Sikhs fear bias crime amid focus on terror

By Howard Koplowitz

With their long hair and turbans, the borough’s Sikh community was subject to deep suspicion and hate attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.

And now that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been killed, Sikh leaders in Queens said they are concerned about being misidentified again as members of the Taliban or followers of bin Laden.

“There’s a possibility something could happen because people are ignorant,” said Swaranjit Singh, a Bellerose resident and former candidate for City Council. “People have no idea who the Sikhs are. They still think we’re followers of Osama bin Laden. People, out of ignorance, are going to attack the Sikhs. They feel Sikhs are followers of Islam.”

But Sikhism, a monotheistic religion, was founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of India and has no ties to Islam.

Adherents of the faith are not allowed to trim their long beards and are required to wear turbans, which led to some Sikhs being attacked in Queens by people who believed they were Taliban members or bin Laden supporters after the Twin Towers fell.

The most vicious attack against a Sikh in Queens was the July 2004 beating of Rajinder Singh Khalsa, who was assaulted outside the Villa Russo catering hall in Richmond Hill by a group of men celebrating a christening.

The turbans worn by Khalsa and his cousin, Bucharan Singh, were called “dirty curtains” by the group before they beat Khalsa, who suffered multiple fractures to his eyes and face.

Singh said “the chapter has closed” with bin Laden’s death late Sunday night during a covert U.S. operation in Pakistan.

“I felt what goes around comes around and he got the same fate,” Singh said.

Harpreet Singh Toor, former president of the Sikh Cultural Society, also said he was worried Sikhs may be singled out following bin Laden’s death.

“It’s a big achievement and it’s a relief to find out finally we did it, but at the same time my concerns are being a Sikh, being targeted every time something happens,” Toor said. “I wonder how people will react seeing Sikhs on the street.”

Toor noted the Sikh community held a parade in Manhattan last week that helped raise awareness of the religion.

“My only concern is will people just let it go and stop calling Sikhs terrorists?” he said.

Sikh community leader Jagir Singh Bains welcomed the news of bin Laden’s death.

He said he is not as worried as most Sikhs about attacks against the religion’s adherents.

“As far as revenge, nobody knows, but at least he’s gone,” he said.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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