On Monday, actor, entrepreneur, designer, and model Waris Alhuwalia was stopped from boarding his Aeroméxico flight to New York because he refused to take off his turban in public. “I was about to board, and they asked me to remove my turban,” Ahluwalia said from the Mexico City airport.
This is not the first time Waris has been a target of hate and bigotry. In 2013 a national Gap ad starring Waris was vandalized as people wrote, “Make Bombs” over the “Make Love” campaign. This very fear and hate of an “other” drove the visceral backlash against the Sikh community in the wake of 9/11, and has resurfaced today, with Sikhs being profiled, brutally beaten, and killed across the country.
In the aftermath of the shooting in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) published the groundbreaking Turban Myths report which suggested that “the community must invest in national media using a consistent and coherent message.” Thus, the Sikh community has engaged in strategic media initiatives, from the first ever national Sikh PSA featuring Waris (which aired in 39 states) to a Sikh float at the Rose Bowl Parade. SALDEF and other organizations have also worked tirelessly to place op-eds and correct unfounded media claims.
Yet over the past several months, we have seen the steady drumbeat of Islamophobia in America turn into a booming cacophony that has echoed across out nation. While media initiatives are a crucial cornerstone of the Sikh community’s response to hate and violence, it is clear that even Waris Alhuwalia — the very face of many of these initiatives — is not spared from institutional hate and bigotry.
There is a glaring need for government policies that protect all Americans. From demanding tracking and prosecution for hate crimes to addressing employment discrimination and school bullying, the Sikh community and AMEMSA (Advancing Justice for Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian) community at large need legislation and policy to combat hate and bigotry in our communities and in our institutions.
Just as political leaders rush to speak against allowing Syrian refugees into the United States, there needs to be a similar intensity in our political leaders standing up to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans. It took 14 years to get the FBI to start tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, will it take another 14 years for people like Waris Alhuwalia to travel without being profiled?
In Waris Alhuwalia’s own words, “It’s okay to make a mistake — we’re human. It’s just a chance to make the world a better place.”
In a day and age where open hatred towards Muslim communities is rampant in America, in a day and age where Donald Trump spews hatred and bigotry, and in a day and age where Waris Alhuwalia is stopped from flying because he refuses to remove his turban in public, we need our government and public to be ever more vigilant about the ramifications of spreading hated, and to stand up steadfastly for the American values.
Harmann P. Singh is the Government Relations and Policy Fellow at the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and a Truman-Albright Fellow.