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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Case of mistaken identity? Case of mistaken identity? (September 26, 2001)

Sikhs emphasize they are not Middle Eastern, or Muslim

by Geoff S. Fein

Chintan Singh was driving his car near Page Mill Road when a man in a pickup truck shouted at him and made obscene gestures, an assault Singh said was prompted by the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

However, Singh is not a Muslim. He is not even from the Middle East.

Singh is a Sikh, a religion unrelated to Muslims or Islamic beliefs. However, Sikhs have been targeted for verbal abuse and attacks.

"I'm lucky I haven't been hurt," Singh said.

So far, the Sikh Foundation in Palo Alto has escaped threats and harassment, Singh said.

Last week, a San Mateo Sikh who intended to buy an American flag at Wal-Mart was targeted for violence. According to Singh, shortly after the man arrived at his North Grant Street home, someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the front window. The gasoline bomb didn't ignite, but the attack injured a 3-year-old child.

Although San Mateo police don't believe the attack was motivated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Singh said there always seems to be cases of mistaken identity whenever such incidents occur.

"Every time there is a clash with the Middle East and Arab world, Sikhs become the target," Singh said. "In the...Iranian hostage situation Sikhs were attacked in mistaken identity. We have not been successful in disseminating information."

Singh said part of the problem is that there is not much reported about who Sikhs are.

The Sikh community must take some of the responsibility for the instances of mistaken identity, Singh said, and Sikhs need to conduct a better public relations campaign.

"Slowly the media is starting to respond to our request on highlighting us," Singh said. "Our goal is to disseminate positive information on Sikhs."

Singh said part of the problem is that Osma bin Laden, the man singled out as the prime suspect behind the terrorist attacks, wears a beard and turban. Sikhs also wear beards and turbans. But any similarity between Sikhs and Muslims ends there.

"We are from Punjab in India," Singh said. "(The Sikh religion is) a 500-year-old religion. It is one of the youngest."

There are 22 million Sikhs in the world. Ten percent of the worldwide Sikh population lives in the United States, and there are about 500,000 in the Bay Area, Singh said.

There is another way to tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. Sikhs wear a bracelet, or bangle, on their hands. It is a symbol of equality, Singh said.

About 99 percent of Sikhs wear a bangle, Singh said, because in the early days of the religion, iron and steel were supposed to purify. The bangle is supposed to be good for one's health, Singh said.

All Sikh males have a common last name, Singh, which means "lion" or "brave man." Sikh women share the name Kaur which means princess, Singh said.

Sikhs are being advised to take steps to avoid problems, Singh said. "We've made a list of do's and don'ts, such as walk away, avoid rather than confront," Singh said. "Avoid crowded places and don't go out at night."

E-mail Geoff Fein at


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