More than 1,000 hate crimes were reported within one week of September 11, 2001, and at least nineteen people were murdered in hate violence in the twelve months following September 11th. The wave of hate crimes and hate violence affected Muslim Americans and anyone perceived to be Muslim: Sikh, Arab, South Asian, Latino, and other brown-skinned Americans. Incidents occurred in every part of the public sphere: houses, workplaces, airports, school grounds, and street corners, in nearly every major city in the United States. In targeted communities, temples were burned, homes vandalized, families threatened, jobs denied, children bullied, women harassed, men and boys beaten and murdered.
Post September 11 backlash violence has been primarily directed at those perceived to resemble the enemy – a turbaned and bearded Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda leader. Nearly all people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikh, members of the world’s fifth largest religion who trace their heritage to the Punjab region of India. On September 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, became the first person murdered in the hate epidemic. Out of the estimated nineteen people murdered in the immediate aftermath, four were turbaned Sikh men.
The federal government officially reported a 1600% increase in ‘anti-Islamic’ hate crimes, from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001. This includes only crimes reported to and recorded by police departments. Over 40% of Muslim Americans express fear of danger to themselves and their families since September 11, 2001, and community and civil rights organizations reported thousands of hate incidents in the year after 9/11, including at least nineteen murders.
Violent hate crimes are the most obvious manifestation of a wide range of prejudiced behavior, including verbal harassment, threats, staring, and avoidance. According to a 2007 report by the Sikh Coalition, three out of four Sikh boys who attend school in Queens, NYC have been harassed or teased on account of their religious identity since September 11, 2001. Qualitative research documents subtle forms of discrimination that do not appear in police statements or newspaper reports – Sikhs, Muslims, and South Asians treated as perpetually foreign, alien, laughable or un-American. Millions of Sikh, Muslim, and Arab Americans have experienced subtle or overt forms of the post-9/11 hate epidemic.
In a recent Harvard study, 83% of Sikh Americans reported that they or someone they knew personally experienced a hate crime or incident, and 64% expressed fear of danger to themselves and families. Many members of the Sikh American community face deep-seated feelings of fear, insecurity, and disorientation. Others indicate bitterness or anger. Still others channel their frustration into positive, hopeful responses. It is clear that the hate epidemic has dramatically altered the social and psychological well-being of Sikh Americans and other minority groups.
State-sponsored discriminatory treatment of Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, immigrants, and non-citizens is ongoing.
“Private violence” is carried out by citizens, “public violence” by our government. Soon after the immediate outbreak of private violence, our government began to allow greater provisions for racial profiling in both immigration enforcement and domestic security programs. While these provisions were meant to protect our national security, they have violated and further alienated groups who fall into designated categories. These groups include turbaned Sikhs who have consistently experienced public violence in the form of employment discrimination, immigration enforcement, targeted security searches, or prisoner abuse.
Many believe that these hate crimes disappeared after the initial 9/11 aftermath. However, spikes in hate violence in the United States correspond with terrorism abroad as well as critical moments in the U.S. war on terror. At the onset of the war in Iraq, three turbaned Sikh cab drivers were shot in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Due to inconsistent classification and tracking procedures at local, state, and federal levels, there is no way to provide exact statistics for present-day hate crimes. While the number of hate crimes has not returned to levels reported in the aftermath of 9/11, qualitative research confirms that Sikh, Muslim, and Arab Americans continue to experience subtle yet damaging forms of discrimination in both private and public realms.