As its community still reels three days after seven worshippers at a Wisconsin temple were shot and killed by a white supremacist, one of the voices that has emerged as a spokesman for Sikhs in America is a Lehigh University professor.
Amardeep Singh related his experience as a “Sikh-American” in a column that appeared in The New York Times on Monday. On Tuesday, an interview with the associate English professor was aired on “All Things Considered,” a National Public Radio program.
In the column and in the interview, Singh acknowledged the “visceral reaction” some Americans have to seeing a bearded man in a turban, the traditional look of a Sikh man, a look also adopted by some Muslim clerics and, most importantly, Osama bin Laden – the man who planned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Then, as now, Sikhs in the United States faced a common problem: Many Americans presume that all men in turbans are Muslims,” Singh wrote in the column, which is actually an edited version of a blog he wrote the day of the Wisconsin attacks.
Singh related his own experience after 9/11. At the time, he had just moved to Bethlehem to teach at Lehigh.
“In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, I felt intense hostility whenever I was away from the protected space of the college campus,” he wrote.
“The hostility wasn’t simply a matter of small-town xenophobia; that fall, I also heard ugly taunts and insults, some threatening violence, on the streets of Philadelphia and even in New York.”
Singh wrote that some Sikh groups are now looking to renew efforts made after 9/11 to educate people on their religion and culture.
“These are well-meaning and valuable efforts, but here’s the thing: I am not sure that the shooter would have acted any differently even if he had known the difference,” Singh wrote.
“As I have experienced it, the Sikh turban reflects a form of difference that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that reaction. But it may also be that visible marks of religious difference like the Sikh turban are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don’t depend on accurate recognition.”