The Turban Question

On September 11, 2001 the world was shocked and dismayed by the sight of two airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers. Americans were traumatized at the senseless killing of over 3,000 innocent lives in New York, Washington D.C and Pennsylvania.

However, four days later another senseless killing took place at the other side of the country. Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot five times by a gunman and died instantly outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. Apparently, he had been confused with a person of Middle Eastern ethnicity because of the clothes he wore, his turban, and his beard. Within 25 minutes of his death, the Phoenix police reported four further attacks on people who either were Middle Easterners or who dressed with clothes thought to be worn by Middle Easterners.

Frank Roque, Sodhi’s murderer, drove to another gas station 10 miles away, where he shot at a Lebanese-American clerk from his truck, but missed. Roque then drove to his former residence which had been purchased by a local Afghan family and fired multiple rounds at the outside of the house.

After fleeing from the final shooting, Roque was reported to have gone to a local bar and boasted that "They're investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street." Roque would later be convicted an sentenced to death, but his sentence was reduced to life without parole due to his defense claiming insanity.

Sodhi’s murder made initial headlines because his death was the first post-9/11 hate crime. However, most people don’t know that there have been over 700 post-9/11 related crimes that have taken place since Sodhi's murder, including the death of his brother Sukhpal, who was murdered under mysterious circumstances while driving a cab in San Francisco in 2002.

Another fact is that many of the victims have been members of the Sikh religion, a faith originating from India 500 years ago. Due to the turbans Sikhs wear and the relative scarcity of Sikhs in the United States, there have been incidents of mistaking Sikhs for Middle Eastern men and/or Muslims. This has negatively affected Sikhs living in the West not only with respect to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as with the war in Iraq. Of course, even if a Middle Eastern man and/or Muslim were the only ones wearing turbans, it still doesn’t mean it’s okay to harm them because of this either.

A fabulous new film I saw over the weekend called A Dream In Doubt, not only documents the events around Singh’s death, but also how the Sikh community in the U.S. has handled intensified bigotry since the 9/11 attacks.

Following the film, there was a panel discussion led by Navjeet Singh, North East Representative of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Omar Baddar, executive director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. They discussed how the Sikh and Muslim community are trying to shatter stereotypes about their faiths.

I was concerned mostly about how these groups were working with the media on religious sensitivities as it covered the U.S. elections. This was in particular regard to how some media outlets are covering Democratic Candidate Barack Obama's alleged Muslim past. Obama’s Kenyan father was Muslim and as a child the Senator lived in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population. When a photo happened to “appear” a couple of months ago of Obama in a traditional men’s garb while on an official trip to Somalia in 2006, it was clear the Clinton campaign and other opponents wanted to stir up some Americans’ deep-seated anti-Muslim sentiment and bring back the fears of 9/11. Conservative talk radio in particular used the photo to pander to the lower common denominator by letting hosts and their callers make the most acidic statements about anyone or anything that might even be indirectly related to the Islamic faith.

Baddar said during the panel that the Muslim community has stayed mum on speaking out about this blatant bigotry because many of them actually like Obama and would like to see him become president, but they feel that if they do there would be a backlash and Obama would be further associated with the faith.

But my question is to what extent is it okay to let this hate mongering go on at the expense of potentially tarnishing the presidential hopes of a candidate or even your own pride. If Obama is, indeed, selected to become the Democratic nominee, the Republicans will already have enough anti-Muslim bombs ready to throw at him until Election Day. The fact of the matter, religious tolerance, whether its Sikhism, Islam or any other faith, needs to be taken more seriously.

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