Indian-American Sikhs in the US are launching an awareness campaign that aims to stop hate-fuelled attacks by explaining more about who they are and what they believe.
The million-dollar ‘We are Sikhs’ awareness campaign, funded by Sikh leaders and their families across a dozen cities, who have been swept up in anti-Muslim sentiment since the September 11 attacks, was years in the making.
Their beards and turbans make them easy targets for the angry and uninformed.
The ads which will air on CNN, Fox News and on TV stations in Fresno, California, home to a large Sikh community, feature Sikh families explaining how the world's fifth-largest religion, founded in India, aligns with American values. They make no mention of the more than 300 hate crimes reported by Sikhs in the US since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Internet advertising will begin immediately as well, and subsequent TV ads are planned for at least three more cities with large Sikh populations.
Developed in consultation with Republican and Democratic consulting firms, the ads do not mention Republican President Donald Trump, whose candidacy hammered on illegal immigration and Islamic extremism. While fundraising events in Sikh communities across the nation coincided with Trump's rise, organisers insist the USD1.3 million effort has no connection to the tough-talking president.
“It's a coincidence,” said Gurwin Ahuja, a 27-year-old political operative who also helped organise the new campaign. “Administrations have changed, and we still experience violence regardless of who's president.”
This type of religious outreach has some precedent. Muslim advocacy groups launched a billboard campaign in recent years, while others developed public service announcements soon after Sept. 11.
Corey Saylor, the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, praised the new effort, noting that Sikh leaders have “not allowed bias to divide religious minorities.”
“Years ago, they could have said, 'Hey, we're not Muslims.' But they've always taken what to me was a very honourable stand that nobody should be targeted, period,” he said.
Surveys commissioned by Sikh leaders found that nearly nine in 10 American-Sikhs have experienced negative reactions or hate language, Singh said. Subsequent polling by a Democratic firm revealed that 60 per cent of Americans know nothing at all about Sikhs.
"When people see us, they think we're either religious extremists or terrorists," said Ahuja, a Cleveland native who worked in the Obama White House. He recalled schoolchildren once asking during a White House tour if he was a member of the Taliban.
Many Sikhs are still haunted by the 2012 shooting inside a Wisconsin temple that left six dead. More recently, the FBI is investigating an early March shooting of a Seattle, Washington-area Sikh man as a hate crime. Three weeks later, a man was arrested after attacking a woman inside a Sikh temple in Oregon.