Students who practice the Sikh religion said while the GW campus has provided a diverse and tolerant environment, they are faced with ignorance and prejudice off campus.
“We are lucky that we go to an internationally-diverse university,” junior Amrith Mago said. “It has a huge difference on how open-minded the students are.”
Sophomore Ravjot Singh, a practicing Sikh who wears a turban and a beard, said he has not been harassed physically or verbally but has received dirty looks. Singh said he and other practicing members now take extra precautions when going out. Some said they have ceased to go off campus with friends.
Sikh Students’ Association President Jaspal Singh said he has not gone out the past week, afraid intoxicated students or others coming home from bars could take out feelings of hatred on them.
“GW has not been violent, it’s outside of campus like the D.C. area and mainly Virginia that are a problem,” Jaspal Singh said.
Sikhs have been mistakenly targeted nationwide in anti-Arab backlash that has arisen since U.S. intelligence officials announced the terrorist groups responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks are suspected to be radical Islamic fundamentalists.
“Turn on the radio and you will hear American (callers); the message is to send all the brown people back to their country and bomb them,” junior and practicing Sikh Naina Dhingra said.
Jaspal Singh said some media reports have inaccurately categorized Sikhs as Arabs.
An Arab is someone who has roots in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq or the Persian Gulf, while Sikhism has roots in Northern India. Singh said local officials have not clarified the difference.
Singh explained that Sikhism, which draws aspects from Hinduism and Islam, is a monotheistic, nonviolent religion that accepts all faiths.
Some visual distinctions of the religion include beards for men and long hair for men and women, he said. Sikhs do this to be easily identifiable in a crowd and to stay natural, as their prophets dictate.
“The Sikh faith originated five centuries ago . it asks its adherents to keep uncut hair and wear a turban,” Dhingra said. “Unfortunately, many people in the West tend to mistake Sikhs as Muslims (because) of the turban and beard that a few Muslims also keep.”
The misconception has led to attacks on Sikhs in the United States.
Junior Amrith Mago said a Sikh man was killed Sept. 15 in Arizona in an act police believe was racially motivated. The man, India-native Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot at his gas station in Mesa, Ariz., according to CNN.
Mago said his death caused many Sikhs to come together and find ways to educate Americans.
“Hate crimes are an ignorance issue,” Mago said. “(Sikhs) want to get the message out that the only way to fight terrorism is by sticking together.”
Although Sikhs want to differentiate their religion from Islam, Dhingra said, it does not matter if they are separate from Muslims.
“The point is that the Sikh community and the Muslim community are not responsible for what happened,” she said.
Muslim Student Association President Fasih Saddiqui met with Singh to create a forum to promote religious awareness in the D.C. area. They have also approached the University of Maryland and University of Virginia with the forum proposal.
Some GW students said they had never heard of the Sikh religion until the recent attacks against its members.
“I heard of it through the news recently,” senior Ana Perez said. “Officials were telling (Sikhs) to place American flags on their cars (to distinguish them as Americans). It was really sad they had to do that because of our ignorance.”
Freshman Adam Nichols said he had also never heard of Sikhs before.
“When I got to college I first saw signs of (Sikhs) but never actually knew what religion it was,” he said.
Mago said GW’s Sikh community is not trying to distinguish themselves from other religions who are affected by hate crimes.
“These hate crimes have been affecting many religions not just Sikhism, and no one deserves that,” she said.