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Sikhs Mark New Year, Fight Post-Sept. 11 Bias

Facing rise in threats, temples plan education campaigns, lobby for new hate-crime laws.

April 14, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Romi Singh's parents decided it would be safer if he cut his hair.

Until then, Singh, a 15-year-old Sikh from West Los Angeles, had followed his religion's rules forbidding the shearing of any body hair. Following tradition, he used to knot his long black mane every morning and cover it with a patka, a small turban-like cloth.

But after the terror attacks, Singh found that the patka made him a scapegoat. "Everywhere, people started calling me names, like Osama bin Laden, and spitting on my clothes and stuff. Even people older than high school."

Singh shared his story as Sikhs from all over Southern California gathered Sunday at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the celebration of Baisakhi, the religion's New Year's festival.

Others said they were equally tired of being singled out. John Manherz Singh, a 51-year-old with long hair and round glasses, said he's been called "Osama bin Lennon." Sirisat Khalsa of Santa Monica said her father had to quell a false rumor that he was a terrorist. Fourteen-year-old Gurdev Singh has to put up with the playground question, "Is Osama your dad?"

"I just tell them to back off, or I go away," Singh said.

For Singh and nearly 400,000 American adherents of Sikhism, these are difficult and confusing times. The 500-year-old religion, which was founded on the Indian subcontinent and is the world's fifth-largest, is often as poorly understood as it is conspicuous. Because men are required to wear turbans and grow beards, they are often mistaken for Muslims in the United States.

After Sept. 11, the first American victim of a xenophobic revenge killing was not a Muslim, but a Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old gas station owner from Mesa, Ariz., who was apparently mistaken for a Muslim by his attacker. Since then, the nonprofit Sikh Coalition has reported 298 other hate crimes against Sikhs nationwide, including a stabbing attack on a 51-year-old woman in San Diego.

The Sikh community has responded in different ways. Some, like Romi Singh, are lying low for now, although he said he plans to grow his hair again once he leaves high school. Today Romi Singh's hair is short and spiky -- he looks like a hip kid from any American shopping mall -- and he said it has helped throw bigots and bullies off his scent.

On a larger scale, temples are stepping up education campaigns and lobbying lawmakers to pass tougher hate-crime legislation. Others are fighting what they see as persistent and inaccurate stereotypes in the popular media. The New York-based Sikh Coalition recently launched an e-mail campaign against Miramax pictures over previews of the new comedy "Dysfunctional Family," which allegedly featured jokes equating a Sikh man with Bin Laden.

"It is harder now," said Jasbir Singh Tung, 50, president of the Sikh Gurdwara temple in North Hollywood. "People are very ignorant."

The word "Sikh" is derived from the Sanskrit word for "disciple," and adherents follow the tenets of a succession of 10 gurus who lived from 1469 to 1708. The first guru, Nanak, emphasized harmony between the two predominant religions on the Indian subcontinent, Islam and Hinduism. Sikhism was derived mostly from the latter, and shares some of its concepts of rebirth, but it developed its own precepts, including a rejection of what was then a rigid caste system within Hinduism.

Sikhs believe in one God, and like the Sufi mystics of Islam, stress singing and music as a path to enlightenment. For baptized Sikhs, unshorn hair is a reminder of fealty to their creator.

Though Sikhism's spiritual home is the Punjab, it has found its adherents among non-Indian Americans in recent decades. In Southern California, 21st century American life has added some distinct flavors to Indian-born practitioners.

That cross-pollination was on full display at the Baisakhi celebration, which also commemorated the 304th anniversary of the formal practices of Sikhism established by the 10th guru, Gobind Singh.

The halls of the convention center bustled with bearded elders in turbans and preppy deck shoes, Punjabi-speaking women in shimmering saris chattering on cell phones, Caucasian Sikh women regally clad in the white flowing robes they often favor and little boys waving American flags. Throngs of teenagers loped through the proceedings in baggy pants, their hair knotted in traditional joorhas, greeting each other with soul handshakes and streetwise chest-bumps.

Amid the food, prayer and song, state politicians came to promise that California was fighting to keep Sikhs safe. As families sat on the floor or approached a flowered altar to pay respects to the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, state Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) touted her efforts to strengthen hate-crime legislation.

"So many Sikhs have been victimized so unfairly," she said. "These acts must stop."

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