Q&A: Victim of an alleged hate crime still has hope

Prabhjot Singh, who was attacked in New York City, talks to Al Jazeera about the future of race and religion in America

Prabhjot Singh talks to Al Jazeera about his alleged hate crime attack Wednesday.
Al Jazeera America

Columbia University professor Prabhjot Singh, who was the victim of an alleged hate crime against Sikhs in New York on Sept. 21, has reignited the national discussion on race and religion in America.

At a press conference at Columbia, only a day after he received treatment for his injuries, including a broken jaw, he resumed his role as a public advocate for interfaith dialogue.

"I want to live in a community where somebody feels comfortable asking me 'Hey, what's on your head? Why do you have that beard? What are you doing here? Are you American?' I think we should be able to ask those questions," he said.


At the press conference, you said we needed to figure out who gave the kids who assaulted you "a green light to hate." How did America's social fabric change after Sept. 11, 2011?

As a teacher, I believe that no one person teaches us our belief system. The roots of hate are complex. What I do believe is that a community must come together to create an environment that fosters a nurturing and safe environment for all who live, work, and contribute to its everyday life.

Misperception happened before 9/11 and unfortunately it may happen in the decades to come. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, was the first to lose his life as a result of a hate crime after 9/11. It pains me to know that 9/11 may have triggered distrust and fear, but the large-scale outpouring of support I received after this past Saturday evening has given me even more evidence to believe in the supporting and caring people that form America's neighborhoods, including Harlem and New York City.

But I don't see this same level of warmth and sincerity in high-level national discourse, which permeates the news. Instead, there is a steady stream of disagreement and distrust amongst our leadership, which sets a false tone for what America really is like at the local level.

American "exceptionalism" has been in the news lately, with opponents describing it as a feeling of nationalist superiority. Does it play a role in the frequency of hate crimes against minorities?

I think that it's fine for a country to think of its self as exceptional. People all over the world are proud of their heritage, their country – what they've built. It places a great responsibility to ask, "What kind of actions represent an exceptional country?"

At the moment, I worry that America is losing its moral authority hard won after WWII as a nation of service in the service of others. The example our leaders set not only spread across the globe, but permeate our communities.  

Your family is from Kenya and grew up near the shopping mall that was attacked on the same day you were. What is the global fallout of such an attack? Does it have consequences at home?

I'm not a global terrorism expert, so I can't speak to a global fallout. I think violence anywhere in the world has some effect on all of us; some acts cause a direct consequence, others don't. My experience is that because I'm part of a group that's viewed as "the other," extremism abroad often results in an uptick in bias at home.

This is a repeated pattern that existed even prior to 9/11. During the 1979 hostage crisis, Sikhs were called Iranian. During the first Iraq war, we were called Iraqi. After 9/11, we've been called al-Qaeda, Taliban and Afghan, with all the accompanying slurs.

In dealing with the consequences of the Nairobi or any other attack, my main interest would be to identify the elements that perpetuate cycles of violence and actively disrupt them. People differ on what "active disruption" means. I believe that everyday people can do their part by refusing to live in fear and rejecting that it is okay to create fear in others. 

Previously, Amardeep Singh, program director of the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy organization, told Al Jazeera that 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.

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.

How does your faith inform your response to your attack?

It informs my response in many ways. For example, seva — a major tenant of the Sikh faith — means selfless service. Sikhs believe that one must earn an honest living, and also serve their communities in any way they can. This attack has made me more committed than ever to work in my community.

One of the reasons for my steadfast belief in this community-oriented work is the influence that the Sikh principle of "chardi kala" plays in my life. Chardi kala loosely translates into an eternal sense of optimism – this is a fundamental belief in the beauty of life and the possibilities of today and the future — even in trying circumstances.