SIKHS SUFFER TERROR BACKLASH
BY Andrew Clunis
Mistaken for Muslims and targeted by extremists
Britain’s Sikh community has been experiencing an increase in hate crimes as part of the backlash from the war on terror. Leaders are campaigning for protection, and they blame public ignorance and the government’s failure to implement adequate measures to safeguard their community for their troubles.
Because of their physical appearance and style of dress, Sikhs are frequently mistaken for radical Muslims, who are locked in an ideological and religious war with western governments.
Members of the UK’s Sikh community are calling on the government to afford them greater recognition and help the public understand that their faith is distinctly different from Islam and other religions.
Principal advisor to Sikhs in England Harmander Singh said there have been significant increases in the reported numbers of hate-related crimes against Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7.
He told The Voice: “The worst abuses we have encountered in this country were after 9/11, although that incident did not happen here. The first building attacked after 7/7 was a Gudwara in Bexley. We are being persecuted for a cause that we do not share. It is unfortunate that we are being punished for what a minority of Muslims do when we are a totally different faith and ethnicity.”
Sikhs’ concerns come as law enforcement authorities debate racial profiling as a counter-terrorism measure. Under the controversial plans, travellers would be checked at the country’s airports on the basis of their appearance. Campaigners fear south Asians would be targeted. Sikh leaders feel that there is insufficient public awareness and their community will come under undue pressure.
Harmander said: “The people who are advocating this type of stop-and-search seem to forget that none of the so-called terrorists were Sikhs. To brand all south Asians as potential terrorists is like saying all paedophiles are white. It is absurd. We were named along with the Jews in the earliest race relations legislation in this country as groups that should be protected. But we are not seeing any of this being put into force for us. We find it unacceptable that a whole group of people can be targeted just because of the colour of their skin and physical appearance.”
Harmander’s fears are not unfounded. One of the first victims of hate crime in America after 9/11 was Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Arizonian petrol station owner who was shot five times by a gunman on September 15, 2001. He made headlines because his was the first of a total of eight murder cases across the USA that were reported to the police as acts of retaliation for terrorist attacks. 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 Eastern or who dressed in clothes thought to be worn by Middle Easterners.
Singh Sodhi’s killer, Frank Roque, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
It is this kind of reaction that worries Harmander Singh. “In Britain, where we have had over 300 years of contact, why does this ignorance still persist?” he asked. “The Sikhs have nothing to do with the Middle East. We can’t help the fact that Bin Laden chooses to wear a turban. We are bound to wear a turban as part of our faith. No other religion enforces this. It is shameful that this country that prides itself on education can’t make the distinction.”
Ravinder Singh, an east London businessman, was stopped by the police last week as he drove in Stratford. He told The Voice of his annoyance at being stopped and searched because of the war on terror. “The policeman told me that, because of the raids in Walthamstow, they had widened their search. I explained to him that I was a Sikh and had nothing to do with the war on terror. He still decided to call in my identity check. To my amusement I heard him telling the dispatcher that I was a Muslim Sikh. I laughed, but it was serious. Although this policeman looked fairly young, you could tell that he was not entirely aware of the differences in the religions. This needs to be addressed, particularly in this climate.”
Rav Pal Singh who operates a business in Redbridge in east London said his shop had been attacked by white extremists who called him a terrorist. “I had gone to bed and heard a commotion in the early hours. When I looked out to the street, there were guys throwing bottles at my business and shouting words like ‘dirty terrorist’. My family were terrified, but it was obvious that these boys were drunk. I called the police who dealt with the matter. It is a shame we have to face these things,” he said.
Sikhs are drawn from varying backgrounds and nationalities, although the spiritual home of the religion is in the Punjab in India. Harjinder Singh is a white Sikh living in Britain. He is originally from the Netherlands. He chose to embrace the faith ten years ago.
“I get called everything from Osama Bin Laden to Father Christmas. I have even been called a ‘white Paki’. I can cope with it. In fact, I like Bin Laden’s looks, but not his practices.
“It is deplorable that in this so-called war on terror all people who look south Asian get branded for what a small group of Muslims do. I suppose it’s the nature of mankind and it’s one of the reasons I am disappointed that the Sikh religion is not as recognised as it should be. I think the blame lies with the authorities but also within our community — we keep too good a secret.”
It is a view Harmander shares: “The Sikh leaders are partly to blame for not promoting a distinct image. We are seen as the largest invisible minority because we tend not to want anything different for us and we are quite content with most things in life. We were at the forefront of both world wars, being on the ‘right side’. We have such a deep history of close ties with Britain and France, yet it’s these countries that are banning turbans in schools and preventing us from wearing turbans on ID cards.”
Harmander feels that the media has a major role to play in distinguishing between Sikhs and other Asians. “Anybody can be a Sikh. Anybody is welcome to come to the Gurdwara (place of worship). Lee vs Mandla in the House of Lords in 1983 recognises Sikhs both as a religion and an ethnicity. We fulfil all the stated requirements needed to define yourself as separate, yet we are not afforded any equality. The CRE has been at fault and the media are awfully quiet when we raise the issue. Recognition has been a struggle and it continues to this day. When there are racially aggravated crimes against us, it’s not easy to convince the police, and the CPS has not been helpful. They do not treat the cases with the seriousness they deserve because they do not recognise our ethnicity.”
The case for recognition of ethnicity is perhaps the hardest to make, as Sikhs can be drawn from any race. They have a common set of beliefs, which easily classify them as an entity, but the fact that they are drawn from different racial backgrounds proves problematic. Harmander wants recognition, not only as a religion, but also as an ethnicity.
He says Sikhs are easily identifiable because of their adherence to the five Ks. They are: Kesh (long hair); Kanga (comb); Kara (steel bracelet); Kachera (baggy shorts), for modesty; and Kirpan (ceremonial sword), enshrined in British law since 1951.
Sikhs are exempt from prosecution for carrying the sword because it is part of their traditional or religious dress, but this did not help a young black Sikh who chose to go for a stroll down Lewisham High Street wearing his Kirpan. He was stopped by the police and prosecuted. He explained that he was a Sikh, but the police officer told him there were no black Sikhs. The young man has since taken a pilgrimage to India and faces arrest on his return here.
Fauja Singh, a 95-year-old marathon record holder, also got into a spot of bother because of his Kirpan. When the UK won the 2012 Olympic bid, there was a celebratory party at the London Eye. Fauja was not allowed to enter the venue because he was wearing his Kirpan.
Harmander said the treatment of the veteran was despicable and laments the fact that there are no-go areas for Sikhs. “We are going to push for the abolition of no–go areas for Sikhs. We have been wearing the Kirpan since the faith was founded 306 years ago.”
But when one considers the very reason for wearing the Kirpan, it is easy to understand the difficulties law enforcement authorities have.
“The Kirpan is there for those who need to defend themselves against injustice,” declares Harmander. “This might be a woman getting beaten up, or it might be preventing someone attacking someone else.”
It seems that Sikhs won’t be winning their battle anytime soon. But to address their more urgent concerns, they want government intervention.
“We want protection,” Harmander said. “The younger generation are saying there are dangers if we don’t identify who we are. Just after 7/7 a major newspaper carried a picture of people boarding a tube train. They airbrushed out the other people and only showed a Sikh girl carrying a rucksack. These are the kinds of things that put us at risk. We are happy to be integrated but not assimilated.”
Sikhs use a naming convention which makes them distinguishable. All the men carry the surname Singh which means lion, while the women are called Kaur, which means princess. Harmander says this helps eliminate prejudice which may be based on class or caste. Initiated Sikhs do not leave their bedroom with their hair uncovered. Sikhs do not eat kosher or halal food. Men and women are treated equally in the faith. Sikhs do not cut their hair.
Sikhism is the fifth largest recognised religion in the world. It has 23 million adherents, most of whom are in the Punjab.
Published: 21 August 2006