WASHINGTON — Facing mounting discrimination since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a number of Sikh-American groups have begun a campaign to explain their religion to the American public and to differentiate their beliefs from those of Muslims.

There have been more than 600 reported instances of discrimination and violence against Sikhs since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Because Sikh men wear turbans in accordance with their religious tradition, they often have been misidentified as Muslims and Arabs, leading some people to believe they are allied with the al Qaeda terrorist network.

“My son and his friends were so badly harassed just because they [wear] the turban,” said Ladi Kaur, a Rockville, Md., woman who owns an auto-parts wholesale firm and is a member of the Sikh community. “They are American children with . . . a different faith. . .”

“Discrimination hasn’t really decreased at all; it has just changed,” said Rajbir Datta, associate director of Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that provides pro-bono attorneys to Sikhs. “[Immediately after 9-11] it was violence, murder, aggravated assaults; now [it is being] kicked out of airplanes, out of security points in buildings.”

Datta said only a fraction of discrimination incidents are reported. Besides being profiled at security checkpoints, Sikhs also face discrimination at work, at motor-vehicle departments that don’t allow turbans to be worn in drivers’-license pictures and in courtrooms that do not allow hats, including turbans. . .

Sarkar said Sikh children are cutting off their hair to try to avoid discrimination, even though cutting hair is prohibited in Sikhism. They are scared, she said, and want to be like everybody else. Ahmed Rehab, communication director for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said many non-Muslim Arabs suffer the same stereotyping as the Sikhs.

“We have changed our mission statement from defining our constituency as Muslims to those who have Islam imputed upon them,” Rehab said. “So if a Sikh comes to me, he’s been discriminated as Muslim, therefore I will help him.”


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