After 9/11 there was an image of the Taliban that circulated in the American media that showed men wearing turbans and beards, and that image was extended to Sikhs. One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the US since then is how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims.
Although I was never violently attacked, I did feel the intensity of that hostility. On numerous occasions, in both New York where I grew up and in Philadelphia where I now live, I was approached by strangers on the street who would address me as Osama bin Laden. They would actually walk up to me, smiling, and say, ‘Hello bin Laden’.
The change in people’s attitudes towards me and the many others who were presumed to be Muslim was disorienting. If you are from South Asia and you grew up in the US, you work really hard to acquire all the norms. To have that suddenly taken out from under your feet, to be made to feel as though you are no longer an American, was difficult.
The Sikh community had to find a way to address mounting hostilities in the US after 9/11. There’s definitely been a movement to assert who we are and to inform the public about our beliefs, but it is tricky to do so without seeming to validate religious-based hostilities against any other group. Saying, ‘Don't hate me, I'm not a Muslim’ is not a response. A number of Sikh advocacy groups formed shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility.
We don’t know what the shooter’s motive was yet, but as I’ve kept up with the community's reaction to the incident I've been seeing a lot of friends and family reminding everyone not to dwell on the shooter's likely ‘misrecognition’ (Manpreet Singh Badal, founder-president of the People's Party of Punjab, told the AFP news agency on Monday that he believed the shooting was the result of "mistaken identity", noting that "Sikhs are often mistaken to be from the Middle East."). The sentiment that ‘we didn't do anything, we don't deserve this’ is actually not one we should be giving voice to, even if it might be understandable after such a ghastly attack.