Islamophobia in America is particularly infuriatingly in the way it so often manifests itself as blanket hatred against anyone who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent. As a result, this religious intolerance is also a form of racism. For Americans fearful of difference, it doesn't matter if the people they target are Muslim or not — they target anyone with a turban.
Perhaps no community knows this more than Sikh Americans, who have experienced an exorbitant amount of hate crimes since 9/11. Violence against Sikhs peaked in 2012, when a white male supremacist opened fire at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, leaving four people dead and six injured. Anti-Sikh micro-aggressions, too, happen daily. "More than half of Sikh children endure bullying in schools, and the numbers are worse for children who wear turbans," a new nationwide survey on Sikhism in America reports. "Two in 3 turbaned children report being bullied in schools, more than double the national average for all children."
Why is this happening? The survey explains why in one astonishing statistic:
"60% of Americans admit to knowing nothing at all about Sikh Americans."
This ignorance is directly related to the increase in anti-Sikh hate crimes since 9/11, of course. Not only do most Americans know nothing about this community, they discriminate against Sikhs because they believe them to be Muslim. "The misreading of Sikh Americans as Muslim goes back to a larger problems of stereotypes," Shawn Singh Ghuman, communications director of the National Sikh Campaign, told Mic. "When Osama Bin Laden was shown by the media wearing a turban, several ill-informed people quickly associated this article with terrorism, radicalism, even [anti-Americanism], similar to the misconception that wearing a hoodie means you're a criminal. These associations are the root of this problem."
To be clear, Ghuman affirms, no discrimination, faith-based or otherwise, is justified. "This campaign is absolutely not about Sikhs distancing themselves from Muslims. The Muslim-American community struggles with their own issues regarding ignorance of their faith; we join them in our desire for more interfaith dialogue and support our Muslim brothers and sisters the best we can."
At the same time, there is something insidious about Sikh Americans continuously being misread. Sikhism and Islam are two distinct religions. Sikhism originates in Northern India, while Islam originates in the Middle East. According to the National Sikh Campaign survey, Sikhism "is the world's fifth-largest organized religion ... with more than 25 million Sikhs throughout the world and approximately half a million in the United States."
Yet the survey reported, "A majority [of Americans] admitted to knowing nothing at all, and in focus groups, many said they had never even heard of the religion." Furthermore, "Americans' baseline level of knowledge is either completely null or mostly superficial."
Ignorance is an enabler: Knowing that the root of racism is ignorance, the National Sikh Campaign was created with the objective of counterbalancing anti-Sikh sentiment by educating Americans about the Sikh community, its history and its values.
In the focus groups conducted as a part of the larger study, researchers found that once Americans learned about Sikhism that there was a 17.5% increase in positive feeling toward the community: "After reading about Sikh history and beliefs. as well as the series of messages, warm feelings toward Sikh Americans increase substantially," the survey notes. Ghuman also points out: "Groups that are generally stereotyped as less tolerant on race relations (i.e., Republicans, Hispanics and older Americans) had some of the highest levels of impact."
Forging a path to compassion: Education initiatives to counteract racial discrimination and bigoted violence shouldn't be up to independent campaigns alone. The success of this one survey is a signpost to both non-government organizations and federal entities to step up and take action.
"Education is the awareness and understanding," Ghuman says, "two aspects that are required in creating compassion and empathy. We believe the results of our study speak to this very point."