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Why American Sikhs Think They Need A Publicity Campaign

A screenshot from a video about the Sikh community that is part of a large awareness campaign. The project was funded entirely by grass-roots donations. The campaign's ads will air nationally.

Nearly 60 percent of Americans admit knowing nothing at all about Sikhs. That lack of knowledge comes at a deadly cost. In the wake of recent incidents from the 2012 Oak Creek Massacre to a shooting of a Sikh man in Washington this March, the Sikh community is taking a more vocal stand against hate.

This month, the National Sikh Campaign, an advocacy group led by former political strategists, launched a $1.3 million awareness campaign, "We are Sikhs." Funded entirely by grass-roots donations, the campaign's ads will air nationally on CNN and Fox News as well as on TV channels in central California — home to nearly 50 percent of the Sikh American population — and online.

The ad, which aims to tackle misperceptions of Sikhism, shows Sikh men and women speaking about how values of their faith — tolerance, religious freedom and gender equality — align with American values. According to Gurwin Singh Ahuja, the executive director of the National Sikh Campaign, "These are core values of the United States, yet we're often perceived as anti-American or as religious extremists. Our community is hurt by bigotry and ignorance, which is, in many ways, compounded by our own silence. To change these perceptions, I felt we had an obligation to share our stories with our neighbors."

Some young Sikhs like Sabrina Rangi, a medical student at Michigan State, are optimistic about the potential impact of the campaign. "I think after years of struggling to find the right words, this campaign is getting it right," says Rangi. "This initiative embodies everything that Sikhism represents, especially its emphasis on shared values and equality. I see this practiced in the gurdwara, where all of the participants sit together on the floor, beneath our holy book, to symbolize that regardless of gender, race or social standing, we are all one."

Founded over 500 years ago, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion centered on the teachings of 10 spiritual gurus. Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith, rejected India's caste system and declared all human beings equal. During Guru Nanak's time, Indian women were considered property with little social standing. Nanak denounced the sexism of the day by proclaiming women equal and encouraging them to participate in all aspects of the gurdwara, or Sikh temple.

The 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, also promoted the principle of equality. During his time, family names signified social status and caste. To break this tradition, Guru Gobind Singh gave all men the last name "Singh," meaning lion, and women the name "Kaur," meaning princess. Sikh turbans, the most visible symbol of the faith, are also a rejection of hierarchy of the caste system. Worn historically by South Asian royalty, the Sikh Gurus adopted the practice of wearing the turban to demonstrate a public commitment to maintaining the values and ethics of the tradition, including service, compassion and honesty.

But the turban's symbolism is lost on most Americans. According to Ahuja, "Our turbans, which are often perceived as symbols of extremism, are actually representations of equality." Following Sept. 11, images of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida associates wearing turbans circulated frequently in the media. Heightened national fear in combination with poor awareness of America's Sikh community has often made Sikhs the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights activist and lawyer, warns that violence against Sikhs is not only cases of mistaken identity. Attacks against Sikhs in the United States pre-date the Sept. 11 attacks. In 1907, a group of Sikh immigrants were driven out of town by xenophobic mobs during the height of the American nativist moment. Whether 1907 or today, according to Kaur, "it appears to matter little to perpetrators of hate crimes whether the person they are attacking is Sikh and not Muslim. They see turbans, beards and brown skin and it is enough for them to see us as foreign, suspect and potentially terrorist. It's time to retire the term 'mistaken identity.' It's a dangerous term, because it implies that there is a correct target for hate."

During a recent segment from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, correspondent Hasan Minhaj spoke to a group of Sikhs about ways in which they could distance themselves from hate crimes. When Minhaj questioned why more Sikhs don't simply proclaim, "hey, I'm not Muslim," a member of the group, responded saying, "It's not just an option for us to throw another community under the bus."

Muslim American leaders commend the Sikh on their emphasis on tolerance and solidarity. "It's very impressive that whenever a Sikh person or place of worship is attacked, the community is always quick to condemn Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks, and send a message of unity," says Arsalan Bukhari, the executive director of the Washington State chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). "That's been helpful because it tells the average person that Sikhs consider all Americans, including Muslim Americans, as their neighbors."

Rajdeep Singh Jolly, of the Sikh Coalition, however, warns that public relations efforts alone won't eliminate hate crimes. "Preventing hate crimes requires sustained grass-roots engagement in every aspect of life over the course of generations. It requires eternal vigilance." He says acting on beliefs can be a transformative way to live out the message of tolerance and acceptance. "In the context of schools, for example, Sikh parents need to be participating in their local PTAs and be at the table when schools make decisions that affect their kids. Sikh children need to be participating fully in school activities from sports to community service. In the context of employment discrimination, Sikhs need to be visible in all aspects of our workforce."

The Sikh Coalition, the nation's largest Sikh civil rights and advocacy group, has played a pivotal role in advocating for legislation and policy to recognize and prosecute hate crimes. In 2011, the group wrote to then-Attorney General Eric Holder to request the inclusion of Sikhs and other minority religious groups in FBI Hate Crimes Statistics. Although the federal government didn't immediately accede to the Coalition's demands, the 2012 Oak Creek massacre shifted the tide. In 2013, shortly before the anniversary of the tragedy, Holder announced that the FBI would begin tracking hate crimes against Sikhs.

Singh Jolly warns that data alone will not solve hate crimes, but stresses its important role in underscoring the active threats many Sikh Americans face. "Law enforcement agencies across the country now must receive training about who Sikhs are and what makes us susceptible to hate crimes," says Singh. "Over time, both directly and indirectly, this training will lead hopefully to better prevention efforts among law enforcement agencies and policymakers."

The recent uptick in hate crimes has galvanized Sikh advocacy groups to make hate crime prevention a national priority. In March, Sikh activists worked with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to circulate a letter in Congress calling on the White House to create a task force to prevent hate violence. Less than a month later, the Justice Department announced it would update its new crime reduction task force by announcing a new subcommittee to address hate crimes.

Despite the creation of a new subcommittee, activists are cautious in their optimism because of the larger rhetoric of the Trump administration. According to Valarie Kaur, "The establishment of the task force is necessary but not enough to prevent future hate crimes. The only way for this administration to prevent future hate crimes is to stop the onslaught of executive orders, policies, and rhetoric that fuel a climate of hate against our communities."

For over a century, the Sikh community has suffered in silence from hate violence. But from "We are Sikhs" to recent advocacy efforts, more Sikhs are standing up to demand their fellow Americans not look away while they lose their loved ones to hate. In the eyes of Manpreet Kaur, a Sikh student at California State University-Fresno, "People could think we're being too forward and just making propaganda, but whatever they think, they'll definitely learn more about us."

Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher studying at the London School of Economics. Follow her @kikiochieng.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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