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Sikhs maintain dignity in face of bullying

Published in the Aug. 15-21, 2012, issue of the Irish Echo

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

A Sikh man named Harpreet Singh Toor told me some years ago about an unpleasant encounter he’d had months before in the Wall Street area.

He recalled: "This gentleman - and I will still call him a gentleman - had a suit and tie, and no briefcase, so probably he worked around there somewhere, and was on lunch break with his colleagues. As he passed me by, he said: 'Terrorist.'"

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Toor was at that time working at City Hall and had a suit and tie himself. But he also had a turban, which, of course, is what drew the epithet.

I see from my files (that’s sounds organized, but they’re incomplete, alas) that I included his comments in a Newsday article dated Nov. 15, 1998. So, the incident was more than three years before the calamitous attack by Islamic extremists that destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands. It gives you some idea what Sikhs have faced since.

A Sikh gas-station owner in Arizona was shot dead before the week of 9/11 was out. Another Sikh was pulled by authorities from the Boston-to-New York train, and had to face the taunts of a hostile crowd, with, unfortunately, at least one policeman joining in.

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I was drawn to the edge of that maelstrom on Sept. 13 or 14, when Newsday asked if I’d go down to Richmond Hill, in Southeastern Queens, to find more about reports that a Sikh had been beaten up in a diner. He was, it turned out, a man in his 70s who was visiting from India – and thus, a particularly soft target who didn’t fit any known stereotype of a terrorist.

When I spoke to his family members in the street, turbaned men milled around us, sensing perhaps that this might be a sympathetic ear. Certainly, the sullen demeanor of the cops posted at the end of the street, a key artery into the Sikh neighborhood, offered little comfort.

Remember that an unknown number of dead lay beneath the rubble at Ground Zero. We were all traumatized to varying degrees, and yet one’s heart had to go out to these people who had pinned their hopes on America.

I wonder how many those mainly young men continued to remain faithful to the symbols of their faith, known as the “five Ks,” which include not cutting one’s hair, and which they regard as the uniform of the “soldier-saint.” Most, if not all, likely experienced hateful abuse over the coming years.

One notices far fewer turbans these days, but it’s important to understand how much Sikhs value the uniform and how they see it as essential in their tradition to a disciplined and dignified bearing. In that 1998 piece, a bank executive told me he had stopped wearing the turban to avoid discrimination when working in Hong Kong almost 20 years before. But he expressed a desire to return to the symbols. “I want to. My heart is always there,” he said.

In contrast, Toor’s two sons, then 11 and 8, would say to him: “‘Why do I have to look different?” It was hard for them to understand the theology and the logic behind it.

What about the general public? Well, just as ignorance of the law is no defense in court, lack of knowledge should be no defense when it comes to bias and hatred. Certain sections of our media haven’t help much (note the ridiculous “Ground Zero mosque” controversy fanned by the Sean Hannitys, Bill O’Reillys and their ilk). Little wonder there was a palpable sense of relief in those quarters that the killer who attacked the Sikh gurdwara near Milwaukee on Aug. 5 turned out to be a neo-Nazi nut-job.

But the man with the suit who spat “terrorist” at Toor pre-9/11 was hardly a neo-Nazi, nor are most people that make life hard for Sikhs or Muslims or whoever doesn’t take their fancy.

What is the mentality that makes assumptions about people based on appearance? Well, partly it’s downright stupidity. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. relied on the Northern Alliance -- Muslim guys whose garb would invite funny looks and adverse comment on the New York subway system -- to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and a pretty good job they did, too.

And, yet, obviously America can be wonderfully accepting. I remember a great 2011 story by the public-radio project Feet in Two Worlds (fi2w.org) that profiled girls and young women who left Turkey for the U.S. because they’re allowed here to cover their head in the school and college classroom.

What a pity the xenophobes have to sully the nation’s reputation for tolerance.