New Jersey Sikhs doubly affected by terrorism

Religious group tries to differentiate itself from bin Laden followers

October 07, 2001|By Maia Davis | Maia Davis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. - A Washington Township, N.J., teen-ager on a walk to the library endures obscene gestures from passing drivers.

Sikhs, who wear turbans and beards that cause them to be mistaken for followers of Osama bin Laden, say the harassment began after the Sept. 11 attacks and hasn't stopped.

Their fear has grown as reports of violence around the country have mounted: A Sikh gas station owner murdered Sept. 15 in Arizona, a Sikh man in New York City allegedly beaten with a baseball bat. But rather than hiding, many Sikhs are deliberately stepping into the public glare.

They are attending memorial services, passing out fliers, and giving lessons on Sikhism to neighbors, co-workers, and anyone who will listen.

Founded in India

"They don't know about your religion. They don't know about you. So, wherever you go, please tell them," Gurmit S. Chilana, a prominent physician, told hundreds of Sikhs at a recent weekend religious service in Glen Rock, N.J.

Sikhism is a religion founded in India in the 15th century, distinct from Islam and Hinduism. Adherents pride themselves on having no caste system. All Sikh men have "Singh" as a middle or last name, partly to signify equality. Most of the world's 22 million Sikhs are in India, but about 500,000 live in the United States.

Observant Sikhs, men and women alike, never cut their hair. For the sake of neatness, many of the men pile their long locks under turbans and clip their beards under their chins with bobby pins. Sikh turbans form an upside-down "V" above the forehead, unlike the headgear worn by bin Laden, a Muslim. But that difference is lost on most Americans.

"The irony of the case is we resemble Osama bin Laden more than the Muslims," said Gunwant Guron, a Sikh doctor who lives with her physician husband and children in Montvale, N.J. In the United States, Muslim men typically have nothing on their heads, or they wear pillbox-type skullcaps called kufis.

Sikhs say they are not trying to redirect harassment toward Muslims.

Instead, they are taking an opportunity to introduce themselves to their American neighbors. Many of the Sikhs in the United States came here in the last 10 to 20 years.

`It's our fault'

"It's our fault," Chilana told the crowd attending services at a Glen Rock temple. "We never identified ourselves to the American people."

Chilana, a Franklin Lakes, N.J., resident and chief of the medical staff at Paterson's (N.J.) Barnert Hospital, told his audience to follow three steps if they are harassed - "No, go, and tell."

Say no, refusing to accept insults hurled at you, he said. Go - leave the scene without getting violent. And finally, tell - report incidents to the authorities.

Chilana has printed a flier to put up in stores and other public places. Depicting two Sikh men in turbans and a boy in a stocking-like cap called a patwa, it proclaims: "Mistaken Identity. Sikhs are not associated with Bin Laden."

The public relations campaign has included at least two news conferences by Sikhs in New Jersey since Sept. 11. But much of the work is done informally.

Amarjot S. Narula, a psychiatrist who has lived in Bergen County, N.J., for 13 years, said that in the week following the attacks, he sent a letter to neighbors in Mahwah expressing grief over the tragedy and explaining that his family are Sikhs. "People came up to me and said, `You really didn't have to do that,'" Narula said. But neighbors also said they appreciated the opportunity to learn more about his religion.

Iranian crisis remembered

Avtar Singh, the kindly, white-bearded president of the Glen Rock temple, called a gurudwara, said Sikhs were harassed and mistaken for Muslims during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.

"Many people called me `ayatollah,'" said Singh, a Paterson, N.J.,gas station owner who has been in the United States for 30 years. "Then, it was worse because there were so few Sikhs."

Now that there are so many more of them, Sikhs may feel less alone. But that doesn't erase the pain of the past few weeks.

Harnek Sawhney, a Sikh student at Kean University, recounted at a recent news conference that someone filled a garbage can with water and hooked it to his dorm room's door, so that it tipped when the door was opened. He is trying to move.

Gurpal Singh, 16, of Washington Township, said in an interview at the Glen Rock gurudwara that several drivers have gestured obscenely at him in his town.

He said he avoids crowded public places: "I'm scared to go to the mall."

Maninder Singh, a 32-year-old computer specialist for a Wall Street firm, said he lost three friends in the World Trade Center attack. So it hurt all the more when police stopped him for questioning after he tried to give blood Sept. 11.

Recently, a young man walking ahead of him into a Lodi, N.J. bank let the door slam in Singh's face. "I could see the anger in him," he said.

After both men had finished their business, Singh asked the stranger if he could talk to him and explained that he is a Sikh.

"He gave me time, he shook hands with me, and then he left," Singh said.

That was all Singh wanted.

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