Sikh says no citizen safe from profiling

A national dialogue on the civil rights of minorities is necessary in post-9-11 America, a Sikh civil rights activist declared. Amardeep Singh, co-founder and legal director of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization, spoke in a symposium on civil rights abuses against Sikhs, Arabs and Muslims.

About 100 people attended the two-hour program, which included brief introductory talks on Sikhism and Islam.

"The heavy hand of government as it affects one (ethnic minority) community is often difficult to contain to just one or a handful of communities. Yesterday's targeting of one community has the potential to become tomorrow's means for infringing on all our rights," Singh said.

He said the 1942 internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans, mostly U.S. citizens, was an extension of the logic of the Alien Act of 1798. That act authorized wartime detention and deportation of citizens of enemy countries without any individualized showing of disloyalty.

The same logic led to many forms of public and private discrimination against Muslims and "people who look like Muslims" after Sept. 11, 2001, Singh said.

"While many argue that there's a need for all of us to sacrifice some liberty for greater security, when push comes to shove our nation often selectively sacrifices the liberties of narrow communities in times of crisis, disproportionately placing the burden of security on members of disfavored communities without any determination of individual guilt or suspicion," he said.

He said 762 "special-interest detainees," all Muslims, were denied the normal constitutional protections for people accused of crimes through the use of immigration laws. No link with 9-11-related wrongdoing was ever found in any of the cases, but Singh said the Justice Department required their detention until the FBI could clear them.

"In other words, the policy reversed the normal presumption of innocence. The special-interest detainees were assumed to be guilty of terrorism until cleared," he said.

"All Americans should ask whether such a disproportionate burden (on small ethnic minorities) makes moral or practical sense."

Sikhs, Muslims and Arabs have been profiled at airports, and some forced to remove their turbans or hijabs religious head coverings before being allowed to board airplanes.

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) for years had allowed Muslim and Sikh employees to wear such religious head coverings on the job, but Singh said Sept. 11 ended that.

Yet, he said, MTA employees wear Yankees hats, Mets hats, fashion headwear, cowboy hats, yarmulkes and Rastafarian headwraps, all in violation of rules and all without consequence.

Aretha Williams, a local writer who attended Monday's event, said post-9-11 targeting of Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs must be seen in the context of America's long history of discriminating against minorities.

"This has gone largely uncommented on. If we think we're immune to it, we're fools," Williams said.

Trinity University students Chris Garrett of Albuquerque, N.M., and Bill Nichols of Los Alamos, N.M., said learning more about the Sikh and Muslim faiths and their experiences of prejudice since Sept. 11 was helpful.

"The community needs better education to see how you can make a difference for good or for evil." Garrett said.