The sight of a bearded man in a turban can provoke violent anti-Muslim hatred in America — and never mind whether the man under the turban is actually Muslim.
For Sikhs, who wear turbans and beards as core attributes of their religion, the mix of Islamophobia and ignorance spells danger.
They say they’ve long had to cope with confused Muslim-haters, but that Sunday’s massacre of six people by a white supremacist in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was a shattering blow.
“The biggest shock is that it happened in a gurdwara [temple]. This is a completely different level. That’s the biggest shock,” said Amanjot Sidhu, 24, who is training to become a dentist in New York.
Sidhu was accompanying her father, Balwinder Sidhu, to a cavernous gurdwara in New York’s Sikh immigrant area of Richmond Hill in the borough of Queens.
Women in bright pastel robes chanted in the main hall, while in the canteen, crews of volunteers served mouth-watering traditional food and sweetened, spicy tea to worshipers resting on carpets.
But talk quickly turned to Sunday’s bloodbath and how, despite coming from an entirely different culture, Sikhs encounter the same kind of bigotry that US Muslims commonly suffer from.
“People don’t understand who we are. It’s a misidentify. They think we’re Muslim or the Taliban. We’re not,” said Balwinder Sidhu, 57, a retired taxi driver.
“It has a lot to do with ignorance. Basically people say because there are turbans it must be Islamic,” his daughter added. “But all it takes is two seconds on the Internet.”
There’s the Internet, but one could also do worse than peruse posters drawn by children at the Queens temple, formally called the Sikh Cultural Society.
One poster showed drawings of the “Five Ks,” the articles that baptized Sikhs are meant to wear at all times, such as the Kara, a bracelet that “indicates courage,” or the Kesh, the uncut hair wrapped inside the turban.
“The uncut long hair gives Sikhs a distinctive appearance in society and makes Sikhs stand out from the crowd,” explains the handwritten text.
Unfortunately, standing out from the crowd became a problem after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan and the ongoing war against the turban-wearing Taliban.
“A lot of people see us and think we look like Arabs or Muslims,” said Singhara Singh, who like many first generation Sikhs in New York is a taxi driver. “Sometimes there are crazy people.”
He remembers Sikhs being targeted all the way back in 1979, during the US embassy hostage crisis in Iran, a country where religious clerics sport similar turbans and beards.
“People would get in the cab, then get out” when they saw what he looked like, he said.
Sikhs in America have long been incorrectly linked to Middle East turmoil, despite the fact that the religion originated in South Asia’s Punjab region.
Although Sikhs have a long warrior tradition, their gurdwaras are highly accessible places, where a warm welcome — with offer of a meal — is considered obligatory. That openness may have helped the shooter in Wisconsin.
“No one was paying attention. There was no security and no one was checked at the door,” Amanjot Sidhu, the dental student, said.
Looking into the street where a police car waited as part of reinforcements ordered since Sunday at gurdwaras across New York, she said the laid back atmosphere would have to change.
“At this point, it’s necessary to have security.”
At a barbershop near the temple, there was sympathy from non-Sikhs for their neighbors.
“After 9/11, there were 10 or 15 who were assaulted. We had people come in here having haircuts and taking off their turbans because they were afraid,” said Alex Kimygarov, who immigrated from Uzbekistan when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
“I was almost targeted six or seven years ago. They thought I was an Arab or something,” he said. “I’m not — I’m a Russian Jew!”
Argentine immigrant Hugo Revottaro, who runs the barbershop, said he is fond of the Sikhs — even if the traditional, hair-growing ones aren’t exactly in a position to give him much business.
“In my opinion, they should put on television a study about religions because most people don’t even know the difference,” he said.