Sikhs have paid a heavy toll for the confusion in the U.S. between the Muslim and Sikh religions. The first known post-9/11 hate crime was the murder of a Sikh man in Mesa, Ariz. In the ensuing decade, the New York-based Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 hate crimes against Sikhs in the U.S. and has fielded thousands of complaints from Sikhs about workplace discrimination and racial profiling.
"With their turbans and long beards, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims or Arabs, and have inadvertently become targets of anti-Muslim bias in the United States," ABC News reported Monday.
The tragedy that struck the Sikh community on Sunday in Oak Creek, Wis., has sent shockwaves through all immigrant communities who regularly face bias, xenophobia and racism. As we have done since 9/11 -- when immigrant groups began to work more closely in coalition and solidarity -- Muslim and Arab Americans lost no time on Sunday in extending support and condolences to our Sikh brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, much of the reporting about this tragedy is doing little to help educate the broader American public. In fact, by drawing out Sikh leaders on the question of confusion about Sikhism and Islam while failing to explain the beliefs of Muslims, news reports and public officials may be leading to deeper misinformation.
When the media fail to report the full story, or invite comparisons without elaboration or context, even Sikh leaders' most well-intentioned efforts to stress that peace-loving Sikhs are not Muslims can imply that Muslims do not seek peace.
Take, for example, the quote featured prominently and without counterbalance in this newspaper's story on Monday: " 'They think we are Muslims and they think we look like Muslims,' said Amrinder Singh, who was praying Sunday at the Sikh Society of Michigan in Madison Heights when news spread about the attack on an Oak Creek, Wis., temple." Businessweek.com reported on lawmakers' "growing concern" about hate crimes directed at Sikhs, expressed in an April 19 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller. And Fox News, among many other major media outlets, went to extra lengths to describe the Sikh religion as one of peace, but said nothing about Islam.
As they should in such times of tragedy, our nation's public officials were justifiably eager to decry Sunday's attack. But few were rushing to the microphones to call attention to the Missouri mosque that burned to the ground early Monday -- the second fire to hit the Islamic center in little more than a month.
By omitting details about Islam, by failing to defend all those who have been targeted, the media and our political leaders imply that Islam is not a religion of peace and that Muslims are somehow fair game in these attacks.
Our media must step up to their responsibility to report fairly, fully and accurately, and our elected officials must rein in the divisive and xenophobic discourse that is hurting America. We support freedom of speech, but with that freedom comes a heavy responsibility. Speech that casually dismisses people's American-ness or paints people as "The Other" can have deadly consequences.
If, in protecting one group of Americans we passively marginalize other Americans, we gain no foothold along the path to peace and inclusivity.
Dawud Walid is executive director of CAIR-Michigan. Hassan Jaber is executive director of ACCESS, a human services nonprofit organization founded by Arab Americans.