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Islamophobia spreads to US Sikh community

Prejudice against the Muslim community in the US is spreading to other ethnic groups. Sikhs say they are facing discrimination from people who mistake them for followers of Islam because of their dress and skin color.

When Jasjit Singh and Rajdeep Singh Jolly walk down the street in their turbans, heads turn.

“I’ve been called Osama Bin Laden, I’ve been called Ayatollah Khomeini, I’ve been called a terrorist,” says Rajdeep.

Singh and Jolly say it's because people have no idea what religion they are and most take them for Muslims. Singh and Jolly are Sikh – a religious group historically stemming from India and not related to Islam.

“Well, some well-intentioned people try to strike up conversation and start off with icebreakers like: ‘Are you from Egypt?’ or ‘Do you speak Arabic?’ or ‘Are you a Shia or a Sunni Muslim?’” Rajdeep says.

Recent polls show that 40% of Americans admitted that they distrust Muslims. And because of their ignorance – Singh and Jolly end up bearing the brunt of a lot of the hatred. They say things really started heating up after 9/11.

“I distinctly remember going to New York and looking at the site of where 9/11 happened. And at that time someone walked by me and made a comment to me like, ‘You’ve come by to assess the damage huh?’” recalls Jasjit.

Even a Sikhs’ place of worship, the gurdwara, became a target for the intolerant. Eggs thrown through windows and graffiti are common occurrences.

For many Sikhs, wearing a turban is part of their identity, which doesn’t help in distinguishing them from followers of Islam.

In the days following 9/11, many Sikhs claim that they were racially profiled at airports. They say security officials were stepping up efforts to find terrorists, and Sikhs looked the part.

American Sikhs concede that, since the days after the fallout of 9/11, a lot of progress has been made. Yet because of their turbans Sikhs still can’t serve in the United States army, and in some states they can’t teach in public schools.

“The effect of many laws in this country is to make Sikhs and many other communities feel as though they are second class citizens,” believes Rajdeep.

Sikh activists Singh and Jolly say they have to defend their rights and believe they are leading the next civil rights movement in the United States.