On Saturday (Dec. 26) morning, two white men in their 20s intentionally backed into a man with their truck in Fresno, California, before beating him so badly that they broke his collar bone. The victim, 68-year-old Amrik Singh, was wearing a blue turban, and was a victim of an Islamophobic hate crime -- but he isn't Muslim.
Rampant Islamophobia has made the United States feel like an unsafe place for many Muslims in recent months. Now, it's creating an additional crisis: people attacking Sikhs because they think they're Muslims, even though Sikhism is an entirely different religion.
During the vicious attack on Amrik Singh, the perpetrators shouted, "Why are you here?" -- prompting American Sikhs to respond using the hashtag #WhyWeAreHere on Twitter.
This kind of violence is never excusable, and speaks to the depth of both Islamophobia and religious ignorance in the U.S.
Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion. It is monotheistic, was born in the Punjab region of India during the 15th century and is centered around the belief that all human beings are equal. Sikhism emphasizes the importance of humility, generosity and community, and Sikh men often wear turbans and long beards because keeping hair uncut is regarded as a symbol of living in harmony with God.
There are an estimated 500,000 to 7,000,000 Sikhs living in the U.S. Yet half of Americans mistakenly believe that Sikhism is a sect of Islam, and 70 percent of Americans are unable to identify a Sikh in a photograph, according to a report called "Turban Myths" published in 2013 by the Sikh American legal Defense and Education Fund and Stanford University.
According to a report from the Washington Post, the recent incident in California is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence against American Sikhs. Earlier this month, a Sikh temple in Orange County was vandalized with anti-Muslim hate speech graffiti in the days following the San Bernadino shooting, and in September, a Sikh father of two was "savagely assaulted in a Chicago suburb after being called 'bin Laden'" on his way to the grocery store.
Iqbal S. Grewal, a member of the Sikh Council of Central California, recently told the Fresno Bee that “Sikhs have been mistaken for terrorists and radicals and continue to suffer after 9/11," and that "this is the latest episode of what Sikhs have been enduring when they are very peace-loving and hard-working citizens of this great country and not members of al-Qaida or ISIS or any other radical group.”
Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn't new. In the months following 9/11, over 300 incidences of hate crimes against Sikhs were reported, and in 2012 a white supremacist walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire, killing six worshipers and wounding three before killing himself.
Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, told the Washington Post that things are even worse now than they were after 9/11. “Then, people were angry at the terrorists," he said, "and now they’re angry at Muslims, anyone who is seen as Muslim, or anyone who is perceived as being ‘other.’ It’s not just a case of mistaken identity. It’s beyond that.”
“Trump’s statements legitimize nativist impulses,” Kaur said. “It’s why we’re seeing more profiling and vandalism and intimidating incidents ... These are the kind of things that you start to see as the political rhetoric escalates.”