As I watched the presidential debates recently, I heard a term thrown around that made me shiver- Islamofascism. While the threat of terrorism scares me, the discussion around terrorism has implications that are just as frightening, when these types of terms enter our common vernacular. A recent Gallup poll showed that 40% of Americans admit to feeling prejudice against Muslims. As social dialogue continually associates Islam primarily with terrorism and evil, we unintentionally facilitate an unjustified hatred for Islam and anything that may be even tangentially relate to it. This has a very real and scary impact on peoples' daily lives. One of the places it can have the greatest impact is somewhere we've all been before - the schoolyard.
As you may know, I'm currently one of the models in Kenneth Cole's new advertising campaign, which tackles this issue of stereotypes in the media head on. As a Sikh man, I wear a turban, which is an integral part of the Sikh identity. However, in the United States, the vast majority of media coverage related to turbans focuses on another group of people who wear different types of turbans - Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists. Unfortunately, this has had a significantly detrimental impact on the daily lives of Sikhs around the world, who are now frequently mistaken for Islamic fundamentalists, although they are not even Muslim. While nobody should be persecuted because of their religion, including Muslims, Sikhs in particular have faced a disproportionate impact from post 9/11 bias crimes.
Particularly distressing is how this affects young children. At least 75% of Sikh children in Queens, New York reported some form of harassment due to their religious identity, according to the Sikh Coalition. Over 40% of these children have suffered physical violence because of their appearance, and even when reported to school administration, one-third receive no help whatsoever from school administrators. Nearly all of these children report receiving this abuse because they've been misidentified by their attackers as terrorists. One child, a six year old Sikh born in the United States, reports that kids in school have nicknamed him "enemy," because to them, he "looks like the enemy." Unfortunately, this type of treatment is not isolated, and is reported by young Sikh children across the country.
Our core curriculum in the United States glosses over the Sikh religion in even the most privileged school systems, even though it's the fifth largest religion in the world. Therefore, most children's exposure related to turbans and beards are limited to the portrayals reinforced in the media related to the Taliban and terrorism. Imagine the collective impact, then, when the first picture from the Kenneth Cole campaign went up in a storefront in Rockefeller Center and appeared in GQ this month. For one of the first times, these children had an opportunity to have their Sikh identity represented in a way they can be proud of when they walk down the halls of their schools. I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to have a positive impact in these childrens' lives, who through no fault of their own regularly brave hatred in the hallways.
Only in the past half-century have we as a society curbed the widespread image in media of African Americans as servants and slaves, and put an end to the Anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews as conniving and obsessed with money.
We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go.
Although these Sikh children often suffer silently, they don't need to. By starting at home and educating your family about the Sikh faith, every American can lend these children a hand in ending the rampant racism and abuse that plagues Sikh youth across the United States. [Link]
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