We must hold people accountable for their bigotry

Photo by Daljeet Singh

In February, a Greyhound bus passenger reported Daljeet Singh to the police for “acting weird.” The purported evidence included sitting near the back of the bus and that he was “speaking Arabic” with another passenger. He was confronted and unlawfully detained by other passengers until police arrived, guns drawn, and arrested. Mr. Singh was then held in custody for 30 hours before local and federal law enforcement concluded that he was innocent of all charges.

Mr. Singh’s only crime was that he chose to speak to another brown man in a foreign language on a bus in Texas. Mr. Singh, like so many others in our country, was profiled on the basis of his religious and racial identity — specifically his Sikh turban and beard — and falsely identified as a terrorist.

The police officers and Greyhound passengers would learn that Singh wears a turban and beard as part of his devotion to Sikhism, the world’s fifth-largest religion. They would also learn that he was not speaking Arabic but Punjabi, a South Asian language that happens to be one of the most widely spoken in the world.

But even if it had turned out that Singh was actually speaking Arabic and that he was a Muslim as the passenger had presumed, the accusations would still be deeply flawed and completely wrong. In retrospect, all parties involved should see that the false accusations of terrorism are rooted in sheer ignorance and bigotry.

The fact that fellow passengers and law enforcement officials acted on such baseless accusations illustrates a serious problem that we all must acknowledge in our country. When brown-skinned men are being kicked off flights for speaking Arabic or women wearing hijabs are refused service for being Muslim — or when a Sikh man like Daljeet Singh is detained and arrested for speaking Punjabi — our country is sending the message that it is okay to profile and discriminate against entire communities based on how they look, what they believe or what language they speak.

This is not the American way. And it does not make us safer.

As charged xenophobic presidential rhetoric has increasingly picked up, the climate of fear aimed at minority communities across our nation has worsened. We have observed sharp upticks in political rhetoric denigrating entire communities, and not surprisingly, this shift is tied directly to increasing hate speech and hate violence targeting various communities.

One of the emergent issues in this country is the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment. In a recent report I co-authored with the Institute of Diversity and Civic Life, we identified the depth and breadth of Islamophobia in Texas, demonstrating that it manifests itself in various contexts, that it affects diverse communities, and that it often emerges in the form of severe vandalism and brutal physical violence. Sikh Americans have been frequently targeted in violence motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, often because of our unique religious identity.

I was born and raised in Texas, and like every Sikh American, I remain deeply committed to ensuring the safety and security of our nation. Yet, it’s time that we recognize that the perpetrators of hate are also terrorizing this country, and it’s time for us to start holding them accountable. People such as the passenger who concocted this story about Daljeet Singh make our nation less safe when they make false accusations rooted in fear and bigotry. The racist actions created mass fear and pandemonium, and as a result, wasted some of our nation’s resources devoted to ensuring our national security.

We have always been strongest as a nation when we have celebrated our diversity, and our acceptance of one another’s differences is directly tied to our collective safety. We cannot allow the fear mongering to threaten our diversity and safety on the basis of racist stereotypes. As Texans, as Americans, as people — we’re all better than that.

Simran Jeet Singh

Senior religion fellow, Sikh Coalition