Story highlights

The first revenge killing after 9/11 was the murder of a Sikh man in Arizona

Since then, Sikhs in America have reported hundreds of hate crimes

Often, attackers mistake Sikhs for Muslims because of their turbans

CNN  — 

Earlier this month, Prabhjot Singh sat down with his 4-year-old son Hukam and tried for the first time to explain the horrific incident that altered the Manhattan family’s life.

“A few years ago, a few men hurt me because of what I looked like, because they thought I was bad,” Singh said.

Hukam stared back, confused. “Why?” he asked.

“Their hearts were asleep and they were not thinking about Papaji as a person,” Singh said, using a Punjabi term of respect for father.

On the night of September 21, 2013, Singh, a highly accomplished doctor and professor, was walking with a friend on 110th Street near Central Park. Both men are Sikhs and have long beards and wear turbans. Singh heard someone yell: “Terrorist, Osama, get him.”

Singh ran but not fast enough. A group of boys and young men on bicycles taunted him using racial slurs. One pulled his beard and then the attackers punched and kicked him repeatedly. He lay on the ground, waiting for them to stop, when passers-by intervened. Singh ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw, dislodged teeth and other gruesome injuries.

But Singh expressed gratitude. He understood it could have been so much worse.

Fifteen years ago Thursday, an Indian Sikh immigrant was gunned down at the gas station he managed in Mesa, Arizona. It was the first revenge killing in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The assailant said he wanted to “go out and shoot some towel heads” for the actions of Osama bin Laden.

Hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived as Muslims spiked after 9/11. Sikh men grow long beards and wear turbans as a commitment to their faith, and many Americans mistake them for Muslims.

Sikhs under attack

  • Violent attacks on Sikhs spiked after September 11, 2001. Read about some of the incidents reported as hate crimes.

    Reports of incidents in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and concerns that hate crimes would rise prompted the founding of the Sikh Coalition, which has grown into the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in America. In the first month after 9/11, the group documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in America.

    In the years since, hundreds of hate crimes have been reported, many of them described by police as cases of mistaken identity, like the September 15, 2001, murder in Mesa.

    As America marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11 this month, many Sikhs say they feel no safer in this country. A climate of fear has prevailed since the Paris attacks in November; it has surfaced every time shootings and terrorist attacks are blamed on Muslims. Many feel the focus on immigrants in the 2016 presidential election has added to the hatemongering.

    “I definitely feel the uptick of more hateful rhetoric in the country,” says Singh.

    The irony of being attacked was not lost on Singh: He had written about the violence against Sikhs, including a New York Times piece after the 2012 mass shooting at a Milwaukee temple. A year later, he, too, had become a victim, finding himself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to his young son why he was attacked simply because of the way he looks.

    “Whatever I think the environment is around us, I know children absorb all the messages,” he says. “How can we prepare them to meet the world that may not be prepared to meet them?

    “Why are we being attacked for being Sikh?” he says. “My tradition teaches me to ask what are we doing as a community to have a far more welcoming embrace of people who are different than us.”