Don't Forget That Islamophobia Targets Another Peaceful Religious Group, Too
Islamophobia has long been part of the social fabric of the West. It is a symptom of imperialism and a generic fear of the "other," and attacks like those in San Bernardino, Paris, and Boston these past few years have only served to aggravate it. It is as though the West is incapable of humanizing Muslims enough to see them as individuals, rather than as a dangerous collective. But it isn't just Muslims who are being lumped together by these xenophobic tendencies. Sikhs are also victimized by Islamophobia.
In a recent Daily Show segment, actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia talked to Hasan Minhaj about his encounter with xenophobia back in February. Ahluwalia, who is Sikh, reported being unable to board a flight from Mexico to New York because he refused to take off his turban during a security check. Back in 2013, a GAP ad featuring Ahluwalia was vandalized with comments about bombs. In an Islamophobic climate that has only worsened since 9/11, many Sikhs in the U.S. have experienced hate crimes and racial profiling, and the FBI has had to start tracking these instances of bias, along with those targeting Arab Americans and Hindus.
Sikhs, like Muslims, must contend with shouts of "terrorist!" "Taliban!" or "ISIS!" According to the Sikh Coalition, which was founded by volunteers in 2001 in response to the violence targeting Sikh Americans, Sikhs are assaulted, bullied, and even murdered because of the waves of xenophobia that follow terrorist attacks. For Sikh men especially, racial profiling in airports and on the street have become commonplace.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that originated India's Punjab region and has approximately 28 million adherents globally. Many people in the West confuse Sikhs for Muslims because of the turbans Sikh men wear as symbols of their faith, and also seem to confuse their places of worship. For example, ABC 7 reported back in December that the Sikh Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Buena Park, California was vandalized with anti-Muslim and anti-ISIS graffiti. But there is another problem here, one that is evident in the article:
In the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, the Sikh community is fearful they're being mistaken for radicals. The peaceful Sikh faith is not related to Islam.
In many discussions of Islamophobia's impact on Sikh communities, there is an underlying implication that the violence Sikhs experience is just a case of mistaken identity, and that if Muslims had been attacked instead, it would have somehow been justified. These distinctions only serve to generate divisions between Muslim and Sikh communities, and Ahluwalia addressed this in his Daily Show interview. Minhaj asked Ahluwalia why he doesn't just say he's not Muslim — or even assimilate into whiteness — in order to avoid being profiled. "That's not the way I was raised," Ahluwalia responded. "That's why I wear this turban: as a reminder to myself to treat humanity with care and kindness, so I'm not here to point fingers ... You need to lead with love."
In looking at how Sikh communities are impacted by Islamophobia, it is important to avoid isolating either religious group as though one is somehow more worthy of respect than the other. This issue explicitly demonstrates the intersections of race, gender, and religion, and there is intention in the way Sikhs are being targeted. It is not a question of mistaken identity — rather, these manifestations of bigotry are proof that people of color are subject to indiscriminate violence and oppression across religious lines.
Therefore, instead of creating even more divisions between marginalized groups, we must speak up against all racist and Islamophobic actions and rhetoric in order to prevent them from becoming increasingly normalized, and eliminate the racist and xenophobic sentiment in the West.