Shah Noor, a recent transplant to California from Maryland, was driving through a nearby community one evening with his wife and stopped at a 7-Eleven to get some milk.
A police car pulled up with lights flashing. Officers walked to their car and grilled them for 45 minutes. They were aggressive, he said, and asked what they were doing there, where they work. At one point, he saw the officer put his hand on his gun.
“It was scary,” Noor said. “Pure harassment.”
Police — Noor declined to identify the agency because of an ongoing investigation —cited him for talking on his cell phone while driving. He said the charge is bogus.
“My phone had been dead for over three hours,” said Noor, 32, a lawyer who now runs JS Noor, a jewelry business. And the log on his wife’s cell phone shows no activity during that time.
He’s convinced that racial profiling was in play. He wears a turban and has a beard. His wife, Stephanie, is African-American. And all of this happened within days of a mass shooting in San Bernardino carried out by a Muslim couple.
After every attack on U.S. soil committed by Muslims, the backlash seems to increase. But hate crimes don’t target only Muslims.
Noor is originally from India and a Sikh, not an Arab or Muslim.
‘[Sikhism] preaches a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings, social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals.’ – Sikh Coalition
Since 9/11, Islamophobia has spread and has targeted groups indiscriminately. Sikhs, who wear a turban as an article of faith, have often been mistaken for Muslims in the U.S. They pray at a gurdwara, not a mosque, but a gurdwara in Buena Park, Caifornia, was vandalized days after the San Bernardino shooting. Graffiti sprayed on the façade included the misspelled “Islahm” and an expletive directed at the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The San Bernardino shooters had apparently been inspired by the group that has been behind horrific violence worldwide, including the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.
The 20-year-old man arrested for the vandalism issued a public apology to the congregation of Buena Park Gurdwara Singh Sabha, a Sikh house of worship in Orange County.
But other assaults have been more violent. On Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside of his Mesa, Arizona, gas station by Frank Roque. Roque wanted to “kill a Muslim” in retaliation for the attacks on Sept. 11. Sodhi is considered the first murder victim of post-9/11 backlash. Roque was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the hate crime.
The Sikh Coalition was founded by volunteers in 2001 in response to a spate of attacks against Sikh Americans.
“Sikh adults were assaulted, Sikh children were bullied, places of worship were vandalized,” said Arjun Singh, the coalition’s law and policy director. “Terrorist attacks lead to xenophobia and anyone who looks different is targeted, including Sikhs.”
The Sikh Coalition reports a spate of attacks and harassment this month alone.
A Sikh woman traveling to California shortly after the San Bernardino attacks said she had to show her breast pump to airline employees to prove she wasn’t a “terrorist”.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a store clerk originally from the state of Punjab in India was shot during an armed robbery. The assailants called the clerk a terrorist.
Five days after the San Bernardino attack, Gian Singh, a 78-year-old grandfather, was walking to pick up his grandson from school in Bakersfield, when a man in a pick-up truck threw an apple at him with such force that the apple split when it hit his head, according to the Sikh Coalition, which is representing him.
‘Sikh adults were assaulted, Sikh children were bullied, places of worship were vandalized. Terrorist attacks lead to xenophobia and anyone who looks different is targeted, including Sikhs.’ – Arjun Singh, law and policy director, Sikh Coalition
There have been Sikhs in the U.S. for more than a century. Many came to build the railroads in the West. There is no accurate data on the number of Sikhs here, and estimates vary widely between 750,000 and 1.6 million, according to the coalition. Almost half of them live in California, the state with the largest Sikh population, but the densest concentration of Sikhs is in the tri-state area of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The Sikh religion is a monotheistic religion that originates in the Punjab region of India. According to the coalition, it “preaches a message of devotion, remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality between all human beings, social justice, while emphatically denouncing superstitions and blind rituals.”
“We were shocked after finding out about the graffiti,” said Jaspreet Singh, 40, on the board of the Buena Park gurdwara that was vandalized. “Especially the hate words being used.”
For Sikhs who grew up in the U.S., harassment has been a way of life. For Noor, schoolyard teasing was common but never did he feel so much hatred as after 9/11.
“You feel people don’t like you, like an outsider,” he said. People would call him “Osama” in reference to Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, the group that claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. They also called him “Taliban,” the armed fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan.
“Sometimes, I would walk up to [the hecklers] and yell back, ‘I’m not a terrorist,’” Noor said.
One time, someone pulled a knife on him in Wheaton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. Another time, in Amsterdam, people in a car yelled out “bin Laden” at him, he said. When he yelled back, they followed him up an alley. He escaped.
And there was another encounter with police in a Detroit suburb. He had a bracelet in his hand that he was playing with. Police mistook it for a masbaha, Muslim prayer beads. He showed them that it had a cross on it.
“I wear religious symbols of all kinds,” Noor said. “I go to church, to gurdwara, to mosque.”
He has attended service at a Baptist congregation, his wife’s religion.
His cousin, Jaisal Noor, 30, a reporter for The Real News Network, a nonprofit news and documentary service based in Baltimore, wrote about assaults on Sikhs for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“The day of 9/11, I was confronted with the reality that things changed,” he said in an interview.
He was in high school when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
“I remember that day feeling worried for my family, my parents,” he said. His father was a frequent business traveler who encountered a lot of discrimination at airports.
His classmates would rant, “We’re gonna get these A-rabs” but then would turn to him and tell him they had no problem with him because he was Indian.
“But it’s never gone away,” said Jaisal Noor. “Whenever we’re at war, the attacks increase … They see images of turban-wearing men as the enemies.”
Sikhs say their first reaction may be to distance themselves from Muslims and explain to people that they are not Arabs or Muslim. But they stress that no one, Sikh or Muslim or any other religious or ethnic minority, should be targeted.
“Many Sikhs are worried, and rightly so,” said Arjun Singh. “If the bigoted rhetoric continues, hate violence will continue too … Today’s toxic political climate has led to bias, discrimination and hate violence.”