By Channing Joseph
Thousands of Facebook users are speaking out against a meme that ignorantly suggests a former college basketball player looks like a terrorist because he wears a turban.
The meme shows Darsh Preet Singh -- an American-born former co-captain of the basketball team at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas -- dribbling the ball during a game. Above the image, a caption reads: “Nobody at school wants to guard Muhammad, he’s too explosive.”
But if the Islamophobic sentiment in the meme is not enough to make you puke, the sheer ignorance of it surely will: Singh isn’t an Arab, and he’s not even Middle Eastern -- he’s of Punjabi Indian descent. He’s not a Muslim either -- he’s a member of the Sikh religion, whose practitioners don’t worship Allah or follow the Prophet Muhammad at all.
A recent positive backlash against the meme was sparked by Greg Worthington -- a friend of Singh’s who actually had not seen him in years before the posting. Over the weekend, Worthington wrote a message on Facebook denouncing the meme and pointing out that, in addition to its clear Islamophobia, the meme is emblematic of the sort of ignorance of religions and cultures that has too often led to Sikhs becoming the targets of hate crimes in the United States, particularly since 9/11.
“Let me tell you why this shit isn't funny,” Worthington wrote in the post, which now has more than 30,000 likes and 12,000 shares. “That jersey he's wearing in this pic, it currently sits in a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC because he made US history as the NCAA's first turbaned Sikh American basketball player for Trinity University in my hometown of San Antonio.”
“What you might not know is that Sikhs have a history in the US and abroad of being mistaken for being Muslim and thus being accused of terrorism,” he continued. “This usually leads to them being attacked and even killed because someone stupid thought they deserved to be beaten, injured, or killed because of their religion. But even if he was a Muslim or if he was Arab, this still doesn't make the joke okay and it still doesn't give you reason to believe that person is inherently evil or that they deserve harm. Do the world a favor and educate yourself.”
Just last Sunday, a gurdwara -- or Sikh place of worship -- that serves 800 people in the Los Angeles suburb of Buena Park was vandalized with graffiti by similarly hateful and ignorant people, who wrote things like “F--k ISIS” and “Islam.” The incident is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security.
A 2014 report by the New York-based Sikh Coalition also found that 67 percent of young Sikhs had been bullied in school, with many being called names like “Osama” and “terrorist."
For Singh, who was born and raised in Texas, hearing people direct offensive remarks at him because of his religion may be nothing new, but it can still sting.
“It’s not nice to be an American and to have people question whether or not you’re an American,” Singh told MTV News.
Singh also said that he has seen the same meme pop up again and again over the years but that he was “touched” by Worthington’s decision to speak up about it this time -- especially with all the “negative rhetoric” being bandied about by some leading U.S. politicians and presidential candidates.
“Things like this can be really ignorant and divisive within our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, you start to understand that this is how a lot of people think and this is how they choose to express themselves. The only tools to combat ignorance and fear are education and love."
Since graduating from Trinity with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science in 2008, the former hoops star has worked in U.S. intelligence for the National Security Agency and is now a portfolio manager for an investment firm in Texas. Surprisingly, he now sees an upside to the incident:
“It’s an opportunity to educate and create awareness not just about our tradition but also to stand up for what’s right,” he said. “Choose love, choose compassion and choose kindness. If you can’t see God in all, you don’t see God at all.”