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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Turbans Make Targets, Some Sikhs Find

To wear a turban in America — even in a state that has absorbed as many waves of immigration as New Jersey has — is to subject yourself to judgment by strangers, not all of whom have warm and fuzzy feelings about diversity.

“You get these looks all the time, especially after Sept. 11,” said Rajinder Singh, 57, who holds two doctorates, works as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, has never cut his hair, following the requirement of his faith, and wears a turban. “You could see people — their lips inside their car — that this person is swearing at me.”

Muslims have absorbed much discrimination in the United States in recent years, but also caught in the crossfire have been Sikhs, members of a religious minority from India whose men happen to wear a similar head covering, and who have endured similar suspicions since the terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have to remind them again and again,” said Hardayal Singh Johal, 68, a mechanical engineer who came to the United States in 1971 and is now chairman of the planning board in neighboring Carteret, home to the largest concentration of Sikhs in the state. “We are more than a thousand times against terrorism and we do anything to stop it. Period.”

New Jersey is home to an estimated 25,000 Sikhs, and you don’t have to talk to too many of them before you start hearing accounts of epithets, bias and ignorant commentary along the lines of “Osama, go home”; and also of the difficult decision some Sikh men have made to stop wearing their turbans. Those who work at gas stations, an industry with a high concentration of Sikhs, are particularly vulnerable, not just to the familiar insults, but also to the violence endemic to solitary jobs that generate pocketfuls of cash: Over the last two years, at least three Sikh men have been killed in robberies at New Jersey stations....

“You go home and tell your parents you want to cut your hair and your parents get mad,” said Daljeet Singh Mann, 24, who cut his hair and removed his turban when he was in middle school in Carteret. “They don’t understand. They think we’re destroying our religion, but we’re not. It’s just that we want to cut it because everybody teases us so hard.”

Mr. Mann’s cousin, Manpreet Singh, removed his turban and cut his hair when he was just 7, soon after arriving from India. “It didn’t change my belief,” said Mr. Singh, 23, who is studying criminal justice at Middlesex County College and would like to become a state trooper. “With what was around me at the time, it wasn’t worth keeping the turban.”

But the two cousins have more company now, and both are considering growing their hair again, the way they hope their own children will one day, when New Jersey has become progressively more accustomed to the sight of men wearing turbans. [Link]

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