Simran Jeet Singh: Islamophobia, Sikhophobia and Media Profiling
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shook the American nation to its core. Nineteen individuals associated with al Qaeda coordinated to hijack four passenger jets and use them as weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 claimed approximately 3,000 lives, including all 256 passengers on the four planes, 125 people at the Pentagon and more than 2,600 people at the World Trade Center.
The global community watched the destruction and devastation with horror. Law enforcement agencies focused attention on detecting and preventing further terrorism on American soil, while news media scrambled to collect, synthesize and present an enormous amount of information in a remarkably short period of time. Photos and videos of the destruction flooded the news media, and these representations characterized the terrorists responsible for the attacks as fitting a Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern profile. As a result, Islamophobia began to sweep across the nation.
Reports and studies demonstrate that an increasing mistrust of Muslims fueled a violent post-9/11 backlash throughout the U.S. Within a week of the terrorist attacks, Arabs, Muslims and South Asians registered more than 1,000 incidents of criminal discrimination, including murder, assault, vandalism and verbal harassment. According to crime statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. increased by 1,600 percent between 2000 and 2001. Furthermore, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice found that approximately 75 percent of hate crimes are not reported in official FBI statistics.
It is also important to note that Islamophobic violence is not a thing of the past, and unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to find a tragic example. A couple of months ago, five children in San Diego lost their mother in a hate-crime. Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-American, was brutally beaten to death in her own home. Her daughter found her corpse in the living room, along with a note that read: “go back to your country, you’re a terrorist.”
In August of 2010, Time Magazine ran an article about the controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic center near Ground-Zero, and the cover of that particular issue asked the question: “Is America Islamophobic?”
The national attention on President Obama’s religious background, the scandal related to NYPD surveillance of local Muslims, Quran burning displays in Florida — these are all recent examples of how Islamophobia operates within our society.
Strikingly, Muslims have not been the only targets of Islamophobic violence. A number of different American communities have been impacted by Islamophobia, and practitioners of the Sikh religion make up one of the most adversely affected minority groups. The distinctive physical appearance of typical Sikh males in particular — brown skin, turban, beard — correlates with the stereotypical images of terrorists projected in western media. Scholars have recently described this perceived relationship as a racialization of religious identity. This process has led to a conflation of Sikhs and Muslims, and therefore, has produced a corollary to Islamophobia — Sikhophobia.
In fact, the first casualty of a hate crime in post-9/11 America was a Sikh-American named Balbir Singh Sodhi. According to official reports, his murderer said he killed Sodhi because “he was dark-skinned, bearded, and wore a turban.”
In other words, Sodhi fit the profile of “the Islamic other.”
With law enforcement and news media fanning the flames, the increasing sense of Islamophobia has led Sikh-Americans to be publicly profiled as suspicious and threatening. For instance, the day after the 9/11 attacks, a turbaned Sikh male named Sher Singh was traveling from Boston to New York on an Amtrak train when it stopped in Providence, R.I. The FBI had sent federal agents, local police and bomb-sniffing dogs to arrest him. Officers rushed to the platform, pointed rifles at Singh and shouted “Get your f— hands up.” The officers removed him from the train at gunpoint and handcuffed him. According to a report by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, bystanders gathered around Sher Singh during the time of his arrest and began shouting obscenities and hate-speech, such as: “Kill him!” “Burn in Hell!” and “You killed my brother!” Strikingly, Sher Singh reported that one of the arresting officers joined in the vitriol by asking, “How’s Osama bin Laden?”
Neha Singh Gohil and Dawinder S. Sidhu have pointed out that the arrest of this Sikh-American male, as well as its widespread publicization, wrought major damage to the image of Sikhs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“News stations replayed the video of his arrest in connection with its coverage of the attacks, thus associating Singh and other turbaned Sikhs with the planners of the attacks. … Thus any connection between terrorists and a turbaned male with a long flowing beard was further embedded in the hearts and minds of emotional Americans. On the contrary, no media coverage followed news of Sher Singh’s release, just three hours later. There was no reason — beyond the turban and long beard — for the public or law enforcement personnel to be concerned about his presence on a train. In other words, he did nothing to arouse suspicion, aside from looking the way he did in a public space.”
Despite his innocence and relatively quick release, news stations continued to replay the arrest and detention of Sher Singh for the next three days, and this continuous loop helped shape and perpetuate basic stereotypes of “the Islamic other.” Moreover, the mutually reinforcing actions of racial profiling by the federal government and news media offered the general public with a sort of sanctioning of Islamophobia and Sikhophobia.
The consequences of these attitudes have been severe and costly. Since 9/11, tens of thousands of Americans have been alienated and victimized. The overly simplistic profile of “the Islamic other” has done more harm than good, and it has negatively affected Muslims and non-Muslims alike. From job discrimination and school bullying to racial profiling and police surveillance, the various manifestations of Islamophobia continue to divide the nation and increase tensions.
It’s time to leave behind our Islamophobic, Sikhophobic and other-phobic tendencies and look at one another as fellow human beings.
We can’t afford to produce more examples like Sher Singh, Shaima Alawadi and Balbir Singh Sodhi.