The Trouble With Wearing Turbans in America

A new campaign is promoting awareness about Sikhs, trying to distance the religious group from an association with "terrorism." But is that good for American pluralism?

Sikhs gather for a vigil in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, after six people were killed during worship in a Sikh temple in 2012. (John Gress/Reuters)

What does a terrorist look like in the American imagination? For most, it's probably not a white man, like Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or Paul Ciancia, who opened fire in the Los Angeles International Airport in 2013, killing one TSA officer and injuring seven other agents and travelers. It's probably not an environmental or animal-rights activist, whose attacks on property are often considered acts of terrorism by the FBI.

No. The stereotypical image is of a person with brown skin, maybe wearing clothing perceived as foreign: the suicide bomber in a burka; the long, concealing beard; and, perhaps most powerfully, the turban. These are the physical markers people often associate with Islam, which in turn is often associated with radicalism or extremism.

This is a seriously flawed way of thinking—religious garb does not a terrorist make. But it's also factually incorrect: People who wear turbans or grow long beards for religious reasons aren't necessarily Muslim. Turbans are an important article of faith for Sikhs, who call them dastaars. They are thought to have been worn by early Sikh gurus, and they symbolize a devotion to the divine and values like honesty, compassion, generosity, and humility.

Even though Sikhism is a distinct religion from Islam, many Americans either confuse Sikhs and Muslims, or don't know much about Sikhism in general. In a new survey, 89 percent of respondents said they had only met or seen a Sikh person in passing—if at all. Although the faith was founded in India and almost all Sikhs are of Indian descent, between 20 and 28 percent of respondents mistakenly labeled images of four differently dressed Sikhs as Middle Eastern. "Further underscoring Americans’ complete lack of knowledge about Sikhism," the report authors add, "is the finding that only 5 percent of Americans have heard of Guru Nanak," the founder of the religion.

"We have turbans and beards, and we have an image associated with some of the most negative aspects of society."

This is probably partly due to lack of exposure: Even given the most generous estimates, Sikhs comprise a small minority in the United States. In 2012, Pew Research Center estimated that the American population is roughly 200,000, while some advocacy organizations claim it's closer to half a million. Since there aren't necessarily many opportunities for Americans to encounter Sikhs, it's difficult to combat stereotypes about them. An advocacy organization called the National Sikh Campaign is trying, though; in a new survey, the group tested how whites, blacks, and Hispanics responded to emphatically American descriptions of Sikhs, like this:

Sikhs serve on their local PTAs and in Boy Scout troops, run small businesses and local charities, and sing our national anthem with pride. They are part of the fabric of their communities in every corner of this nation. They know that the United States is the greatest country on earth, and they are proud to call themselves Americans.

And this:

Sikhs have lived in America for more than 150 years, helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, served valiantly in every major world war, stood at the forefront of civil rights struggles, and were first responders on 9/11.

This tactic seems driven by a desire to show that Sikhs are truly American—and, implicitly, not Muslim. “Being Sikh, we have turbans and beards, and we have an image that’s associated with some of the most negative aspects of society—a lot of the events that have happened in the last 10 to 15 years, [such as] 9/11," said the organization's co-founder, Gurwin Singh Ahuja. "We have this image that is associated with anti-Americanism, that is anti-Western."

And that image has consequences. In August of 2012, Wade Michael Page opened fire on worshippers in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and injuring four others. Although the shooter's motivations were never fully discovered, he had ties to white-supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, suggesting that the murders were racially or religiously motivated.

In a 2014 study of Sikh kids in Massachusetts, Indiana, California, and Washington, another advocacy organization called the Sikh Coalition found that two-thirds of Sikh students get bullied at school. Students reported being accused of hiding grenades or bombs under their head coverings; for younger Sikhs, these coverings often look like long strips of cloth with knots at the top. In a group of 180 students surveyed in Fresno, California, a third said they were bullied because their peers thought they look like terrorists.

Sikhs also say they face racial profiling from law-enforcement officials. In 2007, the Transportation Security Agency issued guidelines stating that every traveler with a head covering should prepare to go through secondary pat-downs in airport security, or, if screenings were inconclusive, remove their head coverings in front of an agent in a private room. In a 2012 survey of 628 New York Sikhs, 85 percent reported being questioned about their immigration status in interactions with law-enforcement officials; 73 percent were questioned about their nationality, and 66 percent were asked about their religious affiliation. These questions may or may not have been relevant; but it is illegal for officials to stop, search, or detain people solely on the basis of race, nationality, sex, religion, or ethnicity.

It's not new for an immigrant community to advertise its essential "Americanness" as a way of gaining acceptance. After a wave of immigration in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Ahuja said, many Sikhs were more focused on assimilation and survival than creating a sense of community distinct from American culture. "Folks like my dad—his focus was how to put on the table, how to pay rent. A lot of folks were just trying to get their family settled."

Yet, one of the biggest goals of the National Sikh Campaign is creating a distinctive sense of identity among a younger generation of American Sikhs, Ahuja said—an interesting challenge to take on in concert with its campaign to promote the all-American Sikh. Given the general suspicion Americans feel toward Muslims, it makes sense that the organization would make an effort to distance Sikhism from Islam and everything it represents in contemporary politics. But that in itself might be evidence of a deeper pathology, one spread far beyond the Sikh community: trying to appear more fully American by standing apart from a culture Americans fear.