Thousands of Sikhs celebrated one of their holiest days with a parade through downtown Los Angeles on Sunday and a call for greater understanding of the fact that wearing a turban is not un-American, nor is it the mark of a terrorist.
The Sikhs said their religion was often mistaken for the Islamic faith, and therefore they have been targeted for retaliation since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"What you look like does not define ... that you are a terrorist," said Sheriff Lee Baca at the celebration of Baisakhi held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The New Year's festival attracted 12,000 to 15,000 Sikhs, who came to pray, eat and commune.
Baca noted that Sikhs started wearing turbans more than 300 years ago, in part to end discrimination; in the Indian caste system, only nobility wore turbans.
For Sikhs, the turban is religious, while others wear the headgear for social or cultural reasons, said one Sikh, Manmeet Singh. "If you see a person wearing a turban [in America], more than likely it's going to be a Sikh," not a Muslim, Singh said.
Gurinder Singh Mann, 54, a professor of Sikh studies at UC Santa Barbara, said that Sikhs were responsible for creating awareness and understanding about their religion and culture.
"Mainstream America doesn't know much about the Sikh community," Mann said. "Strange-looking people are always the target of suspicion.... Sikhs have a responsibility to tell the mainstream who they are."
Mann said he has never been subjected to discrimination or violence, and even remarked that he was well-received at Los Angeles International Airport weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
One young Sikh, however, said that for a while he was always stopped by airport security.
"After 9/11, I was always the random search," said Harpreet Chima, 25, of Columbus, Ohio.
Rahuldeep Singh Gill, 24, a student of Mann's, said he feels that people look at him as American.
"I think Sikhs here have been successful in carving out a niche for themselves as a minority in America," Gill said.
Other Sikhs might disagree. Singh, 35, a software engineer, said he recently called the police because his neighbor in Orange County wanted to start a fight with him. The neighbor blamed Singh for the ongoing violence in Iraq.
"It's more ignorance, I believe," Singh said. "People don't really know what this religion is about." Singh explained Sikhism to his neighbor, and hasn't had a problem since.
Inside the convention center, Sikhs sang their holy scripture aloud. They left their shoes against a wall and cleaned their feet in cold water and rose petals before kneeling and praying. In another cavernous room, the smell of spices filled the hall, where Sikhs sat on rows of white paper on the cold floor eating vegetarian meals.
Mann, the Sikh professor, said he had faith in America.
"In terms of attitudes toward diversity," Mann said, "the U.S. is by far the most open place on the face of this Earth."