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Muslim Criticism Often Unrelated to Islam

ED GORDON, host:

The recent bombings in London are prompting authorities in this country to rethink their approach to public safety. One New York State assemblyman plans to introduce a bill allowing cops to engage in racial profiling when they're searching passengers' bags on the subways. Civil liberties groups argue that kind of profiling fuels unjustified fear and even hate crimes. Commentator Siddartha Mitter shares his thoughts.


The London bombings set in motion a familiar force--backlash. The first sign appeared within 24 hours, when vandals in southeast England firebombed a house of worship. But it wasn't a mosque. It was a Gurdwara, a temple of the Sikh faith. In the great conflation of all Arabs and south Asians with terrorists, the Sikhs, members of a five-century-old religion based in the Indian region of Punjab, have perhaps had it worst of all. The reason is so simple and misguided it's almost embarrassing to explain. It's because Sikh men, who as a religious requirement do not cut their hair, wear turbans. Turbans, of course, are associated in the public imagination with terrorists.

It's a sad irony. Since ancient times, turbans have signified high status. One study found that in the Hebrew Bible, the turban connotes royalty, priestliness, dedication, courage, dignity, purity and self-respect. The prophet Muhammad enjoined his followers to wear the turban. He said, `My community shall not fall away so long as they wear the turban.'

Of the three Old Testament faiths, only Christianity disdained the turban, associating it with the enemy. For a representative view, look to Shakespeare's Othello, who in his death speech recalls killing a `malignant and turbaned Turk.' Of course, turbans eventually became exotic, stylish evening accessories for elegant ladies. They have gone in and out of fashion for two centuries. Right now, turbans are as far out of fashion as possible. They show up in photos of Osama bin Laden, on Shiite clerics and on the adult men of the world's 25 million Sikhs, who have nothing to do with this whole sorry situation.

That didn't stop Frank Roque from murdering a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, in Mesa, Arizona, on September 15th, 2001. Now Roque is on death row, but that's little consolation to Singh's family. Neither did it stop five men in Queens, New York, from beating unconscious Rajinder Singh Bammi one year ago after taunting him for wearing a `dirty curtain' on his head.

Sikhs have organized against the violence. An organization founded soon after 9/11, the Sikh Council, lists verified incidents of Sikhs singled out for bad treatment. It makes for very unpleasant reading. But no amount of mobilization can change the fact that Sikh men are especially vulnerable to the most ignorant, unrefined bigots. It's a bad place to be in, one that calls for vigilance, education and sympathy.

GORDON: Siddartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Siddhartha Mitter
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