20 Years of The Sikh Coalition: How 9/11 Catalyzed A Civil Rights Movement for Sikh Americans
September 10, 2021
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Harpreet Singh was settling into his workday in his third-floor foreign exchange office on Wall Street, when images from the attacks on the World Trade Center began flashing across the TV screen. Singh recalls standing in stunned silence with his colleagues as they watched the devastation unfold on media channels – and the eruption of chaos and confusion that followed soon after. They were all asked to go home for the day.
In the following days, Singh – who was an active member of his local Sikh American immigrant community in Queens, New York – began receiving phone calls from Sikh activists and community members across the country reporting attacks: a taxi driver, shot at, a store owner, beaten, a bus driver, stabbed, and the list went on. On Sept. 15, he received news about the first hate crime murder in retaliation of 9/11: Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was fatally shot by Frank Roque, who told the police, “I’m a patriot and American. I’m American. I’m a damn American.” Roque went on to shoot another family of Middle Eastern descent later that day.
Sodhi’s murder garnered international media attention and brought to light how many Americans, seeing images of the bearded, turbaned Osama bin Laden on television, were misidentifying Sikh men – who wear turbans and maintain long beards as a part of their religious practice. This led to the rise in hate crimes against Sikh Americans as they got caught in the wave of anti-Muslim hate rhetoric that has swept the nation ever since.
At one point, Singh recalls a New York Times reporter asking him: Is there a national organization that tackles hate crimes or does advocacy work for your community?
“The answer was no, and that’s the genesis of The Sikh Coalition,” says Singh, a coalition co-founder, and a faculty member in the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. “We had a conference call with about 80 or more Sikh community members and activists from across the U.S., U.K., Canada – a network of people who came together to build the coalition to address these hate crimes.”
In the first month since 9/11, The Sikh Coalition documented over 300 cases of violence and religious discrimination against Sikhs in the U.S. and has since grown to become the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in the country.
Over the years, they have expanded their work by leading efforts to promote Sikh inclusion in school curricula and prevent bullying in schools, tackle religious discrimination in the workplace, advocate against hate crimes and racial profiling, and lead other initiatives to protect all Americans from bias and discrimination. Their relentless work over the decades to build sustainable partnerships with nationwide schools led 14 states to include accurate information about Sikhism in their standards and associated materials, allowing 23 million students nationwide the opportunity to learn about Sikhs.
“Sikhism as a religious tradition was created to fight against oppression, to protect the downtrodden, to lift up the oppressed. It’s a major responsibility for us to not just fight for the rights of the Sikhs, but others too,” says Singh. “That’s how organizations like The Sikh Coalition were born – not out of mere reaction but rooted in an ideology that we are passionate about.”
The Sikh Coalition’s two-decades long advocacy work has reshaped the lives of Sikh Americans through historic wins in legal and policy initiatives.
On 9/11, subway train operator Sat Hari Singh (who also goes by Kevin Harrington), evacuated over 800 people to safety from the subway near the World Trade Center. As the buildings above him crumbled in smoke, he maneuvered the train in reverse, away from the violent chaos at ground zero. He was awarded for his heroic act by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA. But four years later, in 2005, they asked him to remove his turban or wear one with an MTA logo if he wanted to keep his job.
The request was a part of their “brand or segregate” policy that cited security concerns after 9/11 for requiring their Sikh and Muslim workers wearing turbans or hijabs to either perform their duties where the public would not see them or place an “MTA” logo on their religious headdresses. They did not require the same branding for other workers.
“I did not have a corporate logo on my turban on 9/11. This policy made no sense. It was driven by fear,” Singh told The Sikh Coalition, who filed a federal lawsuit on his behalf. They fought a legal battle for seven years before reaching a settlement in 2012 that allowed MTA workers to wear their religious headdress publicly and without branding.
It was a historic win for religious freedom in America. But despite The Sikh Coalition’s evidence of rising hate crimes against Sikh Americans post 9/11, it took another tragedy to spur the FBI to include Sikhs in U.S. hate crime statistics. On Aug. 5, 2012, a 40-year-old white shooter barged into the 17,000-square-foot Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin — one of the largest places of worship for Sikhs in the Milwaukee area — and open fired at the priests and congregants who had come together for Sunday services. He killed seven people, and wounded several, before being shot dead by police officers.
Ten months after the shooting, an advisory board of the FBI voted to revise their hate crime statistics to include Sikhs, a change that would not go into full effect until 2015. Satjeet Kaur, executive director of The Sikh Coalition, says “it took months of rallying and lobbying by the Sikh community members before our request caught the government’s attention.”
On May 28, 2021, President Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to improve how hate crimes are reported by law enforcement and includes the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act of 2021 – which was named in honor of two hate crime victims, Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, whose murders were prosecuted as hate crimes but not appropriately included in hate crime statistics.
“Nine years after the Oak Creek massacre, we were in the room with President Biden and Vice President Harris, and we were making real asks about tracking hate crimes against the Sikh and Asian-American community. This is a reminder that as we do our work year after year. Change and impact come slowly,” says Kaur.
Although The Sikh Coalition has made deeply impactful changes through their work, 20 years after 9/11, hate crimes against the Sikh community are still on the rise — largely due to far-right white supremacist attacks.
Last year, Dimple Bhullar, a Sikh community leader in Orangevale, California, woke up to a distressing call from a neighbor: Their newly opened Gurdwara, the Guru Maneyo Granth Gurdwara Sahib, had been vandalized with white nationalist graffiti. The graffiti included the phrase “WHITE POWER” and depicted a swastika on a concrete slab that was to serve as the sign in front of the temple.
“My first response was fear – what if something happened to my family, or to our community? I had never been in a situation like this before – but my brother suggested we reach out to the Sikh Coalition, that this was our home, and they would advocate for us,” says Bhullar.
The FBI reported 200 percent increase in attacks on the Sikh community in 2018, making Sikhs the third most targeted religious group in the dataset. The number of anti-Sikh hate crime reports was slightly less in their 2019 and 2020 report, but The Sikh Coalition notes “The change is of little comfort, however; extremely low reporting continues to fail to capture the scope of the bias, bigotry, and backlash that Sikhs face, and the community remains disproportionately targeted relative to its small size among the population.”
Activist, filmmaker, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, Valarie Kaur, says “We call it the backlash, and yet it never ended. It is still going on. Our communities are five times more likely to be targeted to hate than we were before 9/11.”
Kaur made the remarks during a 9/11 Town Hall webinar, where she spoke about the impact Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder had on her life and pushed her to become an advocate for the Sikh community. Sodhi was Kaur’s family friend.
A few years ago, Kaur joined Rana Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother, on a phone call to Roque in prison. Roque told Rana that he was sorry for killing his brother, and that when he was going to be judged by God, he would ask to meet Balbir, so he can seek forgiveness.
“I was so angry, but Rana said to him, ‘You’ve already been forgiven,’” said Kaur. “The lived faith of Rana Singh Sodhi and so many Sikhs I have been able to witness has taught me that forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is freedom from hate.”
In light of the decades long grief and pain witnessed by the Sikh community after 9/11, Kaur urges people to understand that there are no monsters in the world, but humans who are wounded, who do things out of fear, greed, insecurity.
She said, “It doesn’t make them any less dangerous, but we can see the wounds, and we can choose to hold up a vision of the world that doesn’t leave anyone behind, not even them. If Rana Singh Sodhi, who loves his brother, could refuse to create another ‘us vs them,’ what would happen if we could do that as a country? It would be nothing less than revolutionary.”
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