July 16, 2004 – "The FBI is intensifying efforts nationwide to enlist Muslims, Arab-Americans and Sikhs to help thwart a possible terrorist attack this summer or fall."
So says the first line of a July 9 Associated Press story that was picked up by numerous newspapers, radio and television outlets including CNN.com, ABCNews.com, National Public Radio and the Guardian Unlimited in England.
This was news to Sikhs, who are not Muslim or Arab and have never been linked to Al-Qaeda or the September 11 attacks.
"That gives the impression some members of the Sikh community are involved in terrorism," said Manjit Singh, president of Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Taskforce (SMART) which works toward accurate representation of Sikhs and Sikhism in American Society and media. "Sikhs are not connected in any way to 9-11."
The AP story, by reporter Curt Anderson, came from a July 9 FBI press release titled "Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigations Reinforce Commitment to working with leaders of Muslim, Sikh and Arab-American Communities."
The press release is based on Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Muellerâ€™s recent meeting with leaders of national Muslim, Sikh and Arab-American organizations. It lumped together the FBIâ€™s separate initiatives. One goal is to glean terror-related intelligence from Muslim and Arab-American community leaders. The other is to investigate and prevent hate crimes stemming from reaction to the war on terror and directed at these groups as well as at Sikhs, whom some mistake for Muslims because male Sikhs wear a type of turban.
The president of Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Taskforce blames the Associated Press for getting the story wrong, and for perpetuating stereotypes that have resulted in hate crimes like the July 11 beating of a Sikh man in Queens, NY.
"The AP jumped the gun by not realizing the clear distinction between the different things," said Singh. "Mr. Anderson fell victim to the common misconception that Sikhs are connected to 9-11. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™re trying to correct."
Jack Stokes, with the AP's corporate relations office in New York, said he couldn't comment on the story or how many media outlets it had run in.
The FBI press release quotes Ashcroft saying: "In addition [to counter-terrorism efforts], our outreach to those perceived to be of Muslim, Arab or Sikh descent is part of our strong ongoing campaign to prosecute bias-motivated attacks."
Some Arab-American activists and community leaders perceive the FBIâ€™s and DOJâ€™s strategy of addressing hate crimes and terrorism-related intelligence gathering as part of the same outreach campaign to be indicative of the kind of ham-fisted and insensitive approach to these communities that these agencies have often been accused of engendering.
Hatem Abudayyeh, director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago, is skeptical of the FBI's sincerity and motivation in this campaign and says it is not something he would want to be a part of. AAAN is a nonprofit advocacy organization for the Arab American community.
"It's a public relations coup for them to show the rest of the country that, â€˜Hey, look, we're meeting with representatives of these communities that are bearing the brunt of these policies because we want to make sure they're safeâ€™," he said. "But there hasn't been real progress in combating hate crimes. Hate crimes are going up."
He notes that so far, Arab-Americans and Arab immigrants have often received harsh and unjust treatment when they have tried to cooperate with the government.
"There are 14,000 Arab-Americans slated for deportation from the special registrations, and [none of them] has been accused or indicted for anything connected to terrorism," he noted. "For them to say, 'We're making connections with the Muslim community because that's where the terrorists are,' is a racist and backwards premise to begin with. There have been no examples of the government actually working in a positive relationship with the Arab community over the past few years, so all of a sudden how can we expect that to change?"
But Manjit Singh said he is pleased with the FBIâ€™s efforts to combat hate crimes, noting that his organization and other Sikh leaders have been consistently holding meetings with FBI officials. He blames the AP for getting the story wrong, and for perpetuating stereotypes that have resulted in hate crimes like the July 11 beating of a Sikh man in Queens, NY.
Limousine driver and spiritual leader Rajinder Singh Khalsa Ji, 54, was walking by a catering hall when several women started making derogatory remarks about his turban, according to a police official quoted in the Sikh American News. When Singh informed them of the religious significance the turban holds, men inside the hall, who had been drinking, said the women were being harassed and came out demanding Singh removed his turban. When he refused, they beat him, leaving him bruised and in need of hospitalization.
"One of the guys said, â€˜I want my curtain backâ€™," explained Prabhjat Singh, director of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, a Sikh civil rights organization. "They basically beat him to a pulp. One of his eyes is still swollen closed and his cornea is damaged. The police didn't show up for God knows how long and finally they just arrested one man and charged him with assault. It took a lot of work [by Sikh and civil rights organizations] to get them to charge him with a hate crime. And still only one person was arrested, even though witnesses said there were five or more assailants."
Prabhjat Singh sees the media as playing a direct role in feeding racist and retaliatory attitudes toward Sikhs.
"These hate crimes don't happen in a vacuum," he said. "For the perception to be put up there that we have ties to Al Qaeda, for us to be painted in that light, is just irresponsible. Sikhs have suffered the most hate crimes, since we wear turbans. It didn't help to have Osama Bin Laden's image in a turban all over the place in the media."
Manjit Singh agreed that the AP story and others like it have contributed to a climate where hate crimes against Sikhs (and Arab-Americans) occur.
"Thatâ€™s the kind of damage bad reporting [like the AP story] can do," he said. "There are people out there with certain biases and prejudices, and some are willing to act on them when this inaccurate reporting makes them say, â€˜Look, this is what we always suspected.â€™"