Coinciding with the festival of Vaisakhi, Sikhs in the U.S. on April 14, launched a million-dollar awareness campaign that aims to stop hate crimes by explaining more about Sikhism and its beliefs. The “We are Sikhs” campaign, funded by prominent members and leader of the community, was years in the making, Rajwant Singh, a dentist from suburban Washington and one of the campaign’s volunteer organizer said.
The community has been swept up in anti-Muslim sentiment since the Sept. 11 attacks.”Our hope was that as the memory of 9/11 goes down, things would get better. But they have not,” Singh said.
The ads, which will air on CNN, Fox News and on TV stations in Fresno, California, home to a large Sikh community, however make no mention of the more than 300 hate crimes reported by Sikhs in the U.S. since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Rather, they feature Sikh families explaining how the world’s fifth-largest religion, founded in India, aligns with American values.
In an introductory message on its Facebook page, Gurwin Singh Ahuja, the executive director of the National Sikh Campaign says the ads are an effort to build the Sikh image in America. Drawing similarities between Sikh and American values, Ahuja says Sikhs too believe in equality of gender and race.
The ads, developed in consultation with Republican and Democratic consulting firms, do not mention Republican President Donald Trump, whose candidacy hammered on illegal immigration and Islamic extremism, the Associated Press reported.
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, the AP report said.
Corey Saylor, 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 honorable stand that nobody should be targeted, period,” he told AP.
Surveys commissioned by Sikh leaders found that nearly 9 in 10 American Sikhs have experienced negative reactions or hate language, Singh said. Subsequent polling by a Democratic firm revealed that 60 percent 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.
The community is still getting over the 2012 shooting inside a Wisconsin gurudwara that left six dead.
More recently, the FBI is investigating an early March shooting of a Seattle-area Sikh man as a hate crime.
Three weeks later, a man was arrested after attacking a woman inside a Sikh temple in Oregon.