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Suspect in anti-Sikh attack at JFK airport arrested and charged with hate crime

During the attack, the victim was told to "go back to your country," and his turban, one of the five articles of the Sikh faith, fell off his head, according to the criminal complaint.

Authorities have arrested and charged a man with a hate crime in connection with an alleged attack on a Sikh taxi driver at John F. Kennedy International Airport early this month.

The criminal complaint alleges a verbal dispute on Jan. 3 between the Sikh driver and another man, who has been identified as 21-year-old Mohamed Hassanain, escalated into a physical assault, which led to the Sikh man’s turban unraveling and falling off his head.

The victim declined to be interviewed and, through, the Sikh Coalition asked to remain anonymous.

According to the complaint, a verbal dispute escalated into a physical altercation at Terminal 4.

Hassanain allegedly punched the victim in his face and body “several times,” called him “you turban guy” and told him to “go back to your country,” according to the criminal complaint. The victim sought treatment at a local hospital. The attack, which was recorded and posted online by multiple users, was used in the complaint by the detective and Hassanain to identify himself as the individual who punched the victim.

The victim’s turban, which is an integral part of the Sikh identity and is said to provide Sikhs spiritual strength, unraveled and fell off his head. 

“It’s hard to put into words what a turban means to a Sikh,” Simran Jeet Singh, senior fellow for the Sikh Coalition and executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Program on Religion & Society, told NBC Asian America. “It’s more than just a piece of cloth, and it’s more than a religious article of clothing. The relationship between a Sikh and their turban is deeply personal, and that’s why it’s so painful to see a Sikh’s turban knocked off their head and fall to the ground. I know how upsetting that feels, and I hate seeing other people go through that, too.” 

Hassanain has been charged with assault in the third degree as a hate crime, assault in the third degree, and harassment in the second degree.

“I came to the airport to pick up my girlfriend. I saw a cab driver there who cursed at me. I threw a punch and cursed at him,” Hassanain told the detective who filed the police report, according to the complaint.

Hassanain’s legal aid representation did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. 

“It paints a very clear picture that bias is at least partly driving these incidents,” Aasees Kaur, senior legal client manager at the Sikh Coalition, said. “That makes it much more alarming because why should anybody be subjected to violence based on how they look when they’re just trying to do their job?”

According to a Sikh Coalition analysis of FBI data last year, anti-Sikh hate crimes in 2020 were at their highest reported level since they were first tracked in 2015, and hate crimes in general were at their highest reported level since 2001.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams tweeted his support for the victim, saying: “We are shocked and angered too. … This is an outrageous attack. We say ‘hate has no home’ in New York City and we’re living that value.”

The victim also released a statement through the Sikh Coalition.

“I am thankful to law enforcement, the Sikh Coalition, and all those in the community who have offered their strength in this difficult time,” he said. “No one should experience what I did — but if they do, I hope they receive the same overwhelming amount of support and quick, professional action by the authorities in response.”