly about shuttering mosques, building a wall between the U.S.. and Mexico and making refugee applicants take a religious test, the danger is more widespread for religious minorities, he adds. “The difference today is that the hostility and animus is more naked; it’s more permitted. It’s more a part of the community, media and political discourse,” Singh says.
Three years after a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six, Sikhs say they are feeling a heightened threat.
A few days after Christmas, a Sikh man in Fresno, California was hit by a truck and further attacked by the truck’s occupants, who yelled “why are you here?” at the 68-year-old man, Fresno police said. The matter is being investigated as a hate crime. Earlier in December, a Sikh house of worship in Orange County was defaced with obscene graffiti containing a reference to the Islamic State group, suggesting that the violators connected the Sikhs with terrorism and with Islam.
The episodes are doubly distressing for the Sikh community, which wants to be recognized correctly, but which also does not want to give the impression that it’s acceptable to target Muslims, either.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century in South Asia. Followers believe in reincarnation, karma and salvation, and that spiritual evolution depends on one’s deeds and actions. There are an estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the U.S., about half of them in California. Islam, founded in the seventh century, has 1.2 billion followers (with an estimated 5 million to 12 million in the U.S.) and is the world’s fastest-growing religion. It focuses on five “pillars”: faith, prayer, fasting, giving and pilgrimage.
People mistake Sikhs for Muslims perhaps because of their appearance – darker skin, beards on men and turbans, says Harsimran Kaur, legal director of the Sikh Coalition. Sikhs want to say, “‘I’m not who you think I am.'” she says. “But at the same time, there’ a recognition that no one should be treated differently or attacked because of their faith.”
Misappropriated bias is hardly limited to religion. In 1990, for example, a group of African-Americans in Brooklyn beat up a group of Vietnamese because they apparently thought they were Korean. In language similar to that lobbed at the Fresno Sikh victim, the 1990 attackers yelled, “Koreans, what are you doing here?” then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins reported at the time.
Now, Sikhs are caught in the same painful position, wanting to be recognized for who they really are, but determined not to tacitly endorse bigotry or violence aimed at any other religious group. “There’s not much value in saying, ‘Hey, don’t attack us. Attack someone else,'” says Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor at Trinity University in Texas.
The Texas scholar has a foot in both realms: he’s a Sikh, and he teaches the Koran and the study of Islam. His students often mistake him for a Muslim at first because if his appearance, he says, and some openly acknowledge coming to the class with some biases against Islam – biases he strives to undo as the class delves into the teachings of the religion itself. The Texas professor blames the recent spate of verbal and physical attacks on both Muslims and Sikhs to the current political climate, fueled by recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the aggressive reaction to them by candidates.
“Ignorance and illiteracy are one aspect of the problem,” Singh, the religion professor, says. “The second aspect to the problem, I think, is the political rhetoric and political landscape that are creating a sense of fear in our communities … The difference now is that given the way political leaders are speaking, it’s become OK” to cast all Muslims as terrorists and by extension, Sikhs, he says. Political candidates “are making it acceptable to discriminate against entire communities based on their religious beliefs.”
The FBI only in March of 2015 began tracking hate crimes specifically against Sikhs, following a strong lobbying campaign by the community. Government data will not be available until 2016, but Kaur says the coalition’s tracking shows a dramatic increase in anti-Sikh incidents. There were five cases in December of 2013, seven in December of 2014, and 18 in just the first three weeks of December 2015, she says. Keeping track specifically of hate crimes against Sikhs is a step forward, Kaur says. “If you don’t document the problem, how can you try to solve it?” she asks.
Muslim groups have been openly supportive of their Sikh neighbors, casting the matter not as an issue of religion or culture, but as a unified effort to protect all faiths from discrimination and attacks. When two elderly Sikh men were killed near Sacramento in 2011, the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations offered a $5,000 reward, says the local Muslim group’s executive director, Basim Elkarra. The group has also held solidarity rallies with their Sikh counterparts and “worked closely together to clarify misconceptions about our communities,” Elkarra adds. “At a time when enemies overseas are trying to divide us, we need to be united,” he says.
Singh, the Mt. Sinai doctor, takes what religious experts say is a very Sikh-like approach to dealing with his 2013 attack, refusing to let it transform him to an angry and fearful person. The Sikh religion intertwines the spiritual and secular spheres, seeing love as the ultimate goal, one achieved only by practicing love in one’s everyday life.
The important lesson, he says, is to recognize that all acts of discrimination and related violence, whether it’s police shootings of African-Americans or a Muslim woman having her headscarf torn off as she walks in the street, represent a common enemy of hate and ignorance. “Our fates are bound,” Singh adds. “The country we leave for our kids will be inextricably linked to how we, as a country, deal with this.”