Sikh professor attacked in New York in alleged hate crime

Teenagers yelled racist slurs such as 'attack Osama' and assaulted prominent Sikh advocate Prabhjot Singh

Members of New York's Sikh community attend a news conference after meeting in Queens following the deadly shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by an Army vet on Aug. 6, 2012 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- A Columbia University professor was attacked by a group of 15 to 20 young men on bicycles Saturday in Harlem in an alleged hate crime against Sikhs.

Police said one of the men pulled Prabhjot Singh's beard while the teenagers yelled "get Osama" and "terrorist." Singh, who wears a turban and is a public advocate for interfaith dialogue, was kicked several times to the body and face.

"There were about 20 of them," Singh said. "A few surrounded me, started punching me and pulling my beard." He was hospitalized for his injuries and received surgery for a possible fracture in his left jaw, according to a statement.

Amardeep Singh, program director of the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy organization founded after 9/11, said the incident is a part of systematic discrimination against Sikhs in the United States.

"What happened did not happen in a vacuum," he said. "Here in New York City, we regularly receive reports that Sikh school children are called 'bin Laden' or 'terrorist' by classmates and sometimes endure physical violence."

Sikhs have suffered from a spate of attacks in recent years based on prejudices against their religion. A recent Stanford University survey showed that 70 percent of turban wearers in the U.S. are misidentified as Muslim (48 percent), Hindu, Buddhist or Shinto.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the Punjab region of India in the late 15th century and has no ties to Islam.

The study, titled "Turban Myths," also found that nearly half of all Americans believe that the Sikh faith is a sect of Islam, and even more people associate the turban with Osama bin Laden than with other Muslim or Sikh figures.

"Unfortunately our research confirms that Prabhjot's experience is not the resulted of isolated misperception and intolerance," said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the sponsor of the Stanford study.

The results help explain the long list of hate crimes against the Sikh population since Sept. 11, 2001.

Two elderly Sikhs were gunned down in Elk Grove, California in April 2011. A Sikh subway worker was assaulted in New York City in June 2011. A cab driver was attacked in Seattle, Wash. in Oct. 2012, and, in Aug. 2012, a white supremacist shot dead six Sikh worshippers at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., in what the Sikh Coalition says is "one of the worst attacks on an American place of worship since the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church," referring to the attack in Birmingham, Alabama.

In response to the attack, the Sikh Coalition spearheaded a U.S. Senate hearing on hate crimes, where it demanded the government set up a task force to help prevent such tragedies from happening again, similar to the Clinton administration's efforts in reaction to a series of arson attacks on black churches in the South in the 1990s.

But officials' support remains elusive, policy advocates say.

"Where is the indignation, where is the outrage? Where is the presidential task force to address post-9/11 violence?" Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, told Al Jazeera.

In June, the FBI decided to track hate crimes against Sikhs specifically instead of lumping them together with other religious hate crimes. But even though the measure represents a step in the right direction, policy advocates said it stops short of addressing the underlying problem.

"It is great the FBI has started tracking Sikhs, because it will give us numbers going forward, but it doesn't prevent these crimes from happening," Anisha Singh, policy advocate at UNITED SIKHS, an advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera.

"In order to do that, we need to actively educate Americans what Sikhism is and how it is a different religion from what they are confusing us with."

Sikh volunteers are taking on the problem by conducting surveys among high school students in states such as Mississippi, Tennessee and Massachusetts, where bullying has been rampant compared to national averages. They're also raising awareness about the issue by talking to state and federal politicians.

According to a SALDEF survey among Sikh American students in Southern California, 67 percent of Sikh American children were bullied or harassed within the last school year, and 31 percent have been threatened with physical violence or harm.

With wire services

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